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Helicopter Photography Primer

by E.J. Peiker | August 31, 2010

E.J. Peiker and helicopterEditor’s note: This article has been updated and republished from a 2004 archive. All text and images copyright E.J. Peiker, all rights reserved.

Many of the more beautiful and dramatic areas in the world offer helicopter tours to get a birds-eye view of the spectacular landscape. Helicopters are an excellent platform for photographing areas that might not otherwise be accessible from the ground. These tours tend to be expensive, so being properly prepared to make the most of the short time you have in the air is a key to not being disappointed with the results. Over the years I have been on numerous aerial photography adventures and have learned what works and what doesn’t.

Selecting your Adventure

As with most things, preparation is paramount to getting great results. This starts with picking a company that specializes in aerial tours of the area that you wish to photograph. Most people tend to book with either the company that is most conveniently located to their accommodations, or those that rope you in via hotel or resort”activities” desks. Booking your flight with one of these operators is very much photographic roulette. In most areas, all of the companies that offer flight tours will show you the same sights and offer similar rates, so that is not the biggest consideration. The most important consideration as a photographer is the type of aircraft you will be on and whether that aircraft is conducive to photography.

Helicopter companies typically will use one of the following helicopters – Aerospatiale Eurocopter, Aerospatiale A-Star, Bell Jet Ranger, or Hughes 500. The list above is in order of comfort from most comfortable to least comfortable. This list is in reverse order for being conducive to great photography.

Napali Coast, Hawaii © E.J. Peiker

The spectacular Napali Coast on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.

The Eurocopter is the Luxury car of the sky but only three of the 6 or 7 seats are window seats, and the windows are usually tinted Plexiglass. This gives you only a 50% or less chance of a window seat and a lot of light loss. In addition, the Eurocopter is flown from the right side and most tours are done in clockwise rotation, so that leaves only one window seat on the side with all of the action if you are touring an island. While most operators do orient the aircraft in multiple positions at each area of interest, while enroute between hovering points, you won’t have much to shoot if you are on the wrong side.

The A-Star is typically configured for 5 or 6 passengers with the pilot flying from the right, again leaving only one window on the right and two on the left and just a 50% chance of a window seat. The Bell helicopter is typically configured for one passenger in the front and three in back. It is flown from the right side resulting in about a 75% chance of a window seat, but the windows are small making it difficult for good aerial shooting. Shooting from all but the front seat and the middle seat in back is impossible.

By far the best helicopter for flight photography is the Hughes 500. It is configured for two passengers in front and two in back with the pilot flying from the left seat. This gives you a 75% chance of getting a window seat. Additionally, the Hughes 500 can be flown with the doors off. I highly recommend a helicopter company that flies Hughes 500 aircraft with the doors removed – don’t worry; you will be firmly strapped in with a 4- point harness. This eliminates the extra, and often poorly maintained, glass surface for maximum image quality. It also eliminates the chance for unwanted reflections off the window interiors.

Most of the better guidebooks will specify which type of helicopter the tour company uses – if not, call the companies or check their websites. When calling the company, make sure you request a window seat. While none of them can guarantee it as they will seat you according to weight and balance restrictions for the aircraft, you greatly increase your odds by requesting it. If the company says that they don’t take requests, move on to another company or take your chances with poor photographic opportunities. Arrive a half-hour before your flight to make sure you fully understand all the safety precautions and procedures. As always, flights early in the day or late in the day will provide better light for photography than those conducted in the middle of the day. You may want to select a morning or late afternoon flight based on the orientation of the land features that interest you the most. Typical cost is about $225 per hour.

If you are feeling rich, private charters are offered by most companies but at high prices – $1200 to $1500 per hour. Of course, this can be defrayed with two other photographers and that gives everyone a window. The ideal situation would be a three- photographer private charter in a Hughes 500 helicopter with no doors so that everyone gets an unrestricted view and you can spend as much time at a site as you want rather than on a prearranged schedule.

Mt. Waialeale © E.J. Peiker

Photograph areas otherwise impossible to photograph like this series of waterfalls below Mt. Waialeale – the wettest spot on Earth.

Gearing Up

The day of your adventure is here. Again preparation is the key to maximizing your photographic opportunities. Unless you are on a helicopter with no doors, you will have to do everything in your power to control reflections from the window that you will be shooting through. This starts with your clothes. I highly recommend wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt with no writing or graphics on the front, un-faded black jeans, and black cloth gloves. I would recommend a ski mask but I think you may have some trouble getting on the helicopter. If you are on an aircraft with no doors, clothes color doesn’t matter but a windbreaker is advisable to keep you from getting cold even in the most tropical climates.

