Keen to try your hand at aerial photography, but nervous about the cost? In this post we’ll show you an easy, cost-effective method of getting airborne so you can shoot landscape photography from a completely new angle. We’ll also show you how to track your aerial photos and include their exact location from the GPS track log, as well as what you’ll need for the shoot.
Would you like to take your own low-level aerial photography images? Do you enjoy doing something different? Getting great landscape images from a unique angle isn’t as difficult or expensive as you might imagine.
For this aerial photography tutorial we got airborne in a microlight. Introductory, trial or training flights are available all over the UK (or wherever it is you live), and cost as little at £50.
There are different versions of microlight aircraft, and some even have a fully enclosed body and windows. For the easiest view with a camera, however, and to minimise loss of quality when shooting through Perspex, we chose a flexwing craft with an open cockpit.
You can shoot in many directions from a flexwing microlight, and another advantage for photographers is the relatively low altitude you can fly at, since haze can be a major issue in aerial photography.
We were always below 2000 feet, and when we needed a particular shot, the pilot was happy to come down as low as 600 feet (aviation rule permitting) to zoom in closer.
In planning this aerial photography shoot, we wanted to create a ‘breadcrumb trail’ of the flight using my GPS logger; this would be a great way to record my flight and see where I had been, while also logging where all the images were taken.
We researched good photo locations to shoot from the air, and the Isle of Wight looked excellent. We set off for Lee-on-Solent airport and the Hampshire Microlight Flying Club; here’s how we got on…
How to capture aerial photography
Fit a wrist strap
Anyone with experience of microlight aircraft knows that the propeller is exposed to the air at the back of the plane, and in the photos you’ll notice that the propeller is right behind me.
So the pilot certainly won’t appreciate it if you suddenly drop something! It wouldn’t be good for the camera or the propeller if you accidentally let go of your camera, but we didn’t want to be restricted to a neck strap, so we fitted a good strong wrist strap to my DSLR.
We didn’t take a change of lens and left the lens cap on the ground, so it was just our photographer, his camera and the GPS logger making the journey.
Medium zoom lens
If you use a wide-angle lens, the ground is too far away; on the other hand, working with a telephoto means haze and vibration become problems.
Instead, a medium zoom lens is a good choice. We used a Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM because image stabilisation is a major benefit when dealing with wind and aircraft vibrations.
Most shots were taken at around 50mm focal length, so your kit lens will be perfect for the job!
Preflight setup and checks
At the airfield before takeoff we took some test shots to check the light and settings: we determined that 1/1000 sec on Shutter Priority (Tv mode) would guarantee images free of vibration and movement, especially with the help of image stabilisation.
Depth of field isn’t too much of a problem for aerial photography since the ground is at just about infinity; we calculated that anything above f/5.6 would give sharp shots with this lens.
To keep in that zone, based on the brightness of the day, I increased my ISO to 200. Overexposed skies weren’t an issue either, as we were shooting towards the ground, with the bright sky behind us.
Forget sat nav, there’s another way to use GPS technology! To see where we had flown and to mark our aerial photos with the coordinates of where they were captured, our photographer strapped a GPS logger around his neck.
This device uses the same set of satellites and signals as a vehicle’s sat nav, but has no map or screen on which to display the coordinates.
As a receiving device, though, it’s simple and accurate; all you need to do is switch it on and go. Battery life can be a problem with some older units, but the newer models are great.
Get it right the first time!
Planning before a flight is vital: especially if you’re only doing one microlight flight. Our photographer wasn’t going to risk changing any settings in the air, so he had to be sure that his DSLR would take plenty of shots, without wasting any time during the flight.
He chose a large 16GB memory card and formatted it in camera and put in a freshly charged battery. He also made sure the lens was clean, and that the lens hood was tightly fixed and wouldn’t blow off.
A matter of time
Be aware that your camera won’t automatically update its clock to take into account daylight savings or if you switch time zones. As we were using GPS to plot our course, it was essential to check that the camera’s clock was set correctly, so that it was the same as in our GPS logger.
The GPS software then uses the time stamp in each image’s EXIF data to work out where it was captured, and plot it on a map.
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