Travel Blog

San Fran: A Seaplane Adventure

Earlier this year in Chicago, a couple of my photos from the Hancock Observatory got noticed by a local helicopter tour company on Twitter, and they generously offered to take me out in exchange for a set of shots. It was an unexpected and welcome surprise to the first month in America. Sadly the only available time was the day I was due to leave for San Francisco with my non-refundable Amtrak train ticket, so we had to pass, but it made me think!

My interest in Aerial photography peaked when I saw photographer Jason Hawke's work over London, he is a phenomenal aerial photographer, if you've seen an advert of the UK from above, he probably shot it. Add to that my interest in Architectural photography it was inevitable I was going to give it a try at some point, which leads us right back to San Francisco. 

The San Francisco coastline is a veritable fest of beauty for a photographer, from the financial district to the Gate, Marin County and of course the islands that sit in the bay itself. The city lends well to fly overs and tour companies. Initially I set about trying to find a helicopter company that would do "doors off" (a helicopter flight with no doors so the photographer can lean out unrestricted of glass) and also wouldn't mind a blog written about the experience, that wasn't to be and interest was met with "sniffy" replies. While I was searching around for another company, my girlfriend had started researching and came across a Seaplane company called: Seaplane Adventures. Not being sure if it would be possible to shoot from a plane I sent them an email and hit the web for more details.

Aaron the company director promptly got in touch, answering all questions I had. It would seem that seaplanes (and many light aircraft) are extremely good for Aerial Photography especially in the Cessna 172 which they had. The reasons why planes and specifically the seaplane is so suited to this photography is:

1/ the plane glides and goes slower.

2/ there are less vibrations and air drag while window open than in a helicopter.

3/ Cost. Chartering a small plane is easily half that of a helicopter (a bonus when travelling on a budget).

4/ it's more fun landing and taking off on water! 

We booked it!

I had asked for a late afternoon slot as figured it would be the best light for the city shots, and will result in more interesting shadows along the coastline. Not going to lie I was nervous, I have no problems with flying but the plane was small, and I would be sticking my head most of the time out a window. The fear factor of the unknown of taking off (and landing) on water was somewhat on my mind also. Aaron went through all the safety directions, strapped us in and off we went. A few minutes of floating on the water, then within seconds we were in the air, surprisingly smooth, easy and comfortable. Up to altitude, level off and then open the window, done. Now to stick my head and camera out and fire off some shots, I have never held onto my camera so hard in my life. 

In theory the art of aerial photography is pretty easy, high ISO and a fast shutter speed, aim and press the button. In reality it's very different, for starters the wind hits you hard at first and pulls the camera around, add to the fact that as you are composing the shot the plane may drop on the wind so you find you miss it. In an ideal world I would have a gyro to steady the camera, this piece of equipment is also often used in helicopter photography. But I don't so; it's all a bit trial and error, shoot and hope.

Having a really clear idea of what one wants so can communicate with pilot is key, although for this time I was happy with everything Aaron suggested as my focus was the shoreline of San Francisco and the few times I asked to maneuver back around he did so.

I rapidly found that I preferred portraits over landscapes, due to height of buildings an angles shooting them at from the plane. Sadly a lot of my images were soft or out of focus, however largely the ones I wanted were spot on. Aerial photography is a hell of a challenge, and I defiantly learned a lot in one flight and what I would do different next time. I am not sure I would want to do a doors off helicopter, those guys have guts, the seaplane felt safe, I was able to make safe lens changes too which is notoriously tricky in a helicopter. The only real disadvantage of the plane from what I can tell is that it can't hover over a desired target, and in the case of a seaplane night photography isn't possible as the plane cannot land on water in the dark (understandably). 

I cannot recommend Seaplane Adventures enough; it was a thoroughly professional and a wonderful experience. Aaron also provided a superb, comprehensive commentary over every site/landscape we flew over, although with my head mostly out the window I missed most of it! Even if you don't want to charter and just want to do a site seeing tour, this is the company for you. It's unique, great fun and for your dollar/pound, a worth every penny/cent.

As for the landing on water........ you will have to go to find out.