Landscape Photography: Shooting from an Aerial Perspective | Michael Yamashita | Skillshare

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Landscape Photography: Shooting from an Aerial Perspective

teacher avatar Michael Yamashita, National Geographic Photographer, Author, Speaker

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Accessible Aerials


    • 3.

      What's in my Camera Bag?


    • 4.

      When to Shoot: Sunrise and Sunset (Magic Hour)


    • 5.

      Using Bad Weather to Your Advantage


    • 6.

      Rooftop Inspiration


    • 7.

      Helicopter Shots


    • 8.

      Putting it into Practice: Let's Shoot from a Rooftop


    • 9.

      Final Thoughts


    • 10.

      Explore Photo Classes on Skillshare


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About This Class

Join Michael Yamashita, a 30-year veteran photographer for National Geographic, as he takes you on a landscape photography journey from an aerial perspective.

Whether you’re using a ladder, climbing a hill or a rooftop, or boarding a fixed-wing aircraft, Michael shares his secrets, stories and pro tips from three decades of shooting captivating images around the globe.

In this inspiring 40-minute class, you’ll learn what equipment and settings Michael uses for the job, what times of day are perfect for shooting aerial landscapes, and how he composes the perfect shot in his mind’s eye even before clicking the shutter — as well as fun stories along the way as Michael shows why rules are meant to be broken.

The class will empower you to look for light, pattern and scale to create stunning, big-picture imagery that inspires awe in your audience.

Some photography experience is helpful in order to participate in this class, but not required — anyone with a desire to improve their landscape photo skills is encouraged to join.

Meet Your Teacher

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Michael Yamashita

National Geographic Photographer, Author, Speaker


Photographer Michael Yamashita has been shooting for the National Geographic magazine for over 30 years, combining his dual passions of photography and travel.

In addition to Yamashita's focus on Asia, his work has taken him to six continents. As a third-generation Japanese-American, he is fluent in Japanese, and has covered the length of Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyushu. Yamashita's particular specialty is in retracing the paths of famous travelers, resulting in stories on Marco Polo, the Japanese poet Basho, and the Chinese explorer Zheng He.

Major exhibits of his work have opened throughout Asia, in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Taipei and Singapore, as well as in Rome, Venice, Frankfurt, and Perpignan, France. His work has been exhibited at galleries in Los A... See full profile

