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Helicopter Photography

Tue Dec 30, 2003 6:01 am

I'm lucky enough to have a photo shoot involving two helicopters in the next few days. It is an air-to-air session, and it is my first opportunity at this. From anyone who has done this before is the any true differences from being in the air than being on the ground?

I know that the nature of helicopters rotors add some difficulty to this, so a slower shutter speed will be a must.

Does the fact that the background will be heavily snow covered add any variables to the shoot?

Mark McWhirter
Mark McWhirter...Contrails Photography
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RE: Helicopter Photography

Tue Dec 30, 2003 6:35 am

This should be fun for you. Some (especially older) helicopters do have some vibrations you might not be used to. Slow shutter speeds? Not too slow, I'd suggest. It is nice when you can get a semi-transparent rotor or prop disc but that slow a speed might feed a little shakiness into your picture. It is a case where a tripod on the floor of the helicopter would probably make it worse. I think all movie shooting from helos is steadicam.

Helicopters are expensive. Film is cheap. Shoot lots and lots of exposures. Some are going to work much better than others. The snowy background could be a problem without high contrast. If the other aircraft is light-colored you will need to try to shoot it against a darker area. Look at cruise ship pictures for examples of this.

Good luck. Wish I was going too.
Happiness is not seeing another trite Ste. Maarten photo all week long.
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RE: Helicopter Photography

Tue Dec 30, 2003 7:47 am

Remember that the main rotor turns slower than the tail rotor (or normal props) so it takes a very long shutter speed to get good motion blur out of them.

Same rules apply to much, keep the sun at your back, watch the shadows and shoot!!!

Dripping with envy.

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RE: Helicopter Photography

Tue Dec 30, 2003 8:02 am

Watch out for exposures if you are shooting against snow - spot metering from your subject is probably best as averaging or centre weighted may well lead to underexposure (esp. if its sunny). Best to bracket to be safe.

Shutter speed is a tricky one - I think I'd go for 1/250th as a compromise between getting some rotor motion and guarding against vibration/turbulence.


Colin K. Work, Pixstel
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RE: Helicopter Photography

Tue Dec 30, 2003 9:09 am

Shutter speed needn't be a tricky problem. In fact, once you do a few simple calculations you will know in advance exactly the amount of blurr you will get in the disc.

Here's how.

Before your flight, ask the pilot (of the target aircraft/helicopter) what his rotor RPM will be in various flight attitudes. e.g. cruise flight, hover etc.

Now do the following equation.

RPM / 60 x 360 / shutter speed = degrees of prop motion during exposure.

suppose the cruise RPM is 2000 rpm for the prop or rotor and a shutter speed of 1/250 per second.

2000/60 = 33.3 prop rotations per second.
33.3 rotations per second x 360 degrees = 11988 degrees of rotation per second.
11988 / shutter speed (250) = 48 degrees of prop/disc rotation during the exposure.

As you can see, you can now calculate the exact amount of motion blurr you desire in your photo. Of course you will also have to take into account your personal ability to hand-hold the camera steadily, and also any inherent vibration or motion between the two aircraft. Also I would strongly suggest NOT bracing your arms, hands or camera against the structure of the helicopter when shooting. The high frequency vibration will transmit directly into your camera and cause blurr.

Also remember that the pros DO NOT shoot through any plexi at all. I used to wear a safety harness and sit at an open window/doorway for all my air-to-air shoots. There is simply no way to achieve absolute sharpness through glass. One other trick the top photogs use is a small battery operated gyro attached to the tripod socket of the camera. This gyro will allow absolute steady shots several shutter speeds lower than what you can normally hand hold. But they are a $3000.+ option that is beyond most of us.

The best single piece of advice I can offer to you is to sit quietly with BOTH pilots before the flight and have a very thorough pre-brief of what you expect, the positioning of aircraft in relation to each other and the background, and keep full flight safety always in your mind. Remember that flight and personal safety MUST come before anything else.
There's an old axiom that says "It is better to be on the ground wishing you were flying.... than flying and wishing you were on the ground."
Plan the flight and fly the plan.

Hava fun and shoot LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of film.
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RE: Helicopter Photography

Tue Dec 30, 2003 11:05 am

Usually the RPM of the main rotor is about 400. Not sure about the tail rotor. I like either lots of MR motion blur or a completely stopped MR...plug time.
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Good luck!!!
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RE: Helicopter Photography

Tue Dec 30, 2003 1:10 pm

My biggest (and only, heh) tip is to look at some of the stuff from the pros. Pacific Rotors Magazine (now Heli-Ops) has the best air-to-air helo photography I've ever seen:


Aaron Fitzgerald has some good stuff too:


Go get some good stuff, and be sure to share with us as soon as you get back!

The best aviation photo I've ever taken was rejected by Airliners.net
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RE: Helicopter Photography

Wed Dec 31, 2003 3:05 am

Thanks a lot guys, less than 24 hours and I'll be above the Rocky Mountains in a Bell. I have to say this is one hell of an early 18th birthday present Smile.

Thanks a lot for the advice, the snow shouldn't be too much of an issue, as well I live in the great white north and a large portion of my Calgary shots are with white backgrounds.
Mark McWhirter...Contrails Photography
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RE: Helicopter Photography

Wed Dec 31, 2003 5:28 am


Its gona be a great day in the mountains on Wednesday.
Ya better come back in time to spot with us!  Smile/happy/getting dizzy
Follow @kimbo_snaps on Instagram or bokimon- on Flickr to see more pics of me and my travels.
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RE: Helicopter Photography

Wed Dec 31, 2003 2:23 pm

I should be back in time for some YYC spotting Bo. It's an early morning shoot, and Canmore is only an hour out of town. Don't forget I will only take about 200 photos.

I'll try to print off some 4x6's before I goto YYC, just a little eye-candy.
Mark McWhirter...Contrails Photography
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RE: Helicopter Photography

Sat Jan 10, 2004 12:40 am

Due to the bad weather over the last two weeks, today will finally be the day. Just hope the weather holds.
Mark McWhirter...Contrails Photography

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