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John McBay's Tips For Shooting Property From A Helicopter

Published: 05/11/2014

JohnHeliPhotoJohn 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?

Larry Lohrman

14 comments on “John McBay's Tips For Shooting Property From A Helicopter”

  1. If you have a lens hood, DUCT TAPE it to the lens. Otherwise it will blow off (it WILL blow off) and fall on a little old lady and conk her on the head. And they're more expensive to replace than one would think.

  2. I have been shooting helicopter aerials for about six years. With one exception when I flew in a tiny Robinson R22, all of my work has been in the R44 Raven 1 or Raven 2. I shoot both stills and video from the open left side of the aircraft.

    First, I don't think John was clear enough in his warning about motion sickness. Looking through a long lens during a helicopter flight is quite frankly, vomit inducing. No, I have never revisited my last meal as a result, but I do take a healthy dose of Dramamine before flying. The idea that you can shake it off vanishes quickly when you don't get many breaks between locations.

    Prepare a full deck of Bing or Google aerial images to bring with you on the flight. A properly mounted tablet, or even a stapled set of prints will work. Online GPS coordinates can be off by as much as 1/8 mile. Does it happen often? No. Will it cost you a small fortune when you can't find the house at the designated location? Heck yes. Keep in mind that new construction is not your friend when you are in the air.

    Shooting up to 300mm on a full-frame body, you should get away with shutter speeds around 1/800th sec. We usually shoot one body with a 24-70, and one with a 70-200. In full sun, 1/500th-1/800th is a pretty easy target to hit with reasonable ISO. With f/2.8 glass, f/5.6 is sharp enough to get the job done while orbiting a property. No need to stop unless the shot is particularly demanding. Keep in mind that hovering in place at 500 ft is not easy with three people in the helicopter, and requires a fairly light fuel load. While a helicopter CAN hover, doing so at low altitude with a heavy load is like playing Russian Roulette. Do a search on "Dead Man's Curve" for helicopters if you are curious as to how it works. Suffice it to say, forward motion is your friend.

    For the Nikon shooters, camera settings are simple. WB set for sun, bracket 3 shots at .7 or 1 stop apart, and use Aperture priority with auto-ISO (set for your preferred shutter speed limits).

    If you shoot video, you are absolutely toast without a stabilizer. A gyrostabilizer from Kenyon Laboratories is an essential tool. The major rental shops, and many helicopter services rent a selection of models by the day or week.

    Plan on tethering EVERYTHING you have in the air. Anything exiting the left side of the helicopter with hit either the tail rotor, the ground, or both. Yeah, that is bad. While a lens hood is great for keeping a low-angle sun off your front element, you will want to use a ton of gaff tape to make sure it stays put. If you are like me, you will forget where you are (in a helicopter) at least once during the flight, and lean out while the aircraft is moving. The hood will catch some air, and introduce the camera to your face with a good deal of force. Ouch. DO NOT LEAN OUT.

    Working with your pilot, try to aim for 500ft whenever possible. Yes, helicopters can fly lower, but your pilot may ask you about a death wish, etc. In the event of an engine failure, altitude and forward speed are the only things that can save your suddenly falling butt. The higher you fly, the more air you will have between you and your subjects. With distance, you introduce haze.

    In selecting your days to fly, there are more things to consider beyond just a clear sky. High winds make shooting nearly impossible. Bouncing around is simply awful for aerial work. No wind in the forecast? Consider rising thermals as well. Warmer weather and stronger sun will heat darker ground (parking lots, streets, most buildings, some vegetation, etc) and create strong updrafts that will bound you around like a ping pong ball in a lottery machine. Flying early in the day reduces your chances of taking that kind of aerial roller coaster ride. Finally, check relative humidity if you are planning on low or slow flights. Humid air is less dense than dry air. Helicopters get more lift in dry air, and can slow down considerably without falling behind the dead mans curve.

    If you plan on shooting any stock images, geotag your images. You can get a GPS receiver for your camera for a couple hundred dollars or less. Stock images are useless if you can't figure out where they are from!

    There's plenty more that goes into shooting quality helicopter aerials, but most just comes with experience. It's profitable work once you get good at it, and a potential bank-breaker if you screw up. My hard costs start at 18.3 cents per SECOND once the engine starts, and that's without taking a single photo. While your costs will vary based on what your local helicopter service charges, you can reduce costs with careful planning, and by using pilots who have years of experience flying photographers.

    Good luck!


  3. @Fred Light: Duct tape? That's cruel! I KNOW you have a few rolls of quality gaff tape on hand. Leave the duct tape for ducts, and keep the awful residue off your lens. Eek!

  4. Good advice, but left out one thing. Go to the restroom before you take off as there are none in the helicopter and under no circumstances should you drink anything during the pre-flight discussion with the pilot and the pilots final prep. I made that mistake one time as a student pilot, drinking a Coke during pre-flight filing and walkaround. Coming back, lets just say that was the smoothest landing I ever made. Lesson learned.

  5. One note I can add regarding vibrations is it helps to lean forward so that your back is not in contact with the seat back. A lot of vibration is transferred through the seat back to your body and therefore camera.
    I usually fly in a Schweitzer 300 which has 3 rotar blades and is smoother, but slower than a Robinson.
    Also, I think the motion sickness comes on when your looking through the viewfinder and trying to keep a level horizon in the frame while your body and senses are experiencing the horizon outside the viewfinder.
    Definitely take Dramimine and limit fluids until your safe return.

  6. Dan

    Thanks for all of the great information. I really enjoyed the flight and hope to be able to do more.

