Photographing From a Helicopter

You’ve arrived in some distant land, and you have a few days to come back with an array of publishable images.  It’s easy if you want to photograph people in common tourist locations.  But what if you are out for something different?  If you are like me, you’ll want to shoot nature without the people, which means photographing in isolated spots.

You can load your gear in a four wheel drive vehicle and drive to some pretty amazing places, and you can even get back out again undamaged if you take reasonable precautions.  But as versatile as a 4WD is, there are places a motor vehicle won’t take you.  For those, a helicopter may be the answer.  

Helicopters can take us to remote locations and save days of trekking in and out.  They can take us where there are no roads, and provide a unique point of view as a flying camera platform.  We can look into areas that are closed to foot travel – like flood zones or active lava fields. 

Even at 500 feet you'll feel the heat of a lava field like this.  (c) 2016 John Robison 

Many resort destinations and most big cities have helicopter services.  They may run multi-passenger sightseeing and photo tours, offer birds for charter, or both.  If you are working for a client with deep pockets, the best results come from making a flight plan and chartering the helicopter.  The only drawback is cost – charters start at $1,000 in most places and can hit five figures pretty quick. 

Hughes 500 with doors off - an ideal 4 seat photo platform.  Courtesy Paradise Helicopters, Hilo, HI
Image (c)2016 John Robison

Multi-passenger tours are usually a lot less costly; anywhere from $150 to $1,000 depending on length and location.  But there are several issues with tours that a photographer should be aware of.  First is the helicopter itself.  Many tours use larger choppers with three-wide seating in back. That means you could be stuck in the middle.  The next issue is speed – to keep costs down, tours tend to be conducted fast so it will be hard to get good images. Finally, there are the windows – a multi passenger charter will almost always have doors in place (for safety, quiet, and comfort) which means you have to shoot though the windows, complete with reflections, scratches, and limited fields of view.

The best option is a flight where the pilot hovers or circles slowly above photo targets, and flies with the doors off.  This will allow a clear field of view, limited only by the photographer’s courage and flexibility.  Not every air service flies doors-off, so you should investigate that options before making a commitment.  You should also make sure you are up for it.

Flying in a helicopter without doors is a much more intense experience than conventional touring.  The first thing you notice is the wind, which you will feel as soon as the pilot opens the throttle to take off.  Without doors there is a constant blast of air through the cabin.  Changing lenses, memory cards, or batteries is absolutely out of the question.  You’ll have your hands full just holding onto the camera.

The next concern with doors-off flying is that you look straight out of the chopper.  There is nothing between you and the ground but the safety belt.  Be sure it is latched!  When the pilot reaches a photo site, he will likely heel the helicopter onto its side, allowing you to look almost straight down.  Needless to say, some photographers find that quite disconcerting.  Do not drop your camera in alarm.

When you are in the air you’ll be in a world of sensory overload.  For me, it’s all I can do to press the shutter button – I need to make sure all the camera settings were done beforehand.  I’ll go through them next.

Lava pours from the left side of the volcano (c) 2016 John Robison

Shutter speeds should be 1/1000 of a second or faster to minimize motion and vibration blur.  Don’t let the camera touch any part of the helicopter while shooting.  Some people say you should shoot wide open for minimum noise, but I prefer to stop down to f5.6 where many pro lenses are sharpest. That gives a little more leeway on focus. 

Remember a camera that autofocuses perfectly on the ground may be a little bit less perfect with the vibration of flight and wind buffeting the lens barrel. Flying makes for a much more adverse shooting environment than most ground-based settings.

Always shoot in “continuous high” mode and get bursts of 3-4-5 shots of anything important.  That way you are likely to have at least one shot with no rotor blades at all, and if necessary the multiple frames will allow you to edit a blade out of a critical shot.  Anytime you shoot to the sides the blades are a concern.  And the worst thing is, you won’t have any idea till you process the photos after landing. 

You may think you won’t have spinning blades in your images but it’s impossible to avoid as the helicopter banks.  Any shot that includes the horizon mid-frame can have blades in the image.  The only clear field of view is straight down, and that is very hard to do because you are in the full force of the wind with an open door.  Closed door, rotor blades are almost always going to be in the frames.

This lava field shot is a low angle, but there's still a blade in the shot.  Luckily several other shots in this burst are clear.  This is why you should always use CH shooting mode - the blades are invisible when shooting.  (c) 2016 John Robison

The next question is what lens to use.  Most helicopter shooting is wide angle, and the photojournalist’s 24-70 2.8 is a great choice.  Wider lenses can bring you in close but they will be very difficult to lock onto a target unless the pilot can hover (think charter, not tour) and they will need even higher shutter speeds to be clear.  Image stabilization seems to be of little use at these shutter speeds and vibration levels.  Pro lenses are going to give markedly better results.

As for the body – the more rugged the better.  I am a Nikon shooter and have used both D4s and Df bodies with good success.  The Df has the advantage of being smaller, which counts for a lot in a small helicopter.  All helicopters are hostile environments for equipment.  The chances of the camera being slammed and shaken are very high.  Be sure you have a good strap and make sure it’s tight around you before takeoff.

Remember – the bigger the lens the harder the wind will hit if you stick it out the doorway.  It’s going to be impossible for most people to hold anything more than a 24-70 doors off for that reason.

Do not use a lens shade when flying doors off - it will be blown off in the wind.  You may want to use a polarizer, but the need to spin it adds one more complication and the loss of light may cause trouble with high-ISO noise.  Remember the sensory overload thing . . . keep the camera as simple as possible in the air.

Be sure your pockets are all zipped.  Wear a sweater and a windbreaker.  Whatever the ground temps you will often find yourself flying in air 20-30 degrees cooler and when you add a 75mph wind . . . it gets chilly.  If you wear glasses I strongly suggest an elastic strap tight against the back of your head.  No caps or scarves allowed.

The pilot should give you a headset with a microphone to talk back.  Most headsets are noise cancelling, and they will help hold your glasses in place.  The most common are the David Clark aviation headsets, which do an excellent job mitigating noise.

And one final bit of advice – don’t forget to take a moment and actually look at the scenery. 

Helicopters can bring you to otherwise inaccessible places (c) 2016 John Robison

John Elder Robison is a NY Times bestselling writer and photographer.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.


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