On Assignment - ColdSnap Photography

On Assignment

Comb Ridge In Twilight

Recently I was asked by the Friends of Cedar Mesa to photograph some aerial images of the Bear’s Ears National Monument region for their organization. These images are to help promote their conservation efforts.

In this article, I’ll review this assignment, How I approached it, and the techniques I used to ensure that it was a successful shoot.

Over the years I’ve worked on many assignments for a variety of clients. A couple of areas where I’ve been successful and have lots of experience is conservation documentation and aerial photography. I have logged countless hours photographing from the air in both helicopters as well as fixed wing airplanes. Admittedly in recent years this work has diminished, primarily due to the advent of drone photography. I do not own a drone, nor do I have any plans to purchase one. There are still a few areas where drones are not practical or legal to fly. In this case because of the designation of the area as Bear’s Ears National Monument it is not legal to fly a drone. In fact, even in a plane we were required to maintain a minimum of 2000 feet above the ground. 

This kind of assignment work can be very exciting and fulfilling to do. It might not be the most lucrative as frequently (but not always) you are working with non-profits who have limited budgets for photography. In this case I believe strongly in the goals of the organization and did the work pro bono. 

This assignment came up rather quickly. I am friends with the Communications Director for Friends of Cedar Mesa (FMC) and she contacted me to see if I was available for an aerial photoshoot as FMC had a benefactor who is a pilot and was willing to take a photographer up for some aerial photos of the area. I eagerly accepted the assignment, as I love to fly and photograph. 

Fortunately for me the pilot was very well qualified, retired Air Force Instructor. One of the keys to a successful aerial photoshoot is having an experienced pilot. When you get up in the air things on the ground can be hard to distinguish, knowing where you are and where you want to be is critical. 

Elk Ridge and Bear’s Ears Buttes


The next most important key to success is having good communication between you and your pilot. I always review the flight plan with the pilot and make a good game plan while on the ground with the pilot. I review how long we expect to be airborne, where we are going, what we hope to accomplish, and what are the most important objectives, because things change, and you may not get everything done that you want but you want to get at least the most important objectives. Along with this thinking is making sure that when you reach that important time of the day when the last light is fading fast, you want to make sure that your aircraft has enough fuel, and you are in the right place. Preflight planning is critical to set yourself up for capturing this fleeting opportunity. 

Find a good pilot and communicate effectively with them, on the ground and in the air. Trust your pilot to know the flight conditions and make the call if you can go up or not. I always make a point of telling my pilots that once we are aloft, I only make suggestions as to where to go or what I want, ultimately the pilot is in control of the craft. 

San Juan River and Comb Ridge

Camera Selection & Technique

What about your camera and lens selection? These images were made with my new Fujifilm GFX 50S MKII and a zoom lens (28-55mm equivalent). This is a good focal length although I wish I had just a little more reach, so I feel the optimal lens for aerial work is a 24-70 equivalent. Longer focal length lenses can be hard to handle in the confines of most aircraft, and shorter lens usually will include a wing, or wing strut or other part of the aircraft. 

Shoot with as fast a shutter speed as possible. Cruising speed of this aircraft is about 140 Kph (Knots per hour) or about 160 Mph! While typically you are a mile or more from your subject you are still moving a rapid rate of speed, so you want to shoot your shutter at the fastest setting possible. Depth of field is of no consequence so opening your aperture to allow for a faster shutter speed is no problem. Many of these images were made at high ISOs, in fact I never shot below 800 ISO even in full sunlight. 

Last Light Comb Ridge and Comb Wash

Typically, when I’m shooting aerials, I don’t use any filters including polarizing filters. This is because I am changing my orientation to the sun so fast and frequently, I don’t have time to set the polarizer for the specific conditions. I find that in post process I can usually get the effect and clarity that I need. 

One other thing to note is that keeping the horizon line level can be a real challenge—especially if you are not used to shooting from a plane. On my GFX 50 camera I found the virtual horizon level to be distracting rather than helpful, because it was slow to respond the gyrations of the aircraft, ultimately, I turned it off, preferring to use the guidelines in the viewfinder to keep the horizon level. 

Twilight Over Abajos Mountains and Comb Ridge

 Finally, relax and have fun! I love to fly, and there is nothing more magical than viewing the world from an aerial perspective. On those magical nights when the air is smooth as glass and the light dances off the landscape, seeing it from above makes you remember how small we are and what a wonderful world where we live.