Eleven talented artists working around the world offer insight on how they take aerial photos that pop off the page (and screen).
You don’t need to look far to confirm that aerial landscapes are trending in the photo community. A quick browse through popular hashtags — like #AerialView, #AerialShot, and #DronePilots — will bring up hundreds of thousands of pictures from artists around the globe. With the COVID-19 pandemic, aerial photographs are showing a unique perspective of our changing world.
It’s not just social media, either. In the art sector, aerial photos hang in some of the most prestigious galleries in the world. In the commercial sphere, aerial photos have filtered into genres as wide-ranging as wedding portraits and luxury real estate.
“With the evolution of drones, the demand for aerial images and clips has exploded,” Olivier Bourgeois, the photographer and filmmaker behind Fly_and_Dive, tells us. “I still remember when I bought my first drone, in 2011. It cost me €11,000, and it was complicated to operate. The stabilization was awful. But still, I could feel the potential it had to offer.’
“Within just a few years, DJI had released products onto the market that were both easy to pilot and affordable. The stabilization was much better, and it’s continued to improve. Now, for an investment of €1,500, you are getting closer and closer to what you can achieve with a helicopter. The demand has, for aerial images, always been there. But now, becoming a pilot is accessible to professionals and non-professionals alike.”
From the stark and minimal to the elaborate and majestic, these artists take us on a journey across the world, touching down by drone and helicopter, in unusual, eye-catching locations. Read on for some of their best stories and tips.
Aerial Photographs: Constrasting Colors with paulmichaelNZ
Look for unique color combinations and textures when finding that perfect aerial shot. Image by paulmichaelNZ (Paul Michael). Gear: DJI Phantom 3. Settings: Focal length 28mm; Exposure 1/650 sec; f2.8; ISO 100.
“Unique textures and color contrasts are things I always look for when shooting aerial images. And thankfully, living in Broome, Western Australia, I don’t have to go far to find these! Reddell Beach is located just outside a small town and only reachable along a remote dirt/sand road.’
“Having shot (the more famous) Cable Beach thousands of times, I wanted to try a different location one afternoon. I set off along the dirt road on my 50cc moped (not exactly designed with the Australian Outback in mind). A considerable amount of time later, I arrived to find this beautiful, absolutely untouched beach and spent a solid few hours shooting away. A worthwhile afternoon adventure!”
Pro Tip: “The great thing about aerial photography is the ability to view a scene from a perspective you don’t normally have, so make the most of that! Shoot straight down and look for unique patterns, textures, and contrasting colors, but don’t abandon the usual guidelines for good photography.’
“Shooting during the golden hour gives you the most vibrant colors, and the long shadows, at this time of day, adds depth to your shots. Try to balance your compositions, too. I find for top-down shots, the ‘rule of thirds’ is even more important for adding commercial appeal.’
“I often use Google Maps, but sometimes it’s as simple as driving to the coast and recognizing a rocky peninsula or an easterly or westerly facing beach (for sunrise and sunset, respectively). It’s amazing how few people get out and explore their own backyards. I don’t use any fancy tricks, but so often, I photograph a new location, and I get Instagram messages from people — who live five minutes away — asking where it is.’
“For me, the unknown is all part of the excitement. I follow my instincts, and, more often than not, I find something worthwhile.”
Aerial Photographs: Changing Landscapes with Nguyen Quang Ngoc Tonkin
Shoot around a localized theme relevant to everyday life. Image by Nguyen Quang Ngoc Tonkin. Gear: Phantom 4 Pro. Settings: Focal length 24mm; Exposure 1/60 sec; f8.0; ISO 100.
“This is a picture of the Mekong Delta, which is the lower part of the Mekong River. I’ve observed this field for ten years now, and I’ve seen it at every time of year. I chose the end of the year to take this particular photo, as during this time, the rice fields have these newly harvested, unopened plots, and some have gone green to create patches of different colors.’
“I also chose to do the shoot in the morning, when the slanting light creates these shaded trees. Rice is the main agricultural product in this region, exported to many parts of the world and eaten by Vietnamese people every day.”
Pro Tip: “I recommend photographing a single subject in one place at all different times of day — and during various seasons — over a span of one year. I also recommend shooting around a theme that is localized and relevant to everyday life in the location where you’re shooting. For example, rice is the most prominent feature of the land where I took this photo above, so I expected the image to be used a lot, before I even started.’
“When I look towards the future, I also think clean environments and beautiful nature will continue to be trends in aerial photography, since these topics are so important to us today.”
