7 Critical Things I Learned From my First Aerial Photography Shoot

What I learned from my first aerial photography shoot

As a native San Francisco Bay Area landscape photographer, I have dreamt of the opportunity to do an aerial photography shoot of the Bay Area for years. However, until a few months ago, it was never quite within reach. I perceived it as something that I couldn’t afford on my own, and to be honest I just wasn’t quite sure how it was done.

I’d looked at digital imagery and satellite imagery that lent an eagle-eyed view of the earth — but I had never personally had the opportunity to create aerial photography myself. The elusive aerial image was something of a dream that I only looked at in books featuring World War I images from fighter pilots or stills from movie productions.

My friend had been working on getting his single-engine pilot’s license for some time, but I didn’t draw the connection until one night over beers when the topic came up and he said that he could help make my dream happen.

So I meticulously planned everything out, watching landscape photography classes, staring at the 10-day weather forecasts for months and studying topographic maps — hoping that an opening in my friend’s schedule would align with the perfect moment for capturing the golden sunset light I had in mind. I was excited to finally get the aerial imagery opportunity I had been dreaming of.

Time to fly

Wheels-up at 18:20 from the Palo Alto airstrip, just in time to make the pre-sunset golden hour lighting coming over the Golden Gate Bridge. This Bay Tour offered us incredible views of the entire San Francisco Bay, and allowed me ample opportunities to photograph all of it looking straight down. Even with the window open and the surprisingly warm wind shaking the camera around, I managed to capture a few great aerial imagery of San Francisco.

san francisco aerial photography tips

It was an incredible experience, and I came away with some great images. However, there are definitely some crucial things that I learned from this experience. Here are the top 7 aerial photography tips from my sunset flight over the San Francisco Bay:

1. Choose your aircraft wisely

The only way that this was going to work was if I could have an unobstructed field of view from the airplane. Since I place a priority on sharpness and image quality, shooting from behind the Plexiglas window of a plane was not an option. Luckily, the Cessna single engine four-seater that my pilot, Phil Andre flew had a window that opened from the bottom out to a 60-degree angle, allowing me a clean open-air view.

Learn the basics of photography from John Greengo so you can learn to take your own aerial images. Watch now.

This meant that in order to get into position for a shot, Phil would have to tilt the aircraft slightly to the right. While this worked out just fine, and I was able to capture every angle and lighting scenario that I had in mind, it definitely wasn’t easy. Aerial photographers definitely have their share of challenges, with this maybe being the trickiest of all.

Aerial Photography Tips Learned While Flying Over The San Francisco Bay

For that reason, a helicopter would have been preferable for an aerial photography shoot for a number of reasons. Many helicopters can easily have the door removed if you call in advance. That way, when you are properly strapped in, you can hang out into the open air and fire away with the shutter, granting you an unobstructed view of the earth below.

The point: a plane will work (if you can open the window), but a helicopter makes for high-resolution photos.

2. A telephoto zoom lens is the way to go

My usual go-to lens for landscape photography would be a wide angle.

However, and even though we were flying at fairly low altitude, subjects on the ground such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, or Downtown San Francisco are still far enough away that a wide angle or mid-range lens wouldn’t capture them the way I intended.

Additionally, given my minimal field of view, it was advantageous to be able to zoom into a specific subject.

Alcatraz photographed from the Air

All that being said, having the ability to capture the wider scene for a few shots was definitely worth bringing a second camera body to hold the wide angle lens.

Downtown San Francisco, wide-angle aerial photograph

The key takeaway: don’t go flying without a telephoto zoom lens, and bring your wide angle as well. This is the best aerial camera option for your images.

3. Fast shutter speed is key

This may seem obvious to some of you, but it is necessary to deliberately call out. In order to avoid any kind of motion blur, you have to use every tool available to keep the shutter speed as fast as possible. Not just because I was shooting in low light, but because a plane vibrates. A lot.

Also, you’re flying through the air.

The Golden Gate Bridge at Sunset from the Air

Therefore, it was key to maintaining a shutter speed above 1/500.

Due to the vibrations of the plane, it is also critical to always handhold your camera. Leaning or resting the camera or lens on any part of the plane would cause it to vibrate and create blurry images.

