Cameras and helicopters are just made for each other.
The perspective is unusual, the possible shooting positions are endless and you can move to several different locations within seconds. When you’re in the air with a camera, the pictures almost make themselves.
Most of my recent aerial photography work has been of golf courses for Golf Digest Magazine. Using an aerial platform over a course is sometimes the only way to get certain kinds of images and a great way to show the architecture and context of the course.
But, once you decide that a helicopter is the only way to get a certain shot, there are a few critical decisions and strategies that can make your pictures better, and possibly save your life.
Choosing A Helicopter
The first choice, of course, is the helicopter itself.
The two most common choices are the Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters. These are small, reliable, piston-driven helicopters and they generally can be rented for between $450 and $700 an hour depending on which aircraft you choose and where you rent from. The R22 is a 2-passenger aircraft that has a cruising speed of 110 mph. The R44 is a 4-passenger model that is a wonderful aerial platform, has a cruising speed of 130 mph and only rents for a little bit more than the R22. In both models, the doors can be removed for photography.
The R22 is one of the few helicopters available for rental that doesn’t have a rear seat and is a great choice when you don’t have to work with multiple cameras and lenses. In most cases though, working in the back seat is the way to go because it gives you plenty of room to move about without worrying about interfering with the pilot or accidentally bumping into any of the flight controls. I generally sit in one rear seat, and lay a backpack filled with cameras and lenses on the other seat. If I have an assistant with me to help with the cameras while we’re in the air, they can also sit in the back seat with me.
After the Robinson helicopters, the next step up is usually the Bell 206 JetRanger turbine-powered helicopter. It has a similar cruising speed to the Robinson R44 and from a photography standpoint, it’s nearly identical. The JetRanger has a higher-pitched whine from the turbine power plant and it has a little better ride on the way to the shoot. But, once you arrive over the location, the JetRanger and the Robinson’s are both terrific. The doors are also removable on the JetRanger. An hour will run between $850 and $1100.
If money is no object and you wish to shoot from the premier aerial platform, rent an Aérospatiale Eurocopter AS350 or EC130. Both are turbine-driven, tri-rotor helicopters that are two of the smoothest riding aircraft available. Both cruise at 150 mph and they are amazingly stable. These are the helicopters you most often see fitted with a gyro-stabilized camera on the nose of the aircraft when they’re being used for TV news gathering. The EC130 is a bit wider than the AS350 and it also has a Fenestron—an enclosed tail rotor that makes the helicopter safer and quieter. They are downright luxurious inside and they have the added benefit of a sliding rear door. This allows you to ride to the location with the door closed, slide it open while you shoot, and then close it for the return flight. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you have a 25-minute flight to the location on a cold morning, that 150 mph breeze will have you shivering before you take the first frame. An hour in either of these will run between $1200 and $2000.
Once you’ve decided which aircraft is right for the task, the next consideration has to be safety. In my view, there are three rules that are critical to having a safe aerial photo shoot:
- Don’t fall out of the helicopter.
- Don’t drop anything from the helicopter.
- Don’t walk near the rear of the helicopter.
Most of my aerial photography is done with at least one door removed. This gives me complete freedom to move without having to try to shoot through a little window. Of course, once the door is off, the only thing keeping me in the helicopter is my harness or seat belt. Many times my feet are actually resting on the outside skids of the helicopter while I shoot, so I always want to be sure that I’m strapped in securely. Some helicopter companies can provide you with a harness restraint intended to hold you safely inside. Most times though, the standard restraint is a seatbelt. This is usually sufficient, but most helicopters use the same kind of buckle that you’ll find on a commercial airplane—the kind where you lift up on the buckle to remove it. Snagging your camera strap on the buckle could easily disengage the two pieces and leave you attached to the helicopter by nothing more than gravity. The solution is the addition of several wrappings of gaffer’s tape to be certain that the buckle can’t be lifted. Fifty-cents worth of tape can make a life or death difference in your safety.
As a way to make sure nothing falls or flies from the helicopter, I bring along several straps to secure my camera backpack and anything else that could inadvertently fly out of the open door. I care far less about losing something than I do about a wayward jacket or hat impacting the tail rotor and suddenly making the aircraft uncontrollable. To be absolutely safe, fasten everything securely inside the cockpit.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that the tail rotor is the most dangerous part of a helicopter. The reason? It’s almost invisible when it’s spinning and it’s very easy to walk right into it. Tragically, a few people have actually survived a hard helicopter landing only to be killed by the tail rotor as they left the aircraft in a panic. The best policy is to either wait until the pilot shuts the engine down completely or always make a point to walk toward the front of the aircraft.
Once you’re in the air, it’s really the coordination between the pilot and the photographer that leads to great images. A skilled pilot will know what you’re after and put you in a position to make the pictures you’re looking for. Many charter companies routinely contract with news organizations and movie companies, so they’re used to the needs of aerial photographers.
Everyone on-board will be able to communicate using headphones, so it’s critical to remember that except when it comes to safety, it’s your flight and you’re the one who needs to direct the shoot. You are the best person to decide where that helicopter should be and it’s up to you to communicate with the pilot. To that end, I make it a point to know where the altimeter is in front of the pilot so I can quickly look at our current altitude, know whether I want to be higher or lower, and then make a specific request: “Can you orbit left and put us at about 400 feet with my side of the aircraft just this side of the road?” At more than $10 per minute, that kind of specificity saves time and makes the pilot’s job much easier.
When it comes to equipment and technique, there are really only two major choices to make: which lenses to shoot with and whether you’ll need a Gyro Stabilizer. The gyro stabilizer is a wonderful aid in reducing vibration and camera shake. Most rental houses carry them and they can make a world of difference in the shutter speeds necessary to freeze the movement introduced by the helicopter. Several longer camera lenses are also image-stabilized which has a similar benefit to the Gyro Stabilizer.
The lenses for aerial photography can have both aesthetic and practical reasons for their usage. Just like on the ground, longer lenses will compress the subject and wider lenses will elongate whatever you’re shooting, so choose the lens that will give you the aerial perspective you’re after. Also, keep in mind that a telephoto lens will require a much higher shutter speed to arrest the movement of the helicopter than a wide-angle lens. Finally, there may be a limit to where the pilot may be able to fly relative to the subject, so that may have a large impact on lens choices as well.
Probably the greatest challenge when shooting from the air is the air itself. If there is moisture in the air or any kind of particulate matter the pictures will be lower in contrast and saturation and they’ll have a hazy appearance. One of the best ways to counteract the haze is to try to use the widest lens you can to get the shot you want. The reason is that the less air you have to shoot through, the clearer the image will appear.
There have been a couple of occasions when the atmospheric conditions were so bad that getting any picture didn’t seem possible. The worst conditions I’ve ever faced were on the Big Island in Hawaii when ash from an erupting volcano filled the sky. We waited for days for the air to clear, but there was a deadline to meet and I had to get something that was publishable before my flight back to the mainland. My solution was the same one I use when shooting underwater in poor visibility; reduce as much of the water column as possible by using a wide-angle lens. In this case, I chose a 14mm ultra-wide lens and had the pilot fly me as close and as low as possible to fill the frame. It’s not the ideal—beautiful light and clear air are always best—but when the weather or a volcano won’t cooperate, it’s the next best choice.
Shooting from the air gives you a perspective that’s nearly impossible to achieve in any other way and the images can be truly spectacular. So, enjoy the ride, bring a jacket and don’t fall out.