This is the first part of a multi-part blog series discussing what to look for when choosing aerial photography equipment. I’ve been shooting aerial photography for over 15 years now and have used a variety of equipment. Most worked great, others, well… not so much. This blog series hopefully will help anyone getting started to make smarter purchasing decisions and thereby flatten that learning curve a bit.
Camera equipment can take a beating when you are working inside small aircraft, like Cessna 172 airplanes and Robinson R44 helicopters. You want camera equipment that can handle that demanding environment. It needs to work flawlessly from takeoff to touchdown, as well as be able to take all the bumps in between. I’ve used a variety of cameras throughout the years, and although I’ll name a few manufacturers like Pentax, Nikon, and Fuji, all of the major manufacturers out there make semi-pro and pro bodies that are up to the task at hand.
I started out shooting aerial photography with a tank of a camera, the Pentax 6×7. This film workhorse shot 10 frames with 120 film and 20 frames with 220. Needless to say, I had to change rolls quite a bit when on aerial photo missions. The funny thing is that right after I had purchased the camera, and before UPS had delivered it, I read in a forum about how hard it is to change film with this camera…..and now I had to do it while flying an airplane at 2,000 ft! Once the camera arrived, I practiced over and over, loading and unloading a blank roll of film, until I had it down to a science. Regardless of my efforts, the first few flights went….well let’s just say, I also got to practice my unusual attitude recoveries….lol.
DSLRs FOR AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY – CONSUMER GRADE vs SEMI-PRO/PRO
Creating the highest quality image possible means a lot to me, and it should to you as well. In 2003, when I purchased my first camera for aerial photography, the digital world was approaching the resolution of a scanned 35mm file, but not even close to the quality of a scanned medium format file. I used film cameras, the Pentax 6×7 and for some projects, the Nikon N70(35mm), until 2005. That’s when I traded in the N70 for the Nikon D70. The Nikon D70 is a 6.1 megapixel, consumer grade camera that unfortunately didn’t handle the aerial photography environment as well as I’d like. There were numerous photo missions where it froze up on me and wouldn’t take a photo. Typically this little issue was resolved by removing the battery and “rebooting” it. Something I hadn’t had to do with my film cameras…they just worked.
I quickly learned that a very important difference between consumer grade DSLRs and semi-pro/pro grade is the shutter life expectancy. After coming from a camera that I could only shoot a max of 20 frames (Pentax 6×7) or at most 36 frames (Nikon N70), I was shooting frames left and right with the D70! Afterall, these extra frames were “free”…no film, or processing fees…the only cost is a few more seconds in the air, hard drive space, editing time…ok so maybe they weren’t “free”. Regardless, I ended up with more (a lot more) photos than before using film. And with that, the biggest price I paid was the death of the D70s shutter. The death occurred slowly, by just hanging up and not tripping every once in a while. Again, the “reboot” usually fixed this problem. But as the frames clicked on, it started to become a bit more problematic.
DSLR vs MEDIUM FORMAT FILM – NIKON D850 WINS!
The D70 lasted a little over a year before being replaced by the Nikon D200. This semi-pro DSLR was my aerial photo workhorse for many years. With a 10.2 megapixel sensor, the digital world was catching up to film. It was used side by side with my Pentax 6×7 to provide my clients with high-quality aerial photography in Houston and throughout the state of Texas. I have clicked off well over 150,000 photos with it before retiring it in 2012. This is when the Nikon D800/D800E arrived on the scene. With 36.3 megapixels, the D800’s resolution came very close to the quality of medium format scans. Again, the difference between consumer grade and semi-pro/pro grade camera bodies were evident with both the D200 and the D800. Not once did either of the cameras lock up on me and they were as reliable as the Lycoming engine keeping me aloft on my aerial photo missions.
It wouldn’t be until the Nikon D850 hit the shelves in the fall of 2017 that my trusty Pentax 6×7 could be retired. This pro-grade, 45.7 megapixels, full frame camera is now my current workhorse that will hopefully last many years. It equals and perhaps surpasses, the image quality of medium format scans. So far, I have been very happy with the results from this camera and I know my clients appreciate the image quality as well.
WHAT ABOUT MIRRORLESS CAMERAS FOR AERIALS?
The new kids on the block are the numerous mirrorless cameras hitting the market. These cameras are smaller, lighter, and are catching up to DSLRs in image quality. Are they a perfect solution for the aerial photography environment? Well, not quite yet, but they’re getting close.
The first mirrorless camera I tried out in flight was the FujiFilm X-E2. I was wanting to find a good backup camera that had a much smaller footprint than a DSLR. This camera has plenty of resolution (16.2 MP), was very small, and looked like an old rangefinder camera. I loved the look and handling of the camera but using it for aerials was terrible. The biggest issue was the digital viewfinder lag. It’s not very noticeable when shooting pics on the ground, but when you’re flying 1,000′ above the ground and doing approximately 100MPH over it, it becomes very evident. That coupled with shutter lag, made framing images in flight impossible. Lately, I’ve been using a FujiFilm X-T2 (24MP) with pretty good results. Again, the size and handling in the cockpit are great. The shutter lag and viewfinder lag are much better than its predecessors. It still doesn’t match the responsiveness of a DSLR using an optical viewfinder but it’s getting closer with each model update and the X-T2 is definitely usable and a step in the right direction.
CONCLUSION – SO WHAT CAMERA SHOULD I BUY FOR AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY
So that was my path to my ultimate DSLR for aerial photography, however, there are many cameras out there that can do the job just fine. In fact, I’ve printed images from my Nikon D200 up to 30×40 that looked great. Choosing the proper camera for your aerial photography all depends on the type of aerial photos you’re shooting for you or your client. A Nikon D200 (or any 10 MP body) could be fine for construction progress aerial photography (depending on your client’s needs) but not the best camera for aerial photos for a billboard advertising campaign or wall-sized enlargements for meeting rooms. It all depends on how your client will ultimately be using the aerial photos.
In a nutshell, I would recommend a semi-pro/pro grade camera body with an optical viewfinder, and as many megapixels that you can afford or your work requires. If choosing a mirrorless system, make sure you check the responsiveness of the viewfinder and select a model with minimal shutter lag.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the camera is important, but perhaps the most important part of the equation, besides the photographer, of course, is the lens. And for that stayed tuned for Part 2!