Photographing from a helicopter
While I was in Australia I had a chance to photograph from a helicopter. While admittedly this isn't the first time I have photographed from a helicopter (I have done it a few times for my company), it was the first time I had gone up with the sole intention of getting great scenic photographs.
We rented a helo (MD500) from Blue Sky Helicopters in Sydney and opted for the sunset flight. I made the reservation the night before after looking at the weather, which I think this is the best option since trying to plan too far in advance could leave you open to a bad sunset or cancelled flight.
My choice to go with Blue Sky Helicopters was made after seeing their excellent reviews on Trip Advisor as well as their aircraft options. Most companies go with an R44 or similar aircraft which can be somewhat questionable in reliability. The MD500 can only be flown by a skilled pilot while the R44 can be piloted by almost anyone with a pilot license. I'd recommend spending the extra cash and going with a high performance helicopter as they will most likely be a lot safer. By going with the higher-end model we also got to fly with the doors off which was a must for getting good clear shots.
Right from the start I wasn't sure what lens to bring. I had the ability to bring my 24-105mm f/4, 16-35mm f/2.8 and or 150-600mm f/5.6 Tamron. Luckily, Mar the pilot and photographer, talked me into choosing one lens for the flight and suggested something big and wide with some good versatility. Based on that I went with the 24-105mm Canon. I opted to put on my Lens Baby Filter since we were going to be taking some sunset shots (this turned out to be a dumb idea, but I will explain later).
After getting some thorough aircraft safety briefs we were strapped in. I had my camera strap wrapped around my wrist which didn't seem to make me super confident that it would stay on. In hindsight I would have found a better way to secure it but for the flight it sufficed. I can say that had I opted to bring another lens I would have risked it falling out of the helicopter and there wouldn't be any chances for me to change lenses. Again, going with one lens was the right call.
Starting out I set the camera to aperture priority (Av on the Canon) and set my f-stop to f/5.6. My thought behind this was I wanted a decent depth of field but still wanted to let in lots of light so I could maintain a good shutter speed. I wanted to keep the camera at least to 1/60sec and I figured that would be adequate for the evening. Once the sun started to go down I could start bumping up my ISO but I wanted to save that part for last so I could maintain as little noise as possible.
As soon as we took off I began snapping away and soon realized I had to make some quick adjustments (I took around 2,000 photos total in the course of a 30 minute flight.) My goal was to continue to adjust the settings for each string of shots so if for some reason I didn't get it with one setting I was guaranteed it in another. Normally I'm not as trigger happy but for the amount of money I was spending on the flight I wanted to make sure I got what I came for! Right off the bat I found holding the camera steady with the doors off was a pain and there were a lot of vibrations. I also found the lens filter was creating some issues since I didn't have the time to mess with it. Of course that issue went away when the $200 filter simply blew off half-way through our first pass over Sydney, problem fixed I guess...
After doing 3-4 passes over Sydney and then flying up and down the coast our flight came to a quick end. I was excited to see what I had captured during the flight but I knew I could have done things a lot better and I wish I could go back the next day for round two. All in all Blue Sky Helicopters was phenomenal and given the chance I would use them again in a heart-beat. Mark, the pilot is also a photographer and knows how to position you for the best photos. He is also a stellar pilot and I can say after spending years flying around in helicopters that he is safe, confident and knows what he is doing.
What I learned:
In post editing I found, much to my dismay, that a ton of my photos are blurry. I was so focused on the ISO, figuring that the 1/60 shutter speed would suffice, that I didn't realize the added speed and vibrations of the helicopter made a lot of them out of focus. Most of the photos that are 1/120 or faster are nice and crisp. If I could go back and do it again I would set the aperture to around 5.6, the shutter speed to 1/120 and then adjust the ISO as the sun goes down.
I managed to get some incredible shots by holding the camera outside the helo and shooting down the tail and up the front (be super careful because you could find yourself without a camera!) . I also managed to get some great shots by holding the camera pointing straight down while getting photos of my feet and legs.
In hindsight I would have changed the filter to a simple UV filter and called it a day, anything else will be too much trouble.
All in all this was an incredible experience and I managed to snag some of the best photos I have ever taken. I think in the future I will save up to get flights in other cities that I travel to, you just can't beat what you get out of it.