A couple of years ago I had the luck to strap myself into a helicopter somewhere in New Jersey. Taking off in complete darkness, I was sitting with my feet on the skids. Soon we were flying over the Statue of Liberty and World Trade One towards Times Square. It was 31 of december, it was a couple of hours before the ball drop. I can still see the police shoppers at roughly the same hight as us. We were allowed one pass along Times Square to get a photo of it. Still this is one of the most awesome experiences I ever had. I had the luck to fly in a helicopter next to the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles less than a year later. And since then I had some fun shooting the landscapes from the Skyvan during some of the many adventures of the Aviation Photocrew. I learned a couple of things on these shoots that I will keep in mind for future flights.
It all starts with the camera gear. On my flights I always used one body, but I recommend to take two bodies with you with two different lenses. I prefer using a zoom lens because it allows you to choose how to frame a certain scene. You want your focal range to vary between wide angle (12 or 24mm) and a decent zoom (200mm for example). Make sure to use lenses with image stabilization. Most of these helicopters and small planes give a lot of vibrations. Other logical things to think of are your batteries and memory cards. Make sure they are charged, empty and big enough. Due to safety reasons you won’t be allowed to change any of those during the flight. On most of the flights I’ve done I used an 18-135 lens which gave me a lot of possibilities.
When your camera gear is ready, it’s time to plan out the shoot. Because you’re flying in an expensive helicopter, it is necessary to think about what you want to shoot. Before the New York flight we had the luck to chat with the pilot and plan out a route and the angles we wanted. The pilot in this case was Rob Marshall, a movie pilot, so we were set. He knew exactly how long everything would take and what angles would look good. Not all helicopters will hover for a photo so sometimes it might take a couple of runs to get just one photo right. Small planes are obviously unable to hover and will take even longer to make a second run. Planning makes things a lot easier. During the flight we just had to sit back and take the photos.
The L.A. flight was different in that I didn’t really ask the pilot anything beforehand. And it showed in the photos. I got to shoot most things I wanted, but some buildings and scenes would have been framed better had I told the pilot what I wanted before we took off.
When you know what to shoot it is important to think about the best time in the day to get your photo. Mostly sunrises and sunsets are the best times because of the beautiful warm lighting. For other shots you might want the sun to be higher. I even did a flight in complete darkness above New York. It was quite challenging to get the photos I had in mind, but it only shows that every time of the day has its specific look.
As with everything in aviation, safety goes first! Make sure you follow the safety briefing before the flights. Every now and then something goes wrong and a helicopter or plane ends up crashing. When things go down it’s up to you to keep yourself safe. There are a couple of simple rules you have to follow before every flight.
First of all you have to wear a harness that keeps you strapped into the helicopter or plane. You don’t want yourself to be falling out. If you use a helicopter or plane with closed doors, the seatbelts will be enough to keep you safe. The second step is to secure you camera to your harness. No one wants a camera to be flying out of a helicopter above a city. Third: everything that can come loose from your camera has to be taken off.
When choosing your ride it’s important to choose wisely. I would choose a helicopter over an airplane anytime. A helicopter usually has a better view all around than an airplane. If you can’t choose and you have to stick with a fixed wing it’s important to look at the wings. A low wing aircraft will block most of your downward view which is a bit of a problem when shooting aerial photos. High wing aircraft are usually better, but you still might have struts or even engines in the way.
Of course there’s also a difference between doors off (or open) vs doors on. Even on a helicopters it makes a huge difference. During my ride above New York I was hanging out of the helicopter with my feet on the skids. On the flight above L.A. it was with the door on and my possibilities were immediately limited. Also a lot of shots were ruined because of reflections. though those are easily prevented by using a rubber lens hood. Some planes can also fly without doors or with the door open.
As you can see I’m almost done with this blogpost and all I have talked about is the preparations before the flight. This is because during the flight you basically only have to shoot what you have planned. The only thing I can talk about are the settings and they’re pretty easy. I always keep the shutter speed as high as possible. Everyone who has been in a helicopter knows that they are shaky. So you very easily have unsharp photos. All other settings are basically up to you and what you wish to shoot.
During the night shoot above New York I had to use low shutter speeds and it was quite the challenge. Most of my shots were unsharp (also hanging out of the helicopter isn’t helpful in that case). But this shows that sometimes you don’t have the choice. I had already cranked up the ISO to levels that were close to ruining my photos with noise. In that case I can only recommend to shoot a lot of photos in bursts of a couple of shots.
When you are finally up in the air, shooting away, don’t forget to put the camera down every now and then to just have a look. You are hanging out of a helicopter over an awesome location. Take the time to make the memories and not just the photos!
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