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1. Intro: My name is Mike Yamashita, and I'm a photographer for National Geographic where I've been shooting for the last 30 years. Today, we're in New York City and I'm going to teach you how I shoot landscapes, specifically from an aerial perspective. So, the name of this class is Big Picture Photography: Shooting From New Heights. So, a big picture is one that gives you the feel of lots of space around you, and usually that means there's a person or a building where you get a sense of scale. So, today, I'm going to ask you to shoot three photographs from an aerial perspective. One maybe from a ladder or something high enough to separate your subjects against the background. Number 2, I'm going to ask you to go higher than that and maybe climb a mountain or shooting from the rooftop of the building. Then, the third could be from something high and far, whether that be a mountain or another building for higher up or something close up, middle distance and very far away. You need to see the picture in your mind's eye before you click the shutter. But the vision is here, so you need that vision first. What am I looking for? Well, in the case of, I would say the majority of my landscapes, I'm looking for a light and pattern. The pattern is going to determine what the composition is going to be and how I'm going to frame it and what's left in or out of the frame. It's always the light that I trust to show me where to shoot. Then, the third is I'm looking for that moment. I want a picture that has impact. I want the reader to stop flipping the pages. That's what I'm looking for as a page stopper. High-impact photograph that compels you to stare at it and ask questions. What you come away with is the methodology and a vision to produce better landscapes. 2. Accessible Aerials: On most every assignment, one of the first moves I like to make, is go to the highest point of the location that I'm going to shoot and take a look at the geography. Almost every story, you need to focus on the geography, on the landscape. And I'm calling this, big picture. It's important because it not only gives you a sense of place but sets up whatever the story is for the pictures that follow. So often I'm trudging. When I'm home I go to the gym and basically do stair climb because that's what I'm going to be doing once I'm out in the field, I'm almost always climbing mountains, or telephone poles, or stairways to get to a high point in order to look at the landscape. Now, aerial to most everybody means shooting from a small aircraft or helicopter but most of the aerials that we shoot are what we call cheap aerials. In that they're really not from expensive flying machines but they're more like shooting from a high building, or climbing a mountain top, or even a telephone pole, or even from the top of a ladder. So let me show you what I mean. I'm shooting this tea plantation in Taiwan. I shoot these two tea pickers close up, as you can see, I'm right in there. The subject is really them and so I'm getting no sense really of the geography. So then I shoot this perspective. Now you can see the rows clearly, you can see a lot more of the pickers. I'm using an articulated screen on the back of my camera. So I'm using this screen and holding the camera high and composing like this. So I'm up with all of my only 5'6" height. What is that? Another foot or two over. But this perspective gives me this picture. You see the lines receding and you get a sense now of the plantation and the geography. But I have another trick and this is something that is part of my kit on almost every trip that I'm making where I'm going to be spending some time in a country. I'd like to buy a ladder and usually I buy something, well, obviously has to fit in a car. So usually is between five and seven steps, and we throw it in the back of the car, and it's been a lifesaver in many cases. Over the years I've made a lot of frames thanks to that ladder. So, let me show you the final of this tea plantation. Now, I'm on the ladder, probably with a camera up here still, so I'm up a good ten feet or somewhere around there, and I'm looking down, and now you really get a sense of the geography, you see these lines of the rows of tea into the background. This is a great example of a big landscape and achieved by getting up high on something as simple as a ladder. Actually there was no other way to get up to shoot this angle and that's why I carry one in the back of my car. Okay, so here I am in the Taklamakan Desert, and I get there, and there's like a billion tourists off to the right. So, I hopped in the car, the four-wheel drive, and we're going around, got to the other side. It was about four O'clock, the sun is setting over the top of this mountain, and I see it silhouetted. This was a pretty fantastic place. These are some of the highest dunes in the world and looking for other perspectives, I actually climbed one of these sand dunes which is not easy. I climbed up there, in order to get this aerial perspective. This guy is walking down the edge of a sand dune, it's almost sunset. So here I am in Hong Kong. It's the top of the Mandarin Hotel. When I am traveling I always ask for the highest floor in every hotel I stay in. So, here I am in Hangzhou and I'm here shooting