Aerial photography is a very specialized commercial photography service. Very few, if any, pros can make a living shooting from an airplane or helicopter, so the best opportunity is to add it to the other professional photography services you offer.
The potential for aerial photography clients is a function of the size of your market area. Generally, the bigger the city, the more need for aerial photography. Clients could include real estate developers, both residential and commercial; large landowners, ranchers, farmers, etc.; various government departments; construction companies; large industries; and mining, drilling and logging concerns. Be aware that some of the largest companies may have staff photographers who take any aerial photos needed.
A very important, but practical, consideration before you start to offer aerial photography services is how comfortable you are flying. If you experience acrophobia (fear of heights) or you don’t have a strong stomach and inner ear balance to counter the movement of an airplane and the even more pronounced movements of a helicopter, then you should probably remain on the ground. Some assignments may even make it necessary to lean from the plane or helicopter (with the proper safety harness) through an open window or door.
Specialized equipment is not needed for aerial photography, but it should be pro-grade equipment, such as a mid-range to high-end DSLR. In most cases, a 70–200mm lens will be sufficient. It should allow you to frame a single-family home on a standard-sized lot from either the higher altitude of a plane or the lower altitude of a helicopter. Use a wide-angle lens if you want to capture images of flying and/or to shoot in the cockpit. The best possible option would be to shoot with a complete line-up of single focal-length lenses, but aircraft/pilot time costs too much for this luxury.
You shouldn’t market your aerial photography services or accept any jobs until you have a number of hours of flying and photography experience. Aircraft/pilot rentals can cost hundreds of dollars an hour, and even more if you need a higher-speed plane or helicopter; therefore, any practice sessions will be a significant investment of money. One of the ways you could offset some of this cost is to become friendly with local pilots who own aircraft. Maybe, they would just charge you for some part of the fuel consumption for a planned flight in exchange for some aerial shots of the plane and some “beauty” shots on the ground. You can also try flight schools, which often offer flying services for considerably less per hour.
Whether you shoot from an airplane or helicopter will depend on your specific assignment, its location and other factors. By law, airplanes can’t fly lower than 1,000 feet. There is no lower limit for helicopters, although there must be a place below them where they could make an emergency landing, without harming persons or property. If, for example, a landowner wants photos of a parcel of thousands of acres, then an airplane will work fine. If your assignment calls for an aerial of a small piece of property or structure, then only a helicopter can bring you close enough.
Another way to save time and, therefore, aircraft/pilot fees is to know the area where you’ll be photographing thoroughly. During the planning of your aerial assignment, study maps and know the major landmarks near the target, so you can find it easily and quickly. Google Maps and other online resources will show you aerial views of just about everywhere on the globe, so you can learn what the site looks like from the air before you take flight.
Aerial photography may be a limited opportunity, but if you discover that you have an aptitude for it, then it can be an interesting, exciting and profitable part of your photography services.
It’s often a good idea to offer aerial photography services within a much larger geographic area than your immediate city or town. With the speed of an airplane or helicopter, you could travel to many destinations a hundred miles or more from the location of your home or business.
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Photo by PhotographyTalk Member Steve Shipstone