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Tips and techniques for good aerial photos of airports

So you are planning on taking some aerial photos of airports? And possibly submitting them to AirNav to share with others? Here are some tips to help you take good airport photos...

The tips below are intended for the amateur photographer who is planning on taking photos from a light general aviation aircraft. They may not be quite so useful for the professional photographer with a specially equipped aircraft, nor for the airline passenger taking photos out of the window of an airliner.

Safety first

Solo aerial photography work is dangerous. You really need two people: a pilot and a photographer. Aerial photography involves flying slow, sometimes at high angles of bank, in the vicinity of an airport. This is when a pilot most needs to pay attention to control of the aircraft and to be looking out for traffic. It is not the time for a pilot to be fooling with a camera and looking through a viewfinder. We strongly recommend that all aerial photography work, especially that performed near airports, be done with both a pilot and a photographer passenger.

With that in mind, all tips below are divided into a pilot and a photographer section.

Your equipment

For the Pilot       For the Photographer
  • The best aircraft for aerial photo are probably helicopters and ultralights, due to their slow speeds and unobstructed views
  • Most light aircraft are also quite suitable, the lower the speed the better
  • High wing or low wing? Doesn't matter much. With low wing you may have to bank; with high wing your photographer will have the strut in the way
  • Have headsets and an intercom to communicate with your photographer
  • Be familiar with your aircraft, and proficient in operations at slow speeds. Minimum controllable airspeed training is advisable
 
  • Digital camera is preferred if you are submitting photo for a digital medium
  • If using a digital camera, at least 2 megapixels is recommended. Cheap "web cams" will yield disappointing results
  • If using a conventional film camera, transparency film generally provides better color results than negative film for aerial photography, but it is also less forgiving in terms of exposure latitude
  • Make sure you know how to operate your camera, especially setting focus to infinity and controlling exposure time
  • Shorter focal length lenses generally result in sharper images. If using a zoom lens, set it to a "wide angle" focal length
  • A camera strap will help secure your camera and prevent it from flying off if you should open a window
  • A polarizing filter will increase color saturation, reduce reflection from windows, and help penetrate through atmospheric haze. Works best at a 90 degree angle to the sun. When shooting through some plexiglass it may show up many rainbows of color from stress alignment of the molecules in the plastic.
  • Plenty of film (or digital memory) and batteries

Preparing your photo flight

For the Pilot       For the Photographer
  • Choose a day with no turbulence, clear skies and good visibility (no haze)
  • Carefully study the charts for restricted or controlled airspace in the area of your photo shoot
  • Study the POH for limitations such as stall speed, window opening speeds, etc.
  • Make sure you have plenty of fuel, as photo shoots can run over their planned time
  • Clean aircraft windows, inside and outside
  • Brief your photographer on safety during the flight
  • Neatly organize your cockpit, with no loose items, as it will get windy in there if your photographer opens a window
 
  • Choose a day with clear skies
  • Choose a day when ground cover is the most prevalent for the region (even though that snow covered ground in South Carolina on some January day may be quite unique and beautiful, it is not typical for the area)
  • Early or late in the day works best. Choose a time about one to two hours from sunrise/sunset (daily sunrise and sunset times are displayed on the AirNav page for each airport.) Images taken with lower angles of light (longer shadows) improve ground detail and contrast.

The photo flight

For the Pilot       For the Photographer
  • If necessary, obtain clearance to enter the area, by clearly stating your intentions to the controller
  • Safety permitting, choose an altitude that is about 0.5 to 1.5 times the length of the longest runway. For example, for a photo of an airport with a 4000 foot runway, choose an altitude between 2000 and 6000 feet AGL.
  • In every case, choose an altitude that will allow you to comply with all regulations and to safely maneuver to a safe landing in case of emergency
  • Configure your aircraft for slow flight. Fly slow but safe
  • Keep a continuous scan for traffic, and announce your position and maneuvers on the radio
  • The following maneuvering techniques work well for taking photos of an airport out of the right side window, from the south, looking north. Their feasibility depends on local conditions such as terrain, obstructions, and traffic.
    • In a low wing aircraft, start southeast of the airport, fly west, and as you cross south of the airport start a turn to the north by banking right, giving your photographer a clear view of the airport
    • In a high wing aircraft, start south-southeast of the airport flying to the northwest. You should plan on crossing south of the airport boundary. This will give your photographer a good view of the airport without a strut in the way
  • Avoid circling for an extended time over an area, as it may be considered loitering or suspicious activity
  • Avoid much maneuvering in the immediate area of the airport. If a second photo pass is needed, leave the immediate airport area, reposition, and reenter the area for a second pass
 
  • Set your lens focus to infinity, in manual mode
  • Set your exposure to a fast shutter speed
  • Shooting through an open window will eliminate the problem of reflections, but extreme care should be used. Check with your pilot before opening any window. Open windows often create higher vibration levels
  • Make sure you camera and all other equipment is secure before opening any window
  • Compose your image to include the entire airport complex, including all runways
  • If there are any salient features in the surrounding terrain (coastlines, mountains, lakes, large buildings, etc.) that help identify and locate the airport, include those too in your image
  • Take multiple photos of the airport during your pass. If is much cheaper to discard a few photos than to have to make a second pass or a second flight
  • After your first photo pass, discuss with your pilot whether a second pass is nedded, and if so discuss whether lower or higher altitudes will work best, and what changes in maneuvers might be best for that particular airport

Sending photos to AirNav

To send digital images by email       To send paper photos by mail
  • We prefer images in JPEG format. However, we can accept many other formats, including PNG, TIFF, GIF, BMP and others.
  • Don't worry about image size — it doesn't matter much, we will size it to fit. Usually the bigger the better
  • Email your digital image files to airportphotos@airnav.com
  • If you are sending photos of multiple airports, please send one email per airport
  • Please indicate in the subject line which airport the photo is for
  • If you would like any credit displayed with your photo, state that in the body of the email
 
  • Please send only copies. Do not send irreplaceable originals.
  • If you would like any credit displayed with your photo, state that in a note
  • If you want the photos returned, please indicate that request and provide a return address. However, we cannot guarantee that all photos will be returned, since we use regular mail (untracked, non-certified).
  • Mail to:   AirNav, LLC
    Graphics and Multimedia Dept
    P.O. Box 3
    Morganville, NJ 07751-0003
    United States of America

Acknowledgements

The above tips and techniques have been compiled from a number of sources. AirNav thanks the following individuals for their contributions to this guide:

If you have suggestions for additional tips to include in this guide, please email us.


 
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