Landscape Photography from the Air

The dream of flying

I was 24 years old when I first got on a plane for a work trip to London.  It was a bit of an eye opening experience for me.  Less than twelve months later though I was backpacking around Australia.  One thing was for sure, I didn't have a fear of flying.

In 2004 I decided that I wanted to learn how to fly a plane for myself.  So I joined my local flying club in Glasgow and so started a rather long, and expensive, journey to getting my Private Pilots License (PPL).  I found the course challenging but some of my training flights took me over some of the most amazing scenery Scotland has to offer so it was also very rewarding.

 Flying over the house where I grew up in the Highlands.

Flying over the house where I grew up in the Highlands.

About the same time I started flying I also took up hill walking (I had so much more free time back then).  As a result I was really beginning to build up an appreciation for the landscape around me.  I was seeing it from so many different perspectives.  With so much to see I also decided that I would take up landscape photography (I definitely had way more time back then).

A 3000 ft view

It wasn't until I moved to Devon that I completed my PPL training.  Though Devon has a distinct lack of mountains it still offers some of the countries most dramatic landscapes.   Though I was shooting landscape mostly on the ground, my flights over Devon and beyond opened my eyes to whole different view point.

 I've photographed the beach at Dawlish Warren a lot, but it's just as amazing from the sky.

I've photographed the beach at Dawlish Warren a lot, but it's just as amazing from the sky.

Weather plays a key role in how and where I fly, but even if it is less than perfect flying conditions I can fly around Devon at 3000 ft and see so much.  At this altitude you can still make out towns and villages, you can see the lines that rivers take, and you can see miles and miles of coastline ahead.

 Plymouth from 3000 ft.

Plymouth from 3000 ft.

In the air the landscape is familiar, yet looks very different, therefore my approach to image taking is slightly different.  After all, I don't really have a foreground to consider, but I still need to consider other elements of the composition such as leading lines.

 As on the ground, rivers can make excellent lead in lines.

As on the ground, rivers can make excellent lead in lines.

It's not that easy though

So all this flying about taking pictures sounds easy doesn't it.  Well not really.  It's actually a bit challenging, but not necessarily in ways you might think.

Firstly, I'm when I'm in the right hand seat I'm the Pilot in Command which means I'm responsible for flying the plane.  Activities with the camera have to take a back seat to flying, navigating and communication.  So in order for me to get busy with the camera I normally have to go flying with another pilot.  However this isn't too much of a problem as there are always pilots about at my local club who want to go flying!

 There is a lot manage as Pilot in Command, so it's best to leave the image taking to when you're a passenger.

There is a lot manage as Pilot in Command, so it's best to leave the image taking to when you're a passenger.

The next challenge is the plane itself.  Unlike a helicopter which can hover and plane is constantly moving forward.  The planes I fly normally have a ground speed of just over 100 mph so the scene is constantly changing.  The effect isn't too bad at 3000 ft, but you still have to work at speed if you want get a particular image.  There isn't much scope for fine tuning your composition.

 Objects can pass quickly between the nose and the wing so I didn't have much time to compose this shot.  

Objects can pass quickly between the nose and the wing so I didn't have much time to compose this shot.  

Visibility in a plane is also a challenge.  Again, unlike helicopters where you can sometimes take the doors off, my doors (or to be more accurate, canopy) is firmly attached.  While the aircraft I fly offers some excellent visibility for the pilot, the low wings and canopy screen don't always lend themselves to good photography.

 The Robin DR400, a wonderful aircraft to fly, but the low wings make photography challenging.

The Robin DR400, a wonderful aircraft to fly, but the low wings make photography challenging.

Between the nose and the wing there isn't much in the way of a clear view.  Steeply banking the aircraft can improve things but the scene changes even more quickly then.  All that aside though, it's the canopy that can be the most challenging thing to get over.  Canopy's can cause a lot of reflections!  I have flown aircraft where there has been small opening in the door which makes things a lot easier but with my current aircraft you have to battle the reflections.

 Amazing cloud formations but the image suffers from canopy reflections on the right.

Amazing cloud formations but the image suffers from canopy reflections on the right.

Given the right conditions

Saying all that though, if the weather conditions are good, and you can get the plane positioned well, shooting from a plane offers some fantastic views.  Camera setup is actually relatively straightforward compared to how I would set it up on the ground.  I'll set it for automatic focus, f/8, and a shutter speed of at around 1/500 sec.  No need for filters, cable releases and tripods (obviously!).  There is a certain sense of freedom and the whole process becomes very dynamic (as it is with my music related work).

 There are some views you can only get from the air.

There are some views you can only get from the air.

Photography everywhere

This is the wonderful thing about photography.  You can integrate it into so many aspects of your life.  I love flying.  I love the adventure and the freedom.  These are some of the qualities that I love about photography and so when I get to do both it's fantastic.   Like photography though, flying is a skill and requires practice.    However, as with many of my hobbies time, money and weather are all influencing factors on how much practice I get!

 As with photography it's important to practice flying, particularly your landings!

As with photography it's important to practice flying, particularly your landings!

Unfortunately flying has taken a little bit of back seat for me at the moment but I'm getting back to it in the New Year.  Photography from the plane is gradually getting easier and I hope the New Year will bring more opportunities to capture some wonderful landscape images.

So do you integrate your photography with other hobbies?  Have you tried to shoot from a small plane?  Have you ever hung out the door of a helicopter with your camera?  Let me know in the comments.  

See you next time!   

 A unique view of the patchwork of fields in Devon.

A unique view of the patchwork of fields in Devon.