how to shoot photos from a helicopter
- the pilot will go through the safety procedures so I will not discuss those here
- most tourist operations require 3 paying passengers
- make sure you get a window seat, preferably the front seat but not a front centre seat
- consider ability to re-schedule the flight if weather conditions are not conducive to your photography needs (eg. full overcast sky)
- standard tour flights generally fly to a script flight which usually only gives you one fly by of each subject
- if you are chartering the flight without having to manage with other tourists there may be opportunity to discuss what you would like to achieve with the pilot before take off - and communicate with the head sets during the flight
- it generally gets warm with doors on despite the air conditioning and direct sunlight so wear clothes to suit
- remember you can't use tripods or monopods and stabilising against the helicopter is useless as it vibrates - you WILL have camera shake - make sure you use a fast shutter speed and if possible image stabiliser!
- take 2 cameras each with wide aperture lenses if you can to avoid changing lenses during flight
- ensure batteries are charged and you have plenty of space on your memory cards
- avoid taking crappy f/3.5-5.6 kit lenses if you can
- consider short flights in calm weather if motion sickness is likely to be an issue
- choose the best time of day for good lighting on your subject
Uluru, Kata Tjuta and a setting full moon at sunrise from a helicopter
In the foreground is the aboriginal village which is off limits to whites without invitation
Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro weatherproof lens at 40mm (80mm in full frame terms) f/2.8 ISO 800 1/1600th sec with IS on.
- consider having the doors removed before take off if possible or shoot through a small open window
- ideally one would shoot with the doors removed but most commercial operators will not allow this and the extreme wind conditions will make it near impossible to change lenses and you need to use secured clips to camera and backpack to keep your gear safe from falling out
- keep yourself and your lens INSIDE the helicopter as the powerful down draft will cause lens vibration and can cause you physical injury
- attach yourself to helicopter at two points (eg: the frame and floor) plus your seatbelt. If you do not have a harness – tape the seatbelt clasp liberally with gaffers tape, although most would recommend flying without doors only if there is a harness - and test it before take off!
- ensure there are no loose items, no glasses, and nothing in your pockets - use carabiners to secure everything.
- holding onto the camera requires a strong grip - use a wrist strap not a neck strap as the wind will blow your camera neck strap off of your head and tangle it with those headset accessories
- duct tape your lens hood on or you will lose it, or better still, don't take it at all
- dress warmly as there will be wind chill and avoid loose clothing such as hoods as these will be very annoying in the wind
- you may wish to use a polarising filter for more color saturation but this will require a higher ISO!
- you may need to be shooting at shutter speeds faster than 1/1000th sec in these conditions!
- otherwise shoot through windows
- if doors are not removed, you need to shoot through the windows
- most are plastic windows
- you must not put lens against the window as it will scratch the window
- avoid using polarising filters as these tend to give weird artifacts on plastic windows
- reduce reflections by wearing dark clothes
- lens choice
- wide aperture lens will help achieve faster shutter speeds to reduce camera shake
- a lens which gives great optical performance across the whole field wide open will allow you to shoot wide open and get faster shutter speeds and lower ISO - however, most full frame lenses need to be stopped down to achieve this.
- depth of field (DOF) is generally not a major factor to consider although it can be in some situations so if shooting in low light, consider a good wide aperture prime lens as an option
- field of view - if the lens is too wide angle it will get the helicopter rotor blades and or skids in the image
- a 24-80mm f/2.8 lens in full frame terms would be ideal for most images
- a f/2.8 telephoto zoom can be useful - preferably mounted on a 2nd camera body to avoid needing to change lenses, however, it is generally better to have the helicopter get closer as shooting from a distance results in low contrast, haze and often difficulty with autofocus, plus the longer focal length requires faster shutter speeds and higher ISO to combat camera shake
- if you are shooting without doors, a 14-28mm field of zoom lens can also be useful
- if your framing will catch the rotor blades, take a burst of shots and hopefully at least 10% will have no blade in the shot
- camera settings
- the main aim is to use a shutter speed fast enough to combat the helicopter-induced camera shake
- wide enough aperture for the desired depth of field (DOF) and to give a fast shutter speed - f/2.8-f/4 and ISO 800-1600 would be ideal for most wide angle lenses on cropped sensor cameras although you may need f/5.6-f/8 and ISO 1600-6400 on a full frame camera
- ensure camera or lens is not touching the helicopter to reduce higher frequency vibrations, use image stabiliser if possible, and a fast shutter speed of around 1/1000th sec, however, if your flight is smooth and you want to shoot in low light at slower shutter speeds around 1/100th-1/250th sec with a wide angle lens.
- determine the slowest shutter speed you can get away with and then adjust ISO to ensure your shutter speed is faster than this (consider using auto ISO with the maximum ISO set for your camera's desirable noise limits eg. ISO 6400 on full frame, ISO 1600-3200 on cropped sensor cameras)
- ensure you shoot in RAW mode as you are likely to want to do post-processing
- use AF if you can as movement in the helicopter may alter your carefully set manual focus position
Kata Tjuta and a setting full moon at sunrise from a helicopter
Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 pro lens at 110mm (220mm in full frame terms) f/2.8 1/2500th sec ISO 400 IS on, vignetting bottom right is from the front passenger's head gave more mood to the scene
Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 pro lens at 120mm (240mm in full frame terms) f/3.5 (for a touch more DOF), focused on the distant mountains, 1/1600th sec ISO 400, IS on - gives just enough DOF to make the foreground Kata Tjuta subject reasonably sharp although perhaps in this situation more DOF and higher ISO may have been better, although I like the 3D depth feel that this is giving.