  7. Great tips from John and Daniels comments in the reply too. From a business point of view, I will usually call up all my clients one week prior to an aerial flight and load my self up with aerial bookings, It becomes very profitable if you have lots of jobs in one area.
    I prefer working from choppers, but costs can be restrictive.

  8. Good advise. I've shot a lot from Helicopters and Boats. Without a camera, I can spend the whole day on a boat or in the air and not get sick, but after a few minutes looking though a lens you will get sick. I take Bonine. One tablet the night before and one an hour before flying or floating. It doesn't make me drowsy and I never get sick when I take it.

    Like Daniel said, don't attempt video without stabilization. It is almost impossible. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think the Kenyons are pretty pricey. Now days a movi or ronin will probably do the trick for less money, but I haven't tried that yet. Anybody have an luck with these in the air?

    By the way if your hood falls off in flight, it's more likely to end up in the tail rotor than to fall on a little old lady.

  9. I had a lens fall out a helicopter once.... I found myself gripping the camera so tightly that I was pushing the lens release with my hand and all the motion and vibration caused the lens to rotate and send my 70-200 down..... 🙁

  10. Gyrostabilizers and electronic gimbals serve different functions. A gimbal will manage drift (low frequency movement) effectively, but will fail miserably when subject to vibration. A gyro wipes out vibration (high frequency movement), leaving drift control to the support or operator.
    Post production stabilization (Mercalli v3 is great) evens out drift, so short of spending $250k on a major stabilization system, the best money is on the gyro.
    I have used DJI and FreeFly Systems gimbals, and currently own a Ronin, two Zenmuse gimbals, and a cute little GoPro Hero gimbal, but nothing beats the Kenyon Labs KS-4x4 and 6x6 for DSLR aerial video.
    If you do enough aerial video to make a gyro rental expensive, you really should own the unit. If not, just rent.
    If you spend a decent amount of time in the air, a single KS-6x6 will do more for you than just about any other piece of kit. (It'll also last virtually forever with occasional factory maintenance)

  11. Good advice from Daniel, John and Vince. With respect to video when I go up to shoot the yacht promo's I would recommend the KS 6x6's for DSLR video, regards to photography I have also attached a KS-8 for extra stabilisation. This is a little review I done a few year back on the KS-8's which is a little dated now, but the tips for aerial video are still the same -

  12. I've done nearly all of my aerial work from a Jet Ranger. You definitely want the doors off and need to make sure that they have confirmed this with you so it's done before you show up. Both doors were taken off of the Jet Ranger or there are problems. Shooting from a single engine small plane is not as good as a helicopter, but it's often cheaper. If the model of plane can be operated with the doors off, it's better than trying to shoot through a tiny window flap. Check out the plane you will be flying in before the day of your flight to see what sorts of problems you may encounter and can make allowances for. You absolutely need a plane with a high mounted wing. That's usually going to be a Cessna.

    I've used a Canon 70-200mm F4 and a 24-105mm F4 with good results. IS (or VR) certainly can't hurt if you are shooting handheld. If you try to mount the camera to the aircraft, nothing will help except an actively stabilized mount. I shoot at 1/1,000s or faster. Like John writes, these types of photos are made during the day when there is plenty of light.

    I've never lost a lens hood, but I think I'll take the advice about using a little gaffers tape as insurance. Some of the Canon lens hoods are stupidly expensive.

    All of the satellite views of my area nearly always out of date. I think that larger cities are updated much more frequently that other parts of the world. It's good to have pilot that is familiar with the area that you are in and to stay oriented using shopping malls and other large triangulation points that can be easier told apart from above. Some Target stores have a target painted on their roof. If can scout your locations on the ground with a handheld GPS, that can be helpful. I don't mean a SatNav that you would use in your car or that is available on your phone, but a unit that reads out your lat/lon coordinates. Using a SatNav in the air can be tough since they make the assumption that you are on the ground. My ancient Gamin GPS 12 can give me a bearing and distance to the lat/lon coordinates that I input.

    If you haven't taken a motion sickness medication before or in several years, try some a few days before you fly. You don't want to find out that it puts you to sleep or you have some other reaction that prevents you from completing your mission. Interactions with medication that you weren't taking the last time you took motion sickness pills could change the side effects.

    Preplanning with the pilot is essential. You are paying by the hour and it can be very hard to talk in some aircraft more than the basics. If the pilot knows how you want to compose your shots they will be able to approach the properties properly to allow for dipping a wing. There might also be flight restrictions or safety constraints that the pilot can inform you of that would prevent them from positioning you where you had planned.

    The vibration in an aircraft demands an actively stabilized mount to shoot video. If it doesn't take power, it's not active. If you can afford a test flight, take advantage of the opportunity to take some video using the gear you plan to use on a paying gig. You don't want to find that you need some more experience after you have promised your customer a delivery date.

  13. I have been doing aerial photos for that last 5 years. i usually fly in an R-22 helicopter. I try to fly mid day to eliminate shadows from buildings etc. Overhead clouds will ruin aerial photos with the cloud shadows, so I try to shoot with clear blue skies and if possible Clouds in the background are good.
    Sometimes I have a client who needs aerial shots asap. Be sure to let those clients know you can do right away but if you do not wait for good conditions, you cannot guarantee good results. Sometimes I will wait weeks or longer for that perfect day. If the client pushes you with urgency then be sure to let them as well as the property owner know they will assume responsibility for any not so good shots.

  14. Thanks for getting the story with dense of resources. It is my a specific mark that If someone planning such a surprising experience to photograph from a helicopter flying over the city. Which one of the 16-35 is or 24-105 to use with EOS 5DIII?

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