3 Things Every Pilot Needs to Know About… Flying & Taking Pictures

One of the most common questions I get when it comes up in a conversation that I fly is, “What is your favorite thing about flying?” The answer is quite simple, flying is incredibly fun and the view is fantastic. Unfortunately, pictures don’t really do the incredible views justice later in time, flying is about being in the moment and soaking it all in while you’re up there.

photo 1b9 reflection

My favorite part of this picture of the Mansfield Municipal Airport (1B9) is the reflection of the airport on the underside of the Skyhawk’s wing!

But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to get some good pictures, you never know something incredible might happen. I was lucky enough to capture some incredible shots form my iPhone over the years! Sometimes greatness just happens, other times you can try and try and the pictures don’t’ come out that great. Every Christmas Eve, weather permitting I try to fly over my parents house in Massachusetts. Over the years I have developed a cache of hundreds of blurry pictures of the house… That said, I’d gotten a few good ones too!

Way back in the early days of this blog, while it was still MTElia’s Flying Blog, I wrote a post about improving your aerial pictures for amature photographers and this post is a slight update and a little bit of an expansion on the topic area.

When it comes time to take pictures of things on the ground while you’re flying you need to remember those turns around a point that your CFI taught you about… At the time it might have seemed like a maneuver with the goal of focusing on a water tower or some other point and making a perfect circle. But, why is that really important?

Turns around a point teach student pilots how the wind affects flying at low altitudes (or any altitude), how to manage multiple points at once (altitude, position, etc…), etc… Turns around a point are a great way to make space in the traffic pattern! From a left downwind a right 360-degree turn via a turn around a point ensures you will complete the turn exactly where you want to and not end up too close or too far away on your reestablished downwind.

Another correlation is that a turn around a point is something a pilot will likely do when they are trying to get pictures of something on the ground… This is one of those things that I will hammer home with students because I know it is something they are actually going to do when they get their pilot’s license.

When flying in circles, taking pictures of things on the ground, beyond being at a SAFE altitude there are three things every pilot should keep in mind…

  1. Where is the wind…

While flying circles around a point for pictures is more about getting good pictures than making a perfect circle for an instructor or examiner, the wind plays a pivotal role. Just like with a turn around a point, a circle for a picture will be affected by the wind, requiring constant bank angle adjustment to avoid ending up “right on top” of the point or too far away from the point.

Understanding how the wind will affect you is what will allow you to place the airplane in the perfect sport the picture you’re looking for.

  1. How is the light/sky cover?

As a general rule of thumb, which I’ve discussed previously in a post about taking pictures of airplane at airports, the more light you have to work with, the better the picture is going to be, for the most part. There are exceptions to the rule, like anything else in life…

When it comes to clouds, you may want to nix a photo flight it there is a thick high overcast layer, the opposite is sometimes true for a high cirrus layer which can at times scatter light and create a really neat effect on your pictures.

Another thing to pay attention to is large scattered cumulus clouds. Often times on a sunny day these clouds can “drift in the wind” and as they pass over your intended picture target, you might get a great angle and shot, but with low lighting on the one thing you are actually taking a picture of, it won’t come out as good as you’d hope. Sometimes it better to let the cloud(s) pass and use the time while the clouds are moving through to get set up and into a good ”orbit’ around your point.

  1. Who is flying the airplane?!

The pilot should be flying the airplane, not taking the pictures. GO ahead and disagree if you want, but there is a 0% chance that a pilot will fly an airplane better if they are also taking pictures at the same time… It’s not debatable.

Anyways, it’s vital to have a plan for this, make sure that your photographer knows what to expect before you get to the photo shoot location. You will take some things for granted that your passenger holding the camera will not. For example, depending on the intensity of the wind, the wing of your aircraft may come into play, potentially even blocking the photo subject. This is true for low wings and high wings the same.

You should explain how you will set up and approach the target and what terms the photographer should use to direct you, “go that way” and “move the wing” aren’t as effective as “turn left” or move the wing forward or backwards. All of these things can be done with proper piloting and use of the rudder as an aide, just remember to maintain control, getting a good picture is always second to safe operation of the aircraft.

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9

PS… Sometimes the best pictures aren’t even of something on the ground, the sun & the clouds can make for some EPIC pictures!

nov 2

Still one of my favorites…


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