Aerial Photography

By James Blank

With over 8,000 images on postcards, James Blank has been called America’s most prolific postcard photographer. He has been a professional photographer since 1969 and has been taking aerial shots since 1983.

Also read John Bahu’s Aerial Photography Q & A and James’ photo tips for Postcard Photography.

By Andrew Hudson Published: May 25, 2011 Updated: April 15, 2014

Aerial photography might be a valuable addition to any landscape Photographer’s repertoire. It adds a whole new perspective for the photographer. For samples, see my Web site with John Bahu, San Diego Scenics.

Here’s what I’ve learned during 23 years in the business.

I took up aerial photography in 1983 quite by accident while I was working for a large postcard printer in New York. I was sent on an assignment to a client in Virginia Beach. Among the many views the client wanted me to shoot was an aerial of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. The company hired a helicopter for me to use. Needless to say I was a little nervous, never having done aerial work before and knowing nothing about it. The nervesness lasted only until I started to shoot the bridge and then I forgot about the door being off and nothing holding me in the aircraft but a seat belt. I had enough sense to know that I needed a fast shutter speed to keep my images sharp and I lucked out on my first aerial assignment. As soon as I got home I went to the library to find out all I could about aerial photography.

After a couple of flights I came to love shooting aerials. Aerials have become a major part of my photography income.

The freedom of getting any angle you desire for good pictures can’t be beat. On the ground you are limited by your environment.

From 1983 to the present, I’ve been taking aerials for clients in twenty-five states and a province of Canada.

I shoot from two types of aircraft, helicopters and Cessnas. Cessnas have the high wing so you can shoot out the open window, under the wing.

Given the choice, “choppers” are much more suited for aerials because of their greater maneuverability. They are also allowed to fly at a lower altitude, which helps get better pictures. With a Cessna you fly higher and faster and need more lenses for your cameras due to the higher altitude.

Another advantage of the helicopter is that many of them can “hover” in one spot so you can “bracket” your shots without taking all the time it takes for a Cessna to turn around and come back.

Price wise there’s a big difference. The rental on a Cessna is between $75.00 and $l25.00 per hour while helicopters rent from $250.00 to $1000.00 and hour, depending on the size of the helicopter.

In some areas of the country I was unable to find helicopters to rent while I never ran into a place where I couldn’t rent a Cessna. Also some clients won’t pay the high price of a “chopper".

The pilot that comes with the rental aircraft also makes a difference. Some are not familiar with aerial photography and how photographers shoot. Others are used to taking up photographers and actually help get good shots for the photographer.

The basic equipment that an aerial photographer needs is the following: A camera with a zoom lens, say about 28mm to 300mm would be ideal for almost any situation. Bring plenty of film because if you run out you can’t go back to the car for more.

The equipment I take on an aerial assignment are a Nikon F5, a Nikon D-200 camera (with several cards), a Pentax 67 medium format camera with five lenses (28mm, 75mm, l05mm, 200mm, and 300mm) and a Hasselblad panoramic camera with two lenses.

The one thing that is paramount is shutter speed. I shoot with my shutter speed at 500 sec., changing it to 1,000 sec. when the big teles are used such as the 200mm and 300mm for my Pentax 67.

The film I usually use is either Fuji Velvia 100 or Ektachrome E100 VS.

One of the most important things when shooting aerials is to keep the horizon level. When you are working fast as you do shooting aerials, you can easily forget about the horizon. Also using wide angles you have to make sure the helicopter rotor is not in your view finder or the wing of the Cessna.

An amusing incident I experienced in a helicopter flight around New York City occurred in 1992. We were circling around the Statue of Liberty about 500 feet when the helicopter started climbing at a very fast rate. I asked the pilot why we were going up so far and he replied that he was just given an order to take the “chopper” up to 10,000 feet to avoid getting near President Bush’s helicopter which was landing nearby. So while we were up there I took pictures of the whole island of Manhattan with part of Brooklyn, Queens, and Jersey City in the frame. I never would have gotten those great pictures, which I have sold over and over again, If it hadn’t been for that order.

Another scary incident was in a Cessna shooting the Florida coastline south of Daytona Beach. We were flying about 1,000 feet when my pilot got an order that we had invaded the Cape Canaveral air space and to get out immediately. My pilot kept trying to get out of it but he was continuly ordered to get out immediately. My pilot was even a little alarmed and confused but we finally got out of their air space and he told me that we could have been shot down if we had ignored the warnings. I was sure glad to get back on the ground that day.

For more, read John Bahu’s Aerial Photography Q & A and James’ photo tips for Postcard Photography

Copyright 2007 James Blank for Photo Tour Books, Inc. Written for PhotoSecrets. You may reproduce this article for personal, educational, non-commercial and non-Internet use, such as in a local photo club newsletter or school project. No Internet publishing is permitted. For commercial use, please email Andrew Hudson for permission.

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