7 Tips On Shooting From A Helicopter

7 Tips On Shooting From A Helicopter


Helicpter and Mt. Baker 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).

Strap it down

Banking Over The Snohomish ValleyNow 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 gear

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.

Remove the door

Remove The Door If the door comes off or slides away, get rid of it. A lot of helicopters do this and it’s very useful for photography. That’s because you’ll be…

Step out

…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.

Watch the blades in wide shots

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.

Have fun!

Corn Maze At Swan Trails FarmMost 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.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Pete May 10, 2013 06:49 am

    Thank you all for the excellent advice. I was tapped this year to fly in a Vietnam era Huey to shoot the local Harley dealers premier event West Coast Thunder, a small motorcycle run of somewhere between 7000 & 10,000 riders. I'll be carrying 2 bodies, a 50D with a 28-135mm lens and a 5DMkII with a 100-400 L IS lens. I'll be shooting stills and video with the 5D.

  • Patricia Griffin January 24, 2013 04:31 am

    This is a wonderful article. I have today been invited to take some helicopter aerial photographs in about 3/4 weeks time so it is giving me the opportunity to research the project. I have really enjoyed reading your article.
    Perhaps when I have done the work I will send some of the photos.I read your original article but I can see more has been added. Must read all of this also. Thank you

  • Rob February 14, 2012 04:10 am

    Although it's been a while since the original article posted, I'll share my experiences. I work for a fairly large PD that operates its own planes & helicopters. I fly any chance I get, which isn't as often as I'd like. (I used to be a CSI & now run the photo lab so only get to fly for the "PR" shots.)
    Some of these were posted earlier, but they're worth repeating:
    * ALWAYS approach from the front AFTER the pilot or escort has motioned you toward the aircraft.
    * ALWAYS exit toward the front AFTER being instructed
    * ALWAYS stay strapped in & NEVER stick anything out the aircraft without permission
    * ALWAYS keep away from any control levers, rods, sticks, pedals, etc. ASK before touching
    * Take as little gear as possible. I prefer a moderate zoom (28-105ish) over multiple lenses. The less I have to worry about finding gear, switching lenes, or losing something out of the aircraft, the better.
    * Set aperture as close to wide open as possible. You'll need all of the shutter speed you can get. Min 1/500! Set ISO as needed to get faster shutter speeds. I'm willing to trade a little noise for a sharp photo. Most likely, you won't get a second chance.
    * If you have a stablized lens, use it.
    * If you've never used an attached stabilizer, BEWARE of sudden movements. The stablizer's job is to keep the camera in one place & the gyro inside does a good job of it. Move the camera too quickly & it'll end up somewhere you don't want it--hitting the window, side of the aircraft, someone else, the end of your nose...
    * Tie your gear to you. Things falling out or just moving around are bad for you, your equipment, the aircraft, people on the ground, etc.
    * If possible, fly with the door off. The plexiglass window is probably tinted and scratched. Both make for less than satisfactory photos.
    * If you're feeling ill, look at the horizon & TELL the pilot.
    * Sometimes you'll good a really good whiff of your exhaust. If you're flying in circles ("orbitting"), this is really likely. If you feel ill, TELL the pilot.
    * Unless you're using a really long lens, set focus to infinity & tape it there. Everything is going to be 500+ feet away (assuming you're photographing the ground)
    * Start metering & taking test shots to evaluate exposure a few seconds after taking off. Set camera to manual once you've found the right shutter speed. Odds are, lighting isn't going to change much during the flight. Having the exposure worked out ahead of time means you get to concentrate on what's in front of lens.
    * When photographing, lean forwards slightly so you aren't against the seat back. Try not to lean against anything in the aircraft. Relax your upper body, especially your arms. Try to keep your elbows close to your body, but not against it. All of these help reduce vibration being transmitted from the aircraft though you to the camera.
    * Doors on or off, it's usually cooler once you're up in the air. More so with the doors off. In the summer, it can be hotter with the doors on--think greenhouse.
    * If flying with doors on, keep the lens a couple of inches from the window. Otherwise, with a sudden bump & you've got a camera in the nose.
    * Sticking your lens out of the aircraft = more vibration. Try to stay inside where the air is calm.
    * If you are given a headset with radio & mic, don't be afraid to ask questions or tell the pilot what you'd like. (Just make sure you know the difference between the intercom & radio switches. Been there, done that...)
    * Short tourist flights aren't prohibitively expensive & are a great way to see the area in a new way
    * HAVE FUN!
    * HAVE FUN!
    * I'll say it one more time. HAVE FUN!

