A different perspective: places and events from above

Aerial photography specialist Massimo Sestini presents a different view of landscapes and cityscapes – and even of news as it takes place. Here he reveals how he got started, and discusses why aerial photography is so effective for everything from landscapes to photojournalism.
An aerial image of a flock of birds in a v-shaped formation flying across large wetlands in Tuscany, Italy.

Aerial photographer Massimo Sestini's images offer a different perspective – literally. He shoots dramatic landscapes and developing news stories from hundreds of metres above. This aerial view of La Riserva Naturale della Diaccia Botrona in Tuscany was shot by Massimo as part of a campaign by Tuscany's tourist board. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO500. © Massimo Sestini

Legendary photographer and photojournalist Robert Capa reportedly said: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough!" But proximity doesn't always guarantee great imagery. Sometimes the opposite is true, as aerial photographer and Canon Ambassador Massimo Sestini proves.

Massimo started out as a conventional news photographer in the 1990s but over the years has specialised in aerial photography, shooting from moving helicopters and military aircraft, hundreds of metres up in the air.

His images depict oceans, landscapes and cityscapes from a perspective very few people otherwise get to see. He has captured the well-documented beauty of Tuscany afresh for the region's tourist board, and photographed the Italian Air Force aerobatic team, the Frecce Tricolori, above breathtaking mountain landscapes and over cities at night.

His photos have also brought a unique frame of reference and sense of scale to significant news stories, including the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and the capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship in 2012. His iconic aerial shot of hundreds of refugees crowded onto a boat crossing the Mediterranean, which offered a new way of visualising the migrant crisis, won second prize in the General News, Singles category in the 2015 World Press Photo contest.

Here, Massimo talks about the power of different viewpoints and the practicalities of his gravity-defying way of working.

An aerial photograph of a road running through a ring of Italian cypress trees, with ploughed fields on both sides.

Another aerial image shot by Massimo as part of the campaign by Tuscany's tourist board to promote the region around the world. The series of 20 images premiered in Florence in 2020 at an exhibition entitled Bellezza oltre il limite (Beauty Beyond Limits). Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 100mm, 1/2000 sec, f/4.5 and ISO125. © Massimo Sestini

An aerial view of the shoreline, with hundreds of people enjoying the sandy beach and azure-blue ocean waters.

A crowded beach from an altitude of 600 metres, another image from Massimo's Tuscany series. From this viewpoint, the ocean looks even more vibrant and enticing. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 70mm, 1/2000 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Massimo Sestini

Why do you choose aerial photography, and how does seeing the world from above affect the final image?

"Photographing from very far away puts you into a situation in a more striking, memorable way than from close up because it's an unusual perspective. It's difficult to do something new in photography, especially today when everyone who has a smartphone can take pictures.

"Everything that happens today is photographed, and not only by professionals. It's a threat to our survival as photojournalists. But if you can shoot from high above with a big telephoto lens, whether it's an election, a wedding, an earthquake or a protest, you can bring home images that will have real impact."

An aerial view of the Italian countryside depicting the landscape as a series of orange, black and grey stripes.

For the 2020 campaign by Tuscany's tourist board, Massimo was tasked with creating fine art images that showed the region in a new light. From 600 metres up, the spectacular patterns in the landscape around the Italian town of Scansano become quite abstract. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 108mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5 and ISO250. © Massimo Sestini

An aerial image of people and umbrellas on a beach casting long shadows towards the waves breaking on the shore.

A closer view of the beach near San Vincenzo in the Province of Livorno, from an altitude of about 460 metres. The low morning sun casts long shadows that make people and objects more recognisable yet at the same time more abstract. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm, 1/3200 sec, f/6.3 and ISO1250. © Massimo Sestini

How much do you plan the composition of your images? Do you study the landscape beforehand?

"You have to think about what you're going to shoot before you go out, because you can't think when you're hanging out of a helicopter. In fact, when I'm shooting up high, I can't see the images I'm taking. You're so far away and the helicopter is moving at 300km/h. It's an unpredictable way of taking photographs. Ahead of a shoot, I'll sit at my desk beforehand and study how the helicopter will move, the wind and so on – but when I'm actually shooting, I don't see anything. Over the years I've learnt how to take photographs you can't visualise in the moment. You prepare and you hope for the best."

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An aerial image of more than 500 refugees crowded together on a moving boat off the coast of Libya.

Massimo shot his World Press Photo award winning image of desperate refugees while accompanying the Italian Navy on their Operation Mare Nostrum. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 100mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4.5 and ISO400. © Massimo Sestini

How did you get started in aerial photography?

