Lenses for aerial photography


A good-quality zoom lens is perhaps the best single lens for aerial photography, one that falls in the range of 20 mm to 200 mm for a 35 mm camera.

This does not mean you should search for a zoom lens that gives you the full range from 20 mm to 200 mm. It means that a lens that gives, say 24 mm to 120 mm, or another that gives 80 mm to 200 mm, should do the job.

The zoom capability saves a good deal of time by not having to change lenses when you wish to switch from an overall view to a closer-in view. As shown by the examples on this page, you can often get both views in a single pass of the aircraft.


Some aerial photographers suggest a lens range for 35 mm cameras of 35mm to 105 mm, and there is no question you should get fine pictures if you stay within that range, but we have found you can stretch it and still get good results. Just watch for airplane struts and wheels in your viewframe when you are shooting super-wide, and be sure of a fast shutter speed when you are shooting super-long. You should have a fast shutter speed anyway – preferably 1/500 sec or faster – since depth of field is not a big concern.


If you don’t have a good zoom lens, there is nothing wrong with using two or three prime lenses – a wide-angle, a normal lens and a telephoto lens up to 200 mm. It just means you will be changing lenses to suit the composition, unless you are shooting with two cameras.


For medium-format cameras, lens focal lengths should probably not exceed three to three-and-a-half times the focal length of the camera’s normal lens to avoid excessive blur from vibration.


A wide angle lens will take in a huge area from an aircraft flying at high altitude, and shooting through it at low altitude may tend to make an aerial scene less hazy. If you use a polarizing filter (which is recommended for aerial photography) on a very wide-angle lens, watch for vignetting at the edges where the lens actually brings the edges of the filter into the viewframe. You can still get a good picture, but it will have to be cropped to remove the vignetting. You can buy slim-line polarizers that all but eliminate this problem, but they are expensive.


Good aerials have even been taken with 300 mm lenses in conjunction with very fast shutter speeds, but many photographers recommend using a telephoto lens that is no longer than 200 mm. Film speed is a determining factor in your ability to use a fast shutter speed, so if you are shooting with a long 300 mm lens, be sure your film speed will permit a fast shutter.

Watch out when shooting with a long lens through an aircraft window for the slipstream. Most photographers don’t think about it the first time, and are surprised when their camera is almost pulled from their hands by the fast-moving air, especially when a lens hood is attached. The wind can also fold a rubber lens hood, interfering with your view.


Remember to fix a polarizing filter or at least an ultraviolet (UV) filter to your lens when you are shooting aerial pictures. They make a significant difference.

If you are shooting with slide (transparency) or black and white film, the importance of using the right filters is far greater. See Filters for helpful information.