Aerial Photographs: Photographing Different Seasons with Fly_and_Dive
The visual from an aerial view is completely different than what we see from the ground, often creating a shockingly beautiful image. Image by Fly_and_Dive (Olivier Bourgeois). Gear: DJI Phantom 4 Pro. Settings: Focal length 24mm equivalent; Exposure 1/500 sec; f5.6; ISO 100.
“I went to Iceland for the first time in June of 2007, while I was working as a producer for a feature documentary. There is a special charm to this time of year in Iceland. The sun never sets. It bounces on the horizon between sunset and sunrise, so you can film twenty-three hours of the day.’
“Of course, in 2007, we had no drone, so we filmed these river beds from a helicopter equipped with a Tyler Mount. The landscape was just amazing, with all these different blue colors melting into one another and the reflection of the sun on some of the river beds making them look like copper.’
“More than ten years later, in January of 2018, I returned to Iceland as a tourist and visited the exact same place. However, in winter, there are only four hours of light a day, and everything is frozen. I flew my drone over the landscape and saw the colors were completely different. This time, there was a darker blue surrounded by a frozen white, but still, the same magic remained.”
Pro Tip: “My first tip is to shoot what you like. You never know what will resonate with others, so find subjects that spark emotion in you first.’
“At the same time, if you want to move towards more commercial photography and footage, I recommend keeping a calendar of upcoming events. For example, the Olympic Games will happen in Paris in 2024, so get ready to shoot in Paris and France over the next couple of years.’
“For me, inspiration first came from the master of aerial photography, Edward Burtynsky. From there, I conducted in-depth research on my own — using social media, the internet, books, and more. Today, I rely on Google Earth for scouting and research. But, if I’m honest, I’d say at least thirty percent of my shots are unexpected. From the ground, you can’t really imagine what you’ll find up there.”
Aerial Photographs: Shooting from a Helicopter with Miks Mihails Ignats
Shooting the same location at various times of the year exemplifies the beauty of different seasons. Image by Miks Mihails Ignats. Gear: Nikon D3 camera, AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm/f2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; Exposure 1/3200 sec; f3.2; ISO 200.
“I’m not currently using drones, so my aerial photos were taken from a slow, ultralight two-seat aircraft. So far, I’ve embarked on a total of around 170 flights. In this particular shot, my attention was caught by these lonely trees, separated by these country roads and fields. I created it in Latvia.’
“I find that the majority of viewers will see and feel something different when they look at this image, based on their personal story and perception. I always work by following my instincts and perception, then my heart, and finally, my brain — never in the opposite direction. It’s not possible to explain my inspiration. It’s something that burns inside of me in an instant, and that’s when I know I have a shot.”
Keep in mind that light is your sculptor, providing you with amazing compositions. Image by Miks Mihails Ignats.
Pro Tip: “When shooting from an aircraft, I recommend using an opened or removed window or door, and of course, using safety belts when seated. Be careful not to drop anything while you’re in the air, and double-check to make sure your headset is working perfectly for your comms with the pilot.’
“I also highly recommend the Kenyon Gyro Handheld Camera Stabilizer, even though it’s expensive. You can also use an adopted and modified neck monopod with Really Right Stuff (RRS) support systems. I also like to have a GPS device attached to the camera so I have precise grids for every shot. In terms of shutter speed, my rule is to use at least 1/2,000 second or shorter. Believe me, I’ve tried and tested a wide-range of fast shutter speeds, and this rule works in fighting vibration.’
“In terms of composition, be concise and creative in choosing what details to include in your frame. This is something that takes long-term practice, but it’s good to keep in mind that light is your main sculptor. For that reason, golden hour shoots work well.”
Aerial Photographs: Finding Hidden Spots with Milos Jaksic
In capturing a great photo, the time of day is crucial. Image by Milos Jaksic. Gear: DJI Mavic Pro 1. Settings: Focal length 4.7mm-26mm equivalent; Exposure 1/60 sec; f2.2; ISO 100.
“This is one of my favorite aerial photos. It involved almost no planning, but I had to wait for the right moment to take it. I’d just finished shooting a corporate film for one of my clients, earlier that day. And, as evening came, I headed back to my bungalow. It was very quiet, and I heard water burbling in the distance.’
“My curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to take my drone into the woods. It took some time to find this stream. When I did, I took some photos, but in the end, I felt something was missing. I decided to come back at dawn.’
