Basics to Aerial Photography by Toby Harriman
YOUR GUIDE TO HELI DOORS OFF AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY
One of the first things to consider when booking an aerial experience is the planning that goes into your flight. There are lots of things to think about.
From what type of light you want to capture, what time of day you want to fly, what camera, what lenses will be the best fit and even what you wear, especially if you are shooting with the doors-off. When working in urban environments, like San Francisco or any city for that matter, I personally tend to lean towards booking a custom doors-off helicopter experience with a local provider.
Over this guide I will go over the basics to help get you started and better your aerial photography experience. This is a guide to help you get started and are just my personal recommendations from what I have learned over many hours of flying and shooting.
PLANNING & BOOKING
Knowing what type of budget you have, will be extremely helpful when choosing your helicopter or airplane package.
When I am flying by myself I tend to book a Robinson R22. It’s a two seater (Pilot + 1 Passenger) and will be the most cost effective helicopter when flying solo. Booking a Robinson R44 however, gives you four seats (1 Pilot + 3 Passengers) which can also be cost effective as it will allow you you split the helicopter cost 3 ways. Beyond those two helicopters, you could book a Robinson R66 if your provider has one and this will give you five seats (1 Pilot + 4 Passengers).
Beyond the typical Robinson brand, going more expensive routes with A-Stars, Bell Rangers, Euro Copters and beyond will give you dual engines and freedom for mounting expensive camera packages. Every provider will have different options. When I fly in places like Alaska and want to get far into the mountains, I will most likely book an airplane vs a helicopter.
TIME OF DAY
Picking what time of day you want to fly can definitely be a personal preference. I personally love flying around blue hour to Sunrise and visa versa Sunset into blue hour times.
Morning, Daytime, or Evening:
After flying a few times during sunrise, it definitely became my favorite. I am not a morning person though. However, every shoot and location will have different variables and goals. Try to plan how the light will be interacting with your location. Use apps like PhotoPills to see where the sun will rise and set. Work with your helicopter/airplane company on current weather conditions. Finally, make sure everyone is on the same page with your flight plan.
For example, San Francisco is incredible at sunrise. You will be taking off super early, by the time you hit the city, the sun will be popping over the hills filling in the skyline with some of the most beautiful light you can imagine. When you shoot San Francisco at sunset, the city will be more backlit with the sun sitting over the ocean. Both are amazing.
I always try to book 30 to 45 minutes before when I want to shoot. With San Francisco it can take 15-25 minutes to takeoff from the Heli pad and fly to the location you will be shooting at. Keep that in mind if you want to shoot a sunset and trying to plan you schedule
There are many ways to shoot, but these are my personal and preferred settings after taking 100+ flights, shooting out of helicopters, bush planes and even hot air balloons.
Manual: Going back to what your high school photo teacher might have said: “Manual is the only setting.”
Settings: Shoot fast, faster shutter speeds will help you achieve sharper images. If it is still fairly bright out, you may want to start at a mid-range f-stop in the f/5.6 to f/11 range with a faster shutter in the 1/1000 – 1/5000 range and an ISO of 50-600. As the light dims you will want to start compensating for this. For example, if your lens can go down to f/2.8 you can keep the faster shutter speeds and lower ISO, you may find yourself around f/2.8 with an ISO of 800 and 1/1000. In most cases, I would recommend not going slower than 1/250 of a second if possible. Realizing you may be bumping your ISO well above 1,000 if not 3,000+ in some cases and getting to an f/2.8 stop. Every camera and lens will be different, so you may be able to shoot upwards of ISO 6400 with no issues at all. Or lower if you lens has a wider f-stop like a 1.4 or 1.8.
Focus: Just as we are shooting in manual here, setting your lens to “Infinite focus” will be a good way to insure everything is in focus. Modern Auto-Focus camera will also do a pretty good job as well, but Infinite focus will insure sharp images throughout the flight.
Every camera will perform at different levels. Below is a helpful guide and starting point. Play around with these settings or experiment with your own and see what works best for you.
Day Time Settings: F/5.6 > F/11 F/1,500 > F/4,000 ISO 50 > 600
Sunset > Golden Hour Settings: F/2.8 > F/9 F/800 > F/1,500 ISO 350 > 1,000 Blue Hour >
Night Time Settings: F/1.4 > F/5.6 F/250 > F/800 ISO 600 > 6,400
*If you are shooting air-to-air. For example shooting helicopters or airplanes and flying at similar speeds in formation, you can play with shutter speed in the 1/80 to 1/250 range. This will give you a better motion blue on the propellers. It’s definitely a more advanced situation and you can definitely risk a few more blurry shots at times.
I don’t want to dig too deep into this subject, as it can definitely be a “subjective” discussion. But here are some tips on what I look for while shooting my personal aerials.
I have flown in a lot of places, shooting out of helicopters, airplane and hot air balloons. Flying over incredible places like San Francisco, Hawaii, Alaska, Hong Kong all the way to Myanmar. However, I have flown over San Francisco the most, probably 30 or so times now. This has given me a ton of opportunity to shoot many different ways, times of day, with different cameras and different lenses. From shooting super wide to super zoomed in or even with shooting exclusively with my iPhone.
If this is you first flight, my recommendation is to have a mid range lens at the ready. My personal favorite is my Canon 24-105mm f/4L II because it gives me a great range to work with. I personally don’t like getting too much wide as you risk getting the helicopter props in the shot. Which in fairness, sometimes is pretty cool! I will shoot a range of shots when flying, from vertical compositions to horizontal compositions.
I am always searching for the light, flying back and forth from subject to subject in order to hit that light just right. Flying around a subject multiple times to get different angles.
With my mid range lens and when shooting my typical landscape photography. My eyes are always looking for the long shadows around trees, textures and patterns the roads and neighborhoods make and leading lines into a bigger subject. I am looking for how the light is interacting with the scene and I try to highlight that.
If I am shooting in a place like Alaska and capturing mountain landscapes, I try to get lower altitudes so the mountains feel taller and bigger on a grand scale. You can use this same philosophy when shooting tall buildings in a city. Once you get above them, you are looking down on them and then I focus more on the textures and detail the peak may have to offer. Like the sharp ridges on on the edge of a peak.
CAMERA BODY & LENSES:
I realize not everyone will have the same equipment. So bring what you have, even if its just a mobile phone.
I personally will always have two cameras on me. The purpose of this is so I can have one body equipped with a wide or mid range lens and the second body equipped with a zoom lens. By doing this I won’t need to waste value time switching lenses in flight, which also risky as the doors are off and you could slip up and drop one out. If you don’t have two bodies, no worries. Bring what you have. I personally recommend having a tiny bag that can sit at your feet for you extra lens and other gear. Remember, you will be very limited on space.
Camera #1: Canon R5 or any Camera Canon 24-105mm f/4 L II or Similar
Camera #2: Canon 5DS R or any Camera Canon 100-400mm or 70-200mm or Similar
Camera #3: iPhone 12 Pro Max
Not a big camera person? No worries. Camera technology in modern mobile phones is getting to be extremely impressive. So much so the latest iPhones are actually becoming one of my favorite cameras.
I recently shot a full film with just my iPhone and a small DJI Osmo Mobile stabilizer/gimbal right from the helicopter. The newer iPhones or other similar devices are starting to have 3 lenses/cameras if not more built right in, they have RAW formats and honestly everything you would ever need to capture some amazing photography and even video without having a bulky mess of cameras wrapped around your neck.
Keep in mind, this is your choice. We work with professionals.