this lake. So here's my first try and I'm shooting from the ground. And it's not a bad picture, I get great line, nice silhouette. But I'm looking for always something more. So I climbed or drove, I can't remember, up to the next level. In this case, I moved the bridge to the bottom of the frame. This is the ultimate pattern photograph, it's a farm in New Jersey, and I'm shooting straight down from a fixed-wing plane, a Cessna. Generally, when you are going to fly a fixed-wing for aerials, you probably want a Cessna, you want the high wing and you either take the window off, or it often flips up. So this next picture is Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka. Sits in the middle of this small island and it's conical. I saw the potential of shooting it from the air. Next morning I had a helicopter waiting for me, only 30 minutes as the crow flies, and we were there, and as I came closer to the mountain I could see that cloud just swirling around, getting lower and lower as it dropped, and the mountain revealed itself. I flew around it two or three times, I shot two or three rolls. This was my vision. It's better than I ever expected it to be, and when you see it it's magical, and what can I say? "What a lucky guy I was." So I've shown you a bunch of examples of aerial perspective. Let me next go a little bit into the equipment that I use in order to take these type of photographs. 3. What's in my Camera Bag?: What's in my camera bag? Well, let me show you. So, I have camera strap. I'm using this single-sling straps. Now, camera, I'm using these little Sony's now with the articulated screen, which I think is a game-changer, 24-70 lens. I have this 70-400, which I brought today since I haven't seen the location. I might need something very long, 400 millimeter there, 16-35, these two lenses pretty much the 24-70, 16-35 are my go-to lenses. I like to carry two bodies that way you don't have to change lenses all the time and generally the second lens on the camera is this 70-200. So, if I'm shooting with a 24-70 or 16-35 and then this, really covers pretty much every focal length you're going to need. Again, it's Sony and it's got that good screen that I keep talking about it because as I say I use that a lot to get my aerial filtered. Okay well, I don't use much for filters, these are all polarizers different focal lengths. Polarizer is important, cuts reflection, great using it with water, makes the sky bluer, important for landscapes so will have four of them for different focal lengths here and this is an important accessory. Okay, I have a filter holder which would go on the front of this lens and what I use are this half diopter filters, graduated half diopter medium gray filter in order to adjust the usually overly bright sky to match a darker foreground. I have two different grades of that, one is one stop and the second is two stops, but you can see the gradation I think I put this filter like so, and so I adjust it here to where the horizon is in the sky. My reason to do that it's either darken the sky or may be to, anyway, to even up the contrast and you can move this up and down depending on your composition and anyway it works great and the only other filters that I carried basically are this and the polarizer. Well, if you didn't have those, what would you use? Well, your camera probably has a setting called HDR and an HDR you're taking three, to five, to seven to more frames all at different exposures. Therefore, you're covering your darkest shadow area to your brightest highlight area and then your camera blends these different exposures into one frame and therefore you have a perfectly exposed picture in both the highlight, high bright sky, and the dark shadow of whatever's in your foreground. This camera also has DRO. DRO is dynamic range optimizer and it's a great tool, I believe in it because it also is made to cut contrast and you can dial in how much contrast you want to cut out. In practical terms, it's like putting a big light box on your camera and it blends the highlight and shadow into a more workable combination so that you can see the brightest bright in the darkest dark in the same photograph which in the old days of film, you couldn't do maybe only had a two or three f-stop, less than that maybe at most, the difference between the highest darkest and the lightest was one or two stops. Well, now you can do five, seven or more stops using these new digital cameras with DRO and HDR. Two more things in here important, neutral density filters. Now, normally I put these on when I want to slow the shutter speed down, say I'm shooting at, the exposures is 125th at F16. Well, I really don't want 125th, I really prefer to have it at one-eighth of a second because I'm shooting water or something and I want that slow shutter to blur whatever isn't going to be in the picture. You've seen this technique often in the case of waterfalls or traffic where it becomes a stream rather than individual headlights and this allows you to cut your shutter speed by, in this case eight times. So, you're getting down into that one quarter of a second range and therefore achieving the motion blur that you want. So, I carried two of these, this is an even darker one so it allows me to shoot even at a lower shutter speeds so maybe with this on