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Thread: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

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    Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Hello all,

    I may get an opportunity to do some aerial photography over a coastal city in near future.

    My available kit is (all AF lenses, except where mentioned)

    (a) Pentax 645Z - 28-45mm, 35mm, 55mm, 90mm, 150mm (manual focus)

    (b) Pentax K1 - 77mm Ltd, 15mm Irix

    (c) Pentax K3 body

    I might perhaps be able to rent a Fujifilm GFX100 with one of the Fujifilm lenses ( my choice is GF 23mm f/4 for now)

    Well, the restriction in the air is that I WILL NOT BE able to or allowed to change any lenses (or carry any loose stuff which might fall off the chopper). But I could have 2/3/4 cameras dangling around my neck (as long as I am comfortable with that prospect); however, I think more than three cameras would create a lot of interference and I might lose good angles in just trying to pick up the right camera. I guess I should be able to handle the technical complexities for shooting from a vibrating platform in the air.

    The major goal is to create some fine art aerial pictures too (other than shooting record/ reportage images) like vertical/ horizontal panoramas etc of the city skyline. There will also be a few sorties in the twilight times and the night time.

    I would be thankful to get some advice/ views (generic as well as specific to aerial photography). Pls also refer to any excellent resources on the internet on aerial photography and work by any good aerial photographers using the Pentax/ Fujifilm MF systems (or FF systems).

    Thanking you in anticipation.

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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Which camera/lens combo has IS? I would imagine that would help especially in low light.
    They are just tools for a job.

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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Are you the purpose of the flight(s) or is your presence incidental to the purpose of the flight? That makes a big difference in terms of your capacity to ask the pilot to position you and frame shots. Where will you be seated...front seat or back? Is the aircraft turbine or reciprocating engine? Will the doors be off/open or are you shooting within the constraints fo the doors? Are you used to flying in aircraft?...in aircraft with doors off/open? Will you have the chance to agree the flight and the shots with the pilot before the flight or will you have to take it as it comes?

    The thing with rotary wing aerial photography is that someone is paying anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars an hour for flight time. That means that you are naturally time constrained and you want to know what you are going to do with each minute....before you put your bum on a seat. More generally in aviation we talk about "flying a chair". That is planning a flight or a set of evolutions by sitting in a chair with your eyes closed and actually flying the sequence in your mind. You can do the same thing prior if you can get/agree information on the planned flight. You can also practise things like consciously keeping your lens out of the breeze that's going by on the outside of the aircraft a few inches from your face...

    Whilst a wide may seem like the right lens for aerial photos, often the best shots are detailed shots. Perhaps a single camera with IBIS and a zoom - the Fuji GF zooms are great - might make more sense than stuffing around with multiple cameras and primes. If, however, you are used to APS-C or other small body cameras then a big lump of kit like the GFX100+lens might be a bad idea - it simply adds a whole new set of variables and a big bit of kit in a confined space.

    If this is a new environment for you, then plan on keeping it simple, pre-planning as much as you can and prepping yourself so that you automatically do things like keeping the lens out of the breeze, not leaning on the aircraft structure to "steady" the kit...

    Helicopters are a high noise, high vibration, dynamic environment. Removing as many variables as possible before the flight will serve you well.

    We want pics...
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    Senior Member Ed Hurst's Avatar
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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    I have shot from a helicopter with my Pentax 645Z a couple of times (and, before that, with my 645D). The vibration is a serious factor; so, even in good light, I was using ISO320 or ISO400. Thankfully, the 645Z performs superbly at that ISO. I did find the IS of the 28-45mm and 90mm lenses of some help, but a proper, full-size gyro is of more use (do you have that option, from the helicopter company perhaps?).

    Here are some examples of the shots produced. Technical details shown with the shots. They are all shot with 55mm or 35mm lenses...