There is not a lot of room in a helicopter to spread out, so taking the right equipment and nothing more is critical to ensure that you have an enjoyable experience. I recommend taking only one body and one lens in most situations. With film, full- frame sensors and 1.3x field of view cameras with a 24-70mm, 24-105 or 24-120mm lens is ideal. Image stabilization is a definite plus. With the 1.5x to 2x field of view multiplier digital cameras, a lens that covers a similar range such as a 17-40mm or 17-55mm usually works well. I recommend as fast of a lens as possible, such as the f/2.8 zoom lenses but nothing slower than an f/4 lens. This allows you to maximize shutter speed. If you are willing to put up with some discomfort, a second body with a 70-200mm lens will come in useful in some situations. One might think that a lens such as the 18-200mm lenses made for crop factor cameras would be ideal but they are generally f/5.6 lenses on the long end and need to be stopped down significantly for maximum sharpness so I don’t recommend them. I do not recommend changing lenses in flight – it is way too easy to drop something and not be able to retrieve it or even lose it altogether.

Polarizers are not to be used if shooting through the Plexiglas windows of the helicopter as the polarizer will see stress lines in the window casting strange color striations through your photos. If you are flying in a helicopter with no doors, polarizers can be used, but you must weigh that against the two stops of light you will lose and the slower shutter speeds induced by this – plus you will miss shots while adjusting the polarization. I generally do not recommend the use of polarizers. Film shooters may want to use an 81B warming filter on their lenses to correct for the bluish atmospheric haze. Digital shooters can take care of this with white balance adjustments.

In an open cockpit helicopter like the Hughes 500 without doors, do not attach the lens hood – the slipstream will tear it off and the hood will potentially hit the tail rotor. Additionally, make sure your camera has a strap and it is firmly wrapped around your wrist. In enclosed helicopters, a lens hood can help to cut down on stray reflections. The malleable rubber hoods sold in the after market are especially useful in this situation since they will not pick up the helicopters vibrations should the hood come in contact with the window.

We must not forget enough film or digital media. Now that large capacity compact flash and SD cards are available, I advise putting a large capacity, empty flash card in the camera so that you will not have to change cards while in flight. Film shooters will be served well with a contrasty and saturated film – take at least 6 rolls per hour or airtime. You will want to rate the film at ISO 200 or higher. On dark days or if you are using a slow lens such as an f/5.6 lens, ISO 400 film is advisable. The atmosphere significantly cuts down on contrast, so pushing these films one stop will not produce overly contrasty results.

Finally, make sure fresh batteries are in the camera. It’s best if you do not need to change them while in flight, but carry a spare, just in case.

The Flight

Finally the time has come for your helicopter photography adventure and you are prepared. You will go through a comprehensive safety briefing. Pay careful attention to this as it is not the same as an airline safety briefing. At all times, safety overrides photography!

During aerial photography of ground features, depth of field is never an issue. I recommend that you put the camera in aperture priority and set the camera at its widest aperture or stopped down one stop for better sharpness with all autofocus points active since everything will effectively be at infinity focus. I prefer an f/2.8 zoom lens as discussed above. Set the exposure compensation to -1/3 for slide film +1/3 for print film. Digital cameras will vary but with most modern matrix metering systems, a compensation of -1/3 to plus 1/3 depending on your camera will generally work best. I take a test shot shortly after takeoff and look at the histogram and adjust accordingly. This is one photographic situation where even I, a hater of automatic exposure, will often use aperture priority. These settings will serve you well for the entire flight. If it is an exceptionally bright day and your aperture/ISO combination produces shutter speeds faster than what your camera is capable of, either change the ISO to a lower setting, use a slower film, or close the lens down a stop. In many flights I have never encountered conditions where f/4 at ISO 200 was too bright for any camera to handle. Following these procedures will maximize your shutter speed, thereby eliminating any vibration induced by the helicopter. On all but the darkest days, this will ensure shutter speeds of 1/1000 or faster. If your camera does not have an aperture priority setting, use the Sports/Action program to maximize shutter speeds. If the lens or camera you are using has a form of image stabilization or vibration reduction, leave the feature on. With a 24-70mm lens you will usually need a shutter speed of 1/250 or higher at the widest (shortest) setting and 1/750 or higher at the longest setting. I prefer to shoot at 1/1000 to 1/4000 of a second in helicopters. If at any time my shutter speed drops below 1/500 I will start to raise the ISO in my digital SLR cameras, even if I have to go to ISO 800 or 1600. Digital noise is preferable to blurry pictures.

