Flying is not only fun, it offers an unusual, bird’s eye vantage point for landscape photography. Whether you’re a beginner or a professional photographer, carry a smartphone or a DSLR, you too can take beautiful in-flight photos.
This article shares tips from acclaimed northwest photographer and pilot John Scurlock. Read answers to frequently asked questions about aerial photography in the North Cascades, illustrated with photos by John Scurlock and Snowking Aviation. See more of John’s work at Jagged Ridge Imaging, follow him on Instagram, and check out his photography book, “Snow and Spire: Flights to Winter in the North Cascade Range.” (Above photo by John Scurlock.)
Perfect weather may include clouds.
Weather can add intrigue, energy, and a fleeting sense of time to a photograph. Light interacts with clouds and rain, creating dynamic textures, shapes, and momentary bursts of color.
While it can be tempting to wait for a clear, blue-sky day to fly, also consider a day with clouds in the forecast. Fortunately, in the Pacific Northwest, days with dramatic weather are common.
In spring and summer, the mountains bloom.
Once the snow starts melting, the high country rapidly changes. Alpine plants green up in July, and ice melts away from mountain lakes. The glaciers remain snow-covered and white, the waterfalls are fat, and the greens and blues of summer dominate. In August, glaciers are mostly snow-free, and their textures are highly visible.
Fall colors peak in October.
Fall changes the mountains in dramatic ways. Alpine grasses and shrubs turn shades of tan, yellow, orange, and red. Western Larch needles turn a brilliant yellow-gold. Fresh snowfall at high elevations enhances the texture and beauty of steep rocky peaks. Conditions begin changing in September, but overall, fall colors in the North Cascades peak during the month of October. Waterfalls and alpines lakes remain ice-free, and the combination of colors makes fall a beautiful time for photography.
Fly during the best winter snow conditions.
The best time to capture rime-plastered, alpine walls or magical, snow-covered forests is right after a storm. Let us know you are interested in catching prime snow conditions, and we’ll watch the weather. The first flyable day after a big snow event with cold temperatures and minimum wind will provide the best opportunities. February and March can offer spectacular, soft, winter light.
Think about the time of day and sun location.
This is mountain flying at its best. Many peaks in the North Cascades rise vertically over 9,000 feet. But those steep mountains also create deep shadows. If you have a specific subject in mind, consider the season, time of day, angle of the sun, and slope aspect. We’re happy to provide recommendations if you would like to plan around mountain shadows.
During summer, the best (softer) light for photography generally occurs during mornings and evenings. Optimal times vary widely within a given year due to changing daylight. Summertime flights at around 8:30 am and 7:00 pm are good; and in winter, midday flights are usually best to avoid deep shadows. We can advise you on the best time of day to fly.
How to Shoot through an Open Window
Our single-passenger, backcountry photo flights in the Piper Super Cub provide a rare opportunity to shoot through an open window. Passengers have the freedom to open and close the window as they please.
- Before opening the window, move the headset microphone up and out of the wind.
- It can be a little chilly in winter. Dress warmly and plan to wear thin gloves.
- To avoid blur, especially with an iPhone, keep the lens out of the direct slipstream and avoid contacting the airframe.
- Hang on tight! Wearing a camera strap around your neck for security is a good idea.
How to Shoot through Plexiglass
Words of wisdom from John Scurlock:
“… I’ve shot about half-million photographs through Plexiglass, and curved ‘plexi’ at that, with very good results. Reflections and glare–these are enduring problems when shooting through Plexiglass, and there are steps you can take to minimize the problem.
Wear dark clothing, black if possible, with no pattern. If you wear bright or patterned clothes, eventually you’ll see the reflection of those garments in your photographs. If possible, wear very thin black gloves; otherwise, you’ll see the reflection of your hands from time to time.
When shooting, do your best to keep the camera pointed straight at the window.”
Our multiple-passenger flights in the Cessna 180 offer exceptional flightseeing and photography opportunities. During these flights, keep in mind John’s tips for shooting through Plexiglass.
It’s best not to rest the camera or any part of your hand or arm on the airplane when taking photos. The airplane vibrates, and this can cause camera shake.
Smartphones. Many passengers use a smartphone camera on a photo flight and achieve remarkable results. Smartphones are convenient, familiar, and there is the instant satisfaction of sharing photos in-the-moment on social media.
DSLR and Lenses. Thoughts from John Scurlock:
“Through trial and error, I settled on the Canon 24-105mm zoom lens. It has served me well over the years, and it’s the only lens I use, period. It’s good quality and has ideal zoom capability, going from moderate wide-angle to moderate telephoto. It allows me to zoom in on detail if necessary, or go a little wide to capture the big picture—all without flying the plane closer to or farther from the objective. If you aren’t shooting with a Canon DSLR, then I’d recommend choosing a lens of similar zoom capability in whatever brand of camera you’re using.
And no, you can’t use a big telephoto lens in the airplane. It’s unwieldy, it will bang against the Plexiglass, and you won’t get good images, so just leave it home. On a similar note, don’t bother with a wide-angle lens such as a 16-35mm. I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t work. You won’t be able to get the wing or landing gear out of the image [unless that’s your objective]. The best option is to use one lens that will give you the best results. It’s inconvenient to change lenses while flying. It’s best to keep it simple.”
DSLR Camera Settings
More tips from John Scurlock:
“I’ve always recommended a shutter speed setting of at least 1/1000th of a second. That will largely eliminate the effects of motion and vibration on your images. I typically use an ISO setting of 400 or greater if possible, and I find that aperture-priority mode is best, with an f setting of 8 or 9 giving optimal results. If you can shoot at a lower ISO and achieve this, fine. But in anything other than the brightest conditions, you’ll get better results with a higher ISO setting. Modern cameras are quite good at lowering image noise at higher ISOs, so don’t be afraid to shoot at those higher settings.”
If, alternatively, you go with shutter-priority mode at 1/1000th of a second, for example, it’s important to watch the aperture that is automatically selected. This aperture setting will determine the depth of field. John’s recommendation of f/8 or f/9 is ideal—a range of f/5 to f/11 can be acceptable. If the camera is selecting an aperture out of this range, for example, f/4, then it’s a good idea to bump up the ISO as John suggests. This will add a few aperture stops and in turn, increase the depth of field.
Stock up on memory cards and charged batteries
It’s best to be prepared with plenty of storage on one card and a fully charged battery. It’s okay if you need to swap them out during the flight, but there is so much to see, you won’t want to miss a moment managing gear.
Take lots of photos
During a one-hour flight, passengers often shoot hundreds of photos. But know in advance that because of the constant movement of the airplane, a portion may turn out blurry. Think of it like sports photography where you are an active participant. Continuous shooting mode can be helpful.
Talk to your pilot
If you’d like to see your subject at a different altitude, angle, or just want another pass, don’t hesitate to ask. We are happy to accommodate you!
For More Inspiration
Follow us on Instagram. See customer photos at #snowkingaviation. And check out our ever-growing photo gallery.
Questions? Do you have a photo tip to add? Please contact us. We’d like to hear from you.