On Being an Aerial Photographer

Praying Monk, Phoenix, AZ

All images by Sherry Eklund. Used with permission.

Aerial photography is an incredibly rewarding profession, but one that intimidates many photographers. While barriers to entry are higher than some other photographic niches, they are lower than you might think. If you’re considering new options for your photographic talents with the new year, here’s everything you need to decide if aerial photography is something you should truly consider.

Are Drones Changing the Game?

Alta Tempe

Drones are quite a hot topic in the world of aerial photography. You may be wondering if they eliminate the need for aerial photographers, or alternatively if they’ll help you break into the industry more easily.

Drones definitely have their place. There small size and maneuverability makes it so that they can get shots that would be either difficult or impossible to get from a manned craft. They are reasonably easy to learn to operate, and they are inexpensive to fly.

However, regulations make it so that drones won’t work in a lot of shoots. First, you can’t take any job within 5 miles of an airport without approval due to FAA regulations. In some cities, there’s a lot of development in these locations, so you’ll really miss out if you don’t have a regular aircraft. Second, FAA regulates that drones not fly higher than 400 feet. As such, you may not be able to get shots of an entire project on a large piece of land, which may be a requirement from your client. Lastly, you have to keep a drone within line of site. Therefore, if you have many jobs, you’ll have to pack up, travel, and unpack several times. This can turn a typical photo shoot from an aircraft from a couple of hours to a couple of days with a drone. Third, and maybe most importantly, is to be aware of the FAA 333 Exemption process and how it would apply to you.

4041 N. Central Ave, Phoenix

There are also some hidden costs and requirements with drones. The standard camera that comes on most drones simply won’t work for professional applications, as they have a fixed vertical orientation and a fisheye lens. Drones that support attaching professional photography equipment cost several thousand dollars. Also, since you are likely going to set foot on actual construction sites and/or real estate property, there will be additional insurance requirements.

Getting Started

As far as photography equipment is concerned, you may be surprised that the minimum requirements for aerial photography are pretty simple, just a Full Frame DSLR camera, and a lens with Image Stabilization. In fact, we’ve seen people who are brand new to photography start successful aerial photography companies without any formal training or experience in other types of photography.
One thing that does separate aerial photography from other photography businesses is the fact that you have to have a partner with a very different skill set than you, namely a pilot. You also need to own or otherwise have access to a plane or a helicopter. (It is also helpful if you do not get nausea taking pictures out of an open window of an airplane or helicopter without a door while flying and circling 500-1,500 feet above the ground.)

Chase Field, Phoenix, AZ

Lastly, if you want to get started with a splash, you’ll want preexisting relationships with potential clients. Without these, you’ll probably be eating ramen for a long time while you wait for your marketing plan to take effect and new relationships to turn into paying business.

Certifications and Credibility

Aerial photography is not regulated, and in our experience clients do not expect you to be certified. However, joining PAPA (Professional Aerial Photographers Association), is a great resource and lends credibility to you and your business. PAPA also offers a Master Aerial Photographer certification.

Tips for a Successful Aerial Photo Shoot

Downtown Phoenix, AZ

There are a lot of things to consider when planning an aerial photo shoot, but before you start mapping out your camera settings you must determine the best platform for taking the
pictures – helicopter or high-wing airplane. You don’t ever want to shoot out of a window so if you choose helicopter have the door removed. If you choose airplane, make sure the co-pilot window opens, or sit in the back behind the pilot to open his window. You also want to fly with a pilot that knows the area, it’s not like you can pull off the side of the road if you get lost.

In regards to camera settings and options, you can shoot in either RAW or JPEG (or both), that is a personal choice. Shooting aerials during the Golden Hour is nice as it is usually calm and will add more dimension to the scene. However, since the sun is your only light source, you will need to choose the most appropriate time of day for the project. You can shoot manually but many aerial photographers use the advanced feature of Shutter Priority, typically using ranges between 1/1250 sec – 1/1600 sec. Since aerial photography is not normally taken during inclement weather, ISO settings usually range between 100 – 400. To help with “shutter shake”…and the vibration of the aircraft, image stabilization lenses are a must but a gyro stabilizer is optional (except when shooting at night). Setting White Balance to Auto works well for aerial photography.

Phoenix Open, Scottsdale, AZ

More Science than Art

Flying is incredibly fun, and the views are amazing. As such, being an aerial photographer offers plenty of opportunity to indulge your creative side and your eye for beauty. However, the bread and butter of most aerial photographers is shooting regular project updates for commercial construction projects. The client isn’t particularly concerned about beauty, but rather documenting the construction progress.

REI

The satisfaction of commercial work comes from being able to execute on the requirements for each client. Scheduling, shooting at the right time of day, having the best shutter speed and ISO settings, and choosing the proper camera orientation are all little things that are important to make sure your client gets what they need.

Buildings Don’t Have Double Chins

One significant difference between aerial photography and other kinds of photography is post production. Aerial photographers typically do not need to be Photoshop wizards, because the nature of their work does not demand it. Project managers and land owners want the cold, hard truth. You don’t have to make buildings skinnier, hide their bad spots, make it look like they’re somewhere they aren’t, etc. As such, Photoshop edits are typically minimal, and involve making sure a shot is cropped correctly, and that the brightness, color, and contrast are optimized so that they client can easily see how a site is progressing.

Western Kierland Resort & Spa, Scottsdale, AZ

Growing Your Business

Marketing is essential for any business, and it’s no different for aerial photographers. Because aerial photography is usually a B2B business, some of your tactics will be different than other photographers, such as portrait photographers, but the system is ultimately the same. Search engine marketing is an absolute must, including pay per click and organic optimization. Maintaining and regularly communicating with an email list is a great idea. LinkedIn can be a great social media platform for staying in touch with construction professionals. YouTube can be a great way to communicate visually with potential clients. Facebook and Twitter don’t tend to offer a lot to the typical aerial photographer. The bottom line is you need construction companies to think of you every time they are bidding a new project. Anything that helps you achieve that goal is potentially a good investment.

Money, Money, Money, Money… MONEY! And Other Perks.

Cubs Opening Day Feb 27, 2014

In general, aerial photography shoots are typically priced at $250-450. Each shoot is relatively quick, and if you can plan your work to do multiple shoots in a single flight, you can make a lot of money pretty quickly. However, you obviously have to compensate the pilot, and you pay for the variable costs such as aircraft rentals, fuel, and maintenance. Client needs can also sometimes prevent you from grouping lots of shoots into a single flight. Overall, in our experience an aerial photographer makes about the same amount of money per hour as other professional photographers.
As with other photographers, there are other perks, the biggest of which is a flexible schedule. The average flight only takes a couple hours, and most aerial photographers don’t fly every day. However, if you’re a late riser, aerial photography may not be for you, as many clients wants their shots taken within a couple hours of sun rise. Also, since you don’t shoot in a studio, weather can ruin plans.

Wild horses, Rio Verde, AZ 2

That’s a Wrap!

Whether you’re interested in getting into aerial photography, or you’re a photographer with another specialty who is just curious how aerial photographers work, hopefully this article has given you some good food for thought. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment, or contact the authors.

Wild horses, Rio Verde, AZ

Sherry and Brett Eklund are Phoenix Aerial Photographers. They are husband and wife, and cofounded Desert View Aerial Photography. Sherry is the photographer, and Brett the pilot. They’ve been in construction for over 30 years and providing aerial photo construction documentation for nine years.