A lot of people have asked me “Do you have any tips to consistently get great images while shooting from a helicopter? What are your settings? ” To give a little background on myself and my experience, I was in the U.S. Navy for six years as a MH-60S Helicopter Crew Chief/ Rescue Swimmer. I have flown all over the States and the world in every situation imaginable. Whenever I was in the air, I always had my camera with me. Over the years, I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned from those mistakes and am willing to pass that knowledge on to you so that you can take my advice and not repeat the same mistakes I did.
When looking for a helicopter to rent, the most important thing is to make sure you have a window that opens to shoot out of or even better than that is if the doors come off. When you are shopping for a helicopter, make sure you ask the pilot if he can take the doors off or if there is a window. If the doors have to stay on and there is no window that opens to shoot through, don’t waste your money.
Once you have your helicopter and are in the air, there are a few things you want to watch out for to make sure they’re not in your images. First are the rotor blades. I don’t know how many times this happened to me: I composed a wide angle shot, and I think I nailed it until I see either a black line across my image or a grey blur. To avoid this, ask your pilot to level off or even put the opposite wing down a little to change the angle of the blades. The other main object you want to make sure is not in you pictures is the landing gear. When you’re shooting down on a subject or landscape, make sure the landing gear does not ruin your shot.
Make sure everything is tied down. FOD (foreign object damage) is a huge problem in aviation, so make sure you do not take anything you do not need and take everything out of your pockets like change, pens, keys, etc. and put them in your bag. Keep your gear close to you and tied down or clipped in. I always have a carabineer on my camera bag, so I can clip it to something so that it is secured and will not fall out or slide around. Most civilian helicopters contain just the cockpit, which means that there is little extra room, so if you plan on swapping lenses during the flight, make sure your gear is close but out of the way of the controls. When you’re in the front, almost everything around you is controls or buttons, so ask the pilot where it is safe to secure your bag. Also make sure you do not touch or bump the controls while shooting, especially the collective. It is the stick on the left side of the seat that makes the helicopter go up and down.
When shooting, try to lean out of the helicopter. This will vastly improve your images. Try and take glass with VR or IS. This will also improve the number of useable images. The helicopter will be vibrating a lot, so don’t lean against anything but as long as you use proper hand holding techniques, you will be fine. In most cases, you are going to be far enough away from your subject that the aperture will not affect the depth of field, so I would shoot two stops above your largest aperture to be in the glass sweet spot. If you are just shooting landscapes, then try and keep your shutter speed above 1/500sec. If you are shooting another helicopter or airplane with a propeller, then you will want to use the lowest shutter speed you can to make the blades blur. I found that 1/125sec is about as slow as I can shoot and still get sharp images. Of course this also depends on what focal length you’re shooting at. The longer the focal length, the faster your shutter will need to be. With my Nikon 70-200mm F/2.8 VR at 200mm and VR in active, I was able to shoot at 1/125sec. Usually when I get the shot I wanted, I would try 1/60sec. One out of 20 came back sharp but never tack sharp. I found the sweet spot for shooting another helicopter is 1/125 -1/250sec.
Last but not least, remember to have fun and enjoy the views.