I'm a bit of a photographer and I keep thinking it would be fun to try and do some shots aloft. Only trick is, I'm not sure what kind of plane I would want to use to get those pictures done. I'd have to rent the plane and the pilot and I'd like to keep the price down as best as possible... So a purpose built plane isn't such a big deal.

Other considerations

  • Good view of the ground, though it doesn't have to be straight down (I'm not doing surveying
  • Stable while banking so I can more easily track shots when the plane is at an angle.

  • Ability to be held stably at a bank without actually turning the craft, again to help me track my shots.

  • Low vibration, for the same reason as stated over the last two.
  • Big windows
  • Can fly low and slow for if I want to get close to things (within reason.)

Also, a high wing is probably preferred. Though, if it's exceptionally good at holding a bank, it may not matter.

If you think of anything else that I should consider to keep my camera from being jangled about, and to allow me to have a good view so I can get some shots... Please feel free to leave them in the comments.

So, what plane would work best for this mission?

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    $\begingroup$ It sounds like a helicopter would actually be best for this purpose. ;) $\endgroup$ – flyingfisch May 10 '14 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ The cost for rental would be ridiculous though...wouldn't it? That and they tend to vibrate I thought. Though if you want to put together the reasons why and post 'em, I'm curious. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr May 10 '14 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ This article on photography from helicopters might be useful, even if you do go for a fixed-wing craft. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 10 '14 at 3:53
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    $\begingroup$ The Abrams P-1 Explorer? $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick May 10 '14 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ The Edgley Optica, it was designed for observation and photography. The right side door is clear and has a lens hole in it. $\endgroup$ – GdD May 11 '14 at 18:50

Well, the first caveat is that the best plane for aerial photography is one that someone else is flying -- Trying to set up shots while also maneuvering an aircraft is difficult at best, and can be dangerous.

Hitting your specific points:

  • Good view of the ground
    This generally implies a high wing aircraft, assuming you're shooting from inside the plane. (If you're mounting external cameras this is much less of a consideration.)

  • Stable while banking & Able to fly banked without turning
    Properly flown pretty much any aircraft can fly along indefinitely in an aerodynamic slip -- it's not an aerodynamically favorable configuration, but meeting this requirement shouldn't be a problem.
    The need to maintain the aircraft in a slip is however one of the reasons you probably want to have someone else flying. While not difficult it is not the way the plane "wants" to be flying.

  • Low Vibration
    Give up the idea of long telephoto lenses or slow shutter speeds -- at least unless you have some kind of image stabilization in your lens/camera. Most GA aircraft will have some appreciable vibration.

  • Big Windows
    "Big" may be less important than "Removable" -- Most light GA airplanes will have windows of a reasonable size (at least in the front seats), but aircraft plexiglass windows are not of the best optical quality, so you might not want to shoot through them.

  • Able to flow low and slow
    The optimal aircraft here is a helicopter (in fact some might argue that the R22 helicopter is a great photo platform - but beware the vibration), but most GA training airplanes can do an adequate job here.
    Again, a plug for having someone else fly: Trying to photograph something on the ground while flying low and slow is a recipe for a "moose stall", which frequently doesn't end well for anyone except the moose.

My recommendations

In the typical GA airplane fleet I would pick a Cessna 152 or Cessna 172. These planes are pretty much ubiquitous, and among their advantages are the large hinged windows which you can flip up and pop a camera out of.
You might also consider "jump planes" which are certificated for flight with a door open or removed, providing you a giant hole in the fuselage through which you can take photos (as well as anchor points to attach yourself and your equipment to the airframe).

If you will need to hold station over your target a R22 or similar helicopter would probably be your best choice (and the R22 can certainly be flown without doors).

Protecting your equipment

At a bare minimum you should be wearing a substantial wrist strap. Anchoring yourself and your equipment to the airframe is also an excellent idea, as having expensive camera gear fall out of an aircraft can be quite unpleasant (both for you - as the gear will likely be destroyed - and for people on the ground who get clobbered by it).

