While not one of the main topics of this blog, aerial photography is a great way to capture cityscapes. Lately, drones are all the rage but they still have a lot of limitations, and it can’t be compared to the experience of shooting from a helicopter. It’s a great way to see your city from a new angle or to discover a city you’re visiting for the first time. So let’s talk about a few things you can do to get the best experience and great shots.
1. Charter a flight if you can
In most large cities, you can find helicopter tours geared towards tourists. While it can be a good way to see the city from the air, it might not be the best way to get great shots, as you do not pick the itinerary/the views, and you could end up in a middle seat. Instead, I recommend calling a few local companies to see how much charter flights cost. Some pilots are very flexible: you can pick your itinerary as you go (a general direction is needed before the flight), the duration of the flight isn’t set (a minimum charge of an hour can be requested) and they might let you cancel if the weather isn’t good.
Extra-tip: look into airplane companies as well. The cost is usually lower, but shooting conditions are not as ideal.
2. Get the smallest helicopter you can
In Toronto, a lot of companies fly helicopters that can fit 4 people and the pilot. Those go for $1,300 to $1,500 per hour (pricing may vary in your market, and this is in Canadian dollars). Some will have even larger helicopters with 6 people in the back.
However, when I’m alone, I use a company that has a smaller helicopter (Robinson R22) that only fit one person and the pilot. It costs $600 per hour instead. So do your homework, and make sure you have the cheapest option.
Extra-tip: if you can’t find a small enough helicopter and it’s still too expensive, bring a friend or two and share the cost!
3. Ask to take the door off
The first time, it might be a little scary, but ask the pilot to take the door off on your side (both sides if you have multiple people). It’s really important. It will give you a lot more room to position yourself and it will allow you to shoot wider angles. It might take you a couple of flights before really hanging out of the helicopter, but you’ll get there!
4. Bring two cameras
Since you’re flying with the door off, you can’t bring anything loose with you, and you definitely can’t change lenses. That can be an issue if you want to shoot at a variety of focal lengths. I recommend bringing two cameras. I usually have one with my 16-35mm and one with my 24-70mm, but depending on what you’re shooting, you might want a telephoto. Just make sure they both have solid straps and leave the lens caps/hoods in the car. If you only have one camera, then it might be worth renting one for the day.
5. Shoot in Shutter Priority mode
I found that shooting around 1/500s or 1/1000s works best to get sharp shots. To do that, I usually shoot in shutter priority with auto-ISO. Shooting in burst mode will help to get a lot of angles while the helicopter is moving.
6. Use continuous focus mode
The hardest part of shooting from a moving helicopter is definitely getting sharp images. To help, I recommend with continuous focus (AF-C) mode. I also make sure I refocus often, to make sure the camera isn’t stuck on the wrong building, or in case it missed focus in the first place.
Hopefully, these tips help. Photographing from a helicopter is intimidating but it’s completely manageable, especially during the day. At sunset/blue hour, it’s more tricky but still doable! Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below, and share your own aerial images in our Facebook Group!