Tips for Aerial Photographers

The pilot really does know best.

The other day, I had a very unusual aerial photography job. I was hired to take two videographers on an air-to-air photo shoot of the world’s largest paper airplane.

There were a few things about this gig that bugged me and, frankly, it all had to do with the primary videographer on the shoot. He did things that severely limited our ability to get the shots he needed and rendered some of my equipment non-functional after the flight.

I’d like to discuss this in a bit of detail in an effort to help other videographers understand how to make the most of an aerial video shoot.

Bad Seating Position

This was an air-to-air photo shoot requiring me to fly in formation with another helicopter that was towing an 800-pound, 45-foot “paper” airplane. (I put paper in quotes because there was some cardboard and tape and metal spars for stabilization, but it was mostly paper.) When the other helicopter dropped the airplane, I’d have to chase the airplane down to the ground. We had no idea how fast the airplane would fly or whether it would fly smoothly or erratically. And, of course, the other helicopter would be dangling a 150-foot long line, so it was vital that I didn’t fly right beneath it after the drop.

The other pilot and I agreed that I’d form up on him. What that means is that he basically ignores me and I have sole responsibility for maintaining a safe distance from him. He’s the “lead,” I’m the “wing.”

In order to maintain a safe distance, I have to be able to see the other aircraft at all times. Seems pretty simple, huh? Can’t maintain a safe distance from something you can’t see.

And this is where the problem arose. In order for me to see the other aircraft, I need a direct line of sight to it. I can’t see through a videographer’s body.

I asked the videographer to sit in the back, behind me. This would give both of us the same view. This is how I prefer to work. It enables me to keep the helicopter in position for the shot. I’ve done this on numerous photo shoots with fast-moving targets. It works.

Aerial Video Shoot
This is a frame-grab from one of my GoPros. Ideally, I should have had only one videographer on board and he should have been sitting behind me.

But the videographer refused to even consider sitting in the back seat. He had to sit in the front. This forced me, in the right seat, to fly with the other aircraft on my left. The videographer’s body obstructed my view to the left toward the other aircraft.

Although I was able to see the other aircraft most of the time, there were two or three instances when I could not see it. To stay safe until I could regain a visual on it, I banked away from where I thought it might be.

The videographer was not happy about this. “Get closer,” he’d say. And I’d reply, “I can’t get closer to something I can’t see.”

On a go-forward basis, I will not allow a photographer or videographer to block my view on any air-to-air photo shoot. If he can’t sit behind me so we can both see the other aircraft, I won’t do the flight. Period.

Poor Choice of Equipment

Two years ago, I spent over $10,000 on a Moitek gyro-stabilized video camera mount. This system uses three Kenyon KS-8 gyros to remove virtually all vibration from a camera while bearing all the weight of the camera equipment and giving the videographer a wide range of motion left, right, up, and down. No, it’s not as flexible as a hand-held camera, but as long as the videographer can keep the subject in the frame, he’ll get smooth video of it.

In an effort to recoup the cost of this system — and compensate me for the 30 minutes of setup and 30 minutes of tear-down time required for use — I charge $500 per day.

I offered this to the client though the booking company they were working with. They declined. I assumed they preferred to hand-hold the camera.

Red and Redder
RED and redder.

When I arrived for the shoot, I discovered that the video guy had rented a Tyler Mini Gyro. This device has three smaller gyros mounted on a short monopod. The camera is mounted on top. The videographer usually places the monopod between his legs on the seat or on his lap while shooting. This stabilizes the video but limits motion in that the monopod base needs to be repositioned to make a significant vertical change of view. Without moving the base, the videographer would need to lean out into the slipstream to look down or lean back into the cockpit to look up. This isn’t always possible.

Apparently, the videographer was relying on me to keep in perfect formation with the other aircraft to prevent his need to move the camera. This was not possible, as discussed above. So when the paper airplane was released and it began its steep descent, he was unable to stay locked onto it with his camera.

I think using my mount or hand-holding the camera — possibly with a simpler gyro mount such a Micro-Gyro Mount offered by Blue Sky Aerials would have really benefited him. And I find it odd that although his equipment included a very costly RED camera, he had to rely on a rented gyro stabilizer.

