Shooting from the air can be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences a photographer can have. In this article I’ll explain how to photograph from a helicopter and achieve amazing results.
Helicopters are not cheap, so you will want to have an idea of what and how you want to shoot as well as the lens and camera settings that you will be using. Being prepared can greatly improve your experience and shots.
The first thing to consider is the helicopter operator. Depending on what and where you’re shooting will determine your scope of options. Popular tourist destinations often have multiple operators to choose from. You will want to get a good idea of what the company offers and how they conduct their flights before you get in the air with them.
As a photographer, you should look for a doors off option only. You don’t shoot from your living room or car window at home so why should you shoot through glass in the air? Windows will cause reflections that can show up in your shots and helicopter glass is not optical glass so you are more likely to see strange distortions as well as chromatic aberration. Just because a company offers a photography trip, it does not mean that it will be a doors off flight. Check into this before you book.
The next thing to consider is your seat. If the helicopter has more than four seats, it is absolutely essential to have a door seat. It will be impossible to get a good shot from anywhere else in the helicopter. If an operator will not guarantee a door seat, it is time to continue searching for one that will.
TOUR, PHOTOGRAPHY FLIGHT, OR CHARTER?
Now it’s time to decide what kind of trip you will be taking. In most cases you’re going to have to pay a little more than the standard fare in order to get consistently good shots. Most sight seeing tours fly past beautiful landmarks hardly long enough to catch a glimpse let alone long enough to take a good photograph.
It’s a good idea to look for a flight that is designed for photography. These trips are generally more relaxed and often have more time to hover when the good shots arise. The best way to ensure that you’re going to get the shots that you’re after is to charter a helicopter. This will allow you to direct the pilot throughout the entire course of the flight. Don’t be shy either. If you need the aircraft moved higher or lower, just ask. In most circumstances this will not be an issue and the pilot will be more than happy to assist. Chartered flights come at a cost though, they are often much more expensive than a single seat on a heli-tour or even a dedicated photography trip.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR YOUR FLIGHT
First off, it is important to note that you will not be able to bring any loose items with you on the flight. This includes hats, lens caps, and lens hoods. Leave them on the ground. I like to use lens cloths that I can attach to my jacket. Carson makes some good ones. This will prevent them from getting swept out of the helicopter mid flight.
You want to be as comfortable as possible during your flight so you can focus on getting the shot. The temperature in the air can be drastically different than the temperature on the ground. Check in with the helicopter operator to see what kind of conditions you should expect on your flight.
If you have long hair, you’ll want to make sure that you tie it up before the flight. you don’t want hair flying into your face or even worse, your shot.
Helicopters can be quite a bumpy ride. If you get motion sickness, it's a good ideal to take motion sickness medication before the flight.
THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR WHILE PHOTOGRAPHING IN THE AIR
Helicopters are generally safe and fun, but they can also be quite bumpy. It’s easy to accidentally hit dials and buttons that you don’t mean to when in flight. The most import button to be aware of is the lens release button. You don’t want your lens falling off mid flight. Every so often give your lens a twist towards the locked position to make sure that it is still properly connected to the camera. The last thing you want is your lens flying out of the helicopter and hitting the tail rotor. That’s a surefire way to ruin everyone’s day.
Any reputable helicopter company should be looking out for your safety and ensure that your seatbelt is properly fastened. It's you're life though, so go ahead and give the belt a tug and make sure that the buckle is secure. Try not to bump the buckle during the flight too. It would be hard to accidentally undo your seat belt but not necessarily impossible, so go ahead and glance down once in a while to make sure that you're still strapped in.
It can be easy to get caught up in the moment of shooting, but make sure to give yourself a little time to review your images and look at your histogram. You don’t want to get back on the ground and find out that all of your shots are over or under exposed because you didn’t check your settings in flight. Another thing to keep an eye out for is the rotor and skids of the helicopter. It is very easy for them to intrude into your shot when shooting with a wide angle lens. Luckily the rotors are generally pretty easy to remove in Photoshop.
WHAT CAMERA GEAR SHOULD I TAKE ON MY HELICOPTER FLIGHT?
Shooting in the air is not as easy as shooting on the land. You will only be able to take a limited amount of gear with you, so it’s important to choose wisely when you’re still on the ground. First things first. A camera strap is the most important piece of gear when it come to aerial photography. If you don’t have a strap for your camera, it won’t be flying with you. In a pinch, you can go to any hardware store and purchase some heavy duty key rings as well as some decent rope to create a makeshift strap.
Since you cannot change lenses on an open air flight, the amount of lenses that you bring with you will be determined by the amount of cameras that you own. If you have a second camera body, you can get away with bringing two lenses. Bringing two cameras also gives you a little peace of mind in the event of a camera malfunction during flight.
