Shooting Aerial Pictures from a Helicopter~The Basics

Posted Nov. 18th, 2010 by Daniel J. Cox

Chopper prepares for aerial bear survey and photo shoot.

Yesterday I posted a series of images shot from a helicopter that I produced while on assignment as a volunteer for Polar Bears International. I thought about how some might be interested in knowing more about the ins and outs of taking photos from a helicopter and thus the reason for this blog entry.

One of the most important elements of shooting from a helicopter is safety. The pilots make this a priority but even they are unaware of some things you should know that will keep everyone alive.

The first thing you need to do is make sure there is nothing that can easily blow out the window while shooting. The rushing air coming through the window is intense and can whip things out you don’t expect. The number one item to eliminate when shooting from a chopper is a lens shade. Granted, they are extremely light and most likely if dislodged would be pushed down out of harms way by the rotor wash. However, something only ounces in size and weight can bring a chopper down if it hit the tail or main rotor. You want nothing to provide the opportunity to cause issues with the blades. Aside from being dangerous, a lens shade adds additional surface for the wind to blow around and will add instability issues due to air currents  the lens battering the lens.

A second safety issue involves knowing where your head and arms are in relation to the main rotor. If you get out of a chopper and there’s a snow drift that rises beyond the surface you exited from you could be in danger of getting your head taken off as you walk out and away. Equally important is not putting on your pack as you step out of the cabin, raising your arms above your head to slip the shoulder straps in place. I typically get out the door, drop down to my knees, then raise my arms above my head. You don’t want to come back with short arms.

Morning chores.

As far as things to remember while shooting are concerned, you will want to keep the tried and true rule of thumb in mind that states,  “always shoot a shutter speed equal to or greater than the magnification of the lens you are using.” In other words, if you’re working with a 200-400 zoom, like I did on yesterdays flight and you have it racked out to 400mm, you will want to make certain you are  using a minimum of 1/400th of second shutter speed. This is a very effective technique that has worked well for shooting hand held long before the days of VR by Nikon or IS by Canon.

Additionally, if you’re shooting with Nikon products as I do you, will want to make certain the VR setting is switched to “Active”. I’ve never really seen a difference between the Normal and Active settings but the manual suggests in moving boats and airplanes the Active option should be turned on. I’ve felt no need for detailed tests since it just seems to work. Always put the neck strap around your neck or wrap it tightly around your arm. No danger  of a camera flying out and hitting the rotors but if you drop it from 500-1000 feet you can bet it’s a lost cause.

Generally I shoot my 70-200mm and 200-400mm lens as well as a 24-70. It’s only been recently

Geoff York, WWF Canada, Daniel Cox, Polar Bears International and Daryll Hedman, Manitoba conservation.

that I decided a 200-400mm lens was an option. With VR technology and the new cameras that can record at phenomenal high ISO’s settings, the days of difficult aerial photography are behind us. Always put the neck strap around your neck or wrap it tightly around your arm. No danger  of a camera flying out and hitting the rotors but if you drop it from 500-1000 feet you can bet it’s a lost cause.

In regards to the camera bodies I shoot, typically I’m using a D700 at 1000 ISO or higher and a D300s at ISO 400. The 200-400mm goes on the D700 and the 70-200 is a good choice for the D300s that can’t shoot at ISO’s equivalent to the D700.

Hope you enjoy this mini tutorial on shooting from moving helicopters.

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  1. Portrait of David and Shiela Glatz

    David & Shiela GlatzOn Nov. 20th, 2010

    Dan, as usual an informative and interesting post. Also enjoyed the aerial survey images and related entry. Hope to see what’s going on with the seals up there. Weird but seems like the bears are taking advantage. Take care!

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