Tampering with My Equipment

As discussed in numerous places throughout this blog, I’m a big fan of GoPro cameras and have three of my own that I sometimes use in flight. The folks from GoPro were at this event and they rigged up a bunch of their cameras all over the paper airplane and lift helicopter. They were thrilled that I already had good mounting solutions and loaned me a Hero 2 for one of my mount positions. So my helicopter had three GoPros, one of which was not mine, each of which had one of my 16GB cards in it. My arrangement with the GoPro guys was that after the flight, they’d pull video off each card and give the card back to me for my own personal (but limited) use.

Note that I mounted all the cameras with the GoPro guys. The video guy did not participate in this at all.

We did the flight and landed out in the desert near where the paper airplane had crashed. They did some video of the recovery on the ground. When we got back to my helicopter, I noticed that one of the GoPro mounts was missing its camera. I assumed it had fallen off and was very surprised because I know from experience how solid that mount is. That’s when the videographer told me he’d already removed them. Sure enough, all three mounts had been tampered with and all three cameras were gone.

Back at base, I went to the GoPro guys to find my cameras and the missing pieces of my mounts. They stuck to their word and I got everything back — except a piece from each of two mounts: a vibration isolator and a thumbscrew. Without these two pieces, two of the mounts are non-functional.

I don’t know who has them: the videographer or the GoPro guys. I suspect it’s the videographer. He likely put them in his pocket when he disassembled the mounts and forgot to give them back. (He also forgot to return a harness I provided for the shoot. That’s being shipped back to me this week.)

It is a Federal offense to tamper with equipment on an aircraft. Obviously, I’m not going to call the FAA to give this guy grief. But I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The Pilot Really Does Know Best

When you hire an experienced pilot for an aerial photo or video shoot, you need to fully communicate the needs of the mission before the flight and listen to the pilot’s advice. You need to work with your pilot to make a team to get the job done.

I know for a fact that I could have flown in perfect formation with the other aircraft if I could have seen it out my own window. I have done this before — not only with aircraft but with cars and trucks on the ground on tracks and on desert race courses, and with boats on lakes and rivers. A pilot cannot be expected to fly in formation with something he can’t see.

I know this videographer was unhappy with the results he got. But who is really to blame? I don’t think it’s me.

18 thoughts on “Tips for Aerial Photographers

  1. Maria, I cannot imagine why you wouldn’t call the FAA. This videographer broke every rule of professionalism and common courtesy…. and federal law. Nail him. At the very least, he should compensate you for your losses. Sheesh!

    • I’m hoping they send the missing pieces back with the harness. They’ll only cost about $20-$30 to replace (with shipping, etc.) but it is a pain in the ass to deal with it. As for getting the FAA involved, that’s usually not a good idea in a case like this unless the aircraft itself has been damaged. Not so here.

    • I am going to make some changes to my Aerial Photography page(s) on Flying M Air’s website to state this up front.

      I think what bothers me most about this is that I failed to do the best I could do — and it wasn’t my fault. I’ll likely never work for this client again. (Of course, I’d never take that videographer on board again, either.)

  2. Sounds like the videographer was a total jerk. Unfortunately they show up in all fields, raising egocentric havoc. I have worked as a professional journalist/writer/photographer for 40 years and have learned there is only one way to deal with such persons: tell them “NO,” up front or at the earliest sign of their egotistical manipulation. I know that in a commercial situation this is often difficult, but there is no alternative.

    Even if you go along with them and try to to appease them, they will ultimately find some way to complain about you and minimize your contribution to any success the given project may have.

    God bless you for trying to be both a good person and a professional. Next time: F… ‘me.

    • “Jerk” was one appropriate label. I don’t want to use the label I’m really thinking of.

      The worst thing about all this is the knowledge that I could bend over backwards to make the client happy but if they have another job in the future, they’ll still shop around to try to find the cheapest solution. There’s no loyalty among people like this. The solution, therefore, is to stick to your guns and not let them push you around. Chances are, they’ll never call again anyway.

