Mason Marsh
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Get To The Choppuh! – Make the Most of Photographing From a Helicopter

While drone photography is all the rage these days, there is nothing like taking to the sky in person to elevate your photography and get your heart racing. Whether you are chartering a helicopter specifically to make photos or hopping on a sightseeing flight, there are several things to consider before the rotors start spinning.

What to Know About Flying and Shooting

Ive had the thrill and pleasure of flying in a lot of amazing helicopters over the years. U.S. Army Blackhawks, U.S. Coast Guard Dolphins, Korean-era Bell 47s (remember the ones from M*A*S*H?), an air ambulance, and most recently a Bell Jet Ranger have been platforms for my camera. The Jet Ranger flight was part of a Sony event last month in Portland, Oregon to launch the new A7R Mark II camera. The Sony PR staff had chartered two helicopters to fly us around Mt. Hood and test the new cameras above alpine wilderness. I never, ever turn down the opportunity to fly in a helicopter, so I was anxious to be in one of the first groups to fly. You see, it pays to think ahead when you are going to be photographing from a helicopter.

As it turned out I was one of only four people to fly that day, while the rest of the 30+ journalists at the junket were left with images from less lofty heights.

Tip #1: Always Fly First.

Helicopters are notoriously high-maintenance machines. For every few hours of flight time, they typically require an hour of work. They are, after all, thousands of small parts flying in a tight formation. Knowing this, and also considering that we would be launching from Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood, which sits at just over 6,000 feet above sea level, I calculated that my chances of getting a good flight were much greater sooner rather than later. Sure enough, upon stepping off our bus we were told that one of the two helicopters parked in front of us was now waiting for parts and a mechanic, which left the old Jet Ranger. I scrambled to be in the first group and made it. If you are chartering a flight, try to book it first thing in the morning. The light will be nicer, the air smoother, and the helicopter will be working properly. If you are joining a sightseeing flight, look for the first flight of the day. With my spot secured, I set my sights on tip #2.

Tip #2: Sit In The Front.

Anyone who has ridden in a car knows the view is better from the front, and in a cramped helicopter its a dramatically better vantage point. In the back seat most helicopters seat three people across, just like a small car. Obviously, the person in the middle is going to have the worst view. The two at each rear door will have decent views directly out of the side of the aircraft, but no good photography angles toward the front. Most chartered and sightseeing helicopters fly with a single pilot, which leaves the left-side front seat open for a passenger. This is the seat you want, trust me. Not only will you have a larger door to shoot out of to your left, you will have the entire front windscreen available to see and photograph out of. Helicopter pilots don’t really care how good the glass is beside them, but they really like having spotless glass up front, and that is your window to the world. By sitting up front you will also have more room to work and you’ll be aware of what is coming up so you can plan your shots accordingly. I grabbed the front seat of the Jet Ranger and immediately went to tip #3.

Tip #3: It Doesnt Hurt To Ask.

Tip #4: Don’t Fool Around With Your Gear.

I was a newspaper photographer back in the days of film, and I learned fast that loading film, changing lenses and swapping out batteries becomes much harder in the vibrating confines of a helicopter cabin. A good strategy for working in a helicopter is to bring two cameras outfitted with fresh batteries, large empty memory cards and lenses well suited for flight. I prefer to use a wide zoom or prime on one body and a 70-200mm zoom on the other. I leave the lens hoods in the bag and I leave the bag on terra firma. I put extra memory cards and batteries in my chest-level pockets and strap in for the ride. Unless you are working with an assistant in a chartered helicopter, your best bet is to keep both cameras on neck straps. If you weren’t able to talk the pilot into removing your door, straps are probably just going to get in the way so you can remove them. You will be wearing a five-point harness for a seat belt and a corded headset, so whatever you can do to minimize the mess around your neck the better your flight will be. Keeping your limited space organized and controlled is critical, but not as critical as this next tip.

Tip #5: Respect Your Pilots Space.

