5 Photographers Share Quick Tips for Amazing Aerial City Photos

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In 1860, a photographer by the name of James Wallace Black boarded a tethered balloon called the “Queen of the Air,” and from his elevated vantage point, he captured the sprawling city of Boston. At the time, the poet and professor Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “As a first attempt [at aerial photography], it is on the whole a remarkable success; but its greatest interest is in showing what we may hope to see accomplished in the same direction.” Today, Black’s albumen silver print is the oldest surviving aerial photograph, and, of course, the passage of time has proven Holmes correct.

Over the course of many decades, the technology has changed, but our fascination with aerial cityscapes remains as strong as ever. As metropolises around the globe continue to grow to new heights, photographers seek gravity-defying perspectives. These days, there are more aerial photographers than ever before, and different locations have various laws and regulations in place to keep everyone safe.

We asked five talented Shutterstock contributors to give us some insight into how they approach aerial photography in 2018. They use different gear and fly by different means, including planes, drones, and helicopters; one, like Black, even prefers balloons. And while they’ve photographed cities across the world—Warsaw, New York City, Taipei, Tel Aviv, and Melbourne, to name a few—they all share a passion for the skies. Read on to learn how they research and plan for unforgettable shots.

1. “You must always comply with the regulations in place in whatever country you’re photographing.”

Inga Linder

5 Photographers Share Quick Tips for Amazing Aerial City Photos — Follow Local Rules

Image by Inga Linder. Gear: DJI Phantom 4. Settings: Focal length 3.61mm; exposure 1/290 sec; f2.8; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This warm May evening was perfect for taking pictures. We’d been to this spot in Warsaw several times before, so we knew the location and the views. This time, we only took nine photos, but I like them a lot. They remind me of those warm lazy evenings when Warsaw smells of lilac and there are people walking around the parks and boulevards, relaxing after work.

5 Photographers Share Quick Tips for Amazing Aerial City Photos — Enlist a Helper

Image by Inga Linder.

Pro Tip

You must always comply with the regulations in place in whatever country you’re photographing. In Poland, for example, we are obliged to wear reflective vests when working with a drone. Surprisingly, I discovered that wearing reflective vests helps a lot because onlookers don’t have the courage to distract or talk to me while I’m working. People respect a person in a vest. Reflective vests are required for other reasons, of course, but they do a great job in that sense too.

Before starting, I also carefully check the air zones and make sure that the place I’ve chosen is approved for drone photography. It’s good to have a helper: one person controls the drone while looking at the camera preview, and the other one can watch the drone in the air and observe your surroundings.

2. “Never stop taking pictures, and don’t even take the time to review them—the flight is too short.”

Stephane Legrand

5 Photographers Share Quick Tips for Amazing Aerial City Photos — Don't Stop Shooting

Image by Stephane Legrand. Gear: Sony A7SII camera, 16-35mm lens. Settings: Focal length 16mm; exposure 1/640 sec; f8; ISO 50.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I anticipated this shot of New York City well before the flight. Aerial photography is expensive—renting a helicopter can cost more than $1000/hour—so you can’t miss your shots. First, I always do some research online using resources like Google Maps or Apple Maps to get a preview of my location. Sunrises and sunsets can be the perfect way to stand out from the competition, and I personally use a tool called The Photographer’s Ephemeris®, which gives me the times for the sunrise, sunset, moonrise, and more for each day of the year.

Usually, I scout two or three important shots using a 3D map. I memorize the framing and the shots’ characteristics so that once I’m up in the air, I know that I won’t miss them. Once the helicopter takes off, I start focusing. I think of nothing else but the pictures I want to get. Even though the door is open and my body is partially outside of the helicopter, tied to a harness, I don’t experience the fear of heights because the adrenaline and the focus take over. This photo was taken on the same day, and I had also scouted this scene earlier.

5 Photographers Share Quick Tips for Amazing Aerial City Photos — Scout the Scene

Image by Stephane Legrand. Gear: Sony A7SII camera, 16-35mm lens. Settings: Focal length 16mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f8; ISO 400.

Pro Tip

You should keep an eye on the weather forecasts, but because it can be almost impossible to predict the conditions a week or more in advance, it also helps to take out weather insurance. Flight operators such as FlyNYON offer this option with a full refund in the case of bad weather. Yes, you have to pay for it, but it’s worth it when compared to the financial loss of a canceled flight.

Before your flight, print a map of the city and highlight the two to three locations at the top of your list of priorities. Explain exactly what you want during a briefing with the pilot. Based on the weather and the law, the pilot will tell you what’s possible and what’s not, and he or she will explain the flight route to you. Make sure your battery is fully charged, and prepare your camera settings before the flight.

Technical preparation is crucial. Keep in mind that for doors-off flights, you won’t be authorized to change your lens during the flight. People don’t realize it, but if you so much as drop your phone from the helicopter, you can literally kill someone in the street. The flight company will systematically ensure everything is perfectly attached and linked to your harness. I would recommend using a zoom lens that will allow you to zoom in or zoom out depending on the circumstances. In regards to the harness, keep in mind that it will limit your movements, and it’s going to be super windy on the flight. I recommend wearing warm, comfortable, and light clothes, including hiking shoes or sneakers.

99% of you will be using a digital camera, which means it won’t cost you more to take more shots. For that reason, you should shoot, shoot, and shoot again. Never stop taking pictures, and don’t even take the time to review them—the flight is too short. You’ll have time to do everything once you’re back home. The helicopter flies fast, so you’ll have to use a high shutter speed, even if you have to increase your ISO. In aerial photography, noise is always better than blurriness.

