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My heart rate steadily increased from the very first moment I heard the distant rotor blades pounding the cool morning air. A speck at first, but then larger until it swung in low and landed on the grass lawn in front of me. A passenger stepped out and the owner approached me. It was time for my first helicopter ride.
I’ll admit that this situation may not be an every day occurrence for DPS readers out there. Certainly not for me. It took 38 years before I had my first ride this morning. I was on assignment to shoot an interesting corn maze at Swan Trails Farms, shaped to replicate Washington state, complete with many of the major roads, Space Needle, bridges and city placards.
Before the shoot I received some advice, learned a bit more during the flight, and I would like to pass on what I discovered in case you ever find yourself in the joyful position to experience shooting from a hovering helicopter.
Chances are you will have very little space in the chopper. If you plan on swapping lenses during the flight make sure things are close at hand. If you’re in the front seat, as can often be the case, you’ll want your gear easy at hand but out of the way of the controls. Have I mentioned the controls? They’re all over the place. Watch your feet! Watch the yoke between your knees! And don’t touch the collective, that stick-like thing, that also helps the helicopter go up. It’s very important to have your gear well organized so you are not fumbling around hitting unfamiliar controls the wrong way (hint: ANY way you touch them will be the wrong way to the pilot).
Now that you have all your gear organized, strap it down. A bag for a spare lens is a plus because you don’t want that lens rolling around the floor. Helicopters go every which way and things will tilt, slide and roll when they can. And as you’ll be removing the door (see below) it would be most bad for you, and anyone or anything below, if your gear went out the door.
Clip your camera to you or something sturdy. Your belt or belt loop works in a pinch. Get a length of cord that is strong and a real, not keychain, carabineer to make your life easier. The neck strap alone won’t work because you’ll often be looking straight down and it could slip over your head. And clip into camera with some type of strong webbing or strap. Your default camera strap may not be the best solution. Double check it on the ground before you’re in the air and make sure your solution gives you enough latitude to move freely while keeping your camera safe.
…stepping out the door. Not all the way out, well, not unless you’re very confident and have the proper harness. But even with a five point harness you can swivel and get a leg out the door. This will help you get more shots straight down and hopefully not including the skid (that part of the helicopter on which it rests on the ground). There should be a step for your foot to rest on and this is a great way to get clearer of the doorway and expand your shooting range.
Now that you’re outside the door and have your wide-angle lens attached, watch out for the rotor blades. I’m not talking about your body, I’m talking about getting them in the shot. While you’ll be tempted to get some shots with a lot of sky, you may not notice at the time that the rotor blades are munging things up. And at their speed they’ll tend to always be blurred and out of place against an otherwise perfect sky.
Most of all, unless you are on some hard pressed deadline for an assignment and have specific shots you are required to capture, have fun. Marvel at how different things look from high up. Shoot wide and shoot with a zoom. It’s not every day most of us go up in a helicopter so enjoy the ride.
I hope this list gets you some of the basics for shooting from a helicopter should the opportunity arise. If you’ve picked up other helpful tips after a ride or one hundred in a helicopter, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.