Ten Photography Tips for Epic Aerials Out of a Fixed Wing Plane

With drones being so accessible and easy to use, everybody is taking aerial shots these days. But there's nothing like crawling into a tiny Cessna and exploring the skies from a plane for yourself! Here’re 10 tips on how you can do just that.

I recently flew over Kluane National Park, home to Canada’s tallest mountain and the continent's second tallest, Mount Logan. Mount Logan is located in the St. Elias Range in the Canadian territory of Yukon, bordering Alaska. Not a lot of people have heard of the Mount Logan or the Yukon for that matter. Part of the reason nobody knows about Logan is because it lives in the shadow of Denali, the largest peak in North America. Denali is also more accessible than Logan. The cool thing about Mount Logan is that it's home to the largest non-polar ice field in the world, so I figured it was worth the effort of getting there.

Photographing from a small fixed wing plane might seem daunting if you’ve never had a chance to do it before, so here are 10 tips on how to get the most out of your flying photoshoot.

  1. The pilot is going to be your best reference for just about any questions you might have, including what might be the most photogenic area or vantage. The pilot will also know which windows in the plane open and which ones don’t. Ideally, you don't want to have to be shooting through glass. If you have any questions for the pilot, make sure you ask them while you’re still on the ground. Mics in the planes don’t always work.
  2. Make sure that you and the pilot are on the same page about hand signals. In the unlucky circumstance that your mics are not working in flight, you'll want some basic signals worked out. You don’t always want the wing of the plane in your shot for example, so make signals with the pilot so he understand when to lift the wing.
  3. Sit on the same side as the pilot. This way the pilot sees what you see. It makes life a lot easier when you’re asking to change directions or fly towards something specific.
  4. If you are a team of two photographers, sit on the same side of the plane as one another, one in front of the other. That way, you can get your shots without working against each other. 
  5. Avoid changing lenses, batteries, and memory cards. It’s a really bad place to expose your camera sensor. if you want to shoot with more than one lens, I recommend bringing two or three camera bodies with different lenses already attached. However, I would only recommend doing that if you’re flying with an assistant. If you have a battery grip, this is a good place to use it. Shoot with a large memory card, 128 GB or more so that you're not constantly switching out cards. 
  6. Keep your lens hoods in your camera bag. You don’t want the hood falling off your lens and falling from 9,000 feet or flying into a propellor.
  7. Dress warm, or at least pack gloves and a light jacket into your camera bag. Depending on what altitude you may be flying at, it can get really cold in the plane, especially with those windows open. It’s hard to create a beautiful composition when your hands are frozen.
  8. Shoot at a higher ISO than usual. I recommend at least ISO 400 at midday and up to ISO 6,400 at sunrise or sunset. The reason for that is to bump up your shutter speed as fast as possible. I would avoid ever having your shutter slower than 1/1,000 of a second. Planes vibrate a lot; a fast shutter speed is critical for sharp images.
  9. Use a wide angle lens. Fisheyes tend to be a bit too much, but a 14-24mm or 16-35mm is the sweet spot. Otherwise try a 24-70mm for a little more range.
  10. Composition. Everything looks amazing from the air: it’s a perspective rarely photographed and rarely seen. However, the same rules for other types of photography still apply to aerial photography. Leading lines, subject matter, warm and cool tones — everything you know about landscape photography is applicable in the air.

If you've never had the chance to shoot out of a plane, I highly recommend it! Planes are affordable when compared to helicopters. If you're into exploring new places and photographing new images that haven't been shot before, I couldn't encourage you more to travel to the Yukon and check out Icefield Discovery.

If you have photographed from planes before, what are some tips you find handy when shooting from the air?

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Lou Bragg's picture

Most important tip: make sure you have a functioning parachute!

Ryan Richardson's picture

Contingencies are never a bad idea lol!

Joe Black's picture

Great advice. Thank you.

Ryan Richardson's picture

Hope it was helpful! Cheers!

Joe Black's picture

Very much. Especially where to be seated even when there are two photographers. Very helpful

Ryan Richardson's picture

Thanks for the feedback!