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Motion in aerial photography

Everything may seem to be moving at once


Shooting a scene from a great height can be accomplished without ever leaving the ground, from a cliff-side vantage point, a tall bridge or the window of a skyscraper. In such locations, the photographer generally has the advantage of an unmoving platform and can even use a tripod for greater stability, permitting the use of slow shutter speeds – a luxury the aerial photographer does not have.

The aerial photographer has to contend with a platform that is not only moving through the air, (except for hovering helicopters and tethered balloons), but that may also be vibrating and is affected by winds and thermals. In addition to all of this motion in the sky, the subject being photographed may itself be in motion, whether it is an earth-bound vehicle or another aircraft in flight.

This is what occurs when too slow a shutter speed is employed in aerial photography. Everything is a blur.
This is what occurs when too slow a shutter speed is employed in aerial photography. Everything is a blur.

SHUTTER SPEED IS THE KEY

Unless you wish to show a degree of blur in your aerial pictures, the motion must be controlled through the selection of a fast shutter speed. It can also be controlled through the use of a gyroscopic stabilizer or gyrostabilizer, which permits slow shutter speeds for aerial photography, but this is an expensive device to purchase or rent.

Shutter speeds in the range of 1/250 sec and faster (depending on the lens in use) should be effective in circumventing the problem of motion. (See Slow shutter hand holding.)

Fast shutter speeds are generally easily-achievable for aerial photography because there is no trade-off for depth of field. The distance from the camera to the subject is so far that your lens will be focused on infinity for almost all your aerial pictures, making depth of field considerations unnecessary. Exceptions could include close-in air-to-air shots and pictures where you may be quite near to say, a waterfall cascading from a cliffside – even though you shouldn’t ever get so close to any object while flying that depth of field is a consideration.

DON'T SHOOT WITH YOUR WIDEST APERTURE

Unless your lens is very high-quality and remarkably sharp from edge-to edge, you should avoid shooting with it wide-open – i.e. at its widest aperture. Select a shutter speed that is sufficiently-fast to stop action but that still permits you to shoot at an aperture that is smaller by one or even two stops than your widest aperture to ensure maximum sharpness in your aerial images.

FAST FILM PERMITS FAST SHUTTER SPEEDS

The film speed you use will of course determine your exposure settings. Faster film allows faster shutter speeds while still maintaining the aperture you pre-select. You should use film that has the slowest speed that still allows you to use a fast-enough shutter and a less-than-wide-open aperture setting. On a bright, sunny day, film with a speed of ISO 100 will generally produce good results. But, you should have a roll or two of faster film handy in case lighting conditions change.

This is what you get with a fast shutter speed - every detail sharp as a pin. Photo courtesy of Robert Dall, Northern News Services.
This is what you get with a fast shutter speed - every detail sharp as a pin. Photo courtesy of Robert Dall, Northern News Services.

TIPS FOR WHEN YOU JUST HAVE TO LOWER YOUR SHUTTER SPEED

Should you get caught with a slow film under darkening skies, you may find that the shutter speed necessary for proper exposure drops below the optimum, even with your lens at its maximum aperture. When you have no choice and are faced with an unavoidably-slow shutter speed, don’t despair. There are a few tricks you can employ to minimize blur.

1. Have the pilot alter course so that you are flying either towards or away from the subject. You will have to frame carefully to avoid struts and the propeller, but blur becomes less noticeable when your motion is in a direct line with the subject. You will likely not be able to frame the picture when flying directly at the subject since the body of the aircraft will be in the way, but any improvement in direction is better than flying parallel to your subject when using a slow shutter speed.

2. Use a fast shutter speed anyway. That’s right. Break the rules a bit. Take advantage of the film’s exposure latitude and purposefully underexpose by one or one-and-a-half stops for color transparency film, and up to two-and-a-half stops for color negative film. You can even push the envelope a little further if you are shooting black and white film. It’s a gamble, but it’s not a huge gamble. Odds are good that you will have an acceptable image. And, an image that is a little under-exposed is generally more acceptable to one that is blurry.

3. Remove your polarizing filter, if you have been using one. You will gain as much as one-and-a-half stops, however it means sacrificing benefits the polarizer may have given to the image.

4. Have the pilot reduce airspeed if you are flying in an airplane, or hover if in a helicopter. Most experienced airplane pilots who have flown photographers will usually slow the plane down anyway when you are ready to open the window and shoot, but see if the pilot can safely reduce the aircraft's speed below his or her normal photography speed to minimize motion. It helps if the plane is heading into a strong wind.

5. Shoot at maximum aperture. Even if your lens displays aberration when wide open, it is better than having an overall blurry picture when you just have to get that aerial shot.

6. Hold yourself erect without touching any part of the aircraft to avoid transmitting the airframe’s vibration to your camera. Avoid any jerky motion. Breath slowly and evenly, and hold the camera as solidly as possible while using steady pressure to depress the shutter release button.

7. Pan a moving subject. If you follow its motion with the camera, the background may be slightly blurry, but the subject may be sharp. If the subject you are panning is a boat in the water, the blurriness may not even be all that noticeable. It helps if the aircraft is traveling in the same direction as the moving subject, but only if you can see the subject from your side of the aircraft. You may have to ask the pilot to fly over the subject to its other side so it will be visible through your window as you track it with your camera. The problem with doing this, however, is that you may then be photographing your subject's shadow side.

8. Increase altitude. You will notice when looking out the window of a moving train that nearer objects fly by in a blur, but far-away objects seem to move by more slowly. Increasing altitude takes you further from your subject, creating the same effect. Motion will therefore seem to be minimized when using a slow shutter speed at a greater altitude. If you magnify the image, it will still contain blur, but it is less evident when viewed without magnification.

9. Change to a wider angle lens. In a manner similar to increasing altitude, a smaller focal length lens will make blurriness less obvious than if you use a telephoto.

10. Finally, keep an eye on the sky, and look for a possible break in the clouds or a sudden increase in light. It may pay you to fly around waiting for a few minutes if conditions look like they will brighten.

When the sky clouds over, look skyward to check for a coming break or possible sudden clearing that may throw just enough light on the area you are photographing.
When the sky clouds over, look skyward to check for a coming break or possible sudden clearing that may throw just enough light on the area you are photographing.