If you are in the front seat, you will be very close to the pilot. There will be many, many switches, levers, and instruments that the pilot will be incredibly protective of. As you pivot and lean to compose your shots, be very careful not to intrude on the pilots workspace. Most commercial helicopter pilots are very adept about letting passengers know where they can and can’t be. Listen to them and you will have a friend in the sky. Violate their space and you will have a lot less fun. Speaking of fun, check out tip #6.

Tip #6: Talk To Your Pilot.

I haven’t met a pilot yet who didn’t appreciate some pleasant conversation. You will likely be on a headset so you will be able to chat with your pilot. Save your words for after takeoff and be sure your pilot is done talking with any air traffic controllers before you start talking. On my Jet Ranger flight I learned that our pilot was new to Oregon and we enjoyed a nice talk about the amazing terrain scrolling below us. We talked about cameras and he seemed to be genuinely curious about what we were doing. Your pilot is a person who has a tough job, but its a fun job. They love to tell stories and answer questions, but keep it casual. Be aware of your headset mic and be sure you aren’t crashing your camera into it as you shoot. You can pivot the mic boom up over your forehead if its in the way. As a photographer, you may have specific goals in mind on your flight. Let the pilot know if you want to circle that volcanic crater or make a lower pass on that glacier. If they can do it safely, most pilots will oblige your requests. Let them know how much you appreciate them by remembering tip #7.

Tip #7: Send Them A Photo.

There isn’t a pilot alive who isn’t proud of what they do. A really great photo of them at work will be greatly appreciated and not soon forgotten. I always try to get the pilots email or physical address and when I get the chance I send them a nice print and a high resolution JPEG. Of course, nice photos won’t happen if you don’t make them. Consider tip #8.

Tip #8: Shoot Smart.

A helicopter is a vibrating machine, and those vibrations will test your cameras image stabilization,(if it has it). To be confident that you are going to get tack-sharp images from your expensive helicopter flight use image stabilization if you have the option and go for a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. If you don’t have IS, aim for 1/2000 or higher. Use spot metering to be sure your camera isn’t trying to balance the bright exterior world with the dim helicopter interior. On land I almost always shoot in manual mode, but in a helicopter I tend to favor Speed Priority mode. While your pilot is going through his or her pre-flight checklist, shoot some test shots and scrutinize the histogram. Be sure all of your cameras are set up for flight and double check those battery levels and card capacities! In the spirit of pre-flight checklists, here is mine:

  • Battery at 100%
  • Memory card has plenty of space
  • Camera is set on Speed Priority or Manual mode
  • Spot metering on
  • ISO is suitable for high shutter speed shooting
  • Drive mode is on continuous (maybe even continuous high)
  • Camera is in RAW mode
  • White balance is set appropriately (be aware of tinted plexiglass)
  • Camera strap secure (door off) or removed (door on)
  • Test shot made and histogram checked
  • Seatbelt is securely fastened (without pinning the camera strap)
  • Headset is on and microphone is out of the way of the camera
  • Extra batteries and cards tucked into chest pockets

When you are airborne, enjoy the ride and make the most of your limited time in the helicopter. Compose carefully and remember tip #10.

Tip #9: Remember the Blades.

Helicopter rotors spin at insane rates, so you won’t actually see them when you are in flight. At 1/1000 of a second or higher, your camera will see them. If you are shooting with a wide-angle lens be aware of the rotor disc (the path of the blades as they spin) and try to keep it above the top edge of your frame. If you have to shoot through the rotor disc, shoot a lot and you will likely get a shot without a pesky rotor tip intruding. You can always clone out rotor tips, but its much easier not to have to.

On my recent flight over Mt. Hood, I scored hundreds of good images and I had a blast. After the Jet Ranger landed and we hopped out, the second group of journalists piled in. Their flight only lasted a few minutes after the old Jet Ranger started to overheat. They landed safely and both helicopters sat idle for the rest of the day. By jumping on the opportunity to fly first, sit in the front seat, and play nice with the pilot I had a wonderful flight. I hope your next adventure in the sky is just as memorable and productive.

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