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Aerial Photography

Aerial photography as the name suggests is when one shoots the subject from a high vantage point. In short, it is shooting pictures from high up in the air. Shooting images of the sky while while flying is oft misquoted as aerial photography, it is not so. If one shot pictures of the sky while traveling in air, that would not count as aerial photography since the camera and the subject are by far on the same level.


Aerial photography is when the subject is on the ground or at a significantly lower height than the camera. Aerial photography has come a long long way, and today has moved out of the exclusive purview of the professional photographers alone. With improving equipments and a growing tribe of serious amateurs, one is seeing many of them taking to the skies with their cameras. Aerial photography has had a significant history before getting here thus far.


Early records or known aerial photography happened in as early as 1858 and is credited to a French balloonist who went by the popular name of ‘Nadar’, his name though was Gaspard-Félix Tournachon though the pictures he took no longer exist. The first recorded moment in history where photographs exists, is the photograph named “Boston, as the eagle & Wild goose see it” as is clear from the name, this photograph was an aerial shot of Boston. This was shot by James Wallace Black and Samuel Archer King in 1860 from an height of around six hundred thirty meters.


The next noteworthy attempt was to shoot pictures from kits, E D Archibald is considered the pioneer in this field. In 1882 he used explosive charges on a timer to shoot photographs from a kite. French Arthur Batut used kites extensively to shoot picture around 1888 and 1890 and wrote a book on the same. Brit Samuel Franklin Cody developed and advanced war kites that mounted a camera and shot pictures and collected images. It worked well enough to raise interest in the war offices.


The first camera mounted on aircrafts was in 1909, the next significant advance happened with world war I, with Germany, France and Britain using camera mounted on aircraft for reconnaissance and making maps. In 1913 the Germans made a camera specifically for aerial photography called the Görz, the French were known to get the aerial images to their field commands at lightning speed. The British realized shooting images at a 60% overlap provided a sense of depth and helped in making maps – cartography.


With World War II lot more advances were made and there were exclusive squadrons flown with cameras for gathering intelligence on fast small aircrafts. The RAF of the British used spitfires for this purpose and it contributed significantly. With advances in both digital imaging and aeronautics a lot has happened, not to forget cameras on unmanned aircraft systems and so on.


The professional photographer has for some time been shooting pictures from aircrafts, balloons, helicopters, tall structures, camera’s mounted on poles with remotely controlled exposures. Today the amateur is stepping into this space and here are a few simple tips for this fast growing tribe.


First and foremost access to the heights you want to get, if one is in a tourist location with balloons and the like, that is one option. The more practical choice for the city dewling folks is to look for a local flying club. Most often pilots have time and equipment to spare and hence the expedition does not end up very expensive. Few things to look for if one had a choice, high wings without struts. Struts and low mounted wings tend to obstruct the view. Helicopters are a good choice as well, even better the open door models, which are not always easily accessible.


The great challenge in aerial photography is managing the glare, reflections and add to that dirty windows, try and have them cleaned before take off. Avoid wearing dark color shirts /tops to avoid the reflection on the glass. Shoot with the camera as close to the plexi glass windows.


Choose the right day and time as far as is possible. Cloudy skies flatten the light and rob the details of the subject on the ground, if ill luck does chase you, make do with shooting the skies and the clouds. Most pilots would have a rough idea of the weather and how it is likely to play out.


Carry the right equipment. Zoom lenses are a must, if in a helicopter which ideally would be around 500 feet one would need to use a 100mm zoom and if on an aircraft it could be around 1000 feet requiring a 200mm zoom. Do carry a wide angle lens as one would want to take a few angle shots 16mm to 28mm. Wide angle shots are likely to capture the rotors or the struts. Be prepared to take care of them during your post shoot image editing and enhancement a simple crop should do.


Vibrations are a big challenge, zoom means images are magnified so are the vibrations, use fast shutter speeds 1/500 or more to freeze the motion and capture sharp images. A common flaw noticed is often the photographers` bracing themselves to the aircraft body, this is counter productive and does more damage since the vibrations are transmitted from the body increasing the shake.


Ensure you have the camera strap and it is around your neck. Another caution to be taken is to be keenly aware of your surrounding since the speeds are high one could lose sight. Have a broad plan and share it with the pilot and try and keep it as slow as is possible. Be keenly aware of your surrounding and shoot your subject.


Safeguard against motion sickness, a good idea to pop the pills before you take off. How ever used you are to flying the slow speeds and the constant viewing through your viewfinder will add to the distress. Take breaks and refocus.


The other option available is if you have tall structures to which you have access and a view from there to shoot your desired object. In such cases a tripod sure comes in handy.

Be open to post shoot image editing and enhancements since in such challenging conditions it is very unlikely that one will get everything right in the limited time one has. Shoot as many images as you can and then look at working and perfecting them in the post shoot process.

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