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Aerial Photography Questions

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Anyone here have some experience with low level aerial photography? I have a few questions I'd like to ask.

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Fire away yak! You got the pilot thing down working on the camera part?

If only I could fly, I broke my collar bone 3 1/2 weeks ago and my Doc says I have to wait awhile before I can go back to work, something about the traveling public, safety, blah, blah, blah wink

I usually ask the same people every year if I can hunt. Since I have a little time off this fall and I can get access to a PA-12 or a C-150 I thought I would take some aerial photos of the home sites, frame up the shots and give them to the family.

I'm wondering what altitude range you might suggest, as well as what settings you would start with (I know there are a lot of variables in that question)?

I was planning to get airborne early to mid morning or early evening. Most of the locations would lend themselves to morning light best. I plan on using the D50 and my 18-200VR or my 70-300VR to cut down on the aircraft vibrations, I was thinking of starting in the f8-f11 range. Am I out to lunch or in the ballpark?

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Yak, I'd shoot at midday or thereabouts if you can. With the sun directly overhead you have fewer shadows to worry about. I think you'll have the 18-200 on the whole time. That'll give you the widest range from wide to a decent telephoto.

Don't worry about f8-f11, open it up wide to get the fastest shutter speed you can. Even with handholding so you don't pick up as much vibration off the plane, it's best to keep that shutter speed high because of turbulence.

VR should help there. Are you shooting through a window or are you opening a window and shooting out one?

I've had great luck shooting through the excellent windows out a Cirrus plane, but a couple old Cessnas had scratched up Plexi, and that stunk. One plane, can't remember which, had a hinged window, and I opened that window and shot from the opening, which of course carried its own stability challenges.

You obviously being a pilot yourself, you'll know that when you circle, you increase turbulence in duplicating your route because you're flying through air your own plane has roiled, so that's something to watch, too.

As for elevation, you'll be able to play that by ear, but with those lenses along you'll have plenty of reach if you have to stay pretty high. Not being a pilot myself, I can't remember if there's a base altitude you can't go below.

Here's hoping you get clear skies and calm conditions up there!

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Thanks for the response. I appreciate your advice. Most older Cessna's have a window in the door that will open up. The base altitude in an unpopulated area is 500' above the ground.

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Sucks to be not flying yak! You'll be back on the line in no time! I am going to give you some pointers from flying guys that made their living shooting aerial photos and from my own experiences. It may be a bit different than what Steve's experiences have been.

Here are some good guidelines to follow;

1. Remove the hinge screw on the bottom of the window on the 150. Just one small phillips. Keep the window latched until ready to shoot, unlatch and let the window go up and rest against the bottom of the wing. No plexi to shoot through.

On the Cub you should have a sliding window if I recall on the Super Cubs I used to fly? Piece of cake, slide it back, shoot away, no plexi!

2. Don't rest your arms on any part of the airplane when shooting, keep elbows and arms off the armrests, window ledges, anything that will transmit vibration back to the camera.

3. I've shot at all times of the day, the guys making their living selling photos shot mid-day as Steve said, no shadows. I personally love the morning and evening for some different light and colors.

5. I would recommend not using any form of VR or IS. In many cases the vibration of the airplane does some funky things to stabilization, halos around objects, etc. Take some with and some without to see how it works, but my guess is you will have sharper results without. Also see #6

6. Use the fastest glass you own, anything in a 2.8 is perfect! The faster the better, depth of field does not matter! You want the fastest glass so you can get the highest shutter speeds. 1/2000s is a good minimum to start at. This is another reason you most likely won't need VR or IS. Not needed at those shutter speeds.

7. The best lens I've used is a 70-200/2.8, perfect length for most any shot you want. Whichever of the two lenses you mentioned is the fastest will be the one to use. I will be trying my 300/2.8 a bit this fall I hope, should be cool! A wide angle is great for the early morning and late day shoots to encompass a large horizon.

8. Most of the aerial work I flew and I've flown a lot was 700-1,000 agl. The problem as you know is mid-day at those altitudes can be a bit on the rough side, though it should be better in the fall. I did a ton of bouncing around on 90 degree days, not fun.

What am I missing? These are the factors immediately that come to mind.

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A few recent examples Yak.

#1 Mid-day type shot, very few shadows around 1,000 AGL


#2. Wide- angle type shot from higher altitude on the Kaspr arrival.


#3. Short final at SAN around 1,000 AGL early in the morning. Shadows are an issue.


#4. Long Beach harbor from around 10,000'. You would need a very large zoom to get any detail up there.


I've got some Portland, OR shots that are more vertical around here I will try and dig one or two up.

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Well, there, we agreed on almost every darn point! Except the VR. I shot moose from a Cessna with the 100-400 IS and the IS was a big help there. For wider angle from a plane I think IS is worthless. gringringrin

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Hey! Great thread! I traded a grad shoot for two hours of time in a Cirrus on the north shore of Lake Superior - tenatively next weekend if weather and leaves are right. Talked to the pilot tonight and he went over the same area today and said things are ready to pop. Any other ideas for light or angle of the north shore?

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Thanks Dan, glad to see I'm not the only one with short final pictures. Thanks for all the advice guys. Here's a Few I've taken.

Key West


I'll let you guess


Scenes from Men In Black


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Best seat in the house right Yakfisher! #2 up the Hudson on the River Visual to most likely 22 at LGA. #3 over the World Fair site on the Expressway Visual to 31. That airport is almost like home to me. We had a client that went there twice a week for about 18 years. Still can't get over not seeing the twin towers though. frown

Ken I would think a few must shoot spots are Gooseberry, Two Harbors at the loading docks, the Lift Bridge, Split Rock Lighthouse. All within 15 minutes flying time from Duluth.

Hopefully your trip is a bit flexible on time for takeoff? Look the night before and see what is up for the next day. Some shallow ground fog in some of the valleys up the shore would give you some really fantastic shots with the leaves changing, very common to find fog this time of the year. Shots from both the lake toward shore and inland back out toward the lake. Around 9:00am should give you the best light for that or 5:00pm.

The fall in particular lends itself to early to mid-morning and late afternoon and early evening shots. The colors in the leaves just kind of glow. Unless you are shooting structures like Yak is I would shoot for those times. And bring a wider angle lens to really get a sweeping view of the shore. A 28mm will be plenty wide, though I've used my 17-40 for some really wide stuff. Take advantage of those fall colors!

Enjoy the ride, and when you get a chance actually take a few shots!

Another thought we used to fly tournament fisherman over Lake Minnetonka in the hey days of the Don Shelby Bass tournament and whatever else it has been called. They loved to get shots of the lake from overhead showing the reefs that were not depictied or layed out correctly on a map. A few hundred bucks was cheap considering a $50,000 to $100,000 prize!

You will get some really cool colors in the lake bottom along the shore of Superior, see what you can find. You will most likely need to shoot those almost straight down, a bit tougher with a Cirrus and its low wing, but don't overlook that opportunity.

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Here are some aerials, as well.

They are of a fire north of Lake Vermilion, an ice fishing cluster on Birch Lake, the shore of Lake Superior at Duluth, and the moose and moose country around Isabella. The bull moose shots aren't the best, as we were in very turbulent conditions shooting at 400mm through scuffed up Plexi windows, but what the heck?

Ken, the Duluth and Birch Lake images were shot from a Cirrus plane, maybe even the exact same one you'll be going up in, since it's the same pilot. As Dan mentioned, the wing can be an issue, but as you can see it's possible to work around that OK, especially with a pilot who'll do a lot of banking for you. smile











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