I´m Carolyn Cheng, Ask me anything

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Greetings NPN! My name is Carolyn Cheng and I’m a landscape photographer who specializes in aerial photography.

I currently work full-time as the Chief Operating Officer of a national real estate company but I always make the time to prioritize landscape photography since it’s my primary passion and source of artistic expression, playing a vital role in my personal growth, development and engagement with the world.

Since I first started doing photography, even from my point and shoot days as a teenager, I’ve always enjoyed smaller scenes. I naturally see patterns and shapes, which is why I believe I was drawn to aerial photography and smaller scene / intimate landscapes. Since I first started doing aerial landscape photography, my work has evolved from natural landscapes to also include altered landscapes.

During the pandemic, grounded from aerial photography, I had the opportunity to explore other types of photography. After trying a number of different genres, I first settled on botanical photography in gardens and conservatories and, then later, gravitated to the studio, pursuing botanical still life photography in that environment. While it took time to develop the skills to express myself properly, it was genuinely rewarding to capture images in these novel settings while retaining my core artistic sensibilities. Most importantly, I realized I could adapt far better than expected and I shouldn’t see myself as constrained by my current area of specialization. Today, as I have returned to aerial photography, I wish I had more spare time as I’d like to explore these areas further!

Living in a large city like Toronto, where most of our art galleries are fine art galleries (rather than natural landscape galleries), it is important for work to have a storytelling narrative steeped in the language of art history or artistic concepts. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have a mentor here in Toronto who has her Masters of Fine Art and is represented by a gallery, so she can share her learnings with me. With her advice, I have been able to participate in group exhibitions and I also produced my first self-curated show this year.

I would be happy to answer any questions about balancing career and photography, aerial and small scenes photography, trying new forms of photography and exhibiting your work in gallery settings.

Website: https://www.carolyncheng.com/

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For aerial, I assume you are talking about real airplanes, not drones? I tried that but I was also the pilot and had things to attend to, like unwanted banking. Could you do everything with a drone?

Alton, that’s a good question!

I mostly fly from small airplanes like a Cessna 172. With the Cessna, you can get 3.5 - 4 hours on a tank of gas so it can usually take you greater distances. The tradeoff with flying in a plane is that you do have to bank the plane reasonably aggressively to get a top down photograph out of an open window.

Some aerial photographers only like to fly in helicopters as there is no banking required and it’s easier to compose more precisely. It is much more expensive to fly in a helicopter though so I typically only do this if there are more people to go with and/or the distance to the photographic location is short so the flight time and cost are lower.

Yes, piloting and photographing would be difficult to do with precision! I have also flown a drone. You can absolutely do aerial photography with a drone. The main differences are that you have a maximum flight height of 400ft. In a Cessna, I typically start at 1,500ft and then go higher or lower as needed but an airplane would not go that much below 1000ft pending the pilot. A helicopter can go lower than a plane but typically when I’ve been in one, they are at 500ft+ so the field of view is different than with a drone. Drones sometimes also have certain flight restrictions that a plane may not have. And the main difference is that you have to be quite close to your subject in a drone as your flight time is 30 mins or so with a Mavic 3. In a Cessna, you can be up in the air for 3.5 - 4 hours. Of course, the drone is far more economical! And, the drone can get you a perspective shot on the landscape that is just off the ground, which an aircraft cannot do.

On my website, all the aerial photographs are in a Cessna, except Iceland Aerials I which is in a helicopter and Protective Geometries, which is done with a drone.

I hope that helps. Let me know if you have any other questions!

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A good pilot will want to land in three hours on a Cessna 172 to avoid any angst over fuel. At 3 1/2 to 4 hours you’re risking running out of fuel. That would get the pilot in a lot of trouble with the FAA…

Yes, we would typically plan for 3 hours and then they gauge accordingly. If we have a longer route in mind, they usually plan for a refuelling stop along the way. I have also flown in slightly larger Cessnas so perhaps those are the hours I’m recalling. Every company that I’ve worked with has felt very responsible and mindful of safety!

Hi Carolyn, love your work! Any plans for a book in the near future? I enjoy collecting photo books from other artists. They help inspire me when I can’t make it out into nature. Thank you.

Alfredo, it’s good to hear from you and what a lovely question!

I’m currently thinking about my goals for 2024. A book wasn’t yet in my short-term plans as I felt that my body of work should be larger before I contemplated it. My mentor was just suggesting that a book with more focus is possible too. It’s good to know that this would interest you. I could see doing a book but maybe further in the future. You’ve given me something to think about though!

Thanks so much for the kind words about my work. I really enjoy your work as well!

Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos!

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Hi Carolyn,
That’s a name you don’t see that often - my mom’s name is Carolyn. So pretty.

Anyway…I’m curious about your abstract work. I do very little and some is accidental and I wonder about visualization. Do you have ideas about creating an abstract before you encounter a subject or does it only occur to you as you encounter a subject? How much is conceived after the fact in terms of cutting out slices of a larger scene?