there, I'm shooting one or two seconds at F16. This low tech item is a plastic bag because the last thing you want to do is get caught out in bad weather, I always have one when I shoot in the rain, this is all I carry, one towel, which allows me to cover the camera and lens as well as keep it dry and if there's marker or whatever if the camera fogs up, I can just wipe it clean. Reflector, you've seen these before, I really use them but sometimes I need to light up a foreground. This provides that bright side with a yellow cast to it or white for just bouncing light, that's what it's all about. Gaffers tape, lot of different uses. Leatherman tool, you never know I carry one it's got every tool that you can think of and this is very valuable, this little light here which you need when you're shooting at dawn or dusk keep that obviously need to see your controls on the camera and so that's what that's about. Extra cards, because of the high resolution I need big storage on my cards. Again, if I need it just some covering for the camera, this oldest trick in the book this shower cap over your camera makes a nice covering and if it's pouring rain. This Sony cameras eat up batteries like crazy, you never want to be caught out where you're out of power and can't take the picture, so it's important. Then I use this shutter release. So, I have the camera on a tripod, I don't want it to move, I trigger the shutter using this remote and I just took your picture. So, we'll use this later on, we're going to go up on a rooftop and I'll show you how I put it all together. 4. When to Shoot: Sunrise and Sunset (Magic Hour): Okay, let's talk a little bit about light. Photography, of course, means writing with light photography. We try for the best, for a landscape, generally it's directional light that makes for the best pictures. And therefore, that would mean sunrise and sunset, which we like to call magic hour. And for that, those two times of the day, I always have a subject. We plan our day around that light. And so for every sunrise, I already know where I want to be in order to put the subject in that early morning light. But rules are made to be broken, and especially with today's digital cameras, you can shoot pretty much all day and get different effects. So let's talk a little bit about the different kinds of light, and how you're going to put your subject and see your subject in light at different times of the day. So let me show you what I'm talking about. Okay, so here's a picture of sunrise, and the sun is just out of the picture, on the left side. Classic composition, we call this the S pattern. As you can see, your eye naturally follows the line of the wall and ends up in the left corner, as you're following this S curve down the mountain. When I get this picture at sunrise at the Great Wall, they have actually fences around it because they're charging tourists money in order to climb to the top. Well, so I jumped the fence and climbed the wall in the dark, got to the top just as the sun was peeking out, and click. Sometimes you got to break the rules, but anyway, to get this kind of light on the Great Wall. Sunrise. Here we are a little bit later in the morning. The sun is coming up over the rise of a mountain, and the sun is just lining up the ridge line. The blue snow is actually created by the blue sky, it's skylight. So, you've got this nice contrast because I'm shooting on a mountaintop and it's coming right over the edge. It's just lighting up the bridge line and makes a picture. Noon. Well, everybody, again, the rule of don't shoot light, don't shoot pictures in the middle of the day, especially in tropics. Well, here I am in the tropics. And the light is very flat, but I am focused on water. This blue-green water, gets much more blue-green in the middle of the day. If you want to shoot tropical water, you got to shoot middle of the day because it's that overhead strong light that's going to bring out that beautiful blue-green in tropical waters. That's what you have here. Again, I'm using this polarizer which deepens that color by cutting the reef, light reflection off the top of the surface. Now, this is one of my favorite kinds of light. So we've gone through sunrise, and a little later than sunrise, and now we're into the afternoon, and it's cloudy, and it's bright, in and out sunshine. This is when the sun is hiding behind the clouds, and the currents break, and you get lucky, and you focus wherever the sun comes down. And in this case, on the Tibetan plateau. It happens to land right on that mountain top, and I get this beautiful streaking of light, sun peeking out from the clouds, what we like to call God raise. Maybe it lasted 5-10 seconds, I can't remember, I don't think I have more than one or two frames of this. Click, lucky me. I often say photographer's paid to be lucky. Sunset. Okay, now I'm getting really lucky. Here I am at sunset, and this is in Vientiane, near the capital of Laos. They're walking across, the sun is setting. Again, I'm looking for something to silhouette because the sun is in the photograph and lo and behold, two, four, six, seven guys just happened to be walking across the river. They must be on the sand mark because it's very shallow here. This is at the dry season of Mekong, so water is very low. And as they're