7 tips for shooting aerial photography from helicopters

March 8, 2017 - Tassiegrammer

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With the growth of the commercial / recreational drone industry there has never been so much aerial imagery produced and able to be consumed online and elsewhere. But the feeling of flying high above the ground and looking out over it while photographing from a helicopter is something that just cannot be matched by those remote controlled flying cameras.


Flying in a helicopter is very expensive though. As an average here in Australia you are looking at somewhere around $1000 / hour of flight time whether you are chartering it privately for a photography flight, or taking a tourist flight. And for that sort of money, you really want to maximise your chances of capturing some great imagery.


Here are 7 tips for shooting great aerial images from helicopters which will hopefully help you make the most of your time in the air.


Helicopter above the Whitsundays captured by Kieran Stone – Canon 5DMKIII, Canon 24-105mm @ 105mm, f/6.3, ISO400, 1/2000secs


1. Doors off

Most photographers who have experience shooting from helicopters will tell you doors off is the way to go, although not all charter flight companies will cater for this. Shooting through glass that can be dirty, tinted, curved and even introduce reflections into your images is not going to provide you with the best quality images. There is also an extra feeling of excitement when you feel the wind and get that extra sensation of having not much between you and the subjects you are photographing.


Taking a doors off flight does pose its own challenges through. Firstly you will need to limit the equipment you take up in the air. You will not be able to change lenses in the air or take any other loose gear. Anything loose poses a huge risk to objects possibly ending up in the tail rotor, and we are sure there will be no need to explain the ramifications of this. The sheer wind force can also cause issues with camera shake, particularly with larger telephoto lenses. But as long as the safety and common sense factors are accounted for (all good helicopter charter companies will ensure this happens) the benefits of a doors off flight are very much worth it for capturing the best quality images possible.


Cape Raoul Aerial

Cape Raoul captured by @tassiegrammer – Canon 5Ds, Canon 24-70mm @ 28mm, f/4.5, ISO640, 1/640secs


2. Use a fast shutter speed

This is just a general rule and you will need to judge the conditions of your flight yourself – but as a good starting point a 1/500secs shutter speed (for a 24-70mm lens) will give you good results. The longer the focal length, the faster you will need to shoot. Using shutter priority mode will be the easiest way to control this. Helicopters have the benefit of being able to fly slower as well as hover when compared to flights in a plane. Depending on your particular flight and pilot, you may be able to shoot with a slower shutter speed than what we have recommended here.


To achieve the faster shutter speed as well as maintain a good depth of field, you will need to increase your ISO. Again, a good starting point would be ISO640 with adjustments either up or down based on the amount of light your scene has, as well as helping you to achieve the required depth of field you will need to achieve the best results at your selected shutter speed.


Hill Inlet - Whitsundays

Hill Inlet captured by Kieran Stone – Canon 5DMKIII, Canon 24-105mm @ 35mm, f/8, ISO200, 1/400secs


3. Take multiple cameras if you can

Taking multiple cameras gives you the option of using multiple lenses with a range of focal lengths. If you are taking a doors off flight, you will need to ensure you are using some form of harness on both cameras so they stay safely attached to you (and not risk them flying into the rear rotor). Having a variety of focal lengths gives you the flexibility to capture wider images or really tight, zoomed in images of elements within a scene. If for some reason you have an issue with one camera, you also have the option of the backup camera, and considering the price of flights this alone could ensure you still continue to capture images if you happen to have camera issues.


Cape Pillar by Tassiegrammer

Cape Pillar captured by @tassiegrammer – Canon 5Ds, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II @ 24mm, f/7.1, ISO640, 1/640secs


4. Early morning / late afternoon light

Just as with most landscape photography, the early morning and late afternoon light will produce the best results. As the sun gets higher, the amount of shadows across most scenes will increase. You will also get a lot more glare and reflections on surfaces such as water or glass which can cause issues with a lot of images. You will need to ensure that the chosen helicopter companies are allowed to operate at these times as quite often there are restrictions of when they are allowed to take off and land. Having less light across a scene also means you may need to adjust the camera settings as recommended above, so it may take a few test shots while you are in the air to ensure you are capturing sharp, well exposed images.


Whitehaven Beach captured by Kieran Stone – Canon 5DMKIII, Canon 24-105mm f/4L @ 32mm, ISO400, f/8, 1/640secs


5. Lens selection

Lens selection is going to play a big part in the images you capture. If you are able to take multiple cameras, this is less of an issue. A good starting point for the average helicopter flight that is going to be anywhere from 400 – 600 meters above the ground is a 24-70mm or equivalent lens. Most modern day cameras are going to be shooting above 20 megapixels so you are going to have the ability to crop into images. Telephotos lenses such as a 70-200mm or 70-300mm will allow you to zoom right in and isolate subjects as well as utilise the “compression” effect that telephoto lenses can provide.


Cradle Mountain aerial by Tassiegrammer

Cradle Mountain captured by @tassiegrammer – Canon 5Ds, Canon 70-300mm f/4L @ 170mm, f/8, ISO800, 1/1000secs


6. Don’t stop shooting

So you are spending $1000+ / hour of flight time and you are aiming to capture photos from the air? Then don’t stop shooting when you are up there! Quite often as photographers we already have an idea of images we want to capture in mind, but you never know what you will see when you are flying high above the landscape. Different weather conditions can have a dramatic effect on your images from day to day. Even the tiniest of variations in angles can produce slightly better images to others. Make the most of your time in the air as a photographer and keep clicking!


Kakadu aerial by Kieran Stone

Kakadu captured by Kieran Stone – Canon 5DMKIII, Canon 24-105mm f/4L @ 24mm, f/7.1, ISO200, 1/200secs


7. Take spare memory cards and batteries

So in the tip above we have recommended to not stop shooting. And if you are going to do this, you may need more than one memory card. Many mirrorless / SLR cameras allow you to use multiple memory cards. The faster the memory cards are, the quicker your camera will be able to write fast bursts of shots to them. Wear a shirt or pants with pockets that zip or button up. If they are easily accessible you should be able to change memory cards if you need to, even if you are flying with doors off.


Just as taking multiple memory cards is a good idea, taking at least one spare battery per camera could come in very handy, especially during longer flights. From my personal experience, it is extremely easy to capture 800+ images in an average half hour flight, and far, far more on longer flights. Taking that many images in a short period of time will drain your camera battery extremely quickly. Again, care will need to be taken when changing them in the air. You are better off taking spare memory cards and batteries and not needing them, than needing them and not having them on you during these expensive flights!


Fortescue Bay aerial by Tassiegrammer

Fortescue Bay captured by @tassiegrammer – Canon 5Ds, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II @ 24mm, f/8, ISO640, 1/500secs




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