Once airborne, make sure to minimize reflections in the windows by keeping your black sleeves all the way down and your black gloves on. Place the lens as close as possible to the window without actually touching the window. To minimize vibrations, at no time do you want the camera or your arms to come in contact with the aircraft. Some people who do aerial photography for a living will attach a gyro stabilization device to the camera that resists motion and tends to hold the camera in a constant orientation relative to the earth’s surface. These will dampen out almost all vibrations and, more importantly, keep the camera level to the horizon even when the helicopter is in a banked turn. These are an expensive accessory that is simply not needed for the occasional aerial photographer as long as you take care and keep an eye on the horizon. If interested in these, Google “Kenyon Gyro.”

It is easy in all the excitement to forget about composition, level horizons and the direction of light. Your best photos will typically be side-lit or front-lit. Backlit photos often do not have enough contrast. THis is especially true if shooting through a window.

Helicopter blade visible in frame © E.J. Peiker

Shooting up through the invisible blades of the helicopter can lead to including a rotor blade in the frame.

While in flight, even though the main rotor is spinning above your head, you can’t really see it and will feel compelled to shoot photos through the rotors, however you are shooting with very fast shutter speeds so if you are in a banked turn and shooting up through the rotor, there is a strong possibility that your photo will show a clearly defined rotor-blade obstructing part of the scene (see picture). If you do need to shoot through the rotor, use your camera’s fastest frame rate and fire off a burst of 3 to 5 frames – in most cases, at least one will miss the rotor blade.

Your best photos will generally be the result of anticipation. When not shooting, always look ahead for clues as to what the terrain will do next and be ready for the shot. Quite often you will have no more than a second or two to photograph a feature. Occasionally check to make sure you have not accidentally changed your cameras settings.

Changing batteries, film or flash cards in the helicopter can be challenging due to restricted movement and space. Film shooters, make sure your film is fully rewound before opening the camera since you will not be able to hear your rewind motor. Digital shooters, make 100% sure that the camera has finished writing to your memory card. In a helicopter with no doors, do everything on the interior side of your body. If the wind catches a flash card or roll of film, it will be gone! As stated earlier, it is best to be prepared so that you do not need to do these things while in flight.

Most helicopter pilots want to make this a great experience for you, and they will immediately recognize serious photographers by their equipment and by how much they are shooting. If there is a special feature that you want to make sure to get a good shot of based on your research of the area, let the pilot know you really want a good opportunity. While all of the flights operate on a schedule, a few extra seconds in the area will almost always be all that you need.

At the end of the flight, the helicopter ground crews will always be happy to take a photo of you with your camera next to the helicopter and with the pilot – it makes for a great memory. I typically will tip the pilot $10 per hour of flight time.

E.J. with pilot in front of a Hughes 500 helicopter with doors removed © E.J. Peiker

Author with Pilot in front of Hughes 500 Helicopter with doors removed for photography.

A helicopter photo journey can be an experience of a lifetime and yield many photos that you could never get from the ground. With a little preparation and forethought, you will be able to maximize your opportunities and bring home some fantastic photos.

About the Author

E.J. was born in 1960 in Augsburg, Germany and moved to Ohio in 1969. He attended Purdue University and earned a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering and completed graduate studies in Microelectronics and Semiconductor Physics. After working for the Intel Corporation for 27 years, he is now retired from the electronics industry and is a professional freelance photographer. E.J. and has formally studied photography at the University of New Mexico and completed courses from The Rocky Mountain School of Photography. E.J. has two sons, and has lived in Chandler, Arizona since 1994. A photographic specialty is artistic images of ducks and E.J. has published the book Ducks of North America - The Photographer's Guide. E.J. is also prolific in landscape photography, his first photographic love. E.J.'s photographs have been published worldwide in books, advertising, magazines, billboards, murals and more. Some of his publishers and clients include The National Geographic Society, World Wildlife Fund, The United States National Parks Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Navy, State Parks Arizona, Barrons, and Dorling Kindersley. New Zealand Post honored E.J. by making one of his penguin images the primary image for their 2014 Commemorative Antarctica Ross Dependency Stamp set. He has also been named one of the top 100 Wildlife Photographers in the world by Eastern Europe's Digital Photographer Magazine. Visit his website at: www.ejphoto.com.

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