Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre from the air: A beginner's guide to aerial photography
Firstly, let me state up front, I’m not an aerial photographer and I have never been anywhere near Lake Eyre (now officially called Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre).
But in early March I was given the opportunity to spend time photographing the Lake Eyre region for The Guardian after near-record local desert rainfalls. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, and I headed off with friend and aerial expert Scott Portelli to experience and capture the desert in bloom and the magic of Lake Eyre from the air. This is what I learnt.
Before you depart - do some research. Google, speak to others etc., and also have some image goals in mind. These could be as simple as asking ‘What do I want to photograph and what do I want to do with the images afterwards?’
Having these will help make life easier and also help dictate the type of camera you take. If your images are just for social media, you probably won’t need a 40+ MP sensor, but if you hope to get large wall prints, then maybe you will. You’ll also want to find out the best time of day to shoot. For us, as the skies were forecast to be clear, it was generally just after sunrise, to avoid the harsh light.
The next step is to think about the types of perspective you might want to capture. Vertical (straight down), low oblique or high oblique (which is where you see the horizon in the final shot) each give you a very different feel, with oblique usually giving a greater sense of perspective.
Also, how much detail do you want to capture? The lower you fly the more detail is revealed, but the ground goes past a lot faster (also impacting camera settings). But when you fly higher, you are shooting ‘small scale’, where things look relatively smaller, but you get to see a bigger picture). For this shoot, we varied our altitude between 500m and 2000m, also knowing that the higher you go (and depending on the conditions), as there is more air to shoot through, the softer the images can appear.
Finally, a few tactical considerations. You’ll want to get the ‘best’ plane available. This probably means one with the doors off, and no struts blocking your view. If you must shoot though windows, make sure you can open them up.
You’ll also want to find a good pilot, and to talk to them about your goals and agree on a plan. If you’ve chartered a flight for photographic purposes, feel free to ask for what you want – you’re paying. This includes discussing flight route, height, and manoeuvres you will want, because often you’ll need the pilot to orient the plane in a way to get the best shot.
And one more thing - if the doors are off it can be noisy, so establishing hand signals before you take-off can be useful. Simple gestures like go up/down, bank left/right, circle, go back, etc can all make things work much more smoothly.
Imagine this: The plane is flying at 200km/h, you’re buckled in the front passenger seat and the door is off, wind buffering you, and the plane is banking ‘hard’ right so you can easily shoot straight down. What don’t you want – besides a seat belt failure? Lots of gear to deal with!
This means keeping unnecessary accessories at home and dumping your wind catching lens hood. I’d suggest limiting yourself to two camera bodies with sturdy camera straps, lenses attached. I doubt you’ll be wanting to try changing a lens up there.
Which lenses? That depends upon your objectives. I’ve read some serious aerial photographers use at least one prime. But if you’re reading this, you’re probably not one of them so, like me, flexibility is the most important consideration and I found a 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 covered everything I needed.
To ensure greater image quality and light transmission, I took off my protective filter, but I did take a polariser, which I found useful when shooting obliquely against a bright blue sky and when I needed to cut through certain water reflections.
And of course, make sure you bring spare batteries and your memory cards have enough write speed to cope with sustained camera bursts and enough memory space for the flight.
Depending on where you are, consider dressing for warmth. Temperature drops as you gain altitude, and with doors off/windows open, there is also the potential for a strong wind chill factor. Maybe I am also showing my age, but I suggest keeping away from coffee/tea a few hours before, and make sure you visit the bathroom just before take-off.
Finally, secure your cameras to your body, zip-up your pockets, and make sure your settings are set.
Your biggest enemy with aerial photography is movement blur and camera shake, so the first thing you’ll want to prioritise is a fast shutter speed. Of there are many variables that can impact image sharpness, including focal length, sensor size, camera megapixels (the more there are, the more noticeable camera shake is), distance from subject, direction of movement versus the subject, aircraft speed and more, but 1/2000s is probably a good start.
Having said that, as you’re heading out, take a few test shots and increase it a little more for safety, and then as the situation changes (plane speed, height, angle of shooting etc.), test again. But I always say, you can fix a bit of grain in post, but image blur, not really. Regardless, I probably wouldn’t go below 1/1000s, unless potential ISO noise was getting crazy.
Next, is your f/stop. As you’ll probably be shooting anywhere from 500-2000m from your subject, even at f/2.8, depth of field shouldn’t be a hindrance to ensure all is in focus, so I’d keep your f/stop wide open. I also suggest this as you’ll be shooting at a reasonably fast shutter speed, so you may as well take advantage of getting the lowest ISO possible from using your fastest f-stop.
Speaking of ISO, the last thing you want to do is be playing with your ISO, so go for auto. You may want to play with exposure compensation to push it to the right or left, and adjust it now and then as the landscape and lighting changes, but let the camera figure out the ISO, so you can focus on other things.
When it comes to focus mode, if you manually set the lens to infinity, at height, technically everything you see outside the plane should be in focus, however all it takes is a slight bump to your focus ring, and you could be in trouble.
Because of this, I suggest using continuous autofocus, making sure your camera is set to fire when focus is achieved (as opposed to when you hit the trigger), and set a wide focus field as this will allow the camera to focus more quickly.
When shooting, I’d also suggest using a continuous drive mode so you can shoot in bursts, and evaluative/matrix metering - which divides the scene up into sections, analyses each one, and then takes an average to work out the correct exposure. Finally, and it should almost go without saying, but shoot raw (to allow the greatest flexibility when post-processing) and have your camera’s/lenses’ image stabilisation on.
In the air
You’re buckled in, and you’re up in the air. Now it’s time to shoot. Firstly, I know I said it’s good to have a plan, but don’t be afraid to have a play with your framing. Shoot portrait and landscape, vertical, low, and high oblique angles, zoom in and out, and fly at different heights if you can – you just never know what will look good.
It’s also a good idea to capture shots that give a sense of scale. The number of people who said to me afterwards “great drone shot” was amazing (and a little annoying), so try and take a few shots to show height and scale, even if simply to prove they weren’t taken by drone.
And one more thing - unless you’re checking settings or that everything is working OK - make the most of your time in the air by keeping any serious critique for when you’ve landed.
Back on the ground
Once you’ve landed, back up your memory cards and (all having gone well) be prepared to enjoy looking through a lot of photos to find the near perfect few. For me, after nine hours in the air, I took nearly 10,000 photos, and ended up with 895 images I kept, and 125 images I liked. The Guardian then published eight. That’s a personal success rate of 1% and a professional success rate of 0.1%.
However, given this was my first foray into aerial, and I always tend to overshoot, I’m not unhappy. To be candid, knowing what I know now, I probably couldn’t have expected to get any more images published (due to publication space limitations), but I am confident that if doing it again, I’d now end up with a much larger portfolio of keepers and images I liked.
Aerial photography offers the opportunity to literally see that world from a different perspective, however it’s also expensive and provides relatively short shooting windows.
But when it comes to capturing the natural environment, and unique events - like Lake Eyre flooding - it’s hard to say no to, and I suggest that every photographer try it at least once. If you do, I hope my learnings help you get the most out of it. ❂