A Bird’s Eye View: Photographer Margot Cheel Takes Flight To Create Stunning Aerial Images

Margot Cheel is an award-winning aerial photographer whose work has been exhibited in New England, South Florida and Ontario Canada. Cheel’s photos have also appeared in numerous publications, calendars and environmental presentations. She recently published a hard cover photography book of her coastal images of Cape Cod entitled “Sea & Sand from the Sky: Aerial Photography”.

Cheel received her Bachelor of Arts from Middlebury College, Vermont, and worked in production at WGBH-TV in Boston. She is also the co-founder the Twin Willows Arts and Craft Center in Ontario, Canada. After more than three decades as a creative arts teacher, she launched an aerial photography business that merged her love of the arts with her passion for flying.

We recently caught up with Cheel and asked her a few questions about how she captures her amazing aerial images.

Shutterbug: Could you give us some background on you as a photographer?

MC: My photography background started in college as an arts major. I actually did not take photography courses then, but learned how to see: see color, composition, texture, and meaning in arrangement. Later, after graduation, I co-founded an Arts & Crafts Center in Ottawa, Canada and had the privilege of learning more of the arts and photography, while promoting artists. I didn’t know it at the time but I was training my eye. I always “took pictures” which, looking back, were better than average. But it wasn’t until about 20 years later that I turned to photography as a personal art form and as a business.

©Margot Cheel

Shutterbug: How long have you been both an experienced pilot and an accomplished photographer?

MC: I have been a private pilot since 1997 (18 years) and an accomplished photographer for over 20 years.

©Margot Cheel

Shutterbug: What first inspired you to explore aerial photography?

MC: When my daughters were leaving for college, I felt it was time to 'fly the coop' as well. To my surprise, I discovered it was toward books on women aviators, small airports, single-engine planes and soon flight lessons. Once aloft, exhilarated by the views, I found a new direction for my many years in the arts: aerial photography.

©Margot Cheel

Shutterbug: How do you capture the images? What gear do you use and do you enhance the images with Photoshop?

MC: Over the years I have always used a Canon SLR camera—first with film and then all digital. Very conveniently the Canon lenses on the film camera fit on the digital models. I soon learned that a long lens (200 or 300mm) was not as ideal as expected for aerial shots. As I was working hand held, a long lens would wobble in the wind as I leaned out the window. I do not use a mount on the plane as I feel I have more flexibility with the camera right in my hands. Also I found that my co-pilot could be my zoom on occasion. He/she could fly closer, slide slip the plane and angle it for me to capture the shot.

If needed, I enhance the images with Photoshop—with the intent to give the color, saturation and luminosity that my eye saw from the plane.

©Margot Cheel

Shutterbug: What is the best time of year or time of day to capture great aerial shots?

MC: The best time of year for aerial photography is the fall. The heat and humidity are gone. The clarity in the air above and vista views are at their best. Color abounds. Interestingly enough, the time of day for aerial shots can be the opposite of that on the ground. Depending on my purpose for a photo flight, whether for a realtor or property developer for example, I would fly more mid day to ensure enough light for the picture. This is especially true and needed when the days get shorter. Late afternoon light or early morning is still beautiful, but that is often more for the art shots.

©Margot Cheel

Shutterbug: What advice would you give others who want to try aerial photography?

MC: If you want to try aerial photography, ask yourself some of these questions: Do you like to fly in a small plane? Do you like shooting while in constant motion? Are you willing to be flexible with timing—plane, pilot and weather determining if you can go? If the thrill of an aerial perspective appeals, give it a try. Do it first for family or friends. I volunteered at the start for a group photographing 10 homes and that’s when I found I love it. Find clients before you go. Otherwise, it is quite expensive.

Shutterbug: What other projects you working on these days?

MC: My next project is a children’s book with aerial photography. I found that at my exhibits over the years, kids came up with the best ideas of what they saw in my photos. (And different from adults.) 'By our children, we’ll be taught'?

To more of Margot Cheel's work, visit her website.