Photography In The National Parks: A Biplane’s View Of Acadia National Park

If you read my previous article, you’d know I was enjoying an October vacation on Mount Desert Island, Maine. You’d also know I tried to view and photograph the coastline of Acadia National Park via a couple of sea kayak tours.

And, you would know that project didn’t work out quite as expected, although I came away from the kayak tours with some neat photos, some very handy learning experiences regarding photography /camera use on a sea kayak and more than a little bit of knowledge pertaining to the Mount Desert Island geology, ecology, wildlife, and history.

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The road to the top of Cadillac Mountain. Rebecca Latson photo.

There is more than one way to skin a government shutdown, of course: In my continuing efforts to find ways to view this shut down park via different perspectives, I reserved a 40-minute aerial tour of the island and the park from the open cockpit of a biplane.

There are a couple of air tour agencies on the island. I chose Acadia Air Tours because I’d read fantastic Trip Advisor reviews about them and they offered tours via the very plane in which I wanted to fly: a FAA-certified production Waco (rhymes with “taco”) YMF open cockpit biplane. I figured, even if I didn’t come away with any keeper aerial photos of the park, I would still have enjoyed the ride itself.

Ultimately, I managed to accomplish both goals of fun and photography while learning what to do (and not do) regarding my 40-minute experience in the air.

Composing Your Shots

I must be honest and tell you photography from a biplane is not that easy. The wings are low so the struts get in the way. Acadia Air does offer scenic tours within a Cessna “Skylane,” which has windows and a higher wing, thus allowing for unobstructed views.

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The Beech Mountain fire lookout. Rebecca Latson photo.

For the Cessna trip, though, the prices listed in their brochure and website are for two or more people and I figured the cost for just me would be out of my budget. Besides, I wanted to ride in that biplane.

In addition to the struts potentially showing up in the composition, photography on a biplane is tricky if you are short – like me (5’2”). My pilot Joe Keeney provided a cushion (I called it a “booster seat”) in order to sit higher and allow me more ease of movement with my arms. Without the cushion, the opening of the passenger cockpit reached above my shoulders, which would have made it difficult to maneuver around to get the shots. Think of yourself as strapped into a rather high-sided bathtub.

Which Lens And Camera Should You Use?

Camera-wise, you don’t necessarily need to use an SLR for aerial imagery.

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Bass Harbor Head Light. Rebecca Latson photo.

That being said, I prefer to use an SLR because it’s faster than a point & shoot. Remember, the plane (and thus the scene) is constantly moving. It’s nice to have a camera shutter button with fast fps (frames per second).

Do use a zoom lens. I affixed my Canon 24-70mm lens to capture both wide-angle shots as well as zooms to eliminate the wing struts. On those images with the struts in view, I either applied artful cropping during the post-process stage or simply kept the wide-angle look, struts and all.

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Sand Beach from the air. Rebecca Latson photo.

Sand Beach And The Beehive

In a biplane, many of your best shots will either be with the lens zoomed in on your subject or with the camera pointed to your rear away from the wing struts. It was still a little difficult for me to turn far enough around (within the constraints of my height and the seat belt) to frame my shots, so I wasn’t always certain what I had captured until during the editing process. For a taller person, I think it would not be as much of an issue.

It goes without saying that you need to have your camera on a strap around your neck. It’s an open cockpit. Joe also warned against using a lens hood in the biplane. When you stick your camera and your head out past the open cockpit, you hit the airstream and your camera can get jerked around if you don’t have a nice tight hold on it. Wheeee! ‘Nuff said.

What Settings Are Best?

Regardless of how fast your camera is, make sure you keep your focus setting on “servo” (or whatever your camera manual calls it). “Servo” mode for my Canon means the camera is tracking and continuously focusing on my moving subject.

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If you have a lens with image stabilization (vibration reduction), that’s great too, although the lens I used did not have IS and I still managed to get wonderful images.

Hand-hold your camera; don’t try to stabilize it against a vibrating plane, and raise that ISO to at least 400 so you can increase your shutter speed. 

For the biplane ride, I utilized a polarizing filter on my lens because I was flying over water and wanted the glare reduced. I also wished to saturate the autumn colors of the trees. You can sure bet I made certain the filter was screwed on tight and I never stuck the camera/lens combo very far out of the cockpit.

On a side note, if you happen to take a scenic tour in their Cessna “Skylane,” then you probably don’t want to use a polarizer because they often create “funky” compositions, no matter how clean the window through which you are shooting.

A Couple Of Other Considerations

Biplanes are open to the elements (i.e. the wind). For long hair, wear a hair band to keep the strands out of your face. If you have shorter hair (like me), be prepared to spend 10 minutes afterwards combing out the knots created by the blowing wind (so worth it, IMO).

Think twice about wearing a hat. I brought along a hat a co-worker knitted for me, but was warned that the topknot on the hat would probably cause the wind to grab and blow it off my head. I removed the hat because I didn’t want any extraneous issue intruding on my photography and good time (plus, I didn’t want to lose the hat).

Besides, there is heat in the aircraft so I never once felt chilled during that wonderfully cool autumn morning.

Acadia Air has been in operation for over 20 years. My biplane pilot, Joe Keeney, was awesome. He explained everything to me and I felt totally at ease and confident in his piloting skills as well as his knowledge of the island. He knew when to talk about the particular area over which we flew and when to just let me quietly enjoy the view. 

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According to the pilot, this mansion is now used as housing for summer employees of the Jackson Laboratory. Rebecca Latson photo.

An aerial tour is not cheap (fuel, maintenance, and a skilled pilot cost money). But as one reviewer put it, “you only live once and when would you have the opportunity to do this sort of thing again?”

In addition to the ride being plain old FUN, it also afforded me glimpses of parts of Acadia National Park I did not have the opportunity to visit during this particular trip.

As with the kayak tours - thanks in huge part to Joe - I came away from that air tour with not only some cool photos, but also insights into camera/lens issues pertaining to aerial photography in general (and open cockpit biplane photography in particular).

Above all, I experienced a totally unique perspective of Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island that I might not otherwise have enjoyed. Take that, government shutdown! 

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Me and the St Augustine.

Comments

I really enjoyed both your stories Rebecca. Great photos, great narrative. Use of your imagination really saved the day. Congratulations!

I actually like some of the photos with the struts in the picture!!

Good for you! And wow, gorgeous photos.

May I ask you a question? I'm thinking about upgrading from my ancient point and shoot (2005 vintage) to a 'real' camera because I've pretty much outgrown what I have, but I know nothing about 'real' cameras, and wondered where to go to find out how to go about buying one that would suit my needs.

Thanks for the comments, everybody!

Megaera, why don't you shoot me an email at and you and I can discuss at length what kind of camera you might be interested in. Alot depends upon what you want to photograph in general, the kinds of things you want your new camera to do for you, and how much you are willing to spend.

Done. Thank you, Rebecca!

Thanks for another wonderful story, with great photos, practical tips for anyone taking photos "from above" and an interesting view of the park!