Aerial Wisdom
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, May 1996

Experienced outdoor photographers rarely shoot good aerials on their first attempts. I'm a case in point. My murky 1970 Yosemite aerials will never be published because I assumed that my cherished techniques for terra firma would easily translate to a moving world seen from above.

I recently watched a dedicated photographer with more lenses than fingers turn a memorable Himalayan flight into muddy Kodachromes in which Nepal might as well have been New Jersey. His wife, who lacked his baggage of technical assumptions, used her point-and-shoot with grainy, but forgiving ISO 400 print film to take excellent record shots of their once-in-a-lifetime flight.

My wife had success with aerial photography for different reasons. As a pilot for over a decade, Barbara had been doing Lighthawk volunteer flights to give influential people the powerful experience of directly seeing environmental problems. She shared the group's conviction that most photographs fail to convey the aerial environmental message.

Barbara didn't shoot from airplanes herself until asked if she could photograph threatened rain forests on a mission to Costa Rica with other pilots. Since her land-based images had appeared in National Geographic articles, I didn't volunteer unsolicited advice. As she was packing, she said, "If I do shoot aerials myself, tell me what to do, but make it simple. I don't need the reasons."

She scrawled: "Velvia pushed 1 stop/fast fixed lenses/no autofocus or zooms/shoot wide open/wide angles sharper/polarizer." Weeks later, she proudly showed me 20 rolls of crystal-sharp, well-exposed aerials.

Even though I've just listed all you need to know, Barbara's experience is the exception. I've given the same advice to other photographers who generally ignore one or more items out of habit. They just love that 28-200mm AF zoom that precludes having to change lenses. They don't consider that it's three stops slower than my 35mm f1.4, far lower in contrast and resolution, and incapable of autofocus on moving aerial edges. Thus, experienced photographers seem to require the most deep background information.

I'm dictating these words while driving south from Moab, Utah, where I picked up some Chicken McNuggets and fries. The crunching sounds mixed with my words are only distracting to my secretary. Once they're transcribed onto paper, they're as clear as the winter landscape out my window. But that's not how photography works.

The snow-covered red sandstone flashing past me is a photographer's paradise. I can easily use words to describe how the peaks of the La Sal Mountains hover over an ever-changing panorama of blushed slickrock etched in white. But to execute the critically sharp photograph of my choice, I have to stop when I see a special situation that turns me on, line up the foreground to lead my viewer's eye, and use a high aperture with a slow shutter speed to get full depth with my camera on a tripod. If I tried to hold up my camera and click away from my moving car, my best results would be blurry and imprecise.

Given only this bleak comparison, it would take a miracle to shoot a publishable aerial. The saving grace is that every form of photographic failure has a flip side where the same effect can be creatively used in a different situation with a positive result . For example, the loss of shadow detail that makes one aerial photograph appear murky makes for a sharply defined outline with the proper light and subject matter. Dramatic shadows are maximized by shooting at an angle to the sun, and this also happens to be where a polarizer selectively removes scattered blue light from the thick atmosphere to greatly increase color saturation and contrast. Remember that polarizers used in line with the sun or in indirect light have no effect on color or contrast.

Dramatic aerials require either strong shadows or sharply defined differences in reflectance, such as those found at the boundaries of biological edges, such as coastlines, meadows, forests, or snow cover. Search these out, rather than foreground objects of the sort that create the most visual power in normal scenics.

The flip side of not having close foregrounds is no focusing. Everything stays at infinity. Yet improper equipment choices make focusing problematic. An autofocus lens high in the sky is about as useful as a cellular telephone at the bottom of Carlsbad Caverns. AF systems were designed to lock onto the sharp edges of ground-level features. Aerial haze and reflections make them whir like a washing machine as they search the murk.

Because AF lenses set manually vibrate out of focus while shooting from a moving plane, I choose older manual lenses that stay locked on infinity. My Nikon 35mm f1.4 and 85mm f1.4 give me the highest possible shutter speeds to use with slow, sharp slide films. I try to shoot at over 1/1000 and consider 1/250 my slowest safe speed with my 35mm lens (1/500 for my 85mm). Using a custom gyro lowers minimum shutter speeds by 2-3 stops, but at a four-figure cost combined with a high gumption factor.

I've found the major cause of soft, unsharp aerials to be poor technique that connects the aircraft's inherent vibrations to the camera. For example, let's say you want to shoot a dark mountain lake in beautiful last light on ISO 100 film. You ask the pilot to slow down, get his permission to open the window, and brace your forearms on the sill as you aim your camera down to compose the perfect picture. When you get your slides back, they look great held up to the light, but blurry upon projection.

In another situation, you shoot eye-level mountain terrain at the same shutter speed. This time your arms didn't touch the aircraft as you shot and your images are perfectly sharp. You can judge a similar effect while driving down the freeway by putting your wrist against the top of the steering wheel and watching the tips of your fingers. The obvious vibration lessens as you move the point of contact away from your hand. It virtually disappears when you lift your arm up. I've had shots at 1/1000th go soft when I've braced my camera hand.

While averaging meters often over or under expose contrasty aerials, multi-segment metering systems will do the trick about 95 per cent of the time in aperture-priority mode. Program modes that won't select maximum apertures in bright light are to be avoided.

The ideal film for aerials needs to be fine-grained, yet very high in contrast and color saturation. Our visual system allows us to see subtle differences in color from the air that aren't recorded on films that impart accurate colors of close subjects in ideal lighting. Aerials look just right on a film that is harsh and garish in studio conditions. I use Fuji Velvia push-processed one stop to ISO 100 to gain contrast and extra warmth to cut the blue haze. When I need a faster aerial film, I push Kodak Lumiere one stop to ISO 200.

I've helped the Singh-Ray Corporation (800-486-5501) develop a mild color-enhancer that will impart clean whites and natural-appearing saturation to many hazy aerials or telephotos. By the nature of its design it shifts overly red on a narrow spectrum of warm tones that often don't make it to the sky. I avoid using it entirely for ground scenics, where it violates my ethic of not contriving unnatural colors beyond what I see or my film records. A well-placed graduated ND filter, on the other hand, helps equalize color rendition, exposure values, and metering accuracy without over-enhancement.

Even with my extensive experience, aerials remain iffy enough that I follow the action photographer's motto: If it looks good, shoot it; if it looks better, shoot it again. I have yet to discover how not to use about ten times as much film as on the ground to get publishable results.

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