Thanks for having a look at my photos and for your kind words about my work Dennis. I appreciate it!


I’m glad my name brings positive thoughts and association for you and it was fun to read about the connection with your mother’s name :-).

Thanks for the really good questions! When I’m out in the landscape, my initial visualization is quite instinctive and intuitive. I do tend to naturally see shapes and patterns in the landscape but there does need to be some type of emotional connection for me to want to make a photograph from them. That connection is likely created from my past visual references and life experiences, which are all present somewhere in my subconscious mind. Most of the time, I see what I want to photograph immediately. There are times though, when an object is quite big and/or the landscape is very complex, that I start thinking about how I abstract the shape more to make it more interesting. Conversely, sometimes abstracting the shape makes it less interesting, and then I’ll go in the opposite direction to add in different pieces to the original object, making it part of a larger cohesive whole. In these situations, I have to work at abstraction a bit more.

In the digital darkroom, I do sometimes crop an image to make it stronger. This is sometimes necessary as photographing in a moving airplane is less precise than photographing on a tripod, where you can make miniscule adjustments. Most images don’t require cropping but there are some that do. Another technique I apply in the digital darkroom is to turn the image 90 degrees four times. When you photograph something abstract in a top down manner, you can look at the image in 4 directions to see when the image is the strongest.

So, I’d say, for me, the abstraction mostly happens as a response to the landscape but there are some techniques that you can apply in post-processing that can serve to strengthen the image.

I hope that helps and let me know if you have any other questions!


I just thought of one other technique that helps with abstraction in the air. Many aerial photographers choose to photograph with a 24-70mm lens in the air to give them the flexibility to photograph a wider perspective as well as a more intimate landscape perspective. Given my preference to see and photograph in a more abstract manner, I prefer to photograph with an 85mm lens. Using this lens, you will naturally see in a more abstract manner. Up in the air, it also removes any additional decision-making while you are up there as you are looking at the world through that one focal length. I do always have a backup camera with a 24-70mm lens for when I see something that lends itself better to a wider perspective but I’d guesstimate that I use my 85mm 85%+ of the time. In the field, and not in the air, you could try a longer lens to see if you can start seeing in patterns and abstractions as well if this is an area of interest for you.

I hope that helps!


Hi Carolyn - It is great to learn more about your work. I find it so interesting that you use an 85mm lens for most of your aerials—not what I would have expected! I’d also love to see a book from you.

With your aerial work, do you want to expand on your current projects by revisiting the same places and expanding those bodies of work, or are you most drawn to new places right now? And, relatedly, do you see yourself focusing on aerial photography in the future or do you think you’ll want to continue to mix aerials with some of the other things you have done (more traditional landscapes, plants, studio work, etc)?


It’s great to hear from you and thanks for the thoughtful questions!

For my aerial work, at this moment, my location choices are based on the continual exploration of a subject matter vs a return to the same location. After my oil sands project last year, I was curious to know more about what the mining of future energy sources looks like as well. As such, I’ve been curious to photograph lithium mines as well as solar energy projects.

Separately, I’ve been fascinated by glacial pools over glaciers for some time. While my trip to Greenland was canceled, I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to fly over some very remote parts of Alaska that were just extraordinary. With those images, I am currently working on a body of work that is climate change focused. Increasingly, with aerial photography, I’m finding it’s impossible to be in the air without noticing the sheer scale of our impact on the landscape. As such, my photography is gravitating towards illustrating how human activity is impacting our environments, albeit still with more of the abstract and feminine sublime sensibility more typical of my work, rather than the more angular and hyper realistic aesthetic that is sometimes used in this genre.

As I’m more issue-based right now with my photography, I am probably more energized by going to new places but in each location, I do try to fly over the area multiple times in various conditions to experience what the landscape communicates at different times. However, if I had a landscape that was close to me that I wanted to photograph, I would definitely go back far more regularly! In some ways, it’s challenging to go back to locations for aerial photography, at least when you live in a big city without the landscapes you want to photograph nearby, because it’s expensive to travel to the location and then the aerial flights themselves are expensive. Also, as I’m working full-time, my time is also limited. Where I could drive somewhere close by on the weekends and fly a drone, that might present an opportunity where I could revisit a landscape far more regularly and I’d really enjoy that exploration.

In terms of the future, I’d definitely like to continue with a mix of aerials, landscape, botanical work and potentially even architectural work! I love aerials but it is nice to have diversity in my work. During the pandemic, inspired by your work and that of Robert Mapplethorpe’s studio work too, I started botanical photography and I loved it! Now that I am doing aerial photography again, while working, I don’t have enough time to do both and I can’t wait to get back to exploring it further. I’ve also seen some really interesting work that combines still life botanical photography and landscape photography and I think the intersection of this kind of work could be quite interesting. Separately, when photographing the solar project recently, it inspired me to learn more about architectural photography. Since these solar projects have reflective panels that often sit atop sandy surfaces, some of the images feel reminiscent of brutalist architecture. I don’t know where my photography will go but I like the idea of continuous learning and exploration. The pandemic taught me that I could happily expand into different areas of photography so I’d like to continue to do so.

