Peering into thin air through my camera viewfinder, hundreds of metres above Sydney on a small high-wing Cessna, the plane banks hard to the right. I’m secured by my seat belt together with a rock climbing harness, carabiners and all, to cockpit clips inside the plane, the only thing stopping me free-falling to earth.
I’m flying without a door so the view on my first attempt at aerial photography is unobstructed. We’ve just flown over the industrial conglomerate that is Parramatta in western Sydney, heading west into clear skies.
Flying as a black speck high above the meandering Great Western Highway, endless tracts of wild forest and cliffs hem in the motorists on either side. We reach the Three Sisters rock triad at the capital of the Blue Mountains in Katoomba marking our turnaround point back to Sydney.
Skirting the cliff lines along Sydney’s southern beaches from Tamarama and Bronte up to Vaucluse and Watson Bay, the skyline of Australia’s largest city rises, highest of all its sentinel, Centrepoint Tower.
That was back in 1997, the little aircraft flown from Bankstown Airport near Sydney, Australia by my colleague Rowan, a veterinary student and budding full-time Qantas pilot from Sydney University. Since photographing for Australian Geographic, all aerial shots have been taken in helicopters when available.
I took one of those first aerial shots on an Olympus OM4ti with a Zuiko 200mm f4 – a film camera. There was no way to make adjustments to the images you had just taken like the convenience of digital cameras today. You just had to know you’d get the shots with the experience you had.
Aerial shots give valuable information such as topography, can show areas of precipitation, scale and relative location. Great for an opening shot in a magazine article focused on a particular area. On the Larapinta Trail assignment I had the opportunity to hire a chopper (pic 3) for a twenty-thirty minute flight. If you get your timing right for the light, this should be all you need.
If you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to try some aerial photography here are a few pointers to consider:
1. Aerial photography means photographing at high-speed. Vibration from inside the aircraft and high wind requires you to keep your cool and focus on the job at hand. With only split seconds to check exposures, if at all, preparing your camera beforehand means you can enjoy the moments between the shots, as the landscape changes rapidly below you.
2. If you’re shooting into open air (like I was, above) your auto-focus is fine. Otherwise, shooting through a window, make sure it is clean and set your focus manually to infinity. Place your lens as close to the glass as possible. I’ve had good aerials from the windows of commercial flights this way.
3. Keep an ultra-violet filter (UV) on your lens at all times. This reduces the blue haze in your images.
4. Turn on your image stabilisation filter. Either on your lens or camera body.
5. Set camera to ‘S’ shutter priority or ‘TV’ time-value priority. Your camera will then set the correct aperture for the exposure. You can use manual if you have experience but keep to these pointers.
6. Set a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 or 1/800 and your shutter to a high 3-5 frames per second.
7. A bright f2 or f2.8 lens will keep your shutter speeds usable without resorting to high ISO. I used around ISO 160-250 for most shots as we had good daylight during the flights.
8. Pre-format or empty a 4GB or 8GB memory card and shoot raw+jpg or raw alone (around 250-450 shots respectively) if you’ve no need for jpgs giving you free rein to fire at will for a 20-30 minute flight.
9. It’s a lot easier to keep one lens on your camera than changing lenses mid-flight. On my first flight I did exactly that. A colleague in the back seat handed me my 500mm in exchange for a 200mm prime lenses. Keep a camera cap ready for the body if you need to do this to keep out dirt. However, this is a very tricky manoeuvre and as a rule I wouldn’t recommend changing lenses under such conditions. With high quality digital telephoto zooms available today, say around 70-300mm, or 90-250mm (convert for film camera equivalent i.e four thirds system multiply by 2 =180-500mm) that are light enough to hand hold you have all the focal lengths you need.
10. Don’t zoom in too much as you will also increase the prevalence of motion blur.
11. Brace your camera arm against your body to reduce shake.
12. A good rapport with the pilot is essential. They know the terrain you are flying over and can recommend good vantage points. All that remains is to adjust your viewing position for the composition keeping the pilot informed at all times of your progress.
13. Envisage what sort of shots you are after before you fly and then talk to the pilot. The flight plan may be able to be adjusted accordingly.
14. Try to keep the horizon straight in your viewfinder to avoid having to crop the image straight again on your computer, therefore losing file size.
15. And finally, keep your camera strap around your neck or wrist and lens hood firmly attached. And breathe.
Check out: Larapinta Trail: Australian Geographic Issue 85, 2006.
If more aerial photography comes my way I’ll keep you posted. Thailand has yet to be conquered from the air.
© Warren Field / Australian Geographic 2011
With thanks to the staff of Australian Geographic and the Northern Territory cattle station.