  3. Excellent blog, Maria. And by the way, I was led to it through your book: iBooks Author. I am working my way through it, using it as an active tutorial on my iPad while I work through the exercises on my computer. iBooks Author seems at first glance to be a fairly simple but limited bit of software, but thanks to your book, I’m really beginning to learn the power of what is an extremely eloquent authoring tool. (…and, no, I don’t work for Apple!)

    Great job. Thanks.

    • I’ll tell you this: if they do call me again, I’ll get great deal of pleasure telling them that I won’t fly with that videographer again.

      Seriously: I’m not that desperate for work.

  4. It is truly shameful of inexperienced “videographers” even think that they should take precedence over a still photographer in the situation you were placed in. You obviously have the talent and years of experience that that person just did not. I think it is kind of the “Red camera” effect. They believe that since they invested upwards of $30,000 for their camera, that they are now true professionals. Professionals have respect, and that goes for any industry. This is obviously one of the things he lacked. Aside from true aerial experience with a video camera. He should have used a gyro (or 2 depending on what Red camera) and perhaps a bungee cord, at the very least.

    • Sadly, that’s not how pilots are usually treated by some “professionals.” We’re treated like taxi drivers. They just want us to get them in position for the shot — on their terms. They want a safe flight, but can’t be bothered to understand or take the pilot’s word about the aerodynamics of flight that might make their requests unsafe. Putting multiple people on board and then expecting us to hover, low-level, on a hot day is a good example. (Just not gonna happen.) And just because he can see the other aircraft doesn’t mean I can — especially when it’s his body blocking my view.

      To be fair, he was using a gryo — he had the Tyler Mini Gryo, which I believe contains two or three KS-2s or KS-4s. I definitely heard them spinning down after we landed.

    • Just to clear up misconceptions —

      The Tyler Mini mount contains 2 KS-8 gyros and is a very versatile mount system, but common sense needs to be employed when using it. It has a large mass and can obscure a clear view for a pilot when using in the line of site. The mono pod attachment should likely not be used as it is a conduit for vibration.

      I always tell our clients that communications with the heli pilot are critical for a good shoot. I try to encourage professional dialogue due to the fact that there are 2 objectives at work. First, getting the shot framed in and secondly there is the pilot’s need to be able to safely position the heli. I never think to tell them to be considerate, but then again, I don’t think that should be necessary.

    • Really? KS-8s? Didn’t think there was anything that big in there. I definitely agree about the monopod attachment. Any time you rest the camera (or an attachment) against a part of the helicopter, you’re going to add vibration to the picture.

      The problem with photo/video guys is that some of them simply know everything — or, more accurately, think they do. Maybe they’ve flown a few times with different pilots who either didn’t care about the job or lacked the experience to help their client get the best shot possible. The photo/video guy bossed the pilot around and the pilot just took it. I guess I just took it the other day, too.

      But a pilot who has considerable experience working with many photo/video clients in many different shooting scenarios builds a sort of internal database of what works and what doesn’t. Part of what my clients pay for when they fly with me is my experience. For them to blow off my suggestions and recommendations is to throw away part of the money they spent on my services. And since they’re usually whining about costs, does it really make sense to waste any of their money by not getting what they paid for?

  5. Maria,

    Thanks for sharing. Congratulations on achieving and living your dreams of flying rotorcraft. I must admit to being a bit envious.

    Just recently I finished an aerial video shoot in which we had GoPro cameras mounted for POV and coverage video. You mentioned in your posting a ‘vibration isolator’ for you GoPro mounts. Would it be possible for you to, say, ‘point me in the direction’ of how to obtain such an isolator? Having such a device on this last shoot would have made a significant difference for some of the shots.

    Again, thanks for sharing. As a pilot, I appreciate your professionalism and restraint in dealing with that ‘videographer.’ You are a credit to our aviation community.

  6. I’m totally agree with the rest. The photographer is truly inexperienced and unprofessional. Great sharing Maria. Hopefully this will help the others to avoid similar mistakes again. Thanks for the great post!

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