How to shoot stunning aerial photos

Get a natural high as you and your creativity take flight

Airplanes provide some unique photo opportunities. You can get some wonderful shots from the air, and at airshows and airports (with permission) you can shoot airplanes on the ground and in flight. Here’s how you can maximize your chances of success.

Shooting from an airliner: Where to sit (a window would be a good start)

Know where your flight route will go; will you fly over the Grand Canyon or Iceland? Obviously you want to be on the side of the plane where the best scenery will be and in a window seat. But flight routes can vary, and it may be hard to know where the scenery will be. In this case go for the shady side. The window is made of layers of thick plastic and especially if it is dirty, sunlight shining on it can make it like shooting through waxed paper.

If the plane has engines mounted on the wing you want to be ahead of the wing if possible, as exhaust will create heat waves behind the wing.

Focus and exposure

Be sure the camera focuses on the scenery and not the window. If you're using a compact camera, use landscape mode. Another way to minimize the chance of focusing on the window is to get the camera as close to it as possible.

Getting your compact camera or DSLR close to the window will also help minimize any reflections from lights or bright objects inside the plane. But don't let the camera or even your arm touch anything that is vibrating. You always want to isolate a camera from movement and vibration. If you have a polarizer it may not be a lot of help as the plastic in the window can interfere and cause color patterns.

And be sure to turn the flash off. If it fires it will illuminate the plastic and any dirt or moisture on the window and will spoil your picture.

If the light level is low you want a high enough ISO to allow a shutter speed fast enough that camera shake will not blur the picture. But with compact cameras, higher ISOs will cause noise in the image. Steady the camera as much as possible and press the shutter very carefully and smoothly. And don't just think ground-based scenery. The view of clouds, sunrises and sunsets from six miles up can be spectacular. For inspiration check out the book, Window Seat by Julieanne Kost. It is about much more than the photographs, recounting how she found a creative outlet that fit into a hectic travel schedule.

Shooting from a small plane

What about shooting from smaller planes such as a floatplane charter to a fishing lake in Alaska or the helicopter ride to the top of an awesome powder ski run, or just going out for a “hundred dollar hamburger” with a pilot friend?

All the tips above still apply, but here you can ask the pilot about the scenery and the direction of the sun. You might even be able to negotiate a slight course change to get a shot, but this should be discussed as far ahead as possible.

Vibration can be a bigger factor in a small plane than in an airliner. Don't let the camera or even your arm touch anything. If there is a lot of vibration I go so far as to pick my feet up off the floor just before I shoot. Besides, it's good for the abs. Image stabilization is a must.

Air turbulence can be more of a factor in smaller planes than in airliners. There is a documented phenomenon in which pressing the shutter causes you to hit a bump. It is uncanny. If the air is rough shoot in burst mode or shoot several in rapid succession. One may be better then the others. And hang onto your camera. I had a heavy SLR in my lap one day (holding it, I thought) when we hit a huge bump and it flew up and hit me in the chin, hard. I saw stars for quite a while.

And keep your seat belt fastened, tight. A plane can hit turbulence without warning. FAA regulations are not something to mess with, and no picture is worth a broken neck. If you can afford the light loss, a polarizer will help cut through the ever-present haze. It can also quench reflections on the windows, but unfortunately it does these two things at opposite rotations. (The windows on most light planes won't cause the color patterns that you can get from an airliner window.) But I have quit using a polarizer except for reducing reflections. With Photoshop you can replicate many of the effects of a polarizer other than quenching reflections, and the results continue to amaze me.

Keep the shutter speed as high as practical. And be ready. The scenery moves much faster in a small plane than in an airliner. When you see something that looks good, don't stop to think about it. Shoot first and ask questions later.



Top: Info unavailable. Above: Shot with a Canon 20D, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens set at 140mm. Exposure: 1/250 sec at f/8, ISO 400.