    [IMG]_IMG4863Step6CropSpotSMALL by Ed Hurst, on Flickr[/IMG]
    [IMG]_IMG4991Step5CropSMALL by Ed Hurst, on Flickr[/IMG]
    [IMG]_IMG5068Step6CropSMALL by Ed Hurst, on Flickr[/IMG]
    [IMG]_IMG5069Step7sRGBSMALL by Ed Hurst, on Flickr[/IMG]
    [IMG]_IMG5028Step7CropSMALL by Ed Hurst, on Flickr[/IMG]


    Once the light got fully dark, I opted to change to a Nikon because it specialises in very high ISO performance and, of course, provided access to faster lenses. In hindsight, I wish I had tried it with the 645Z as well. But the I was shooting in these conditions:

    [IMG]Vivid Sydney by Ed Hurst, on Flickr[/IMG]
    Ed Hurst, www.spiffingpics.com
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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Quote Originally Posted by MrSmith View Post
    Which camera/lens combo has IS? I would imagine that would help especially in low light.
    Both 28-45 and 90mm on Pentax 645Z have SR (IS). The Fujifilm GFX100 has IBIS.

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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Quote Originally Posted by Pelorus View Post
    Are you the purpose of the flight(s) or is your presence incidental to the purpose of the flight? That makes a big difference in terms of your capacity to ask the pilot to position you and frame shots. Where will you be seated...front seat or back? Is the aircraft turbine or reciprocating engine? Will the doors be off/open or are you shooting within the constraints fo the doors? Are you used to flying in aircraft?...in aircraft with doors off/open? Will you have the chance to agree the flight and the shots with the pilot before the flight or will you have to take it as it comes?

    The thing with rotary wing aerial photography is that someone is paying anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars an hour for flight time. That means that you are naturally time constrained and you want to know what you are going to do with each minute....before you put your bum on a seat. More generally in aviation we talk about "flying a chair". That is planning a flight or a set of evolutions by sitting in a chair with your eyes closed and actually flying the sequence in your mind. You can do the same thing prior if you can get/agree information on the planned flight. You can also practise things like consciously keeping your lens out of the breeze that's going by on the outside of the aircraft a few inches from your face...

    Whilst a wide may seem like the right lens for aerial photos, often the best shots are detailed shots. Perhaps a single camera with IBIS and a zoom - the Fuji GF zooms are great - might make more sense than stuffing around with multiple cameras and primes. If, however, you are used to APS-C or other small body cameras then a big lump of kit like the GFX100+lens might be a bad idea - it simply adds a whole new set of variables and a big bit of kit in a confined space.

    If this is a new environment for you, then plan on keeping it simple, pre-planning as much as you can and prepping yourself so that you automatically do things like keeping the lens out of the breeze, not leaning on the aircraft structure to "steady" the kit...

    Helicopters are a high noise, high vibration, dynamic environment. Removing as many variables as possible before the flight will serve you well.

    We want pics...
    Wow... Thanks for the fantastic comments. These are very important aspects that you have brought out.

    Well, I will be the purpose of the flights. Rotary wing gas turbine. Doors will be off. I will be in the back seat. I can ask for elevation, flight path, more than one pass on the same feature, circling around etc within safety limits of the chopper. There would be reasonable flexibility.

    I have shot through helicopters on and off over the past 25 years, but the last time was almost 9 years ago. I used the Canon 50D with 10-22mm then.

    Some senior members have advocated OVF of the 645Z over the EVF of the GFX100. I have been used to the 645Z since a few years. The GFX100 would be a new camera to handle.

    I am inclining towards the 28-45 on 645Z and 77mm f/1.8 on K1. For late evening / night flights, i might substitute the 77mm
    by a 50mm f/1.4.

    Planning will be the key to getting decent images, as i gather.

    Thanks again.

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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Quote Originally Posted by Ed Hurst View Post
    I have shot from a helicopter with my Pentax 645Z a couple of times (and, before that, with my 645D). The vibration is a serious factor; so, even in good light, I was using ISO320 or ISO400. Thankfully, the 645Z performs superbly at that ISO. I did find the IS of the 28-45mm and 90mm lenses of some help, but a proper, full-size gyro is of more use (do you have that option, from the helicopter company perhaps?).

