The Art of Aerial Photography

French-Alps
French Alps seen from the air just after takeoff from Milan Malpensa on the way back to Newark Liberty. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

I never cease to marvel at the technological achievement of flight.  It is difficult to believe that it took less than a century for humankind to go from its first heavier than air flight to the establishment of a reliable, safe, and affordable aerial travel network.  Sadly, aviation has lost its thrill for most people.   Reading a newspaper on any given day, one is likely to see an article bemoaning delays, fees, rudeness, and discomfort on planes instead of the wonder expressed when the technology was new (despite it being noisy, expensive, relatively slow by modern standards, and considerably less safe).

Siberia 3
In the early 20th century, the Stanovoy Mountains in Siberia were largely uncharted territory.  During the Graf Zeppelin‘s record-setting circumnavigation of the globe in 1929, the airship only barely cleared mountains in this range (which reached heights alarmingly close to the Graf‘s ceiling).  Now thousands of daily flights effortlessly pass over such wild terrain.  Infrared photo taken en route to Tokyo Narita from Washington Dulles.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

These days, for many people flying is simply the most convenient method between Point A and Point B, something to be endured rather than enjoyed.  For me, it’s also an opportunity to experience the world’s natural beauty from a largely unobstructed vantage point, especially when the route flies over wild lands that I may never have the opportunity (or the inclination) to set foot on.

For a long time, I thought of aerial photography as the domain of the professional photographer who could afford to charter their own aircraft.  Aerial photography’s challenges are numerous, especially from the window of a commercial airliner.  Still, with a little practice, decent editing software, and a lot of luck it is possible for an amateur photographer to end up with some satisfying images.

The Challenges

Grand-Canyon-Corrected
The image at left shows the Grand Canyon straight from the camera, dulled by plexiglass and haze; at right, the same image after processing in Photoshop Elements.  The photo was taken from a flight en route to LAX from BWI.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Everyone can agree that photography is best accomplished in open air, not by shooting through multiple layers of dirty and scratched plexiglass.  Even under ideal circumstances, shooting through such windows lowers contrast and dulls colors, especially when shooting towards the sun.  In addition, at cruising altitude, there is considerable haze due to dust and other small particles suspended in the air.

8 Monument Valley
The center and left sides of this photo of the Monument Valley is marred by distortion caused by engine exhaust and/or shooting through the aircraft window.  Even though I took multiple frames, this was the only one in which any of the buttes were sharp.  Flight was Baltimore to LAX.

On many aircraft, a majority of economy seats are at or behind the wing.  Unfortunately, the wing can block some scenery.  In addition, when shooting from the rear of the plane you may find certain parts of the frame will be distorted by the engine exhaust.  This may not be evident during wide angle shots, but zooming in can make for blurry pictures.  With particularly captivating subjects, I recommend taking multiple shots, and at different zoom ranges.  Once examined on a computer screen, you may well find half your frames (or more) weren’t sharp.

Choosing a Seat

FujiSunset
Mt. Fuji silhouetted against the sunset just after takeoff from Tokyo Narita. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

Seat choice might have an impact on one’s opportunities for spectacular photography.  Although there’s a bit of luck involved with winds and such, it may be possible to research the best side of an aircraft to sit on based on typical flight patterns involving particular airports.

For instance, I learned that flying from Cusco to Lima, the towering mountains of the Andes are best viewed from the right side of the aircraft.  I heard that sitting on the left side of the aircraft increased my chances of catching views of the coastal scenery on approach to Nice Côte d’Azur Airport and selected my seats accordingly during a recent flight.  Flight Aware is a good tool for checking historic flight paths when planning a journey.

Sunset over the Atlantic
Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean as seen from a flight from San Juan to Baltimore.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Light, the essential element in the photographer’s craft, is worth taking into account.  If the aircraft will be in flight at dawn or dusk and other scenery is anticipated, I often try to get a seat that I anticipate will face the sunrise or sunset.  Of course, the trade off is that shooting into the sun increases the chances of flare and often illuminates the grime on windows, hampering any photos of the terrain below.

Swiss Alps
I wasn’t on the best side of the aircraft while flying through the Swiss Alps en route from Newark to Milan Malpensa.  Sitting on the left side of the plane (facing the morning Sun), I only had a handful of shots in which the mountains were properly illuminated.

The terrain itself may also be backlit if shooting into the Sun.  If the flight is expected to cross a photogenic mountain range, for instance, it’s better to have the sun on the opposite side of the aircraft from your seat.  In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun will be in the southern part of the sky, so when flying westbound I prefer to sit on the right hand side of the aircraft.

Approach La Paz
Sitting in front of the wing, when possible, can give unobstructed views of terrain.  It also eliminates the problem of distortion caused by engine exhaust.  This image was taken from an American Airlines B757 on approach to El Alto, the airport for La Paz, Bolivia.

