On Aerial Photography

A comment turned into a blog post.

I just read “The Shot” on Helicopter Pilot, Will Travel. (If you’re a helicopter pilot and you don’t read this blog, you’re really missing out on something valuable.) The post was about aerial photography and the difficulties in getting good shots.

Combine from Air
I was a passenger in a friend’s R44 when I snapped this photo.
It was the best image of about two dozen attempts.

I started to write a comment on the post, but soon had more words than a polite commenter should be leaving on someone else’s blog. So I figured I’d just turn my blather into my own blog post on the subject.

I do a lot of flying with photographers and video folks on board. A lot of it is “fine art” photography in places like Lake Powell and Canyonlands National Park. There’s also some commercial photography — bridges, highways, buildings, etc. And lots of “action” photography and video of racing boats and off-road trucks.

I absolutely love this kind of work — especially the high-speed chase stuff. It gives me an opportunity to get “in the zone” with the aircraft. I usually sit the photographer in the seat behind me so we get the same view. This makes it easy to stay on the target.

It gets challenging when slow flight is required — especially if it’s windy or if we’re in high density altitude. I’ve gotten to the point where I know when to expect a settling with power situation and can recover from it quickly, with the minimum loss of altitude. I’m also smart enough to avoid it any time I’m flying low-level.

The quality of the photographer’s work varies greatly. There’s a video guy I work with on off-road races that’s incredible. The four of us — me, my helicopter, the video guy, and an up-front observer — make an excellent team. I’m not sure if it’s my ability to fly close to the racing vehicles or his ability to manipulate the camera — probably a combination of both — but his footage is mind-boggling.

The fine art photographers’ work depends on lighting and where we’re taking the photos. The southwest U.S. landscape is amazing, but early in the morning, just after dawn, or late in the afternoon, just before sunset, I really think it’s impossible to take a bad photo.

You can tell the experienced aerial photographers from the newbies by the equipment they bring — mostly lenses. I’ve had people show up with zoom lenses that not only forced me to fly far from the subject matter to get it to “fit” in the lens, but let in so little light that shutter speed was an issue.

On the other side of the coin is a photographer that always mounts his camera on a hand-held gyro stabilizer to minimize the vibrations coming in from the helicopter. I’m actually thinking of investing in one of these devices, so I can rent it to the photographers that fly with me. Being more flexible with shutter speed would give them more flexibility in terms of composition.


Gunsight Butte on Lake Powell.

My husband was at the controls while I snapped photos.

Unfortunately, I seldom get to try my own hand at aerial photography. You see, both hands are usually busy with the controls in my single-pilot R44. I did get an opportunity to fly with a fellow pilot in his R44 in Washington State last summer (see combine photo above), but more recently, I’ve begun doing some doors-off flying with my husband, who is also a helicopter pilot. We take turns playing with the camera. The shot accompanying this post is one of mine from a recent flight to Lake Powell.

One thing Keith is certainly right about in his post — it can take an awful lot of tries to get just the right photo.

2 thoughts on “On Aerial Photography

  1. I remember spending about a week with a professional photographer shooting in various scenic locales.He was an early bird that knew the value of the early light shots,avoided harsh midday light even though it cast the least shadows and would keep us on the ground till the evening light was almost perfect.

    After our time was over he asked if I had spotted the secret of his photographic success. I had not, I told him.

    He laughed and said, “you were there and saw it, Keith”.”I take a lot of shots in differing light and angles with as many different cameras and lense/filter combination’s as I can fit into the time that I want to be shooting.”

    I didn’t buy his story then and 20 years later I am convinced that you either have the gift or you don’t.The rest of us can still enjoy our attempts.

    • I agree that you either have a good eye for photography or you don’t. And I also agree that a lot of folks just don’t “get it” when it comes to photography. Their eyes see a beautiful place and they try to capture it with their camera. But the eye/brain combination doesn’t work the same as the CCD/lens combination. There’s something that most people just seem to miss when they’re trying to create “art” with their camera. The folks who have the right eye and brain for photography make the incredible shots we see in galleries and posters and in the pages of quality publications.

      In photography, light is at least 75% of what makes a good photo. You can have perfect composition, but if the light sucks, the photo won’t be good. Harsh, midday light out in the desert usually washes out the scene and leads to flat photos. Yes, the shadows are minimized — and that’s what makes the light good if you’re trying to document a building or road under construction or something like that. But if you want artistic photos, the light just has to be softer.

      I understand what your photographer was getting at. Yes, he has an eye for photography. But he also knows that he has to experiment and shoot as much as he can with the light that’s right for him. I think all photographers do that these days — after all, it costs nothing extra to shoot 300 photos rather than just a “roll” of 36. They can experiment with light, filters, lenses, exposures, shutter speeds — all of it. And out of 300 photos, maybe one or two of them might be the perfect image they were hoping to capture.

      But someone who doesn’t have that photographic eye can shoot 300 photos and still not get the right shot.

What do you think?