    Here are some examples of the shots produced. Technical details shown with the shots. They are all shot with 55mm or 35mm lenses...
    Hello Ed,

    Thank you very much for your usual to-the-point advice. What really helps is the images with details on which equipment you used. The elevations also point to what would be good focal lengths to carry. And your images are absolutely fantastic.

    I do have the 35mm f/3.5 which could be easier to handle compared to the 28-45 f/4 5. You get IS and zoom but lose one stop with the latter. I guess image quality is almost similar.

    I could as well mount the 55mm f/2.8 on another 645Z, which i would need to hire. But the IBIS of K1 with 77mm might prove better in low light situations. Maybe i will try out the combinations in short trial flights and then see what would be an optimum combination.

    The gyro is not available unfortunately.

    I would also take off the lens hoods as they catch the wind and make shooting difficult.

    The night cityscape is a phenomenal image. Can you please share which camera, lens, shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings you used? These are the kind of shots i am hoping for.

    Thanks again for your kind advice.
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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Apologies it sounds like I was talking about stuff you already know

    We just need to pics now

    Quote Originally Posted by pentaxitin View Post
    Wow... Thanks for the fantastic comments. These are very important aspects that you have brought out.

    Well, I will be the purpose of the flights. Rotary wing gas turbine. Doors will be off. I will be in the back seat. I can ask for elevation, flight path, more than one pass on the same feature, circling around etc within safety limits of the chopper. There would be reasonable flexibility.

    I have shot through helicopters on and off over the past 25 years, but the last time was almost 9 years ago. I used the Canon 50D with 10-22mm then.

    Some senior members have advocated OVF of the 645Z over the EVF of the GFX100. I have been used to the 645Z since a few years. The GFX100 would be a new camera to handle.

    I am inclining towards the 28-45 on 645Z and 77mm f/1.8 on K1. For late evening / night flights, i might substitute the 77mm
    by a 50mm f/1.4.

    Planning will be the key to getting decent images, as i gather.

    Thanks again.

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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Quote Originally Posted by Pelorus View Post
    Apologies it sounds like I was talking about stuff you already know

    We just need to pics now
    Hi. Not at all. What you brought about are important aspects and it does indeed help to have those reiterated to you, particularly when one doesn't do aerial photography very often. Practice matters. In my case, it was something like 9 years ago using a single camera and lens. With more options, complexity goes up which sometimes prevents you from doing things in a more efficient manner.

    So i really appreciate your kind advice and am thankful for it.
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    Senior Member Ed Hurst's Avatar
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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Quote Originally Posted by pentaxitin View Post
    Hello Ed,

    Thank you very much for your usual to-the-point advice. What really helps is the images with details on which equipment you used. The elevations also point to what would be good focal lengths to carry. And your images are absolutely fantastic.

    I do have the 35mm f/3.5 which could be easier to handle compared to the 28-45 f/4 5. You get IS and zoom but lose one stop with the latter. I guess image quality is almost similar.

    I could as well mount the 55mm f/2.8 on another 645Z, which i would need to hire. But the IBIS of K1 with 77mm might prove better in low light situations. Maybe i will try out the combinations in short trial flights and then see what would be an optimum combination.

    The gyro is not available unfortunately.

    I would also take off the lens hoods as they catch the wind and make shooting difficult.

    The night cityscape is a phenomenal image. Can you please share which camera, lens, shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings you used? These are the kind of shots i am hoping for.

    Thanks again for your kind advice.

    Delighted to help! It definitely works for us all, in this wonderful forum. I have always gained more than I have given from the wisdom and generosity of the group.

