Typically, aerial photographs are taken from an aircraft or helicopter. Helicopters tend to offer much more stability and maneuverability – plus – you can remove the door for even more freedom of movement. However, choppers are quite costly, so prepare carefully before the flight. Determining exposure can get tricky**, especially at higher altitudes so I usually take a reading before I go up and use that as my base, making sure that I keep the shutter speed high to eliminate fuzziness* due to aircraft vibrations. This photo was taken from about 500′ with an 80mm lens and Ektachrome 400 film. Exposure was 1/500th at f11.
This is a rather unique “aerial” in that the City Center building in downtown Minneapolis (52 story building in the foreground) is not really a building. It is an architect’s model of the City Center. The leasing agent wanted to show how the Center would look, even
though construction had just started. So I had to take the aerial first (with Kodachrome 64 film) and then, in the studio, calculate the exact angle and lighting of the model so that it would match the rest of that scene. I used a Hasselblad 2 1/4 camera with Ektachrome 100 film. We then super-imposed the shot of the model with the aerial. It was so realistic that the leasing agent continued to use it long after the Center was completed.
Before we shot the “aerial” of the architect’s model, the client thought it would be nice to have a shot of the construction site with the rest of the downtown in the background. I thought it would look too cluttered and junky but they persisted. I called my trusty chopper pilot and he informed me that no one was allowed to fly below 2,000 feet in the downtown area. I puzzled over that for a few days and came up with the answer. I called the FAA and asked them if there were any restrictions to flying 8′ balloons in the downtown area. They said no such restriction existed. So I bought two weather balloons, attached them to my motorized Olympus and filled the balloons with helium. Using two-wire electrical cord as a tether I allowed the balloons and camera to rise to about 250 feet and triggered the motor. Voila!!! Aerial photos for the total cost of $50.00! The client decided the photos looked too cluttered and junky, so we used the architect’s model.
This is pure insanity….. chasing a powerboat which was racing around the Bermuda Triangle at speeds in excess of 70 mph. I was lucky to have an ex-Vietnam chopper pilot who had the guts to drop down to within 50 feet of the water while plowing forward at 70 mph!! Exposure was f8 at 1/1000th of a second using High Speed Ektachrome.
Summing up the Aerial Photography Tips
* Both fixed-wing airplanes and helicopters vibrate a lot so you must be careful that neither the camera, or your body, are bracing against the aircraft’s frame. Your body will absorb much of the vibration if you lean a bit forward, away from the seatback, and tuck your elbows into your sides. And, keep your shutter speed at 1/500th or faster.
**The higher your altitude the trickier it is to get an accurate reading for exposure. Haze and clouds will reflect sunlight back into your lens indicating much more bright light than actually exists on the ground.
*** Considering the high optical quality of zoom lenses these days, I use them exclusively for aerial photography. Communications during flight is difficult and aerial flight time is costly…. so the ability to crop precisely with a zoom lens means a lot less time shooting a particular sight.
If you take the door off the helicopter for more freedom of movement, be sure to tape your seat belt buckle shut. Some of these buckles can be flipped open easily, so tie it down!
Do not shoot through the plastic windshield … usually they are not flat and will give you distortions and lack of sharpness.
Try to make at least one good wide-angle shot of the pilot… especially if he is good to work with. Building up a solid relationship with a first-rate pilot is worth it’s weight in gold.