Aerial Views of San Francisco - Justin Katz Photography

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Being able to photograph San Francisco from the air has been on my list for a very long time. Finally, after months of planning, the conditions were perfect for my first aerial photo shoot.

My friend and pilot, Philip Andre and I took off in our single engine Cessna from the airstrip in Palo Alto. Wheels-up at 18:20, just in time to make the pre-sunset golden hour lighting coming over first Sutro Tower, then the Golden Gate Bridge. This Bay Tour offered us incredible views of the entire San Francisco Bay, and allowed me ample opportunities to photograph all of it. This has a been dream of mine for a long time. Even with the window open and the surprisingly warm wind shaking the camera around, I managed to capture a few great aerial pictures of San Francisco. Score.


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The How


In terms of preparation for my aerial tour of San Francisco, the photo gear that I decided to bring for this amazing shoot attached the the Nikon body was my Nikon 70-200mm F/4 VR for the majority of the flight. If I had a second body, I would have kept my 18-35mm F/3.5 attached at all times, but due to the limitations of the shoot I had to interchange those two lenses once or twice on my primary body. Not super ideal, but it ended up working out just fine. Almost all of these aerial images were shot somewhere between 80 and 150mm.


I decided to leave all my graduated filters in the bag. I wanted to spend all my time hanging out the window and shooting, not fiddling with my gear. This turned out to be a good call, especially because with the capabilities of Adobe Lightroom CC, I was able to post-process in a minimal but effective way, making graduated filters unnecessary for this shoot.



My Camera Settings for an Aerial Shoot


This being my first aerial shoot, figuring out my settings took some serious thought and preparation, and I definitely learned a lot in the process. I decided early on that I wanted to be able to focus on the view out the window, and not have to be looking at the LCD screen to check the exposure and then compensate over and over. Therefore I set every shot to take three bracketed exposures on high continuous mode. This way I was assured that every shot would have three options to choose from for the ideal exposure.


The 70-200mm F/4 has the best vibration reduction on any Nikon lens to date. And I can say for certain now that it really made a significant difference here. On the lens, I had it set to ON, and on ACTIVE, due to the high amount of consistent vibrations from the plane's engine.


I choose to shoot in full manual mode for shutter speed and aperture. However I did try something new, which was automatic ISO. You can easily set the minimums and maximums, making this feature essentially key to the success of this shoot for me. It allowed me to focus on the minimum shutter speed that I felt was required for the aerial vibrations and low evening light, as well as keep the f stop at it's lowest nearly the whole time.


All in all I am very happy with the gear and settings choices that I made. I suppose the only thing I would do differently is to bring an additional camera body, and a F/2.8 wide angle to capture the super low light better.

I have benefited greatly from some of the amazing online photography classes that I have taken at CreativeLive. With these classes, I have been able to learn things from the world's best photographers; allowing me to take my images to the next level. I highly recommend checking them out.



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Downtown San Francisco from Above

View of the city skyline downtown San Francisco, taken while flying at low-altitude.

2015AerialCaliforniaSan FranciscoSunset