"In the early 1990s, I was working as an international news photographer and covering the Mafia killing of Sicilian judge Giovanni Falcone. At the scene, I found that I was in a queue right next to all my colleagues. No one would buy my pictures if they were exactly the same as the ones shot by the photographer from Agence France-Presse. So I thought, 'What can I do?' I realised that if I could get up into the sky with a 500mm or 600mm telephoto lens, I could produce something different. The bomb explosion that killed Falcone had blown up the entire motorway and actually it was only from the sky that you could really understand what had happened."

You often accompany the military or police, but how does it work in practical terms when you're shooting aerial projects independently?

"If you're photographing big events in the public interest, you don't need to get permission. You just need a pilot you can really trust. I always work with the same pilot, a friend of mine called Marco Savoia. I worked for 15 years with another pilot, Maurizio Scarpelli, but sadly he died in a helicopter accident.

"Usually, I'll shoot images first and then sell them to news outlets, so I have to outlay the cost of hiring helicopters. This can be expensive, but I think of it as an investment – in the same way photographers invest in cameras and the other equipment we use."

Braided rivers in Iceland photographed from above to reveal their winding patterns. Taken by Lucia Griggi.

Aerial photography: following the patterns

Aerial photographer Lucia Griggi captures the abstract in Earth's natural wonders, shooting glaciers, lakes and braided rivers from above.
Aerial photographer Massimo Sestini photographs two jets flying below him from the open cargo door of an aircraft hundreds of metres in the air.

"The military are very precise in everything they do, so when you're working on a project with them you need to be able to explain clearly what you are going to be doing," says Massimo, seen here on a 2014 assignment with the Italian Air Force. © Carlos Folgoso/Massimo Sestini

In the sky above the lights of a city at night, an aircraft is illuminated by the light from the open cargo bay of a large plane.

A more recent Italian Air Force shoot continued into the twilight. To light the aircraft he was photographing, a bank of studio lights was set up in the open cargo bay of a second plane accompanying Massimo's. "We created a studio in the sky – the first time this has been done in the history of photography," he says.

What's your standard kit for aerial photography?

"Around my neck, I have three camera bodies with different lenses. I wear paratrooper goggles and knee pads. I need my aerial photography camera to be very fast and high performance, so I use the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III or the Canon EOS R5 with a selection of lenses providing me with a focal length range from 11mm to 1,000mm.

"I use cameras with large pixels in the sensor, because larger pixels let in more light. You get less noise when working at a high ISO, and it reduces the risk of blurring in your images in low light. I can't wait to try the autofocus capabilities of the EOS R3 – it's difficult to focus manually when you're shooting from a fast-moving helicopter!

"The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is the lens I find most useful because from altitudes around 150 metres, it has a focal range that allows you to get close but also to achieve a pin-sharp shot. I also use the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens a lot – I choose my focal length according to the distance I am from the subject, which is often determined by what the weather conditions allow."

An aerial image of Italy's Air Force aerobatic display team flying above a snow-covered mountain range in the twilight, trailing green, white and red coloured smoke.

The Italian Air Force aerobatic team, the Frecce Tricolori, over the Italian Alps. The aircraft are illuminated by studio lights in a second plane accompanying Massimo's – but because Massimo's remote flash trigger had a maximum range of about 100 metres, he explains, "it was really important to keep the photographic plane and the flash plane close to each other to maintain a connection. Success depended on the skill of the pilots." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.4 and ISO500. © Massimo Sestini

How has aerial photography changed for you since you started out in the 1990s?

"The camera technology allows me to do things now that I couldn't have done before. I can shoot at night, out at sea in complete darkness apart from the moon and the stars. That would have been unthinkable before the technology evolved in the way it has.

"There's also more demand for aerial photography, not just as photojournalism but as fine art. Working with aerial photography, it's easy to create images that are also artworks people want to hang in their homes."

How do you feel when you're shooting from hundreds of metres up?

"Above the clouds I feel completely free – both free from thoughts and creatively free. I love it, I really do."

Rachel Segal Hamilton

Massimo Sestini's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Massimo Sestini's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS R5

Capture sensational 45MP photos at up to 20fps or cinematic 12-bit 8K RAW video using the entire width of the camera's sensor. "The R5 is my favourite camera, for portraits and in general," says Massimo.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K RAW video. Massimo says: "The EOS-1D X Mark III is unbeatable in low light. I often use it for underwater photography, aerial photography and sport."

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

At the heart of the EOS-1D X Mark II is a Canon-developed CMOS sensor that marks the next generation of professional image quality in the EOS line-up. "I use the EOS-1D X Mark II in tandem with the Mark III when I need to switch frequently between different lenses," says Massimo.


Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

Capture the world with outstanding flexibility and quality with a super compact f/2.8 telephoto zoom that incorporates a five-stop Image Stabilizer to ensure great handheld results, closer focusing down to 0.7m and fastest-ever AF.


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