Even though I have a background in aerial still photography and had a high-wing Cessna 172 at my disposal, shooting videos from the sky proved to be more difficult than I anticipated.
With the advent of small, high-quality equipment, moving to video was a natural progression. I decided to use two cameras: one inside the cabins for side and rear views, the other mounted on the wing strut, facing forward.
Ready for Takeoff
I got a local videomaker interested in the project, and we started experimenting with a Panasonic PV-320 from the cabin. Fortunately, my plane was specially equipped with a window that locked up against the wing, eliminating reflections and other problems associated with shooting through plexiglass.
Our initial experiments with the handheld taping proved the worthlessness of that idea, no matter now smooth the air, and it quickly became obvious that we’d have to mount the camera securely.
The solution was simple: We removed one of the front seats and fastened a heavy-duty tripod to the floor, using the seat belt to hold it. Small rubber pads under each leg eliminated vibrations. My cameraman sat in the back seat for the takeoff and landing, then knelt on the floor to operate the camera.
Frequently using the plane itself as a tilt/pan head (bringing the nose or wing up or down, or using a “flat turn” technique for panning) produced better results than manual manipulation of the cabin camera on its tripod.
Whatever It Takes
I next set about building a mount that would hold a stripped down Panasonic 3260 on the strut securely. (Strict F.A.A. Regulations prohibit dropping objects, like cameras, from the aircraft in flight!)
This mount was designed to be tilt-adjustable in flight (by reaching out the window and turning a large eyebolt) and ground-adjustable from straight forward to about 30 degrees to the left.
A 9-inch monitor was installed in the plane on a specially built floor stand, angled so it could be viewed easily from any seat. The monitor also was used while shooting with the cabin camera.
Much to our surprise, we discovered that we could shoot directly through the propeller (except at certain sun angles) without it showing! While vibration was a constant problem, rubber dampers under the mount helped greatly.
In addition, I was able to find the optimum engine rpm (for minimum shake) by zooming in tight and adjusting the throttle while observing the onboard monitor. Any minor vibration remaining was not discernible in wide-angle shots.
Weather Permitting . . .
By adjusting airspeed and altitude, I was able to obtain a relative ground speed that’s comfortable to view-not too fast, not too slow.
I found it convenient to wear a small microphone around my neck to record notes on scene locations and other information that’s handy at editing time. These notes were invaluable during the experimental phase.
As is the case with still photography, the best results were obtained on overcast days. The air usually is very smooth, and the lack of glare and reflection makes for excellent color saturation and detail.
On sunny days a standard polarizing filter was used on both cameras, reducing glare and hot spots and enhancing color saturation.
In aerial photography, polarizers must be adjusted for each shot since the angle of the sun varies constantly. Both cameras seemed to prefer shooting halfway between “down-sun” and “cross-sun” for good color saturation.
In addition, “grey” days allow one the advantage of shooting from any angle, or at any time of day, without regard to the sun.
Expect Some Turbulence
Except for those “sweeping vista” shots, haze presented a serious obstacle to good footage only when the flight visibility was less than about 10 miles. The final video footage often was clearer than we anticipated; haze penetration was excellent from both cameras.
Turbulence, of course, is always a problem in the air. The only solution here is to pick your days carefully and fly as high as possible for your shot, since much of the turbulence is caused by the wind flowing over ground obstructions.
Unexpected glitches often occur as well. Once after videotaping I noticed some serious glitches at regular intervals. After an appropriate period of head-scratching, I realized that I had been flying directly in the path of an Air Force radar installation less than a mile away. The camera had protested being bombarded repeatedly with high-energy electrons!
In the end, 30 hours of flight time produced less that four hours of good, useable footage. It was a lot of work and time, but those four hours are impressive-and, most of all, it was great fun.
If you’re looking for a videomaking challenge, the sky’s the limit!
William Hemmel, a professional aerial still photographer with more than 20 years of flying experience under his wing, is producer of The Cape Tape, and aerial video tour of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard.