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The Art of Aerial Photography

At the start of the Mississippi Renewal Forum, I got the chance to ride with other team members in a Black Hawk helicopter along the Gulf Coast to view the hurricane damage and layout of towns. As the only professional photographer in the group, I became rude and pushy (OK, more rude and pushy) and insisted on a seat by the window. Actually, there was no window; the side of the helicopter was wide open. It was ideal for photographing from the air, and the pilot flew low and smooth.

This was my first foray into aerial photography. For real experts (and artists) in aerial work on land use patterns, please see the books of either Alex MacLean or Marilyn Bridges. There are many aspects of urbanism you simply cannot grasp or portray from the ground. We are lucky to be alive in an age when humans can fly and look down over the patterns of our environment. It is beautiful, and it teaches us a lot about development patterns.

Here are a few tips for aerial shooting:

1. The vibration of small planes and helicopters (and motorboats, for that matter) is significant. To keep the vibration from transferring to the camera and blurring the images, you must use a fast shutter speed and keep the camera and extraneous parts of your body from touching the aircraft, so your body can act as a shock absorber. The acceptable shutter speed varies according to the focal length of the lens - the longer the lens setting, the faster the shutter should fire. I used 1/250 at f/4 consistently with a moderate wide angle to moderate telephoto zoom on a digital SLR - the wide angles are fine, but the ones I zoomed in on are a little blurry. Fortunately you do not have to worry about depth of field; use the widest aperture at which your lens is sharp, which is usually one or two stops down from wide open.

2. Sit by the window and open it. Shooting through plexiglas will degrade the image. Dense filters such as polarizers on the camera lens are a bad idea, but a yellow filter (for black and white work only) helps cut haze so is worthwhile.

3. Be careful that wide-angle settings aren't taking in the aircraft itself (unless that's wanted, as in the photograph illustrating this column) or the chopper blades or propellers that are invisible to you but which may be stopped by a fast shutter.

4. If you can fly early or late in the day, longer shadows will help define forms on the ground. In any case, set digital cameras at highest contrast.

5. Much more valuable information can be found at these websites:
http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/aerial.htm
http://www.naturescapes.net/062004/ej0604.htm