BETTER LANDSCAPE PHOTOS FROM A SMALL PLANE
by Tom Till
Many people who are taking their first flights in a small plane over spectacular landscapes are unhappy with the results. Even with the best equipment and a lot of experience, getting good images of a landscape below that is passing by you at over 100 miles per hour can be difficult. There are a few simple “tricks” to try that may boost your chances. First, doing this kind of photography with a digital camera or even a phone can produce results and offer opportunities that were impossible with film, so this is one situation where modern technology can really help you.
The camera controls that are critical for success with this genre of photography are focus and shutter speed. Most people will want to use autofocus on their digital cameras. The goal here is to always shoot at what is called infinity—a photo term for everything that is far away from the airplane and your camera. Don’t worry if one butte or canyon is a little bit closer than another—everything you can safely shoot from an airplane is at infinity. The symbol for infinity on your camera is two horizontal loops tied to each other, like two snakes eating their tails. It may be smart to check your focus on your playback during the flight or do some tests as you first fly away from the airport. You could even test this out on the ground by simply shooting a far away subject and confirming the sharpness on playback.
The other critical control is shutter speed. With a 35mm camera the shutter speed controls motion and is one half of the shutter/aperture setting that determines your final exposure. A fast shutter speed in needed to make up for blur caused by the the speed you are moving relative to the ground , and for the shaking of the airplane. The setting is very simple if you have a shutter priority on your digital camera. If so, set the shutter at 1,000/second or faster, and the camera will set the aperture. Do not worry about what the aperture setting is, as it is not important in shooting any of subjects you will be shooting from the airplane, and with shutter priority the camera will set a aperture that creates a good exposure. For iPhone users, apps are available to control shutter speed on the IPhone Six, and this would be a better choice for your flight than a point and shoot without any control over shutter speed.
What if you don’t have enough light to get the critical 1,000/second? The best light in Canyon Country, or anywhere else for that matter, is often late in the day, or early in the morning . Low light creates shadows that create the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional medium and brings out the stunning reds, pinks, purples and golds the Southwest is know for, but its strength is much less than during the middle of the day. Cloudy days can also bring low light to the landscape. To insure the fast shutter speeds we need, it may be necessary to increase the ISO setting on your camera.
Most 35mm digital cameras work best set at 200 ISO, but doubling the ISO to 400 makes your sensor twice as sensitive to light and can make it easier to reach the magic 1,000/second setting. Setting the camera at 800 doubles again, and 1200 doubles once again. Change the ISO setting as you need to, but remember that higher settings can introduce unwanted noise into your images.
With space limited in the airplane, passengers often ask which lenses they should bring, and it’s an important question. Wide angle lenses don’t work very well, and it’s best to leave them on the ground. In the front seat you will be limited to the area between the propeller and the wing, while in the backseats, your field of view is behind the strut (the pillar that holds the wing up) and below the wing. Normal (50mm). Even short telephoto lenses work well and are good for keeping the airplane out of your image. Also when choosing a lens for use in shooting from an airplane, any that have image stabilization or vibration control will help you with sharpness. It may even be possible to push your shutter speed down to 1/500 or 1/250 per second while using these settings. As digital cameras have progressed, this technology has also advanced, so with a newer camera you can expect excellent results.
Shooting through the airplane window will degrade your images somewhat. A polarizing filter will help limit this problem in many cases, but also remember that the filter will cut the light hitting your sensor. Sometimes using a polarizer to get 1/1000 of a second for a shutter speed won’t be as easy with this filter, and as detailed above changing the ISO may be required. Don’t worry too much about dirt or scratches on the window, While they may decrease the fidelity of your image, like dirt on your lens they will be too close to create an image. If the pilot does open the window, don’t use any filters, and make sure you have a strap on your camera. A filter or camera sucked out an airplane window is a recipe for serious damage to the craft, and puts your life in danger.
Though things happen very fast on scenic flights, it’s still worth it to remember some compositional suggestions. Using too much sky without clouds is a way to waste important important areas of your shot with no content. If you’re shooting on a clear day, crop out the sky as much as possible. On the other hand, with beautiful clouds, leave them in as an important decorative part of the overall scene. While shooting the big scenics try to balance shadow and dark layers as best you can. Shooting any landscape at a 90 degree angle is ideal for the best use of shadow and light areas. The Colorado Plateau is like another planet, with interesting patterns and textures everywhere. Shoot these to go with the grand vistas.
On another less appealing but important subject, remember that looking through a camera while flying might upset your stomach, so it’s good to take a break from photography occasionally and look far off into the distance to stabilize your sense of movement. This may happen even if motion sickness is not normally a problem for you.
Seeing and photographing the Canyon Country from the air is a stupendous experience. Modern cameras have made its beauty to easier capture, and following these simple suggestions should help you capture a least some of its magic. Good luck.
For more information about Tom Till and to see his collection please visit tomtillphotography.com