November 4th, 2014
John McBay is the author of Image Editing For Real Estate Photography. John did some shooting from a helicopter recently and want to pass on some things he learned from the experience. Click on the photo to the right to see a large version of John’s great shot!
I recently had my first opportunity to photograph real estate from a helicopter. It was a great experience and I think I learned a few things that I would like to pass on. It would be interesting to hear from others who have also used a helicopter for photography and anyone who is contemplating it.
- Helicopter vs. airplane. I have photographed from both and as far as I am concerned, there is absolutely no comparison. The ability of the helicopter to be positioned exactly where you want it and to then hover in place provides a very stable platform for photography. It is much more difficult to position an airplane exactly where you want it, and of course, the plane can not stop.
- Preflight briefing. It is important that the pilot knows exactly what you want them to do. Several days before the flight, send them as much information as possible about what you need to shoot. I took screen shots of Google Maps and annotated them to show the various locations that I needed to cover as well as a text document describing my requirements. Arrive for your flight with enough time before departure to go over the previously sent information with the pilot.
- Motion sickness. Some are susceptible, some aren’t. Since helicopters (and airplanes) are expensive, you don’t want to have the photo-shoot ruined because you are nauseous. Unless you are very experienced, I would recommend taking an over the counter motion sickness medication an hour before the flight. During the preflight briefing ask that your pilot avoid sudden movements or steep turns. Smooth and gentle are usually very easy to achieve in a helicopter.
- Make sure that the pilot has removed the passenger side door (yes, that one that is right next to your shoulder). Strap yourself in tightly. You won’t fall out. I am not afraid of heights, but Iwasn’t sure how I would feel about having nothing between me and the earth 1000 feet below. Fortunately, I had no problem with it. Even with the door off, it was very calm inside the cabin. If you have problems with heights, the whole helicopter thing may not be for you.
- Lens choice. I had a 70-300mm on my crop sensor camera and my assistant in back had an 18-105mm as backup. At one point I wanted to change lenses and while I am sure we could have done it without dropping anything outside, I demurred and stayed with the 70-300. Remember that the helicopter can maneuver closer or farther away as needed. I think the ideal lens for my purposes would have been something in the range of a 55-200 zoom. Most, if not all, of my shots were taken between 700 & 1200 feet of altitude.
- ISO. Set it high enough so that you are shooting at shutter speeds of 1/1000 or faster. It will be daylight (I presume), so shadow noise should not be much of an issue. And, better a little noise, which is easily correctable, as opposed to motion blur. There is a lot of vibration in a helicopter. Slower shutter speeds might result in motion blur.
- If you stick your hand just inches outside the plexiglass bubble of the helicopter, you will be amazed at the amount of turbulence produced by the main rotor (the one above the helicopter). A number of times, I leaned toward the door to shoot and as a result the front of the lens was buffeted by the rotor turbulence. Instruct the pilot to position you exactly where you need to be, lean back slightly into the helicopter and then take your shot. This will keep the lens from being buffeted.
- Vibration reduction / Image stabilization. I had it turned on. I would be interested in hearing from anyone with thoughts about this.
- In advance of the flight, I scouted a few large homes, each with a fair amount of property, that were very close to a direct line between the airport and the primary location. On the return flight, we were running about 4 minutes ahead of schedule so I had the pilot position us so that I could quickly take shots of about 5 different houses, one of which is included. These might be good for your portfolio.
Sounds like great advice. What can you add to John’s ideas?