Exposure settings for aerials

A fast shutter speed is your primary concern

Because you are shooting from a platform that is not only moving through the air, but is also probably creating vibrations that would be evident in any image taken with a slow shutter, your first exposure consideration should be to use a high shutter speed, 1/250 second and faster. Anything less may tend to cause blur. If you are flying at low altitude (less than 1,000 feet above the ground), 1/500 sec should be your minimum shutter speed.

Shooting with a long telephoto? Your shutter speed should at least equal the focal length of your lens – that is, if you are shooting with a 300mm lens, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/300 sec., preferably higher.

If your camera is set for automatic exposure, select either a setting that gives priority to high shutter speeds or one that gives an aperture priority of ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6, assuming a bright, sunny day and a film speed of ISO 100. Either automatic setting should result in sufficiently-fast shutter speeds.

Light meter not working? You can also use the Sunny 16 rule, adjusted slightly for altitude. If you are flying at 2,000 feet above the ground on a bright, sunny day, decrease your Sunny 16 exposure by half a stop. At 4,000 feet, decrease it by a full stop (e.g. from ƒ8 to ƒ11, or ƒ4 to ƒ5.6).


Depth of field is not a particular concern in aerial photography, since everything is so far away, and you will be focusing at the lens’s infinity setting.

When everything is not so far away, such as when flying in tight formation – an occurrence that will not happen too often in most aerial photographer’s careers – a small aperture may be needed to keep both other aircraft and the ground in focus.


Unless you have a particularly sharp lens, it may be prudent to not shoot with your lens wide-open to avoid loss of sharpness at the edges of the frame.


Since most aerials improve through the use of a polarizing filter, or if you are shooting black & white with a yellow or red filter (for example) attached, be sure to take the filter factor into account when determining exposure. This is done for you automatically if you use a through-the-lens meter. If you are using a UV filter, there is no filter factor to be concerned about, since it is a clear, neutral filter that does not affect exposure.


Although your best pictures will be taken with the window opened, you may sometimes have no choice but to shoot through an aircraft’s window.

Aside from its effect on sharpness and the increased risk of flare, an aircraft’s window may also be colored, for the same reason that sunglasses are. If the window has a greenish cast, you may find that a filter used to balance fluorescent light will help to render your images in a more natural coloration.

If you can’t open the window, don’t despair. Robert Dall’s high-flying image on the right was taken through the cockpit window of a Snowbirds aircraft flying in formation, and shows no ill-effects.