walking, they provide the silhouette, I include the sunray in the picture. Again, getting lucky, but not really being lucky because I sort of planned for it. I was there, I was set up, I was there to shoot the sunset, I was looking for the silhouette, and there it was. Here we have magic hour after the sun sets. I'm in the city of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. That beautiful building way in the background is the Potala Palace. I'm on a rooftop, I was looking for rooftops because it really dominates the city, it's the highest point. So I needed a perspective where I could see that above the city. Just kind of guessed that this would work as permission to get up to these people's roof, and they said yes. So, I planned to be here at sunset. As they lit up the palace, I took this picture, in slow shutter speed, as you can see, so the traffic is blurred and had the desired effect. 5. Using Bad Weather to Your Advantage: Okay. So, the light goes in, in and out sunshine. So, maybe you're not so lucky, maybe it's even raining. Well, there's advantage to be gained there. I'm in the place called the Wulingyuan, it's a National Park in China. It features these spires, 300 foot spires of rock, that come straight out from the valley floor. It's where they filmed Avatar. It's not easy to photograph and that the only time you get this really nice cloud layer fog, which gives it atmosphere, is when it's raining. So, I was praying for rain. Here I am on the cable car that's taking me to the top of the mountain. Well, that also became an element of my photograph. Then I'm using the size of that little cable car to give you a sense of the scale of how big these spires, these stone columns really are. So, I get the atmosphere with the bad weather, with the clouds, and I shooting from the cable car. I'm in mid-distance, so you can see on one side. I'm not all the way up to the top, I'm somewhere in between shooting straight this way. Incidentally, once I found this angle, I must take this car up and down a dozen times. So, once you zero in and see what works for you, once that vision clicks in and you see the picture, then I guarantee I'm going to get it by repeating as often as I can. So, in this case, I think I shot an hour or so or maybe more until the cloud cover disappeared, and I just kept round tripping on that cable car in order to get these different perspectives. I'm in Italy. I'm in Genova. As beautiful facade and I get there and it's pouring rain. So, what am I going to do? The rain stops, the sun pops out, I walk over to shoot a picture, this building, and I looked down and I get this amazing cheap area where I'm seeing the facade reflection in a puddle. All I had to do was hang around and wait for something on to happen. I have this beautiful light and I have this cheap aerial, and that's why I did it. It's a rare occasion to shoot Beijing in the snow. I happen to be jet-lagged and wake up and there it is, there's snow on the ground. I hop in a taxi and go to Coal Hill to see if I can make a frame. I get up to the top of this hill, I'm looking down on the Forbidden City, framed it in the pavilion and what I get out of this white. Now, I was mentioning using those neutral density filters. However, in this case, the foreground is white. If I was to use a neutral dense, normally, I'm using the neutral density to keep the foreground which is usually one or two stops less than the sky. I'm using that neutral density to balance. But in this case, I don't have to because one is white, so it's because the foreground is bright. Also, the sky is exactly where I want it to be, about the same light level as the foreground. So, I get this wonderful texture in the sky as well without filters. 6. Rooftop Inspiration: This is from a rooftop close by the Flatiron Building and it's a party going up there and the best frame is not from the helicopter, it's from the roof of the building. I got this, again, great light, a subject of people partying or drinking in a bar and a nice pattern as well. I had an awful lot of these photographs even though it's an aerial view of Manhattan. I shot many photographs from rooftops, and here's another one, making a pattern out of a building with using a telephoto lens and zeroing in on the pattern and the color and the light provided by a sunset light, I think it was at the end of the day, it's directional. Then waited for the flag to be exactly in the right position. If it was flat and not blowing, I wouldn't have a photograph here. Here again, top of a building, I'm shooting the Chrysler Building. As you can see, it's stacked up on very long lens, I got this nice light on the spire of the Chrysler Building as well as the pattern soft, slightly out of focus background, which is Brooklyn, I guess, Brooklyn or Queens. Here I'm at the top of a building, looking down, making a pattern, as light again, I often say your photograph is going to be where the light is. Here the light is glancing off this nice, repetitive form. I've made this pattern out of these top floors and balconies of this building. Again, it's an area of perspective that I got from the top of the building. You don't necessarily need the helicopter. 