10 Tips for Incredible Aerial Images

Acclaimed National Geographic photographer Michael Melford works with LightHawk to make aerial photographs that support conservation. His most recent feature in the September issue of National Geographic Magazine celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

At LightHawk’s 35th anniversary Fly-In, Melford shared some of his secrets to making the most of his opportunities to fly with LightHawk.

Photographer Michael Melford flies with LightHawk over Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness for his feature in the September issue of National Geographic Magazine. image: pilot Steven Garman
Photographer Michael Melford flies with LightHawk over Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness for his feature in the September issue of National Geographic Magazine. image: pilot Steven Garman

1. Prepare for your flight mission. Preview your flight area on Google Earth, connect with your pilot early and talk about your objectives for the flight

2. Keep it simple. I use only a 24 – 70 or 24 – 120 mm lens.

3. Start up high to see the scope of an area and then fly lower over areas of visual interest. Shoot wide at first, and then zoom in on details you like.

Melford's National Geographic photo of Owyhee River, Idaho. image: Michael Melford with aerial support from LightHawk
Melford’s National Geographic photo of Owyhee River, Idaho. image: Michael Melford with aerial support from LightHawk

4. Shoot lots of images.

5. Don’t stick your camera out of the plane. The slipstream will not only cause more vibration, but you might lose your lens shade or any filter on the end of the camera.

6. Be assertive. Tell your pilot exactly what you want to see and from which angle. Pilots appreciate specificity.

7. Know your camera settings. Use a shutter speed not less than 1/500 or 1/1000 of a second.

8. Bring an extra battery and storage card on your flight, and perhaps a second camera just in case.

9. If you don’t have a good photographer, but need great images, team up with a professional photographer. iLCP, the International League of Conservation Photographers is a great resource for professionals who focus on supporting environmental protection efforts. You can also ask LightHawk if they know anyone who might help.

iLCP photographer Neil Ever Osborne has flown with LightHawk for a number of conservation efforts.

10. If you feel airsick, resist the urge to stick your head out the window. Know where your airsick bag is, or better yet, take breaks between looking in your viewfinder to reorient yourself and calm your stomach. Or take a break from tight turns.

As much time as I put in running around on the ground photographing from every angle and in all light conditions, there is no greater return for images than shooting from above. Getting the “big picture” is so important to telling the story, and I thank the folks at LightHawk who make that possible for me and other conservation photographers.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
After spending a year and four days in the extreme cold and white of Antarctica, I came back to the world a changed person. My passion is to share stories of people doing extraordinary things and I've done that since 2008 as the chief storyteller for LightHawk. LightHawk is a unique non-profit that grants flights to conservation groups through a network of volunteer pilots. Nearly everyday LightHawk donates educational, scientific and photography flights covering the U.S., Mexico, Central America and parts of Canada. LightHawk volunteer pilots, aircraft and resources help to tip the balance toward sustainability for every major environmental issue within our targeted areas of focus. My favorite part of flying at 1,000 feet in a small aircraft is seeing how that perspective changes how people see their communities and empowers them to take positive action on behalf of conservation. Taking off is pretty cool too.