As we look forward to 2021 and being able to travel again, one photographic activity I always look forward to are aerials. Not flying a drone, but looking out the side of a helicopter with doors off thousands of feet in the air. Having spent the last 30 summers in Alaska on commercial assignments and having many pilot friends, I get to fly in helicopters a lot. And helicopters are often a possibility during travel and photo workshops. But there are a few things to consider before you go up for some aerial photography.
First, check in with the pilot and talk about the route and what you are able to photograph. Nothing is more important than being on the same page as your pilot. They have total control of the situation. There is an old saying in Alaska flying….”Never argue with the pilot.” If the pilot doesn’t want to go somewhere or doesn’t like the weather, then that is just fine. Can you imagine….”Or come on now, I know you can fly through that nasty weather, what is the worst that can happen?” The worst that can happen is you crash. Period.
Next, figure out what camera/lens you are using, make sure your batteries are fresh, and you have plenty of flash card space. A very important rule during aerials of any kind….you can’t drop anything, and loose items are highly frowned upon. A lens or filter bouncing around the cockpit will get you a quick ride back to the airport. I like to use a 24-120mm or 24-70mm as my lens. This allows me enough zoom to narrow the composition, but also enough wide angle for big landscapes. Ask you pilot how far off the ground you are going to be flying. And just remember using longer telephotos is difficult with all the movement of the aircraft.
Next, are the doors on or off during the flight? ‘Doors on’ is what many people will experience, and it is fabulous. Pilots are often obsessed with keeping the plexiglass dome and windows in perfect shape. To get the best results, get as close as you can to the window without touching it. Airframes vibrate, so you don’t want to touch it, or risk scratching the window. Make sure to wear dark clothing that won’t be as visible as a reflection…white shirts are a bad idea. Turn on your image stabilization to help steady your shot. You will be wearing a headset to communicate with the pilot. I often flip up the mic so it doesn’t come on every time it hits my camera back. I’ve actually heard other photographer’s heavy breathing as they jam their camera and mic into their face. Try to avoid the “heavy breathing mic moment”.
Depending on your situation, you might get a chance to fly ‘doors off’ in a helicopter. It doesn’t get any better than this. Imagine hovering over the Alaska Range lining up peaks perfectly to get a shot that would be impossible in a small plane. Doors off flying adds a few new precautions. First, never stick anything outside the helicopter. Remember, just outside the door the rotors are spinning above your head keeping you in the air. If you stick your camera lens just outside, you will instantly feel the force of wind that can knock your camera out of your hands, rip off any lens hood, and cause all sorts of problems. Helicopters can fly well over 100MPH…so imagine putting your head outside the car window driving 100 MPH. Make sure your camera strap is around your neck, and if you have a bigger camera, make sure it is tethered solidly. I often shoot side by side with film crews, and their larger RED video cameras are always tethered securely inside. The inside of a helicopter gets really noisy with the doors off, and your mic most likely will have a manual switch to turn it on and off. Otherwise, wind noise would constantly activate the mic and it would be hard to hear anything. The beauty of doors off is you can shoot straight out the door with nothing between you and the scene. No more funny reflections or window vibrations.
The image above was from a doors off flight during a commercial shoot in Alaska. The helicopter pilot took a route that is rarely used by pilots in Denali just so we could line up three famous peaks…Eyetooth, Mooses Tooth and Denali. He hovered in the perfect spot, and I was able to get the shot like I was standing at a scenic overlook. Incredible! Gotta love those helicopter aerials!