  • Chuck Rucker October 25, 2010 06:38 am

    Oct 22, 2010 took flight in a two passenger Robinson R22 Beta II helicopter. Door was off, secondary strap to my camera attached to my belt, flying at 3,000 ft at 70 knots to the event to be photographed was exhilarating.
    Circling the event several times and remembering your tips was most helpful. In looking back, I wish we would have circled more directly over the event, rather than to the side. The photo needed was a direct shot overhead which I had only one of 156 shots. The direct overhead shot I really needed, I should have done more. It worked, but I felt that advise may help others. I did not need to worry about the skids, as the pilot circled at a good 15 degrees loop and I was leaning out the door securely fasten by safety belt. I appreciated your article.

  • Wayne Bretl September 28, 2010 11:16 am

    uber moogle asked about a polarizer - I think it probably won't be much help because you will be aimed directly at the window - polarizers work to reduce reflections that are at an angle to the surface, I believe.

  • Wayne Bretl September 27, 2010 05:22 am

    The tourist helicopter company I went with in Kauai charged more for the doors-off tour, and the doors-off tour was in a smaller craft with no "inside" seats, so good photo opportunities for all.

  • George September 26, 2010 11:30 am

    Do NOT use "auto focus" when shooting through helo windows - your camera will try to focus on the window instead of the distant image.

    ALWAYS approach a helo on the ground from the FRONT, under the direct control of the crew, with your eyes on the pilot - and his/her eyes on you.

    NO LOOSE GEAR - that goes for hats, water bottles, etc. NOTHING should ever leave the helo cabin under flight or on the ground with the rotors turning.

  • Clark September 25, 2010 06:33 am

    I 100% agree that you need to beg and plea to get that door off the copter.... it makes all the difference (no matter what the temperature is)....


    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/clarkmaxwell/4655410256/' title='la peninsula blvd on isles of capri.' url='http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4034/4655410256_f66a158f25.jpg']

  • Bill September 25, 2010 12:07 am

    Great comments! Thanks for the advice from everyone. I'm sure my travelling companions and I will appreciate your recommendation to dress for colder temps while on the tour.

  • Leslie September 24, 2010 11:46 pm

    So crazy that this article comes up now. I was offered just 2 days ago to take aerial shots for someone!

  • Simon Casson September 24, 2010 01:27 pm

    Thanks for the article Peter - choppers certainly are fun - I have been lucky enough to do quite a bit of work with them and recently "of them" - your readers might be interested to check some samples out at my website - www.casson.com.au.
    Another tip is the temperature - I have left the ground and by the time I was 5000ft up it was 30deg cooler (with rotor blast chill factor too!).
    So dress for "up there" not the ground - I use some really excellent mountaineering gloves - thin but very warm.
    And as a commercial photographer I always ensure the client is billed direct for hire costs - you don't need to be wearing those dollars per hour untll you are paid!!
    Best wishes,

  • Wayne Bretl September 24, 2010 07:58 am

    David, thanks for the info - all good! I did understand. I was responding to the request for tips on tourist helicopter trips from Bill above, who, I assume, would be with a party of several people and not have access to a external stabilizer; hence my comment on not attempting tele shots.

  • David Langley September 24, 2010 07:36 am

    Hi Wayne, I think you didn't understand my comments. I was talking about a commercial assignment where the client is paying all expenses and expects 100% results. My cameras were film cameras. Specifically Nikon F3's with MD4 motor drives. I always shot Kodachrome (ASA25). I'm going back quite a few years, long before what lens manufacturers are now calling stabilized lenses. There is no way a so called "stabilized" lens could compete with a Kenyan stabilizer. Your comments about seating arrangements and point and shoot cameras leads me to believe your talking about sight seeing helicopter rides.
    I'm trying to share my experience as a pro about shooting from a chopper. If I had an assignment today to shoot from a chopper I would certainly shoot digital, lowest ISO, for no noise, and for sure I would rent a Kenyon stabilizer.
    Let me give you an example of what a real stabilizer can do. You can hand hold a full frame DSLR with a 200mm lens, with a shutter speed of 1/15 and get 100% sharp images. In fact if you go down to 1/2 second you can get a petty high percentage of sharp images. It really works like a stedi-cam.