Photographing airshows

Photographing from a moving plane is one thing, but photographing airshows from the ground is a specialty in itself. Zooming in on single airplanes is long lens territory, often 500mm plus. If you don't have big glass look for wider views that include a formation of planes or the smoke oil trails of aerobatic demonstrations.

Move to the front of the crowd; a lot of the action can happen at a low altitude. At the decisive moment someone taller than you will walk in front of your lens. And stand there. You may want to take a monopod with a spike foot.

Set your camera to movement-following autofocus mode, which Canon calls AI Servo. With my Canon 5D I need all the focus sensors activated but I need to initially acquire focus with the subject in the center point. Then I can then let the subject move off-center while I hold the shutter button halfway and the focus will follow it as its distance from the camera changes. I don't get a focus confirmation in this mode and it is possible to shoot with focus not locked, so I have to follow the subject a second and visually confirm focus.

I also need to allow a half second or so for image stabilization to kick in if I'm using it. There is a rule of thumb that (without stabilization) the shutter speed should be at least 1/focal length to help insure a sharp image. So for 200mm zoom setting you would want the 1/250 sec shutter speed. Stabilization can let you go 2-3 stops slower (one stop is half the shutter speed) if you (or your tripod) are strong enough to hold the weight of the lens steady. But this rule isn't for super-telephotos. The longer the lens the more conservative you need to be about shutter speed, by a significant factor. Your concern is both with camera and subject movement. With my 500mm lens on a very steady tripod I like to keep the shutter speed above 1/1500 sec.

A fast shutter speed will stop propellers, though. The first image below was at 1/1500 sec. and the last one at 1/2000. It can often take 1/125 to 1/250 sec. to give a lot of blur. Most propellers will generally be in the same ballpark of RPM.

A long lens with stabilization will have a setting for panning. I switch between it and regular mode depending on my camera movement. If I'm shooting a plane almost still on top of an aerobatic maneuver, I want normal mode.

Even on a tripod, stabilization can be important for longer focal lengths. Look through your lens and tap the camera lightly without otherwise touching anything. If you see vibration, stabilization can help. However some lenses are not designed to use stabilization on a tripod.

Burst mode can help. One image of a burst sequence might be sharper if the shutter speed is marginal for the focal length and the stability of the lens support.

Hand holding isn't a great advantage at airshows. The subjects will usually be in a fairly well defined area in front of you, so a tripod and strong ball head is an asset, and with a heavy lens it is a requirement.

For the sharpest images, focus on the slower action and just sit back and enjoy the high-speed fly-bys. Some of the best shots of the aerobatic demonstrations can be the slow-moving reversals at the top of a climb. Camera: Canon 5D, Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX DG APO HSM lens. Exposure: 1/1,500 at f/11, ISO 100.

When the military jets fly, watch for condensation vortices at the start of a steep pull-up; be forewarned when you see the afterburner kick in for extra power. Camera: Canon 5D, Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX DG APO HSM lens. Exposure: 1/1,500 at f/8, ISO 100.

And watch for action closer to the ground, such as this aerial firefighting demonstration. Camera: Canon 5D, Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX DG APO HSM lens. Exposure: 1/2000 at f/6.7, ISO 100.

I shoot RAW and don't plan to process more than a few of the best images, which I can adjust individually. Therefore if it is a cloudless day I can rely on autoexposure, as the background is going to be fairly constant in brightness and my Canon 5D has excellent protection against blown-out highlights. But I keep an eye on the histogram as much as practical. If the background is a variation of clouds and blue sky, I will go to Manual mode and take a reading off the sky away from the sun. Then I'll make a few test exposures and dial in any compensation needed.

If you have camera equipment too big to hang around your neck, a buddy system is good to keep an eye on equipment during hot dog and beer runs and trips to the used beer department. I always bring earplugs. The jets are very loud, and if a turbine-powered plane taxis by, the high-pitched whine can really damage your hearing. And don't forget water, a hat and sunscreen.