7. Helicopter Shots: I did do this book on New York from the air, and so, to get us into the mood, get us into the feel of the place, let's look at a few New York aerials. This photograph, obviously, taken from a helicopter, ideal conditions, I think, it's sunset, but anyway I have that really nice warm directional light from early in the day. This picture only available or I'm able to shoot it from a helicopter. Here's a nice example of it in a really crisp morning light. I have a piece of Central Park, and this beautiful color, and city in the background, and you can only shoot it from a helicopter. My final picture here, again, as I was talking about pattern. Here's one from a helicopter where I'm shooting the Brooklyn Bridge against the highway that runs along the East side of Manhattan. Making a pattern shooting in great light. That's what landscape is all about. 8. Putting it into Practice: Let's Shoot from a Rooftop: So, let's go out and take some pictures. We're in New York we're going to be going up to rooftop, and shoot some pictures from the top of a roof which I haven't seen yet. So, it's not ideal, we're shooting through glass, but look at that amazing reflection I'm getting in glass, of the moving clouds, and I often say, your picture is where the light is and that is where the light is, and it's beautiful. Going to move around until it looks the best through this lens. I'm also using a high shutter speed, which I have to, because this wind is pushing me and the camera around, just as my eye is being drawn to this frame, so will your eye, or so will the viewer's eye be drawn into it as well. So again, also I have my camera without the hood on because I want to get close to the glass so to minimize the effect of shooting through glass, which is going to deteriorate your photograph a little bit. But yes look at that, you see that amazing reflection? That is terrific, and you're going to asked, people are going to ask, "how the hell did you get that? How did you get that frame because I'm seeing a reflection through the glass? " Okay. Let's try a few other things here. Let's take a look on the other side. My angle is using its zoom lens, 7,200 is the right choice for this situation. Again, I'm looking for patterns, I'm looking for light. If we wait a little bit, maybe I'll get something out of that cloud. Amateurs spend a lot of time looking into the back screen. My thinking is, if I'm looking at the back screen, I'm missing what's in front of me. Wow. That's beautiful. Okay, so getting lucky here. And I got light, it's front light, getting a better reflection as well as this beautiful light on the buildings, this works for me. Wow, we've got a whole another set of pictures over here, and I love the New Yorker sign, how about that? Yes. Look at that. Are you guys seeing what I'm seeing here? Wow, again, looking for the patterns, so you got this nice light that's side light, lighting up the sides of these buildings, you got a nice American flag going. I'm trying to keep my lines straight also, architectural photographers go to great lengths to keep their lines straight. I've been talking about vision, and sometimes it's something you plan, in this case, it's first time I've been up here, and so this vision is an immediate recognition of "what is a picture," and as I say, I look for patterns and I'm looking for light. As I see something, the camera comes up and I click the shutter. Now, I think I've gotten some good pictures, but let's explore a little bit more. Here's my vision, I'm seeing these frames here as a way to photograph here the Empire State building. I'm going to use the frame of the glass as my frame, forcing the viewer to look through there. In fact, I think I'll even put some grass in the picture, kind of an unusual look at New York through the grass. The light is just beautiful. I was going to say, so your job as a photographer is to explore with your camera every angle that you think might make a picture, and you can do the editing later. But with a film camera, you might have at one time worried about the cost of shooting a lot of frames, but this is all free, so be creative. Get out there and vary your exposures, vary your angles, if you think it's good shoot it, and you can decide later, you can be the judge and either crop and throw it away, or it's a keeper. By the way, the time while you're shooting, you do not want to be deleting ever, because even if you don't like and it's a horrible picture, deleting from the camera is the worst thing because it's the time when you're most vulnerable to corrupting your file. Kind of studying the scene a little bit more and seeing more of the detail, my eyes have adjusted to this and I've shot enough. Now I'm just going to go and look for something that I may have missed, or I'm going to see anew because the light is different. That's pretty damn good that we're getting all of this with nobody hassling us. 9. Final Thoughts: Well, I hope you learned a few things looking in some of my photographs and spending some time with me up on a rooftop here in New York. I've told you everything I know. I've shared with you is the sum total of my 30 years of shooting. But, now I'm looking forward to seeing your work, maybe using some of the lessons you learn, what kind of frames you got to show me. So, please post some pictures of the project gallery and show me what you got. 10. Explore Photo Classes on Skillshare: