How to shoot from a helicopter. A few tips.

Joined
Jan 21, 2012
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393
Location
Canada
Helicopters offer an amazing platform for aerial photography, but it can be difficult to achieve the desired results if you haven't got prior experience in the air. Helicopter flights are expensive, and most of us wouldn't want to pay to repeat a flight because the photos didn't turn out.
I fly for a living and shoot mostly for fun, so here are a few tips on how to successfully photograph from a helicopter.

The first question is:
Are you going on a tourist scenic flight, or are you hiring a helicopter solely for the purpose of aerial photography?
(For most people reading this, it'll be the former, but I've also found myself sitting next to somewhat ill-prepared professional photographers on a dedicated photo charter.)


If the flight is a fixed-price scenic tour or tourist joyflight:
Your pilot is most likely following a more-or-less strict route, and definitely trying to finish the flight in the allocated amount of flight time. Thus he/she will be somewhat limited in what he/she can do to help you get a shot.
You need to find out where exactly the flight will take you, so you know on which side of the machine you should sit to get the best photos, and how much focal length you should bring.


Doors?
As a general rule, you'll get much better results if the helicopter is flying without doors, or has large sliding windows that can be opened. Helicopter windows are usually perspex and not that great to shoot through, but on a scenic joyflight, you may not have a choice.
You can see the difference in clarity in the background of this photo:
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However, if the windows are reasonably clean and you can get your lens close enough to avoid reflections, you can get good results either way. Wear something black to reduce reflections, and bring a rag to clean the inside of the window. Be careful not to scratch the window with your lens, they are extremely expensive...


Weather and Visibility
There is a huge difference between a slightly hazy day and a clear day, for example after a storm. You'll at least be several hundred meters away from your subject, a little haze or smog can make all the difference in contrast and sharpness
Generally, the same weather that you'd usually want for a mountain-landscape shot will also work when shooting from the air (good visibility, blue skys or scattered clouds, but not overcast).


Time of the Day
I prefer mornings because the air is usually clearer and the light is better, but aerial photography isn't limited to the dawn/dusk hours. Even the middle of the day can work fine, depending on the subject. Sometimes, the steeper angle of the sun actually reduces unwanted shadows. The weather is usually more important than the time of the day.

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"The Olgas at Dawn", Australia. Shot through a dirty windscreen.


Ok, so what do I bring?
If the flight is a sightseeing trip, you will most likely not have enough room or time to mess with different lenses, filters, bodies and other gear. Bring a "normal" zoom, something like a 24-70mm or 24-120mm (or the DX equivalent) is the most versatile. If shooting landscapes only, or if you want to show the inside of the helicopter, grab the widest zoom you have. E.g. a 16-35mm or equivalent. If you do carry 2 lenses, take the widest lens you have, and a normal/wide zoom.

If you are on a chartered photo flight, you will have more room and can bring more gear, but you'll also have to make sure the stuff doesn't fly out the open door. Not just because of the gear: anything that falls out of a moving helicopter can potentially hit the tail- or main rotor and cause some serious trouble.
Bring 2 bodies, both need to be worn with a neck-strap, or strapped to you in some other way at all times. Leave camera bags behind. Clarify with the pilot before the flight if there is storage room for loose items such as extra lenses. Attach smaller items (cleaning cloth etc) to yourself with those retractable ski-pass holders. Tape lens hoods to the lens, or don't take them at all.
Some pros fly with an assistant who sits in the back and helps to take care of all the gear.
Regarding lenses: This depends on your subject, and on the height/distance you will be flying at. Find out before the flight how low, high, and how close the pilot can legally go, and make your choice accordingly. In any case, I would always carry a wide zoom on one body, and either a midrange or tele-zoom on the other. Anything bigger than a 70-200mm/2.8 is too hard to handle in the air, and really only for special applications. Fish-eyes are great for cockpit shots (a fill flash helps for these, but ask the pilot first...), other than that I would not bother with fixed lenses.

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self portrait with 18mm equivalent on a D90 in my left hand, over the middle of absolutely nowhere.


Gear redundancy
If you are chartering, bring two bodies, spare cards and a spare battery. Borrow or rent a spare body if you don't have one. The cost is insignificant compared to the cost of the flight.


Camera Settings and handling
The obvious problem in a helicopter is the vibrations. Helicopters are actually a lot more stable in turbulence than comparable fixed wing aircraft, but there is always some sort of a shake due to the engine (more so in piston helicopters) and/or the rotor system. More rotor blades usually means less vibration, but this also depends on speed, and on how well the rotor system is adjusted.

- Try not to touch any part of the helicopter with your camera or even your arms when shooting. Let your body dampen the vibration.
- Keep your lens inside the cabin and out of the slipstream! (it is VERY windy out there...)
- Use shutter speeds above 1/500s for a higher keeper rate, and faster than that for longer lenses.
- You can usually open the aperture right up, focus will be at infinity anyways.
- Activate VR if able (use "active mode"), at least if below 1/500 or 1/1000.
- Bring the biggest cards you have, and use burst mode.
- Careful with wide angles or when shooting "up". You might get a rotor blade in the frame, especially in helicopters with more than two blades. Again, use burst mode and fire off a few shots.


A few more tips for photo-charters:
- bigger helicopters are more expensive, but usually also faster and a bit more versatile, e.g. they may be able to hold a stable hover in mid air, where a small 2-seater would struggle. 4-5 seaters, or some larger 2-seaters are the best compromise.
- The Robinson R44 4-seater is the most common machine used, and quite economical for its capabilities. There is room for an assistant (or spectator) in the back.
- The Schweizer 300 is a smaller machine, that is also very popular as a photo platform. It is cheaper per hour, but also a lot slower than the R44, so it can take longer to get to the location. 2 (useable) seats.
- The Robinson R22 2-seater is the cheapest, but has a very small cockpit and low weight limitations.
- Larger turbine helicopters such as the Bell 206 (5 seats) or Eurocopter AS350 (6 seats) are often used at higher altitudes or when heavier equipment (such as stabilized video gear) has to be carried. They are also great for photography, but generally a lot more pricey than the piston-powered machines.
- I would categorically not get into any home-built or experimental helicopter, period. They are also typically illegal to use for commercial hire, so buyer beware.

- Having a pilot who has some experience in photography flights can be a huge help.
- Pre-plan your flight as good as possible. For example, if you need to shoot a certain building on the ground, bring a google earth printout, and tell the pilot what you want to achieve and what you need, e.g. "First I want to do some wide shots first from relatively high up, from the south and south-east. Then another lap at lower height for some close-ups". I've flown with some pros who can get the shots they wanted in a fraction of the time that others would need, simply by doing this.
- Helicopters are less stable and shake more when they are hovering in mid-air. When possible, we try to keep the machine moving forward slowly. Try to look ahead and be ready to shoot when the helicopter is in the right spot, so the pilot doesn't have to stop or back up. You will get better results, and a happier pilot.


That turned out longer than I thought, but maybe it'll help. If anyone else here as experience with aerial photography, feel free to add to this topic!
 
Last edited by a moderator:
Joined
May 19, 2009
Messages
1,689
Location
West Coast, South Africa
Thank you, this is very nicely put together.
Another hint: if you can get your hands on a Kamov Ka-27 or 32, then you will have even less vibration (due to twin main rotor, and lack of tail rotor).

:tongue:
 

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