Photographing planes on the ground

What about shooting planes on the ground at airports and airshows? First, the do's and don't's:

• Always respect any ropes around planes on static display at public events unless you are invited inside.
• Never touch a plane or climb on it unless you are invited to do so by the owner.
• Don't go anywhere near a propeller, and never touch one.
• Watch out for turning propellers, which can be virtually invisible.
• Engine noise is a good clue, but there can be a lot of other noise that can mask a running engine. And even a still propeller might be about to start turning.
• The area near the propeller can be blind from many cockpits.
• If you hear someone shot “Clear!” that is a pilot who is about to crank an engine, warning people away.
• And don't even think about smoking within 100 feet of an airplane. Airplanes have fuel vents whose purpose is to vent fuel. And the purpose of the fuel is to burn.

Also, in this age of terrorism, airport ramps are much more controlled that they used to be. If you are not at a public event be sure to get appropriate permission to go onto the ramp (airplane parking area). At airports with airline service there will definitely be prohibited areas and if you violate them expect to be carted off rather than chased off.

With those negatives aside, there can be some good photo ops at airports. There are a lot of restored antique airplanes, more often found at smaller airports, and warbirds, often WWII vintage, more likely found at slightly bigger ones. If the owner is around, he or she may be happy to tell you about the plane and give you a closer look. If it is a small airport where you can wander around the hangars you may find some gems. Antique planes are often owned by antique pilots who like to hang out at the airport, and you stand a chance of finding one wiping down oil streaks or in the middle of a loving restoration job.

For airplane portraits, clean backgrounds are definitely a plus.



Gear: Canon 20D and Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens set at 70mm. Exposure: f/8 at 1/180 sec., ISO 100

A telephoto lens of 150-200mm will let you get far enough away to avoid perspective distortion of the wings.

If anything with a "round motor" is fixing to fly, look for it to belch smoke on startup:


And interesting closeups can always be found:

Gear: Canon 20D and Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens set at 57mm. Exposure: f/8 at 1/90 sec., ISO 100


Gear: Canon 20D and Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens set at 34mm. Exposure: f/8 at 1/1500 sec., ISO 100

Photographing one plane from another one

Finally, let’s look at the challenge of photographing one plane from another while in flight.

This involves formation flying, but not at close quarters. You need to be sure both pilots are experienced at it and trust one another. Your pilot will be directing the target plane and doing the maneuvering to get you in the position you want. The target plane will more or less be flying a straight path, with occasional turns as directed by your pilot to get good sun angles and backgrounds. Good communication is very important here, both between the two planes and between you and your pilot.

You might find an inexpensive model plane and experiment with pleasing sun angles. I like the sun to be at about the 10:00 or 2:00 position of the target plane so shadows from a top wing are slanting back.

As always, clean backgrounds are a huge plus. So is the softer light just after sunrise and before sunset. The air is usually calmer then, too.

Your side window should be able to open or be removable. Aircraft windows are a far cry from optical glass and will degrade your image noticeably. And keep the lens out of the slipstream. Talk about vibration…. When possible I take the lens shade off to minimize the target for the air to buffet. And as I mentioned earlier this week, don't let the camera or even your arm touch anything. There will be more vibration than you think, and at a frequency that image stabilization can't respond to.

In order to get a significant blur of the propeller you would need a shutter speed of around 1/125 to 1/250 sec. The image below was shot at about 1/1000 sec.

You don't want the planes at close quarters; you want a mid-range telephoto lens to avoid exaggerated perspective on the near wing. I generally use around 100mm with a full-frame camera. Use image stabilization.

I photographed this oldie but goodie with a Pentax 67 medium-format camera and Fuji Velvia 50 film.

If you can position yourself approximately in front of the target plane so you are shooting back at it, try to get the sun more or less in front of it and you might get a dramatic sun glint on the propeller

Diane Miller is a widely exhibited freelance photographer who lives north of San Francisco, in the Wine Country, and specializes in fine-art nature photography. Her work, which can be found on her web site,, has been published and exhibited throughout the Pacific Northwest. Many of her images are represented for stock by Monsoon Images and Photolibrary. She is also an accomplished pilot.

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