Aviation Photography Tips, Plus Using Rentals to Smooth Out a Turbulent Schedule

I move around a lot – sometimes for work and sometimes for fun. Most of the time, I’m just moving in circles in the air. For that reason I don’t always have my gear with me when I book a shoot; the logistics don’t always work out for me to travel to get my gear and then go to my shoot. When I was recently in Michigan, my gear was stuck in California and my shoots were in Arizona and Utah!

It was to be an intense air-to-air mission at four locations with five clients and six airplanes. I was able to order everything I needed from BorrowLenses to arrive at times based on relatively last-minute weather changes and before my first shoot. This is one of the biggest benefits of renting. Here, I will walk you through a day in the life of an aviation photographer

Shooting the right shutter speed is key – you want to capture the motion of the propellers without losing the sharpness of the rest of your subject.

Aviation Photography: Process, Settings, and Safety

I arrived at my first location, Sedona, a few days early and familiarized myself with the Canon 5D Mark IV. Each of the air-to-air shoots presented their own particular challenges and I had to try and manage them as best as possible. They were all scheduled for sunrise or sunset when the low light embraces the landscape and the air is (hopefully) calmer. Aviation photography isn’t just about airplanes – it’s about the stunning sceneries general aviation pilots and their passengers get to enjoy. Likewise, my shoots aren’t just about photos – they’re also about the client experience. I am exposed to a specialized form of flying, get to work with expert pilots, and have the privilege of visiting remarkable places.

Settings used: 1/100th of a second shutter speed, f/5.6 aperture, and ISO 100. Taken with a Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS II lens on a 5D Mark IV.

The first plane of this trip was a Pilatus PC-12, a single-engine turboprop aircraft manufactured in Stans, Switzerland. Its large wingspan of 53′ alters how I set up compositions and the propeller’s relatively slow speed of 1700 RPM meant I needed to use a shutter speed of around 1/100th of a second while shooting handheld in occasional chop. Sunset shoots have the luxury of working towards the good light. I could take time to establish our orbit pattern over the desired backdrop and the pilots settled into formation as the light continued to improve.

Settings used: 1/100th of a second shutter speed, f/10 aperture, and ISO 100. Taken with a Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS II lens on a 5D Mark IV.

At sunrise the air was smooth. I requested my photoship pilot to fly racetrack patterns west of Sedona, where the terrain was illuminated by the early sun. It’s a luxury shooting the Daher TBM’s five-blade prop, which turns at a max speed of 2400 RPM. I was able to push shutter speeds up to 1/160th of a second and still capture a full prop arc.

Settings used: 1/125th of a second shutter speed, f/7.1 aperture, and ISO 100. Taken with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II lens on a 5D Mark IV.

Aviation Photography Gear

I always take two cameras with me in the photoship, as it isn’t wise to attempt changing lenses next to an open door in a windy environment thousands of feet above the ground. The Canon 24-105mm f/4 works nicely for vast landscape shots and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 puts focus on the plane and pilots.

Changing lenses isn’t recommended in this setting. Instead, I carry two cameras with lenses pre-mounted.

Given low (but not too low) water levels, the terrain at Lake Powell between Utah and Arizona is exceptionally spectacular and its tremendous scale is apparent from above. Shooting jets, in general, allows more leeway with camera settings since there’s no propeller to influence my shutter speed decisions.

Settings used: 1/400th of a second shutter speed, f/4 aperture, and ISO 100. Taken with a Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS II lens on a 5D Mark IV.

My “corner office” in the rear of the Bonanza A36 photoship came with a great view but was not a comfortable environment. It was windy, noisy, cold, and bumpy.

Sunrise and sunset are the best times to shoot. Otherwise, you’re often fighting against both harsh light and bumpy rides.

I needed to wear many layers of clothes and was strapped in with a harness.To communicate directly with the pilot of the subject plane, I used a push-to-talk switch to give positioning instructions such as “10 feet lower” to achieve the composition I want.

I only work with highly experienced formation pilots. We conduct a thorough briefing session before every flight, even if it’s repetitive information.

This was the last air-to-air shoot of a busy and exhausting few days. We must always be careful not to get complacent. Our team had just completed three successful photo flights (following many more over the years) but from a safety standpoint, we operated as if it was our very first. I only work with highly experienced formation pilots. We conduct a thorough briefing session before every flight, even if it’s repetitive information. Topics covered include takeoff/rejoin/landing procedures, the flight route, photo maneuvers, airspace/weather considerations, and emergency/contingency plans. Being a pilot myself helps to contribute to all aspects of the planning.

5 Safety Tips for Action and Adventure Photography

For the last location, there was a small window of time during the very first and last light of the day when the Monument Valley area was particularly dramatic. The terrain peaks were glowing but the ground was dark. To take advantage of these conditions you must be willing to wake up very early – our call time in this instance was 4:05 AM!

When my work in the air is complete, it just begins on the ground. My company, Base Turn, designs aviation-themed apparel featuring patterns from my photos. It’s a place where flying and yoga mindsets meet. For more adventure-styled photographers like myself, renting often eases logistics concerns and frees up mental space to focus on safety, my subject, and shooting.

Jessica Ambats is an air-to-air photographer and a multi-engine, instrument-rated pilot. Jessica’s aerial photo adventures have included landing on the Greenland ice, delivering emergency supplies to earthquake victims in Haiti, and flying formation aerobatics with the Blue Angels U.S. Navy demonstration team. She also designs aviation-themed apparel based on her photography, which you can find here.


  • Vinnie Pasho

    Awesome work. As an airplane enthusiast, pilot, and growing photographer I don’t think I would ‘work’ a day in my life if I had that job!

  • Joe Hudspeth

    Absolutely stunning Jessica!

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BorrowLenses is an online camera gear rental service that started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007. We offer a wide selection of camera gear ranging from camera bodies, lenses, lighting and accessories. We make it easy to rent gear by shipping your order straight to you.