Your subject matter will determine which lens is right for the job. In most cases, I bring a 16-35mm and a 24-70mm. There are times that you may want a longer lens though, such as isolating textures and shooting wildlife. When shooting the lava flow in Hawaii, I used a 70-200mm with a 1.4 tele-converter on my main camera and a 24-70mm on my backup. If you are using a lens that has image stabilization, it is a good idea to turn it on.
TO POLARIZE OR NOT TO POLARIZE
Whether or not you you use a polarizer in flight will depend on your subject and the anticipated lighting conditions. When shooting over water or any reflective surface it is a good idea to use a polarizer. If you decide to use a polarizer it is good practice to spin it to the left. This will prevent you from accidentally unscrewing the filter from your lens. When using longer lenses or shooting in dark conditions it is usually best to leave the PL on the ground because it will cut a stop or two of light.
WHAT CAMERA SETTINGS ARE BEST FOR SHOOTING OUT OF HELICOPTER?
SHOOTING MODE AND SHUTTER SPEED
Helicopters can shake quite a bit in flight, so shutter speed is king when you’re in the air. If your shutter speed is set too low you’ll have a bunch of blurry images of what could have been that once in a lifetime shot. For this reason, it is best to shoot in shutter priority mode.
The lens you choose will dictate what shutter speed you can safely shoot at. For ultra wide lenses such as a 16-35mm 1/640 is usually fast enough for sharp images, but you will get a few blurry ones shooting this slow. If you want to be certain that you’er getting sharp shots, you may want to aim for 1/800 and faster.
For mid range lenses 1/800 will usually do the trick, but you might even consider 1/1000 if you’re shooting on the telephoto side of the lens. Long lenses are the hardest to use in the air. Every vibration gets magnified the further in you zoom. Shooting with a tele in the air is a delicate dance of shutter speed, ISO and aperture. You will need to shoot at 1/1250 at a minimum and even then, you’ll be in danger of getting quite a few blurry images. If the light is bright enough, it might not be a bad idea to shoot at 1/1600 with a long lens.
ISO AND APERTURE
Since you’ll be shooting in shutter priority, the aperture will be decided by the ISO you choose and the amount of light you have to work with. It is good practice to aim for an aperture around f8 or f7.1. These apertures will help avoid the natural vignette of the lens that becomes increasingly visible when you open it up. That being said, opening up the aperture a bit more is usually the first move I make when I need to gather more light in flight. Shooting at f4 or less is perfectly fine if that is what the conditions require.
As with all photography, it is best to shoot at the lowest ISO that still allows you to get the shutter speed and and aperture that you’re looking for. On a bright and sunny day you’ll probably be able to get away with ISO 650 or 800 with a wider lens and somewhere between ISO 800 and 1250 on longer lenses. In bad weather or the edge of day lighting it is not uncommon to have to bump the ISO much higher than you normally would. I’ve been in situations where I have had to shoot at f4 ISO 4000 in order to get a sharp shot. Having a slightly grainy shot is alway better than having a slightly blurry shot.
ADDITIONAL CAMERA SETTINGS
Since helicopters shake a lot, you’ll want to increase your odds of getting a sharp shot by changing the camera’s drive mode to high speed continuous shooting. This will allow you fire off shots in bursts. I recommend shooting three to five bursts with every shot in order to ensure you get a sharp image.
If you own a camera that writes to two different types of cards, make sure that you set it to write to the fastest card in order to prevent your camera’s buffer from filling up.
It can be a good idea to lock your camera’s exposure compensation wheel. The shaking of the helicopter could cause you to bump it in flight.
Set your lens to autofocus because it will be much faster than you.
CAN YOU SHOOT PANORAMIC AND HDR PHOTOS FROM A HELICOPTER?
While you might not think its possible to shoot a panorama or HDR image in air, it is most defiantly possible. When attempting either technique, it is best if the helicopter is hovering instead of traveling. HDR images tend to be a little easier to shoot than panos but it's still a good idea to do a few attempts because the rotor will more than likely get into a few of the shots.
If you're skilled in shooting panos, go ahead and give yourself a challenge and try a few from the sky! Keep in mid that the rotor will get into wide shots so consider zooming in to somewhere between 24 and 50mm.
• Shoot in Shutter Priority. Aim for a shutter speed around 1/640 or faster on wide lenses and 1/1250 or faster on long lenses.
• Keep an eye on your aperture throughout the duration of the flight. f/8 is a great target to shoot for, but you might have to shoot much more open depending on the light conditions.
• Bump up your ISO if you are in danger of maxing out your aperture.
• Use you camera’s fastest card slot
• Spin PL filters to the left so they don’t fall off
• You may want to lock your exposure compensation wheel to prevent accidentally bumping it.
• Check your images and histogram in flight.
• Tie your hair back if it is long to prevent it from getting in your face and shots.
• Be prepared for colder weather and windy conditions in flight.
• No loose items. This includes lens caps and hoods. Sunglasses are usually ok because of the headset.
• Be careful not to bump the lens release.
• Be calm and relaxed, and have fun!