“By morning, beautiful ice shapes had formed on the branches, and the light was perfectly complementing the forest foliage. I spent about twenty minutes changing the angle, elevation, and position to find the best possible composition. The end result is the photo I am very proud of.”
Pro Tip: “The more regulated your subject is, the fewer photos there will be, and rare subjects make for interesting photos. My first tip is to look for areas and subjects that haven’t been covered extensively, and then do some research and learn how you can gain access to them.’
“Of course, light also plays a major role in aerial photography. Choosing the right time of day — and weather — is crucial for a good photograph. Harsh, direct sunlight is mostly considered “bad,” but I find that sometimes it can result in good images. This is especially true in the morning, when the light falls onto the Earth’s surface from a steep angle, forming beautiful shadows and contrasty scenes.’
“Last, but not least, stay safe! You have to research what rules affect your chosen area, and they will vary, depending on whether it’s public land or private property. In some cases, you’ll need to apply for permits to fly and photograph. Follow the rules, keep your equipment in good condition, and fly safely.”
Aerial Photographs: Scouting New Locations with Pakawat Thongcharoen
Scout the location with your drone to find the perfect shot. Image by Pakawat Thongcharoen. Gear: DJI Mavic Pro. Settings: Focal length 4.7mm (27mm full-frame equivalent); Exposure 1/1600 sec; f2.2; ISO 100.
“This photo was taken at Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in Northern Maranhão, Brazil, during my four-month backpacking trip in South America, in 2017. I accidentally discovered this place while talking to a Korean traveler, whom we met in Patagonia. She told me about a magical place where thousands of lagoons lie among the rolling sand dunes.’
“I was instantly hooked, so I did more research on the place. It took some time to get there, since the location is quite far from other major cities in Brazil. Unsurprisingly, I did not find any other international tourists during the time I was there. The scenery there was out of this world. I had never seen anything like it before.’
“Experiencing the national park at eye-level is stunning. But, in a place like this, you can only appreciate its true beauty from the sky. To this day, Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited.”
Pro Tip: “My first tip is about knowing the limitations of the camera you’re using. Generally, the camera of a drone has a much smaller sensor size than that of a DSLR or mirrorless camera. As a result, it cannot capture as much dynamic range, so you will have to be extra careful how you expose the photo. Most of the time, you have to use the exposure bracketing technique and combine those pictures later in post, to make sure that you get the best image quality.’
“I also suggest scouting the location with your drone. The challenge with aerial photography is that it is quite difficult to visualize the photo before you take off. Once you get your drone in the air, spend some time flying to find the right composition. Sometimes, that means panning the camera, raising or lowering the elevation, pointing the camera directly at the ground, or flying around the subject. This process of scouting can take some time, so don’t forget to bring lots of batteries!”
Aerial Photographs: Taking a Drone Travelling with In Green
When taking trips with your drone, make sure to fly safely, avoiding close contact with people. Image by In Green (Eugene Skrypko). Gear: DJI Phantom 3 Silver. Settings: Exposure 1/230 sec; f2.8; ISO 100.
“The fishermen in this part of Zanzibar come ashore in the mornings, after they’ve been out fishing, and they leave their boats in shallow water. I took this picture of one such boat using my first quadcopter, the DJI Phantom 3.”
Pro Tip: “Traveling with a drone is a good way to take interesting aerial photographs, but I recommend starting close to home. Your options might be more limited, but it’s good for practicing and learning. As your flight skills progress, then you can embark on trips with your drone. And, of course, fly safely! Use your drone only in permitted locations, well above any people, animals, or vehicles.”
What’s the Story Behind this Photo?
Stray from the path by arranging your elements in uncommon, extraordinary ways. Image by YUSHENG HSU. Gear: DJI Phantom 4 Pro. Settings: Focal length 24mm; Exposure 1/30 sec; f4.0; ISO 100.
“This is a very famous scenic spot called Shifen Waterfall, and it is visited by tens of thousands of people every day. Like other Taiwanese photographers, I have shot here often — in different seasons and at different times.’
“When I got my first drone, I wanted to reinterpret this classic location, from a different perspective, that the world hadn’t seen before. I’d already seen a lot of aerial images taken by photographers here, but because of the large number of tourists, they tended to look crowded.’
“I hoped to create something more simple and serene. I used the top view perspective, only keeping the waterfall and a simple background in the frame. I also used high-speed continuous shooting and stacked the pictures into a clear image, with the long-exposure effect. In the end, it became one of my best-selling photos.”