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    $\begingroup$ For the record, I did mention in the original question that I would be hiring a pilot to fly me. Just sayin'. Also, regarding vibration, don't some props cause less vibration than others? I thought tri and quad blades weren't so bad? $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr May 10 '14 at 3:08
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    $\begingroup$ @JayCarr If you handhold, vibration won't be the issue - your body is an excellent isolator at engine vibration frequencies. Turbulence will be a problem though, and if you brace the camera against the airplane in any way the vibration will be intolerable in any plane. Check out Kenyon gyro stabilizers for turbulence if your budget allows. They can be bought for about $1,000 or rented cheaper. And use a plane you can open the windows in or the glare and scratches in the acrylic will ruin the shot. C152/172 both have semi openable windows. $\endgroup$ – TypeIA May 10 '14 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ In most GA planes (and presumably helicopters though I don't know much about those) there are power settings that induce more or less vibration - you'll be able to feel any vibration that will affect your shot, and can usually adjust power accordingly. Like @dvnrrs said though, the body is a great shock isolator. Mounting to the plane is where you may need special equipment. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 May 10 '14 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 Mkay, I'll keep that in mind. Probably would be a good thing to chat with the pilot about before heading up... Just wish I could combine this answer with Pauls, he got the "which pilot to hire" about perfect. But, I prefer this one because it covers the plane aspect of the questions better... $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr May 11 '14 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Qantas94Heavy Yes and No - to me this is a question that can be "answered" (at least to some degree) with factual information (characteristics to look for in a photo plane). That's as opposed to the sort of "recommend a plane for this mission" stuff I was thinking about in that Meta answer ("I've got a husband, two kids, and a dog, and we go to Grandma's 500 miles away every month -- what kind of plane should I buy?") which has a lot more subjectivity $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 May 12 '14 at 5:45

I used to work at a sport parachuting center - we occasionally had photographers rent one of our Cessna 182 airplanes for the same purpose. An advantage of jump planes is the pilots are quite used to odd attitudes (and even odder requests) so a 60 degree bank angle with the door open and you leaning out of it will get a reply of "no problem".

Our conditions were the photographer wears a parachute, a seatbelt, and if the camera goes for a jump that's just too bad for your wallet. 30 minute lecture on what to do if you fall out. Short form: drop camera, grab this handle, pull. And the trip's over if you do anything silly.

You would sit on the floor where the co-pilot's seat would normally be, the pilot will open the door as needed, and you have a clear view out the right rear quarter of the plane. Obstacles are the wheel (front half of the door looking down) and wing strut (forward) - the tail is well out of the way. It's very noisy, but unless your camera is actually outside the fuselage the wind blast is not an issue. Don't change lenses though, and your clip-on lens hood will probably disappear rather quickly.

You can sit on the door ledge with your feet outside and have an excellent, stable field of view with both hands free to operate your camera. I've sat there hundreds of times without a seatbelt, it's no problem even in steep turns. Just a bit odd seeing the ground above the wingtip. Difference is, I don't care if I fall out.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer paul, I hadn't really considered using a jump company, but when you put it in that context it makes a lot of sense. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr May 11 '14 at 2:17
  • $\begingroup$ I mean, having a pilot who is used to having passengers hanging halfway out the door would be optimal, I would think. We have a company that does jumps here, I wonder if they also have a 182 to rent out... $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr May 11 '14 at 2:24
  • $\begingroup$ A 182 is basically the standard jump plane, unless the place is busy and has all-turbine aircraft. A quick check of dropzones near Springfield doesn't list their aircraft on websites but they will either have one or know who does have one - it's a rather small community. $\endgroup$ – paul May 11 '14 at 3:39
  • $\begingroup$ Sweet, I'll check that out then, thanks :) $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr May 11 '14 at 3:55

Chris Dahle-Bredine (author of Shot From Above) uses an ultralight for this kind of photography.

It's cheap, only burns a little gas, is cheap to maintain, has lots of visibility, and he takes amazing shots!

