Doors-off Helicopter Photo Flights
Flying over Waterville Valley, New Hampshire
In 2017, I was lucky enough to take a handful of doors-off helicopter flights over the White Mountains. Flying over some of my favorite ponds, trails, and summits was one of the best experiences I've ever had, but there was a lot of trial and error photographically. Prior to the flights, I searched online for guides on how to shoot from a helicopter, but in hindsight there are areas I found those resources lacking. Here are a few tips that I learned along the way.
Any DSLR or Mirrorless camera body capable of manual control will work here, though some better than others. Things can happen fast while flying around, and it's important that your camera body can keep up with quickly changing conditions and light. Full frame camera bodies will tend to perform better, because of their improved low light performance and dynamic range over crop (APS-C) cameras. Remember to bring an extra battery and memory cards! I never went through an entire battery or filled up a card, but I certainly would've been sad if I needed them!
Lens choice is much more important in this situation. Lots of pilots don't want people changing lenses during doors-off flights, because anything that falls out the door has a good chance of hitting the back rotor. So, unless you've got multiple camera bodies, you'll need to choose one lens to bring. I've used lenses ranging from 15mm up to 200mm, but each flight is different. I found 15mm to be too wide for the majority of scenes (with the exception of photographing inside the cockpit), so I wouldn't suggest bringing anything ultrawide. A 24-70 or something in that range (like the Canon 24-105 or Nikon 24-120) is a great option if you can only bring one lens. Personally, I really like shooting with a 70-200 to isolate details, but keep in mind that with longer lenses, you'll need to use even faster shutter speeds.
If you can afford (or afford to rent), I would highly recommend using lenses with a maximum aperture of f2.8 or better. Because of the shutter speeds necessary for sharp images (which I'll get to later), it's important to let in as much light as possible. If your camera body can handle shooting at higher ISOs without much noise (I'm looking at you Sony shooters), using a F4 lens will be fine.
Regarding filters, I leave them in the car. I tested using a polarizing filter on one flight, and although it did help cut down on some of the haze, it was difficult to keep up with rotating into the correct position and cost about a stop of light. Filters, lens hoods, and anything else that could fall off mid flight should be left in the car. Another thing I like to do is loop my camera strap around the seatbelt, or use a carabiner, just in case.
To make the most of your time while flying, it's a good idea to do some planning beforehand of areas you want to target. Flying over the mountains, it was extremely helpful seeing how the light and shadows changed depending on the time of day to schedule our flights. Google Earth Pro is an invaluable resource for this purpose.
While moving around in Google Earth, hold the control (command on Mac) button while moving the mouse to enter this 3D view. Next look for a small button at the top of your screen with a sun icon. This brings up a box that allows you to change the date and time for a given location, giving you a rough idea of how the light and shadows will be during your flight. Now, this isn't perfectly accurate, but it did convince me to schedule our first flight an hour earlier than I had originally planned, and I'm glad I did.
If you have flexibility with your scheduling, make sure you factor in the weather conditions. Aside from the obvious reasons of danger (high winds, storms), weather will have a huge impact on your images. Completely clear skies, which is typically not great for landscape photography, can work well here. I've found most images taken during my flights included little (if any) sky, and the sunlight and shadows help create depth in your aerial photos. Partly cloudy skies, and mostly cloudy with breaks of sun are my favorite to fly in. Not only are the sky portions of images more interesting, but the dappled light really creates some beautiful depth as well. I was lucky enough to be able to schedule my flight in a multiple day window, and coordinate the exact time based on the ideal weather conditions the night before. Some companies have more strict scheduling, but it doesn't hurt to ask.
It's important to have good communication with your pilot both before and during the flight. Discuss your goals beforehand, as they'll be familiar with each area's potential flight restrictions and their own comfort level. For example, one area in particular along a planned route tends to have unstable winds above a ridgeline- something good to avoid that I couldn't have planned for otherwise. It's also nice to have some dialogue with your pilot before the flight to see how open they'll be to direction while flying. Often, you'll notice an amazing scene and need to turn around to go back for it- if your pilot isn't willing to do this, you may want to find another company to fly with.
Approaching Franconia Ridge above Franconia Notch, New Hampshire
This is where I initially made a lot of mistakes. It's easy to get a bit overwhelmed with everything going on, trying to dial in your camera settings, while also taking the time to actually look around at the amazing views in every direction. Let's take a look at the basic things to get set up before taking off.
First, you want to be shooting in RAW vs. JPEG. To get the most from your files, it's crucial to shoot in RAW to have the processing flexibility later. I prefer to shoot in full manual, but aperture priority also works well. Shooting in aperture priority, I like to stick to f2.8 or f4, then just pay attention to my shutter speed. If the shutter speeds start getting too low, I can quickly bump up my ISO. I also like to set a 3 shot bracket, just for some insurance in case I don't nail exposure.
After a safety check, you're ready to go!
Broken clouds created this spotlighting on Bondcliff. Pemigewasset Wilderness, New Hampshire
Once we take off and start flying, the first thing I like to do is take some test shots and set my white balance. Normally I leave my WB on auto anytime I'm photographing landscapes during the day, but after my first flight I realized why this doesn't work as well from a helicopter. As I've mentioned, things happen extremely fast during these flights, and I found that the auto WB didn't quite keep up. Even though you can change your white balance in Lightroom, using an incorrect WB will affect your histogram readout on the camera screen,
Now, for the most important part about photographing from a helicopter- shutter speed. There are a lot of forces working against you- high winds from the open door and general vibration from the helicopter introduce a lot of camera shake. The general rule of 1/focal length (for example, 1/200 for a 200mm lens) isn't going to cut it, which is why choosing a fast lens can be extremely helpful to keep your ISO down. I strongly recommend taking some test photos at the beginning of your flight at various shutter speeds, zooming in on your camera screen to check sharpness, before getting over anything too interesting. Shooting at 24mm, I found 1/250th to be a safe shutter speed. With my 70-200, I stuck to at least 1/2000th at 200mm to ensure sharp images. If your pilot stops to hover over an area, you can probably get away with dropping your shutter speed a bit, but that's a good rule of thumb to work off of.
This is why shooting in aperture priority mode can be helpful- if you set up a 3 shot bracket, your camera will change shutter speed between exposures (rather than ISO or aperture), giving you more insurance for sharp photos. A sharp photo that's under or over exposed slightly is certainly better than a blurry one. Regarding image stabilization on lenses, I found conflicting suggestions on this, but personally I didn't find it to help. The vibration within the helicopter is just too much for the stabilization to correct for, in my experience. And speaking of vibration, watch where you position your body while shooting. Try to avoid bracing against any part of the helicopter...it sounds funny, but even lifting my feet off the floor reduced some of the vibration from the helicopter, eliminating some camera shake....anything helps!
Shooting straight down at the Franconia Ridge Trail
Keep an eye out for contrast while scanning your view as you fly- light and shadow, color contrast, and isolated features really shine in aerial images. Wider scenes do a great job of showing that you're shooting from the air, but I find the more isolated details were more memorable.
The most important thing- have fun! Aerial images are very popular these days with drones, but nothing compares to the feeling of actually being up flying above your favorite landscapes. It's easy to get tunnel vision looking through your viewfinder, don't forget to take some time just to look around and appreciate your surroundings, not many people will have this experience!
If you're looking to fly over the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I highly recommend White Mountains Helicopter. Tell Stacey I sent you!