Pro Tip: “Move past stereotypes and clichés by arranging your elements in a unique way, using color and contrast, and shooting with different methods, during different seasons.’
“I participate in many Facebook groups related to aerial photography, and I find them helpful in finding and researching interesting topics. Don’t imitate others, but incorporate our own style into topics that interest you. I also use Google Earth and Planit Pro to find and plan my photography projects.”
Aerial Photographs: Practicing Patience with Aiyoshi597
When shooting beach or ocean images, it’s important to take your time and be patient. Image by Aiyoshi597 (Daryl Ariawan). Gear: DJI Mavic Pro. Settings: Focal length 28mm; Exposure 1/125 sec; f2.2; ISO 100.
“Rock pools are an iconic part of Sydney’s beaches, and Mona Vale rock pool is definitely a unique one. It is situated a bit farther out from the land, surrounded by rock, with natural waves all around it. Its beauty has caught the eyes of many photographers, including me!”
Pro Tip: “My biggest tip is to be patient, especially if you’re shooting on a beach. Take your time and don’t be afraid to hover in one zone for a while. Waves are always moving, and you might need to stay in one place to capture the perfect moment. Also, check the tide and swell before you go. These can make a big difference.’
“I research my locations using Google Maps. The satellite images have helped tremendously to find interesting places close to home. The next place to check is the aviation authority website. Here in Australia, airspace is controlled by CASA, so I check the CASA website or app. Make sure to only fly your drone in non-restricted areas! Also, check to make sure the wind is suitable for flying — there’s nothing worse than losing your drone.”
Aerial Photographs: Finding a Pilot with Aerovista Luchtfotografie
When taking photos from an aircraft, have the pilot fly from several different angles to find which is best. Image by Aerovista Luchtfotografie (Sybolt Luijben). Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, Canon EF 70-200 mm f/2.8 IS II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 200mm; Exposure 1/2000 sec; f4.0; ISO 200.
“I took this photo on May 1st, 2016. We were on a long, five-hour photo trip, shooting twenty-five kilometers of highway for the Dutch Government. While we were working, we came across these beautiful tulip fields in the Hoorn area, about twenty miles north of Amsterdam. My attention was attracted by all the different colors, so I directed my pilot to the fields. After a few turns, the photos came out really nice.”
Pro Tip: “If you’re shooting from an aircraft, find a pilot you know and trust. When I started in aerial photography, back in 1997, I thought that any pilot could do this job. But after some failed photo trips, I realized that you really need a pilot who listens to you and can handle the plane as you want it, whether that’s a steep turn, a flat turn, or sometimes even a perpendicular turn.’
“Also, I usually fly several orbits around the subject I’m shooting, looking through my lens to see what it looks like from different angles.”
Aerial Photographs: Looking for Patterns with Akhmad Dody Firmansyah
In planning your shoot, research the location, as well as the season you plan to shoot in. Image by Akhmad Dody Firmansyah. Gear: DJI Phantom 4 Pro. Settings: Focal length 8.8mm (equivalent 24mm at full-frame); Exposure 1/50 sec; f2.8; ISO 200.
“This is a rice field terrace that I photographed with a drone. Before taking this picture, I browsed through Google Earth for visually appealing patterns. Also through Google Earth, I analyzed the direction of the sunlight, including the right time to do a photo shoot.’
“Because the course of sunlight changes over time, I chose to shoot in the morning, when the sunlight and the direction of the rays would add some dimension to the scene. I was drawn to curved rice fields because they’re visually unique.”
Pro Tip: “In my opinion, a great picture must have visual strength. By that, I mean the picture must catch the viewers’ attention for at least three seconds while they are casually browsing. It needs to have that kind of stopping power. That power can be found in the colors, shapes, patterns, or anything else you find that can attract the eye.’
“Before doing an aerial shoot, I usually do some research about the subject. This information often comes through asking about the experiences of others who have taken pictures at the same place, reading bloggers’ reviews, or browsing Google Earth. From this research, I plan the shoot, determining what angle I might shoot from, and other technical aspects.”
Cover image by Pakawat Thongcharoen.
Learn more about drones and aerial photography here:
Drones vs. Helicopters: Which Is Better for Professional Aerial Footage?7 Ways to Enhance Drone Shots in Post-ProductionVideo Tutorial: Why You Need Lens Filters for Your DroneVideo Tutorial: Increase Your Credibility as a Drone PilotDrone Photography with Offset Photographer Alison Etcheverry
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