Great Barrier Reef aerials

Aerial photography 101: How to shoot the Great Barrier Reef from above

As a specialist in aerial photography, I get to see a lot of extremely beautiful landscapes from a very unique perspective. That opportunity is never lost on me or my pilot, Joe.

If I’m in a fixed-wing aircraft, those landscapes are passing by at around 200km/h, so as you can imagine, that presents a lot of challenges when it comes to snapping a compelling image. Water complicates things even further.

Recently we spent a few weeks cruising over the beautiful Great Barrier Reef – from the southernmost point to the north – to gather imagery for my most recent exhibition aptly titled, ‘The Reef’.

The reef is an icon of Australia. It’s also part of our national identity – everyone the world over knows about our reef. They should; it’s the largest living structure on earth and the only living thing you can see from space.

Joshua Smith | Great Barrier Reef aerial photography

Apart from its magnificence from afar, up close, it’s home to one of the most diverse communities of animals on the planet. It rivals rainforests for diversity. And when you consider the Great Barrier Reef is 2300km long and made up of around 3000 coral reefs and 900 islands, that’s a lot of subject to photograph!

Similar to most of my other work, I photographed it where I could top down. This means I was directly over the subject shooting straight down. Other times I shot it slightly oblique. In doing so, I was able to highlight the abstract elements that contribute to the unique beauty this place has. Abstract is a regular narrative through a lot of my work.

A number of shots have no other points of reference, so when you’re viewing them for the first time you question what you’re looking at. I definitely go after that reaction and the talking point it creates.

This trip to the Great Barrier Reef started out for me as a quest for a new body of work to complement the images I captured over the Central Australian deserts a couple of years ago for my exhibition, ‘Ngura’.

Showing and reminding as many people as we can just how incredibly beautiful this place is, will hopefully contribute to us all being able to work towards a positive outcome to keep the reef healthy.

Joshua Smith | Great Barrier Reef aerial photography

Photographically, the reef has held a special fascination for me for years. It’s been one of ‘those’ places. I am a huge fan of bold colours and the reef delivers in a big way. There are so many beautiful colour gradients, which happen when shallow coral reefs and sand cays fall away into deeper water.

If you’re a first-time visitor to the Great Barrier Reef and have the chance to fly over it, make sure you’ve got a good camera with you.

Here are my 5 top tips for capturing the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef from above:


Joshua Smith | Great Barrier Reef aerial photography

There are a number of challenges when it comes to shooting over water and ultimately, through it. Lots of things need to line up – the cloud cover, the water clarity, the wind, the tides, the angle of the sun and the angle/position of the aircraft. It’s a huge juggling act.

The other thing to consider on charter aircraft is that a lot of the time you are shooting through perspex windows and that can mean ‘in cabin’ reflections may appear in your shots.

A lens hood can help reduce in-cabin reflection, but another trick is wearing dark clothing in the aircraft. Perspex can scratch easily so be mindful not to push your camera onto the window.


Joshua Smith | Great Barrier Reef aerial photography

The incredible focusing systems on modern-day DSLR cameras with their multiple focus points make all the difference in getting great shots out over the reef. They now focus so fast and accurately.

When dialling in your settings, make sure you have a high shutter speed up over 1/1000th of a second, go even faster if you can. After a big day photographing on the reef you don’t want to get home and discover blurry shots. If your autofocus has issues focussing, switch to manual focus. I usually find a part of the reef structure and focus on that.

Remember, in a fixed-wing aircraft you’re usually doing the best part of 200km/h, which is not a lot of time for the camera to lock onto to the subject. You have to be ready with all your settings made as you are leaving the airstrip. You don’t want to waste a moment.

Examine the flight path before you go, discuss it with the pilot if you have to – you can even let the pilot know you’re a photographer. Assuming there will be other passengers,  you should be able to work out where the aircraft will be relative to the sun’s position and from that, you can then work out which side of the aircraft to sit for the maximum photographic opportunity.


Joshua Smith | Great Barrier Reef aerial photography

A nice addition to your equipment for photographing the reef is a circular polarising filter for your lens. With all the beautiful sunshine in Queensland, there is a lot of reflection on the water making it difficult for your camera to see through it.

These screw-on filters help reduce that glare and let you expose the beautiful reef structure in your shots.


Joshua Smith | Great Barrier Reef aerial photography

Each camera manufacturer has different focal lengths for their lenses. I usually travel with a number of camera bodies in the air, but a one size fits all lens for the reef would be something wide to help tell the beautiful story of the reef.

A zoom lens such as the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS would be ideal. It also has the benefit of image stabilisation which is handy in an aircraft. Another great lens is the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II.


Joshua Smith | Great Barrier Reef aerial photography

Your pilot will mostly point out key locations so have your camera ready, maybe make a few shots on the way out for practice. Dial in any adjustments and click away.

Oblique aerials work nicely with some sky for reference but straight down shots of reef structure looks spectacular.

Want to get closer to the Great Barrier Reef?

Joshua Smith | Great Barrier Reef aerial photography

Have you seen the Great Barrier Reef from above?