Aerial photographs can not just convey a lot of information with one picture, but also tend to lift the spirits. There is something very special about the birds-eye view, which inspires photographers and viewers alike. Chandler Borries is a US travel, outdoor, and aerial photographer based in Lisbon. He started shooting aerial photography while traveling in Australia and says,
Since I was young, I wanted to learn how to fly. The perspective from above always intrigued me. I love telling a story with a drone as it gives you a different perspective and world view.
Once aerial shots were the prerogative of lavish high-budget productions because they usually required hiring a helicopter or small airplane. But since it became legal in the US in 2014 to use drones for photography, their use has skyrocketed everywhere, from Hollywood movies to reportage and commercial photography and videos. A report compiled by Allied Market Research shows that parallel to this, there is also a constantly increasing number of industrial applications. It has been estimated that the global aerial imaging market was worth $2.26bn in 2020 and is expected to rise to 8.52bn by 2030, with the most significant growth in the US.
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Anything photographed from a high vantage point can be classed as aerial photography. This can be a building or mountain, but more often is photographed from a drone or piloted aircraft. While most aerial shots use drones, projects requiring higher altitudes and larger scales still use helicopters and small planes. For example, if the production aims to capture the panorama of a whole cityscape, an aircraft would be better suited for the job. Helicopters can also fly longer distances than drones or may be necessary to get to a remote location in the first place. After working with Tim Orr from Gotham Films on the Summit One Vanderbilt shoot, we chatted with him about using a helicopter for commercial aerial photography:
There are a few reasons for using a helicopter as opposed to a drone:
Permitting – a drone may not be legally able to fly in some airspace. Particularly over densely populated areas locations with altitude restrictions.
Cost – drones are much cheaper to operate than a helicopter, but a helicopter can stay airborne for much longer.
Camera Requirements – depending on the job, some shoots may require a camera that is too big for a drone to handle.
Composition – some shoots are looking for dynamic, cinematic shots that require speed and rapid elevation moves. Drone shots tend to be slower moving and wide.
Aerial photography is different not just when it comes to shooting it, but also in terms of the imagery produced. Julia Lehman is a Philadelphia home & garden photographer who offers commercial aerial photography services. She has invested in her training, but going online, rather than in person. She says,
For me, the most intriguing thing about aerial photography is that the perspectives are so different than what we are accustomed to seeing on the ground – it sometimes looks like a game board. My personal favorite is to photograph people in spaces from above because it shows how they relate to their environments.
When looking for a shot with a little more oomph, you may want to use a helicopter instead of a drone. This is what Tim has to say:
The Summit One Vanderbilt shoot was the perfect example of when you should use a helicopter for the aerial shots. The client wanted lots of dynamic, close, wide shots with various lighting conditions. Also, the location is in the heart of midtown at altitudes that other aircraft could be operating.
The benefits of aerial photography are innumerable. It is now used in almost every field and, every year, new uses and applications emerge.
Aerial photography can set the scene by giving an overview, but it is also a compelling storytelling device. For example, in the classic movie Thelma and Louise, an aerial camera shows the protagonists driving seemingly alone over a dusty field after their rampage. It looks like they got away. After a few moments, a police car enters the field of view, followed by a dozen more – rapidly changing the narrative. TV, commercials, and YouTube videos also use these story-telling techniques.
Aerial photography is heavily used by tourism companies, as there’s nothing better to show surroundings and entice people to visit.
Aerial photography can convey a lot of information in one image or take, making it a supreme journalism tool. It can also uncover journalistic stories. For example, showing deforestation, the use of resources, and environmental destruction, which is why it’s widely used in investigative journalism to hold governments and corporations to account. Publications sometimes commission professional aerial photographers to shoot specific aerial footage for a specialist subject. More often, though, aerial images form part of a bigger reportage and often set the scene.
There are more and more photographers and companies who specialize in aerial photography to service a growing market. Like any other client, it’s about building relationships with potential employers and requesting referrals and recommendations. You may want to emphasize your specialism and expertise to differentiate yourself from photographers who offer aerial photography services as part of their more general work.
The Seattle aerial, travel, and lifestyle photographer Tegra Stone Nuess recommends,
Find clients you want to work with who need regular aerial imagery so you can hone your craft.