Chris in his ultralight

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    $\begingroup$ Ultralights are perhaps the one exception to "the pilot shouldn't be the cameraman" - and the visibility out of a powered parachute certainly can't be beat! $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 May 10 '14 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, ultralight is also the way to go: I know of a Humbert Tétras used for a large scale aerial survey here in Madagascar. $\endgroup$ – menjaraz May 11 '14 at 5:17

I'm going to try to offer an out-of-the-box solution and suggest a remote-controlled quadcopter / octocopter UAV with a camera mounted on it. Such a system seems to satisfy most of your stated and implied needs:

I'd have to rent the plane and the pilot and I'd like to keep the price down as best as possible.

A UAV seems like an excellent choice in this regard: unmanned vehicles tend to be cheaper than manned ones, and don't require a pilot's license to operate (although other regulations may still apply).

You probably do still need a skilled operator, since controlling a quadcopter does take some practice, and it's difficult (not to mention potentially dangerous) to control the vehicle and the camera at the same time. Having a separate pilot frees you from having to do that job yourself, and lets you concentrate fully on taking pictures. The commercial operators I know of that do this kind of work always have a separate pilot and camera operator.

  • Good view of the ground, though it doesn't have to be straight down (I'm not doing surveying). [...] Big windows. [...] Also, a high wing is probably preferred. Though, if it's exceptionally good at holding a bank, it may not matter.

Check. The setups I've seen usually have the camera mounted under the vehicle body, so you can point it in any direction, including straight down, and the only things that could possibly get in the way are the landing struts.

  • Stable while banking so I can more easily track shots when the plane is at an angle.
  • Ability to be held stably at a bank without actually turning the craft, again to help me track my shots.

Check, sort of. No, the quadcopter itself can't maintain a steady tilt without accelerating, but the rigs I've seen let the camera be held steady at any angle, while the copter can freely move in any direction in three dimensions.

  • Low vibration, for the same reason as stated over the last two.

Check. At least, I've never heard of this being a problem.

  • Can fly low and slow for if I want to get close to things (within reason.)

This is the one aspect in which remote-controlled helicopters absolutely excel: they can hover in place, or move at any desired speed (for panning shots), at any altitude above ground level. Want to hover in front of someone's face to shoot a portrait of them? Perfectly possible (if maybe a little bit unnerving).

Mind you, I haven't actually flown or worked with such systems myself; most of my knowledge comes from watching a demonstration at a "maker faire"-style event by a local company operating such systems, and exchanging a few words with the folks there. But it was definitely impressive, and the way I would go if I ever needed to do some aerial photography.

That said, there certainly are also some photography applications for which remote-controlled vehicles are not so well suited, such as high altitudes, very long flight times, flight over significant distances of inaccessible terrain or operation in bad weather. However, if your requirements don't include any of those, they may well be much more practical and less costly than renting a manned aircraft.

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    $\begingroup$ Ah, see, but you missed the more important implied criteria: I like making up reasons to fly in an airplane ;). But yes, other than that, a quadcopter sounds like a pretty good idea. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr May 11 '14 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ I was going to post a similar thread. As much as a hate the UAV/drones for most low level aerial photography of the ground they seem to be a great tool. in fact I am going to be getting at quad or hex-copter this fall to play with aerial photography. Maybe I will get this video of a rocket. youtube.com/watch?v=9ZDkItO-0a4 $\endgroup$ – JerryKur Aug 19 '14 at 16:54

Well, the absolute cheapest and easiest way for aerial video is with a homemade garbage bag kite. Don't laugh, sometimes you can get great results. And you can easily change the viewpoint angle by simply reeling the kite in, adjusting the camera to a different view angle, and reeling it back out. You can also fly all day as long as you got wind. Here's how. http://quadcopter101.blogspot.com/2014/04/do-you-wish-to-do-aerial-video-but-only.html

But another cheap and easy way is with a toy quadcopter. And again you can get surprisingly good results with even the cheapest (about $65) quadcopters. Again, here's how: http://quadcopter101.blogspot.com/2014/02/misc-4-aerial-video-part-2.html


How about the AirCam? It was pretty much designed for the type of aerial photography you describe - low and slow with great visibility.


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