Thanks so much for the encouragement on a book! Both you and Alfredo have given me something to think about. I’m looking forward to seeing all that you’ve got in progress too!

And, hopefully that wasn’t too long of an answer :-).

Hi Carolyn,
It’s great to have an opportunity here to get to know more about your work and thought process. I have very little experience in aerial photography except once during a flightseeing tour in Alaska I tried to photograph Mt. Denali from a small airplane. It was such a flurry that needless to say it didn’t go very well from photography point of view :sweat_smile:. Can you share a few tips how someone who is new to aerial photography (like me) can be better prepared in case a flightseeing opportunity comes up next time? Thanks in advance.

Thank you for such a detailed response, Carolyn. The point you make about longer focal lengths is a good one. For years a habit I’ve gotten into is to start a hike with a wider lens and go back with a longer one. This way I don’t take basically the same photos the whole time, but it also allows for a different way of seeing - in slices to a certain degree. I hadn’t thought about using that to isolate more abstract or disassociated images until you mentioned it. Very much food for thought to help expand my ability to tell the story of the place.



It’s good to hear from you and thanks for your question! It would be great to see aerial photography from you in the future!

When you’re first starting, aerial photography can definitely feel a bit frenetic. The landscape and perspective you’re seeing is so spectacular that you want to make sure you convey what you’re experiencing well. Plus, you’re fully aware of the fact that you don’t usually get the chance to do it over if you have any equipment issues. Here are my tips on how to feel as calm as possible so that you can focus on creating while you’re up in the air:

1/1000s and f5.6: My biggest source of stress at the beginning came from knowing whether my images were sharp. As you are flying pretty quickly in an aircraft that has vibrations, you want to keep your shutter speed fairly high. The general rule in aerial photography is to photograph at 1/1000s at f5.6. If it’s in a fairly sunny location, I even like to go up to 1/1600s but I am still shooting with my DSLR as the Nikon Z7II still buffers a bit. With all of the image stabilization in mirrorless cameras these days, I’m sure that 1/1000s is probably quite safe and you may even be able to go lower as you get more experienced. If you are photographing top down, or parallel to the ground, f5.6 is great to get everything in focus. If you are photographing more obliquely or diagonally to the ground, you will probably want to go up to f8 to ensure you get everything in focus.

Confidence in your equipment: Knowing this rule of thumb is great but you still need to have confidence in your equipment. I like to test my equipment before the trip and when we’re starting our flight, before we get to the area we’re photographing. If I see that everything is sharp, then I can relax and just focus on experiencing the landscape.

Two Cameras: I do also like to bring 2 cameras with me for two different reasons. I have had equipment failures up in the air so having a backup is good. Also, it is nice to have 2 different perspectives available to you up in the air without needing to fuss with lens changes. My preferred lens is an 85mm for my abstract photography but my backup is a 24-70mm which I tend to use for mountain panoramas or portraits.

Advance Scouting for General Guidance Only. Once in the Air, Go with the Flow! It’s good to do as much research in advance as you can on Google Earth so you know what’s on your route and the key areas you’d like to visit. However, you shouldn’t be tied to everything that you see on Google Earth since things will appear, in real life, that aren’t visible there, that will excite you and you’ll want to leave yourself open to those possibilities. There will also be things that disappoint you because the way you see things on Google Earth may be captured from another time of year or even years past, so the colours and shapes may be a bit different to what you saw. Basically, it’s important to have a plan but you definitely need to be open to change when you’re up there. Some of my favourite images I didn’t plan for at all!

Collaborate with Your Pilot: In advance of flying, you’ll also want to connect with the pilot so they understand the kind of photography you want to do. I will often show them my images or inspiration images and/or even print screens from Google Earth of the areas I want to photograph. It will help them as they position you over what you want to photograph. Most photographers they take up are tourists and we typically want to photograph in a different manner so it’s important they understand that. If you like top down photography, in a Cessna, the pilot will also have to be comfortable banking the plane reasonably aggressively. Getting a pilot with aerial photography experience makes a difference so definitely ask for a pilot with experience, if possible, although I have also worked with pilots who don’t have aerial photography experience and it has worked well too.

Soak it All In: And finally, make sure to have fun and take a bit of time just to enjoy yourself up there as well! Don’t have your eye glued to the viewfinder 100% of the time.

Overall, I think it’s about doing as much preparation as possible before you get into the aircraft so that when you’re in the aircraft, you can simply focus on experiencing the landscape and making images.

If you have the budget, perhaps starting off in a helicopter on a short flight might also be easier. You can just point your camera down on the landscape there and you don’t have to deal with the extra complications of banking an airplane and any of the obstructions that the plane’s wing strut and/or wheel from the landing gear may have. An airplane is nice for longer trips and keeping the overall budget lower but it is a bit more difficult to learn in.

I hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.

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