So even if you don’t work for the most prestigious clients immediately, this will give you valuable experience and credibility when approaching new clients with complex requirements.
Many photographers use drone photography to enhance their editorial or commercial photography. They often consider aerial footage as another storytelling device to get their message across. Chandler says,
Aerial photography helps to sell a story. When I pitch a brand for a concept I have, I almost always use an aerial image as the opener. Aerial images give the client a better idea of the bigger picture.
Alex Buisse is a French aerial and adventure photographer, who currently lives in Canmore, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. He agrees,
Anything that can differentiate me from the competition is great to have. The ability to add some drone footage to any shoot where flying is legal is a big plus when bidding for jobs.
Being an aerial photographer requires you to be physically able to do the job – whether that’s being fit enough to hang out of a helicopter or climb a mountain, or be tech-savvy enough to operate a drone. While very exciting, specializing in aerial drone photography requires considerable investment in terms of research, time, and money.
There are camera drones available as children’s toys, which are easy to maneuver but mastering them requires commitment. Alan Perlman is a drone pilot trainer at UAV Coach and says,
There’s no specific guidance from the FAA on how much training you need to become competent, but as one data point, when we hire instructors to conduct our hands-on drone training classes, we require that they have at least 25 flight hours logged.
Alex got into climbing and photography at the same time, and has been doing aerial photography since long before drones were a thing. He agrees that it’s a considerable undertaking. He says,
The biggest investment, both in terms of time and money, has actually been with courses and professional development. It has become easier to just pick up a drone and start flying, but nothing beats being taught by experienced pilots, especially when the flying becomes more extreme, in strong winds or at high altitudes.
Drone cameras are now available for as little as $30. However, hiring or buying a drone with a gimbal capable of carrying and maneuvering a professional camera is still expensive. Also, technology is still evolving quickly, so you can expect to have to upgrade hard and software more regularly than the rest of your equipment.
In the beginning, I was so excited to start flying and shooting. I was getting some nice images, but I would see other shooters getting even juicier shots which made me realize that I needed to invest in attachments like ND and/or polarizing filters to capture the best quality images.
Apart from being at least somewhat technically minded and able to put in the hours, practice and experience are essential. Not only for maneuvering the drone, but also to learn how to get good aerial photos. Alex says,
Especially when shooting from far above looking straight down, everything gets flattened, so it becomes a lot more difficult to create depth and one needs to focus on textures and shapes to build compositions instead.
Chandler also learned a lot from his experiences. He says,
Things like the AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) setting are tremendously helpful in getting better shots. This setting takes three of the same images but in different exposures and is essentially an HDR. Another top tip is that for composition, I try to look for leading lines such as rivers, roads, or mountain ridgelines. Many times, I’ve taken an aerial image and not been too interested in it until I started editing. Since most drones have a wide lens, it gives you greater freedom to crop in and adjust the composition if you’re not happy with the original shot.
While some photographers embrace the steep learning curve of becoming proficient in the technical know-how and learning how to maneuver a drone, others prefer to hire a drone pilot so that they can focus on the creative aspect and the drone camera. The easiest and quickest way to do a professional aerial shoot is to let a professional drone pilot take care of everything – from legal requirements to charging the drone batteries.
Offering aerial photography is an advantage for photographers. In highly competitive fields, supplying aerial images may just make them stand out from the crowd and secure them a job. It can mean higher earnings in less competitive areas, such as industrial photography. Julia says,
One of the challenges was how to price aerial productions. The images are unique; not everyone wants to invest in a drone and learn how to fly and take good photos with it. So I feel I have a bit of an edge and can charge a bit more for it than I do for most of my other photo work.
You will also need to factor in the cost of drones vs manned aircraft. Often, weighing up these costs for a particular shoot against what kind of images the project requires. Because of this, aerial photography prices can vary greatly.
Photography is a competitive field, and aerial photography will help you and your photos to stand out from the crowd. But it is also a lot more than that. It connects photographers with their passion and love of photography. Julia says,
I get excited every time I get to fly and see the world from above. I’ve been a pro-photographer for over 25 years. New techniques and ideas keep me excited and passionate about my work. I love the micro/macro effect and how we look like ants from above. Experiencing this perspective is humbling and fills me with gratitude to do something I love for a living.