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On Assignment (7): Shooting from the Air

Matt Bradley (mbradley)

Keywords: on_assignment, mbradley, previsualization, photojournalism

This is the seventh part of a series on On Assignment.

The importance of a center of interest to a successful composition cannot be overstated. This is especially true when shooting from an aircraft, as the scene below is in constant flux and a photographer must make quick decisions. Without a clearly-defined center of interest, it’s all too easy to end up with pictures that are visually complicated. For air-to-ground shoots I usually rented a high wing, single engine Cessna aircraft. There was a cotter pin that could be removed allowing the right-hand window to swing up against the wing. The slipstream would usually hold this window open, but not always. It depended on winds at altitude, plus the plane’s airspeed and heading. Depending on the photo’s composition and selected lens, the pilot frequently needed to cross-control while I shot to keep the right wing above the horizon. Otherwise, the horizon would have a wingtip at the top of every vertical composition. Not good. A motor drive or power winder is a “must” piece of equipment along with a polarizing filter. I prefer using fast (F2.8) fixed focal length lenses over zooms to keep shutter speed as high as possible. Commonly used lens focal lengths range from 35mm to 100mm. If you have occasion to shoot from an airplane, ask the pilot to fly slow circles around your area of interest while staying aware of the plane’s ground track. That way, you can tweak the composition by making adjustments to the flight path.

Shooting with a wide-angle lens usually means flying at low altitude where the plane’s position relative to the selected scene makes composition tricky. While flying slow circles, I’d tell my pilot something like, “ … we need to be another 50 feet closer to that barn.” Not not an easy change for the pilot to make when ground references are limited, altitude should remain constant and airspeed must be kept above a stall. 

My aerial photographic skills were tested during a flight near the western boundary of Canada’s Northwest Territories. While flying over the Mackenzie Mountains, thousands of square miles of wilderness beckoned my camera. As we flew among the towering peaks, every turn revealed a scene seemingly more spectacular than the last.

Location: Mackenzie Mountains, Canada
Client: National Geographic
Click for an enlargement


So how could I communicate with only one photograph the challenging visual statement of boundless wilderness? I needed to find some kind of spark. Adding to the pressure was remembering the helicopter’s meter was ticking at $600 an hour. That’s when two meltwater pools appeared below, providing a colorful center of interest to support my intended visual statement.  Completing the composition became a piece of cake. A 35mm focal length lens effectively framed the area of interest. And turning the camera vertically allowed the mountains to visually balance the pools. I needed the helicopter to be in just the right position in order for the mountain peak and two pools to be displayed at a slight diagonal angle. After several passes in the helicopter, a break in the clouds beamed a sunny highlight on the nearer pool, enriching the beautiful turquoise color of the shallow water.


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Matt Bradley (mbradley) on September 14, 2020

Thanks Gary! My godson and his family just moved from North Carolina to Hunchy. A trip to Australia is on my bucket list.

Gary Worrall (glxman) on September 12, 2020

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography

Great insight there Matt Much appreciated ..........Gary