4. Optimal settings for aerial photography

Given the importance of tip number 4 (maintaining a fast shutter speed), all of the other camera settings revolve around that. In manual mode, my settings were:

  • Shutter speed: 1/500
  • Aperture: f/4
  • ISO: Auto (minimum 100)
  • EV (exposure compensation): +0.7
  • Autofocus: On (back-button focus)
  • Bracketing: On
  • Vibration Reduction: On, High

Since it was the golden hour, and the light was rapidly decreasing, having the ISO continually adjust to the changing conditions was essential. To turn on Auto ISO, you have to go into the menu on your camera and set a minimum ISO.

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All these settings should be good to go on your camera before you get in the plane. The entire idea is that you are not fiddling with camera settings mid-flight when you should be watching the glorious sunset out the open-air window over the United States, Africa, Europe or wherever else your aerial photography journey might take you.

Golden Hour Sunset from The Air - Aerial Photography Tips

You may notice a theme here: keep your eyes off your camera, and on the scene.

In pursuing that goal, there is another tool that you can utilize to make sure you get the lighting you want. Exposure bracketing once you learn how to use it, is an incredibly helpful feature. I set mine to three exposures, with 1-stop variation.

What this means: Every time I press the shutter, the camera takes three exposures. The first is 1-stop underexposed, the second normal, and the third is 1-stop overexposed. This allows you to simply hold the shutter release, and trust with confidence that you have captured the shot.

5. The best camera for aerial photography is one with a very high ISO range

The light was fading fast, and it was a goal of mine to capture shots of the San Francisco illuminated by the city lights. Given everything mentioned about the importance of maintaining a minimum shutter speed, it was crucial to have an aerial camera with the flexibility of higher ISOs while maintaining low noise and high quality.

The Nikon D810 absolutely has that capacity, and it was in this kind of environment where you can tell the difference between the pro DSLRs and the entry-level, or even mid-range camera bodies. There are many scenarios where the camera body really does not make that much of a difference, but this is not one of them.

Learn the basics of photography from John Greengo so you can learn to take your own aerial images. Watch now.

Downtown Aerial San Francisco Photo

The new Nikon D5, on the other hand, boasts an insane max ISO of 3,280,000. While you might not want to push it beyond ISO 400,000, that is still an incredibly high ISO range that the camera can handle.

Whether you are shoring up the cash yourself, or it is for a paid commercial shoot, you are already investing a lot into making everything perfect for your aerial photography session. Therefore, make sure you have a camera body that is up to the task as well.

6. Rent a second camera body, and have everything within reach

Timing is a critical factor here: The sun is setting. You are in a circular holding pattern with minimal time over your subject. You do not want to be fumbling with your gear, looking for that extra battery, or replacing a lens. You want to have your head and camera out the window the entire time.

While I had all of my equipment within reach and was able to switch lenses with relative ease, I still wish I had rented a second camera body just to hold my wide angle lens.

Downtown San Francisco pre-sunset

Every so often, the view that would present itself called for a wide angle, and it would have been much easier to simply grab the second body, rather than have to take my eyes off the window to switch lenses.

Also, make sure that you have extra batteries, SD cards, a lens cloth, and any additional lenses easily accessible.

7. I wish I had faster glass

I am very confident in my decision to purchase the Nikon 70-200 f/4, rather than the older 70-200 f/2.8 version. It is sharper, lighter, less expensive, and has better Vibration Reduction (VR).

Anytime I’m doing low-light landscape photography, I always have my tripod. Therefore it’s pretty rare that I need a wider aperture than f/4.

But (and it’s a big but), while doing aerial photography at sunset, I was shooting handheld, in a moving, vibrating plane, in diminishing light, with a high shutter speed. Ideally, I would keep the ISO as low as I could, and a very fast lens would have been very, very helpful in this case.

I still love my 70-200 f/4, and I almost hate to admit it, but I definitely should have rented the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8.

Nighttime aerial photography shot of downtown San Francisco

Hopefully, these aerial photography tips will help you feel prepared for your aerial photography flight. Leave a comment if you have other tips to share!

Learn the basics of photography from John Greengo so you can learn to take your own aerial images. Watch now.

Justin Katz

Content Marketer at CreativeLive, and outdoor and landscape photographer. I work with great people to create awesome photography content and education.