Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lake Tahoe and Truckee Aerial Photography

-My Aerial Photography Adventure (and Photo Tips). 


Happy clients are great. But when they are a pilot and they are so happy with your work they decide to bonus you with a flight around Truckee and Tahoe in a small experimental class amphibious seaplane with the door removed for some photography fun, priceless... 


Scott Thompson after an aerial photo adventure.
Last Saturday morning, I woke up ready to go shoot the "golden hour" from an amphibious airplane. Unfortunately, the fog was so thick, the early morning flight did not happen. But mother nature did it's thing, the fog eventually burnt off, and I got to do something most people will never be able to check off their bucket list:  fly in an amphibious seaplane and touch down on Lake Tahoe!


The whole experience was incredible. The plane was a tiny two seater with no room for even a camera bag, and it was only 80 horsepower. Taking off with the door removed was a little unnerving, but I immediately was presented with photo opportunities and I quickly forgot all feelings of fear. 

"Downtown Truckee Aerial 1" - Downtown Truckee photographed from a small amphibious seaplane with the door removed. Donner Lake can be seen in the distance.

After shooting Downtown Truckee, we made our way slowly to Donner Lake. I had flown with the pilot before in his Cirrus but the "amphib" was a much slower ride. It was a perfect speed for photography.  Donner Lake was looking gorgeous with the fresh little bit of snow we had above it. 

"Seaplane over Donner Lake" - Photograph of Donner Lake in Truckee California. Shot from an amphibious seaplane with the door removed.

Next, we made our way to Lake Tahoe! I got some nice photos along the shore and we eventually made it to our goal, Emerald Bay. Again, incredible photos!  Then Pierre, the pilot, wanted to check out nearby Fallen Leaf Lake, I wasn't going to argue. This is where things got even more interesting. 

"Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe Aerial 5" - Photograph of Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe, shot from an amphibious seaplane with the door removed. Cascade Lake can be seen on the left.

After getting a few great photos, Pierre decided he would show me what it's like to "touch down" on the water. We couldn't stop because at the elevation we were at, we wouldn't have had enough horse power to take off again with both of us in the plane. So we skimmed along the surface on the plane's pontoons for a few hundred feet. I had no idea I would be getting to experience that when I stepped into the seaplane a little while earlier. The speed, the splashing, the noise... it was an incredible rush, one I would probably never experience again. 

I was wrong. We had a little trouble gaining altitude out of Fallen Leaf, but after corkscrewing our way up out of the little "valley", we were on our way. We headed back to Lake Tahoe, Pierre had so much fun showing a rookie a "touch town", he decided to do it again. This time in Tahoe! I will never forget that moment, not too many people have had that experience. Thank you Pierre!

Here's a short video clip of us touching down on Lake Tahoe:



At this point, I knew I had priceless photos but we weren't done yet. On our way back to the airport,  I was able to get aerial photos of Tahoe City, the Truckee River, and more of Truckee, CA. Landing was a bit scary with the big pontoons and the tiny little wheels on them. But Pierre is an awesome pilot and of course everything went smooth.

I shot over 500 photos during the flight, here's a slide show of some favorites:

Available as fine art prints, gift items, and as stock photography.


Photography tips for shooting Lake Tahoe from an airplane with the door removed, should you ever get the chance:
  • It seems obvious, but check and re-check your seat belt/harness. I was leaning partway out of the plane for most of the photos, if there would have been a problem, I might not be here to write this post...
  • Dress warm. Tahoe can be cold in the morning, flying 60-80 mph at altitude with no door was cold. I wore my ski jacket and that worked well but I wish I had some thin gloves with grip on them. My hands got very cold and stiff, to the point that it was a bit hard to operate the cameras.
  • Use your camera strap and think twice about changing your lens. You don't want to end up dropping your lens like this person did. I brought two cameras so I had two lenses ready to go.
  • A huge zoom lens is not necessary when flying at low altitudes. I find my 24-105mm lens works great for just about all the shots I want. A 200mm lens could work but the 400mm range is probably overkill. I also used a 17-40mm lens to get some shots of the pilot and interior of the plane
  • Lens Shade??? I used mine and would again. But the wind was so strong, the lens shade acted like a little parachute. It was actually hard to zoom the lens out and I did get a little nervous that it might fall off the lens.
  • Shoot fast. Most of the photos that were shot at a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second were tack sharp, a few weren't. All of the photos I shot at 1/1000 or faster were tack sharp.
  • Shoot while on speed priority mode. I tried to shoot on manual mode like I usually do, but the lighting and scenes change so fast, I decided I would get more photos if I switched to speed priority. 
  • Polarizer??? I skipped the polarizing filter. The blues were incredibly blue already. A polarizer can often make the blues of Lake Tahoe look fake if it is already a very blue day for the lake. 
  • Tissues. I should have brought a tissue of some kind. The cold winds can cause a runny nose, I had to clean the back of my cameras after the shoot. Gross, I know.
Hope you enjoyed my story and aerial photography tips. If you have any questions, please ask in the comments area below. Thank you.

-Scott Thompson


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