Photographer Jim Zuckerman talks about how to shoot from a high vantage point in the ninth article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
One of the most compelling ways to view a landscape is from an elevated shooting position such as from an airplane, a hiking trail on a mountain slope, or even a bridge. This affords you an opportunity to photograph a scene with a new eye. Everything looks different. The graphic design of land forms, bodies of water, stands of trees, and river courses changes completely from what you can see when you are shooting on the ground.
For example, one of my favorite aerial perspectives that I photographed is the remarkable crater lake and the smoking sulfur region on the active Ijen volcano in Indonesia (top image). This angle allowed me to see and photograph a stunning mixture of color as well as the unique shapes of formation. One of the things that worked in my favor here was the interplay of sunlight and shadow. The colors in the scene actually look better than they would have had I shot it in direct sunlight alone. Walking down the mountain, I photographed one of the workers from a lofty viewpoint in soft and diffused lighting as he carried about 200 pounds of sulfur (figure 9.2). The burned forest mixed with low clouds and the scene was both magical and surreal.
I feel that soft and diffused lighting is one of the two ideal types of light for aerial photography. The other kind of lighting that works beautifully is sunrise and sunset light. Figure 9.3 was taken from a park above the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. You can see how the low-angled sunset lighting skimmed the famous bridges and the classic architecture, creating pronounced texture and at the same time bathing the scene in golden light.
Photo 9.4 was taken out the window of a commercial jet at 35,000 feet. It’s a river system in Missouri, and the sunset lighting was incredible. I was drawn to the fantastic graphic design that only an aerial perspective could give me. The double plastic window is certainly not ideal because it is not manufactured to be optically superior. Nevertheless, there was no choice. The quality of the photographs will be maximized, though, if you shoot straight through the plastic so the lens axis is perpendicular with the surface of the window. As soon as you angle the lens to the plastic and shoot at an oblique angle, the sharpness and contrast of the images will be compromised significantly. To expose for this high-contrast image, I used Program mode and let the camera underexpose the image. This was an impossible situation to meter for accurately, so I checked the LCD monitor to make sure I was getting what I wanted. Using the exposure compensation dial allowed me to tweak the exposure. I wanted some detail in the water’s surface and was willing to sacrifice detail in the land. My goal was to emphasize the striking graphic shape of the river course, and I wanted nothing to distract from that.
I have often hired small planes to shoot from just a few hundred feet above the ground when I am in beautiful areas, and I am never disappointed with the amazing images I can get. The unique sandstone formations of Lake Powell are one example (figure 9.5). I had the door taken off the plane so I could shoot unencumbered by poor-quality plastic windows. When I shoot out of small planes or helicopters, a fast shutter speed is obviously an advantage because that eliminates any possibilities of getting blurred pictures due to the vibration of the aircraft. Depth of field is not relevant, and that means that I can shoot with a large lens aperture. This, in turn, enables the use of a fast shutter.
The aerial shot of Chicago from the 94th floor of the John Hancock building (figure 9.6) was taken with a wide-angle lens. I had to shoot through glass, and since it was night there was a risk that lights in the room might reflect in the glass. Therefore, I put the lens against the glass and used my hands to block any light coming from behind me from entering the lens. I also used a telephoto lens to isolate the unique formations in Capadoccia, Turkey (figure 9.7). Late afternoon light created great texture, and it also brought out the shapes and contours of the eroded hills.
Read the full series:
- Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
- Dominant Foregrounds
- Mid-Day Lighting
- Shooting into the Sun
- Black and White
- Aerial Perspectives
- The Human Element
- Overcast Weather
- White Balance
- Depth of Field
- Shooting Snow