Photography is about capturing feeling.
Personally, I feel a strong connection with nature and its artistic appeal. I discovered this early in my youth as I explored and found beauty in each place I visited. I made it my mission to capture landscapes as they were, as close to how they appeared in front of me.
Although my photography career started with simple film shots of my backyard, my work soon developed to intricate, abstract landscape images taken in various countries across the globe. I see photography as a means to challenge the viewer’s perspective and understanding of a subject and to inspire them to feel passionate and connected to the image itself.
This same change in perspective is integral for anyone who wishes to capture their own abstract aerial images.
When capturing abstract aerials, the most crucial step is picking your location. It needs to be visually unique, and include unusual textures and colors. Twenty years ago, this would have been tedious work, but today, we have Google Earth. I spend hours scouring the site for wild landscapes and striking textural elements, and it has helped my workflow tremendously.
While it’s a great tool, it’s important to note that not all of the colors and textures you find in real life will appear the way they do on Google Earth. Factors like climate, season, and weather can drastically change the way that satellite images appear online versus what you see in your viewfinder.
To see this in action, take a look at Google Earth’s time-lapse feature. It shows you a variety of satellite images taken over many years and gives you a great visual of how landscapes change depending on the time of year — which, in turn, can help you determine which season you’d like to photograph.
With that in mind, use Google Earth strategically. If you’re planning a road trip, map your route online and check within 50 miles of that route in multiple directions to see if there are any interesting patterns or colors that would make for good photo ops. Or, if you’re looking to shoot around your hometown, explore the surrounding areas and try to find something unusual. Once you’ve picked a few locations, do a quick Google search for aerial photos in that region to see if anyone has already captured them. And, look at the angles those photographers used and brainstorm how you can make your shots unique.
Now that you’ve scouted your locations, it’s time to find your gear and plan the shoot.
Planning the Shoot
I use a DSLR camera and shoot from helicopters or light aircraft, but drones work incredibly well for this type of photography too. That said, there are plenty of advantages and disadvantages to both options.
Drones are a great way to explore abstract aerial photography while providing a lot of flexibility. They’re quick and easy, and they can be brought practically anywhere on Earth. Choosing which type of drone to use is a big factor in the end result of your photos. Drones are notorious for capturing high amounts of noise because of their small sensors, and this noise is magnified when images are printed at large scales. If you do plan on printing your images, it’s important to obtain the highest resolution possible with your shots. Furthermore, drones can only stay in the air for roughly 20 to 30 minutes (depending on the drone) and can only travel within a mile radius of your physical location.
Shooting out of light aircraft and helicopters, however, gives you even more flexibility than drones. Having an exponentially longer flight time enables you to hit multiple spots on the same trip and capture as many images as possible. This option also allows you to use a DSLR and bring multiple lenses, giving you a range of various focal lengths.
While there are plenty of benefits to shooting this way, the major downside of photographing from a helicopter or plane is the cost. A single charter flight for a helicopter or plane can cost as much as a single drone itself! Another thing to note is that you should always find a charter service with a high safety rating and one that will let you fly with the door off or open (this is hugely important, as shooting through an aircraft’s window almost never works!).
Choosing the time of day to shoot is also extremely important. Knowing how the location changes and responds to light or cloud coverage can make or break a trip. I check the weather hourly leading up to my departure, and make sure I have my bearings on the site from my Google Earth research. The last tool I use is called the Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D. This app not only outlines the path of the sun and moon, it can 3D-map your location and show you the shadows at specific times of day. This tool shows me exactly where I need to be and when to capture the perfect shot.
Next, be sure to do your research and comply with all of the local and federal laws regarding aerial photography.
Rules of the Sky
If you’re flying a drone, check for no-fly zones and nearby airports. Find flight paths of aircraft (training or commercial), and avoid them at all costs. As always, be respectful of the people and animals in the area you’re photographing, and note that it’s illegal to fly drones in national parks and harass wildlife. If you plan to sell your drone photographs, you’ll also need to obtain a Part 107 license for commercial drone pilots. While it might seem easy to simply avoid the details and plan on getting in and out quickly, many counties, states, and countries have strict punishments for violating these laws.
That said, if you’re flying in a helicopter, check the laws of the state you’re in because some (such as Hawaii) require that you have a permit to shoot public lands. Most charter services will have already obtained these permits, but it’s important to double-check because the fines and consequences are severe.
Before you start shooting, let’s talk specifics.
Prior to launching your drone or stepping in an aircraft, be sure to format your camera settings correctly. The three most important takeaways when shooting are to always shoot RAW, take multiple exposures so that you can combine them into an HDR image, and always use a flat image profile. Although the size of RAW files can be tough to handle, they’re well worth it because they allow you to adjust exposure and white balance, as well as other more advanced settings while editing. Additionally, shooting multiple photos at different exposures produces an image with a higher dynamic range, giving your photo the best chance to capture both shadows and highlights while not diminishing either. Furthermore, it’s important to take your photos using a flat image profile — this means shooting with as little in-camera saturation as possible, as it will give you the greatest flexibility for color editing in post to produce the shot you were looking for.
Shooting on Location
Now that your camera is ready to go, it’s finally time to shoot! Whether you’re flying a drone or riding in a helicopter, it’s important to capture and highlight what stands out to you. Trusting your abilities during this step is crucial.
Once I’m up in the air, I shoot as many photos as I can — of anything that catches my eye. But, I still take the time to frame each shot well, keeping the rule of thirds and other compositional techniques in mind.
If you’re going for an abstract look, shoot the frame looking straight down at the landscape, find textures and colors, and isolate those elements in the image by cropping out objects that are easily recognizable. By isolating them, you’re giving the viewer very little insight as to what the photograph is of. Sometimes, I even throw in a small reference point (such as a person or another object) that can’t be easily seen at first — this produces a “Where’s Waldo” effect. Once the viewer discovers this reference point, the whole image comes into context.
Once you have your shots, it’s time to fix them up in post. For me, the first step in this process is always exposure. Use a histogram to adjust the highlights and shadows to the edge of their clipped limits, as this will provide you with the best possible dynamic range. Then, adjust the mid-tones to achieve your desired contrast.
Next, work on the tone and color of the image. By shooting with a flat image profile, you now have the flexibility to make the image appear as you wish. I prefer to keep the colors as clear as possible in order to showcase the natural beauty of the landscapes. Lightly adjust the saturation and vibrancy of the photo until your desired look appears. Lastly, you can adjust the sharpness and clarity for a few final touches.
Repeat this process on each of your photos, then, once you’re ready to export, don’t! I always take a second or even third pass at my photos before I export them. Taking the time to step back from the images gives you a chance to reset your eyes so that when you take a second or third look, you’ll notice things you’d missed before. Once you’re happy with your images, export and enjoy!
The most important thing to remember is to take abstract aerial shots that you’re happy with, and challenge yourself to find meaning in every photo.
Malcolm Daniel once told me that photography should be much more than simply capturing a beautiful landscape; rather, it should be approached with an impetus to tell a story. I take photos to find a fresh sense of wonder in the world, to rekindle my adoration for landscapes, and to restore a healthy relationship between man and nature. Whether you’re shooting abstract aerials or Polaroids, find your passion and never look back.