3. “Bad weather and tall buildings can make for a dangerous flight, so pay attention to the weather, and plan your route in advance.”

YUSHENG HSU

5 Photographers Share Quick Tips for Amazing Aerial City Photos — Pay Attention to Weather

Image by YUSHENG HSU. Gear: DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone, NiSi C-PL filter. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 1/120 sec; f4.0; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I discovered this corner of the riverbank in Taipei, Taiwan, through Google Earth. I think that using a wide-angle lens to shoot from the air can give your photos an exaggerated visual effect, so I took advantage of this sunny morning, choose a large parking lot as a takeoff point, and arrived at the destination ahead of time. I confirmed the position of the sun, and finally, I took this picturesque photo at the golden hour.

Pro Tip

Safety should be your primary goal. Bad weather and tall buildings can make for a dangerous flight, so pay attention to the weather, and plan your route in advance. Trying different filters can also help you get better photos!

4. “In aerial photography, the lighting is totally dependent on the sun, so it’s important to time your arrival accordingly.”

ClimaxAP

5 Photographers Share Quick Tips for Amazing Aerial City Photos — Schedule Your Shoot Carefully

Image by ClimaxAP. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, 200mm manual lens. Settings: Exposure 1/2000 sec; f6.3; ISO 250.

What’s the story behind this photo?

We were on a plane on the way back from a job. As we headed toward landing, we anticipated an amazing composition showing both the coast of Tel-Aviv and the city of Jaffa at the same time. We used a relatively long lens, which created the illusion of a short distance between the cities. We immediately guided the pilot toward the shot, and as he momentarily maneuvered the plane’s right wing upwards, we snapped the picture. We didn’t anticipate that it would be one of the best-selling photos we have in our portfolio.

Pro Tip

In aerial photography, the lighting is totally dependent on the sun, so it’s important to time your arrival accordingly. To make it more difficult, the airspace is very dense in megacities, so it will be a challenge to book a time slot in the sky and get it approved by the authorities. This process can take up to two weeks in some areas, and once you have your time slot secured, you have no guarantee that there will be no clouds to obstruct your view.

However, there is a partial solution. Time slots in a dense airspace are given by priority, meaning that if you have a Jumbo 747, an air-ambulance jet, a plane full of parachutists, and a drone, the drone will have to wait. That’s understandable. We figured, “If we can’t beat them, join them!” Our ability to fly planes allows us to move up the priority ladder and book a slot more easily.

Planes also have other advantages in terms of the amount of equipment you can carry and the speed at which you can travel. You can basically carry your full frame camera, a full lens kit, batteries, another camera, a video camera, and another crew member—a second camera operator who can shoot from the hole in the floor or the second window while you shoot from the main window. One person can even shoot video while the other does the stills. With tight time slot schedules, efficiency is crucial.

While planes are a great solution for aerial photography, we mustn’t forget that they cost more to operate. They are also constantly on the move, so shooting from a plane is more challenging than shooting with a drone, which also costs less to operate. So my suggestion is to make as many options available to yourself as possible. Create more aerial platforms and find new avenues that will allow you to succeed.

5. “A bit of high cloud is great because it can reflect the colors of the morning sun.”

Nils Versemann

5 Photographers Share Quick Tips for Amazing Aerial City Photos — Use Cloud Cover for Visual Interest

Image by Nils Versemann. Gear: Pentax K-30 camera, Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 lens. Settings: Focal length 17mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f8; ISO 800.

What’s the story behind this photo?

My daylight aerials were mainly taken from a hot air balloon, and not many cities permit hot air balloons over major metropolitan areas. This particular photo was taken in September 2013. I actually have it as a large framed print just inside the doorway at home, so it is the first thing a visitor sees when entering my house.

A friend of mine was moving interstate back home to Perth, and a hot air balloon flight over Melbourne was on her bucket list, so another friend of hers and I came along. I was so happy with the shots from that flight that I was inspired to look for opportunities to sell them, which is how I got onto Shutterstock. They have been my best-selling set of shots by far and have paid for the flight multiple times over.

Pro Tip

Hot air balloons are great because they provide sweeping views with minimal obstructions. It’s not like trying to shoot through a plane window, or even a high-rise building window. You move relatively slowly, so you have time to look around and get the composition right. Plus they usually fly just after sunrise, so you get that beautiful morning light. A bit of high cloud is great because it can reflect the colors of the morning sun. That’s the effect that I was fortunate enough to get on the day I took the shot above. But, of course, you can’t predict that when you have to book a flight a couple of weeks in advance.

When I shoot from a high-rise, I take a Lenskirt with me. It shields the glass around the camera and prevents reflections. I don’t normally carry it in my bag, except when I’m going to be shooting through windows. When I do head up to observation decks, I try to time my visit for before sunset (observation decks generally don’t open early enough for sunrise). That gives me the golden hour, the sunset itself, and the blue hour, which is best for city lights.

5 Photographers Share Quick Tips for Amazing Aerial City Photos — Shoot City Lights in Blue Hour

Image by Nils Versemann.

The last couple of times, I have also timed my visits to coincide with major sporting events in surrounding stadiums. That way, those venues are illuminated for the blue hour shots. Having an illuminated stadium makes a huge difference. If you plan your shots in winter, the blue hour will also coincide with the evening peak hour, so you will get lots of light trails from cars.

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