There is at least one silver lining to being stuck sitting behind the wing (which is subject to distortion from engine exhaust).  The wings themselves can be a decent element in a photo.  I think wing aesthetics have become a little more appealing in recent years as winglets have become more common.

SouthwestSunset
The wing of a Southwest Airlines B737 catches the glow of sunset during a flight from Los Vegas to BWI.
Levels-Comparison-Small
Levels save many an image muted by haze and dirty glass, as demonstrated here with a Siberian landscape.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

I’ve found that the challenging conditions discussed above make the digital darkroom essential for practitioners of aerial photography.  Due to the extensive processing that is often necessary to salvage images, it is advisable to shoot in RAW.

My typical editing process starts with converting the image from RAW, then creating a Levels adjustment layer in Photoshop Elements.  To save time, I typically start with Auto Levels.  If the effect is too intense, I can dial back the adjustment layer’s opacity.  Sometimes Auto Levels makes the colors too funky and I manually adjust the Levels instead.  On rare occasion, such as editing the photos of the Grand Canyon, I find Curves useful for restoring color.  There is a limit to how far you can push the editing and image degradation will eventually occur if you go too happy with the sliders.

 Infrared Aerial Photography

Siberia 1
Verkhoyansk Range, Siberia in infrared.

Hobbyists who’ve caught the “infrared bug” may find that their investment in a special camera can make for amazing aerial results.  For aerial work, the camera must be modified to shoot near infrared.   rather than using an infrared filter in front of a conventional digital camera.  Using a filter results in long exposure times that make it impractical for aerial work.

The good news is that haze tends to be concentrated in the blue part of the visual spectrum.  Since infrared cameras’ sensitivity is in the near infrared (and in some cases the red end of the visual spectrum), infrared aerial images tend to be much clearer.  Shadowy areas reflect almost no infrared light, making for higher contrast landscapes on sunny and partially cloudy days; results are usually not spectacular on overcast days, but then again, on such days landscapes are likely to be hidden from the sky in the first place.

StraightfromtheCamera
Canyonlands National Park seen from the air. Both images were taken within seconds of one another and are shown straight from the camera. At left is a conventional color SLR picture, severely affected by haze. At right is a photo taken with a camera modified to shoot infrared.  The flight was from LAX to Chicago O’Hare.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2013

Infrared images still may benefit from some Photoshop processing, but tend to need a lot less than conventional photography, as these photos of Canyonlands National Park illustrate.

B&WvsIR
This image compares the photos displayed above after photo processing. The color image was converted to black and white and enhanced with significant levels processing in Photoshop Elements (left). The infrared image at right was also converted from RAW and had light levels processing. Surfaces in shadow reflect virtually no infrared light so the IR photo has sharper contrast.  This comparison does show that with sufficient processing, a conventional camera can give an infrared one a run for its money.  However, there was considerably more image degradation in the conventional one, which would be clear if printed.
Killpecker-Sand-Dunes,-Wyoming
Infrared is the perfect medium for capturing the textures of landscapes, especially desert terrain like in the western United States.  This view is of Killpecker Sand Dunes, Wyoming taken on a flight between BWI and Salt Lake City. Lowell Silverman photography, 2008
Aerial Farm
Farms nestled in mountains somewhere in the American west.
Great-Salt-Lake
Great Salt Lake, Utah
AndesWindow
The Andes seen from the air between Cuzco and Lima, Peru.  Since I wasn’t on the right side of the plane to capture the mountain, I had to settle for framing it against the window!  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Low Altitude

Old San Juan
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico seen on approach to Isla Grande Airport.

Flying in a small aircraft like the BN-2 Islanders used by Vieques Air Link on Puerto Rico or a helicopter provides some different opportunities.  The glass still reduces contrast, but at lower altitudes the haze doesn’t interfere quite as much.  Furthermore, the subjects are closer, and it may be possible to photograph out the front windscreen as well.  On larger commercial airliners, similar opportunities may exist during takeoff and landing now that rules about electronics have been relaxed.

San Juan Aerial
San Juan, Puerto Rico

 

Various airports have sights of interest nearby.  Perhaps my favorite is Portland, Oregon’s approach down the Columbia River Gorge with the volcanoes of the Cascades visible on both sides of the plane.  The approach to Reagan National along the Potomac River provides impressive views of the Washington DC’s sights.

Mt. Adams as seen on approach to PDX
Mt. Adams as seen on approach to PDX.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2008
AerialWashington-Monument
The Washington Monument as seen on approach to DCA. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

So the next time you have your camera and a window seat, give aerial photography a shot…or at least be sure your window shade is up so you can appreciate the views from the air!

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