    On your specific question, that last shot on my post above was based on this:
    - Nikon D5
    - ISO 8000
    - 1/160 (possible due to the full sized, in-helicopter gryo)
    - f3.2
    - 24-70mm f2.8 lens @ 38mm

    As I said, wish I had tried this shot on the 645Z. But, given the use of the in-helicopter gyro, I had to decide in advance which camera to mount on it (couldn't change it in mid-flight). And the D5 seemed the more likely option to deliver the results due to the high ISO performance and the faster lens. That said, in hindsight, I feel like ISO 8000 with 35mm at f3.5 on the 645Z might have been interesting to see as well.

    Certainly, aerial shots from a vibrating helicopter at night time feels like it's on the edge of performance, even with current cameras. A drone shot is much more likely to achieve lower vibration, with its resultant benefits for lower ISO, narrower aperture, longer exposure (or some combo of these), seems more likely to deliver results. But could I have got a drone into this location, at this altitude? Not sure!

    Looking forward to seeing your results.
    Ed Hurst, www.spiffingpics.com
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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Quote Originally Posted by Ed Hurst View Post
    Delighted to help! It definitely works for us all, in this wonderful forum. I have always gained more than I have given from the wisdom and generosity of the group.

    On your specific question, that last shot on my post above was based on this:
    - Nikon D5
    - ISO 8000
    - 1/160 (possible due to the full sized, in-helicopter gryo)
    - f3.2
    - 24-70mm f2.8 lens @ 38mm

    As I said, wish I had tried this shot on the 645Z. But, given the use of the in-helicopter gyro, I had to decide in advance which camera to mount on it (couldn't change it in mid-flight). And the D5 seemed the more likely option to deliver the results due to the high ISO performance and the faster lens. That said, in hindsight, I feel like ISO 8000 with 35mm at f3.5 on the 645Z might have been interesting to see as well.

    Certainly, aerial shots from a vibrating helicopter at night time feels like it's on the edge of performance, even with current cameras. A drone shot is much more likely to achieve lower vibration, with its resultant benefits for lower ISO, narrower aperture, longer exposure (or some combo of these), seems more likely to deliver results. But could I have got a drone into this location, at this altitude? Not sure!

    Looking forward to seeing your results.
    Thanks for all the details Ed. And I fully appreciate and value your comments about the wisdom gained from this wonderful forum.

    As regards your night time photograph of Sydney, 1/160 seconds @ f/3.2 can be extrapolated to say 1/500 @ f/1.4 (or 1.8). I don't know how would the Pentax K1 compare to the Nikon D5 as regards high ISO performance, but what I have been given to understand that it is pretty good. If that is so, a similar image can perhaps be shot using the 50mm f/1.4 or 77mm f/1.8. I would need to experiment.

    By the way, is it possible to get any details about the gyro used during your shoot? Which company, model, approx price if it has to be purchased? Can it be removed and remounted, or is it permanently fixed?

    The project is still under deliberation by the city council people. I hope the bureaucracy doesn't come in the way of the plans. I shall update as things evolve.

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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    I read up quite a bit on the gyros of Ken-Lab. Interesting products. Does anyone here have any experience with them? Which would be an optimum one for the Pentax 645Z and a heavy lens like 28-45?

    Another important thing - We are supposed to switch off the SR (in lebs or in body, whichever you have) when using the camera on a tripod.

    Are we supposed to switch off the SR when the camera set up is mounted on a compact portable gyro like those manufactured by Ken-Labs?

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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Remember: adventure before dementia!

    The World is a book, and those that do not travel read only one page ...

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    Re: Best Camera-Lens Combo for Aerial Photography

    Thanks Graham. The forbidden fruits are the sweetest, so indeed i visited that thread and it is awesome.

    My specific query is for the night time cityscape shot by Ed.

    I am by now convinced that there is no way one could get the image right without a gyro.

    So just in case I end up getting one (perhaps a used one), I might as well use it during daytime too.

    I wonder which would be the best gyro for the Pentax 645Z with 28-45 f/4. 5. Beyond the weight as a major criterion for selection, there could be other aspects.


    Quote Originally Posted by GrahamWelland View Post

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