About a month and a half ago, I had the opportunity to go flying with my good friend Eric. We had been talking about getting out and flying the friendly skies for a while and everything seemed to be aligned for that to happen. We booked a fairly new 2008 Cessna 172 single engined aircraft. I had just taken delivery of the Canon 7D Mark II and thought it would be the perfect camera to explore aerial photography. This was meant to be as much an exercise in private aviation as a study in aerial photography and the challenges it poses. I hoped to learn enough about it to develop my techniques and understand what questions to ask as well as the requisites to successful photography of ground subjects.
The short version is this: Arial photography is a completely different beast that simply cannot be tamed. Below are what I feel are the requisites. Understanding these does not guarantee a successful capture of your subject but it will increase the odds of success.
Before your excursion, you need to understand the weather around your subject. In this case there was a cloud blanket over the pacific, to the right, up to the SF Bay and coast line. This meant we couldn’t fly VFR along the coast and exercise the creative flexibility needed to get a good capture of the city. Given where the sun was in the sky, this was the ideal vantage point to capture the city.
- Flight Plan
Consider the flight plan, what angles and perspectives on your subject it will offer. Is there restricted airspace around your subject that prevents certain key routes? We had to fly close to restricted airspace which added yet more complexity to the exercise. Also consider the time of day and where the sun will be relative to your subject and flight path. As you can see, from the photos, the best position for that time would have been flying along the coast and not circling the bay. However a few hours later, the best route would have been the circling the bay waters again at magic hour as the city starts to light up. The sun was still too high up and the vast bodies of water caused too much glare. Even with a circular polarizer.
- Aircraft windows
Most light/private aircraft windows are not made of glass but of some kind of polycarbonate plastic. This is especially aggravating as it further cuts out saturation, reduces contrast and diffuses light. As a result it will soften (to put it mildly) and blur your shots. It also vibrates a lot and causes distortions in the image. I used the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM and was unable to get a sharp shot of the city. The more the ambient light, the more pronounced the problem. Magic hour may yield slightly better results. I have been able to photograph the city at a similar angle and distance from twin peaks and been able to resolve people walking down the sidewalk with the same lens on the 7D. Opening the window was not an option this time and on this aircraft unfortunately.
- No composite shots
Any type of composite shots are very pretty much impossible. Be it HDR or panoramas, you will have a very hard time overcoming extreme parallax. The aircraft is moving much faster than it feels this combined with the extreme perspective means you will not be able to stitch any two shots together. As for HDR you will need a very fast shutter speed. There was no point using the 5D Mark III for aerial stills (I used it mainly for ultra wide angle video) as it is just too slow. The 7D Mark II’s 10fps enabled only a few somewhat successful HDR composite shots but only after cranking up my ISO in broad daylight to keep my shutter speed in the thousandths or a second. Still the results were painful due to the plexiglass windows. I spent a good deal of air time attempting composite shots that went nowhere.
Overall this excursion was a success. I learned a great deal. I’m planning another aerial photography excursion sometime this year. I’m also considering a helicopter instead of an airplane and will also consult with private aviation authorities on what other options are available to me. It was a fun exercise flying the friendly skies, checking in with ATC (Air Traffic Control) and seeing who’s up there doing what.
We took off from Sacramento Executive airport, flew over Travis AFB and onto the SF Bay via Sausalito. ATC folks were a very nice and friendly bunch and took interest in our photography outing. It is humbling to know that they are there 24/7, all over the country, keeping the skies safe. Cheers to them!
Below are some highlights. The shots are straight out of the 7D Mark II and have not been processed.