  • TheWhizKid September 24, 2010 07:33 am

    I was recenty in Oahu and Maui and we took helicopter rides on both islands. On Oahu we had the front seats so photographing was usually uninhibited. I wish I had thought of the dark clothing tip as many of the shots I have reflections were issues...however even with dark clothes there were general reflection issues in the helicopter.

    In Maui we were stuck in the back row and I was in one of the inside seats (computer choice, not mine...it's based on everyone's weights)...so I was really hard pressed to get photos on the tour. Usually the guy in front had his elbow sticking in the back because he was trying to get shots on my right....and the guy I sat next to on my left was a rather large guy and did not lean back frequently enough to get shots that I wold have liked. If you can only bring one lens I would bring a nice zoom that starts in the high 10's and goes to at least the 50mm's for a lens.

  • Wayne Bretl September 24, 2010 07:01 am

    You don't say what kind of camera you have. General rules are to use a high shutter speed (and therefore, high ISO). On a point-and-shoot, this may be "sports mode." Don't brace your camera on any part of the helicopter (just transmits vibrations). If you have a camera/lens with different VR/IS modes use the one meant for accomodating camera movement (In Canon, that's mode II).

    Because of vibration, general vehicle motion (and some wind if you go doors-off) you will get a higher percentage of good shots in wide angle or normal focal length. Telephoto will be iffy even with built in stabilization.

    The helicopter company will weigh everyone and determine the seating based on weight. If it is agreed among the party that the photographer can request an outside seat, do so before the weighing process so the person checking weight and balance can try to seat you on the outside.

  • Jake Watrous September 24, 2010 05:22 am

    Also, turn off older VR/IS systems, or (in Nikon terminology) switch to "Active" VR instead of "Normal" to account for the motion and vibration of the helicopter.

  • David Langley September 24, 2010 05:00 am

    Hey Peter, you missed the most important trick about shooting from a chopper. The one pictured in your article is a really shaky sucker and if you need really sharp images you better rent a stabilizer. I used to own a Kenyan stabilizer. Kenyan is a company in Conn. that makes a two gyro unit that is battery operated. The gyros turn at very high speed (it takes 10 minutes to get up to speed) and when attached to the camera, makes it steady as a rock. It's on the heavy side (probably weighs twice what your camera weighs) and it does restrict any fast movement of your camera. Fast movement of the stabilizer will damage the bearings of the gyros and factory repair is pricey. I bought mine back in the late 60's for $2500 so renting makes more sense and I'm sure Kenyan can tell you who rents.
    Most of the time I have rented Jet Rangers. It carries the pilot and 1 passenger in the front seats and 3 in the back seat. The back doors comes off easily and if you take an assistant that leaves an empty seat between you and your assistant which is great for equipment.
    Photographers always want the chopper pilot to go lower than they are comfortable with and after one flight a pilot explained why. The Jet Ranger cannot auto rotate below 1000 feet. Auto rotate is a technique used if the engine fails. (this was some years ago so I don't know if it still applies). The pilot feathers the rotating wing so the helicopter drops at a high rate about 800 feet and then he (or she) reverses the feathering of the wing which then gets it rotating fast enough to facilitate a skidding landing. Chopper pilots have to do this maneuver monthly to keep their licenses . That's why in NYC you have to maintain 1000 feet over the city so if your engine fails you can auto rotate into the Hudson or East river. I don't think I ever asked another pilot to go below 1000 feet.

  • Nina September 24, 2010 03:52 am

    An account of my first (and so far, only) helicopter ride. I only had a Nikon Coolpix at the time, but still got some interesting shots.

    [eimg url='http://www.the3dstudio.com/blog.aspx?id=322208' title='blog.aspx?id=322208']

  • G. Leslie Sweetnam September 24, 2010 03:29 am

    Thanks for a great story, Peter. As a pilot and fixed-wing photographer of 13 years experience, may I add:

    When swapping lenses in the windy cabin of a helicopter, it will be almost impossible to keep dust out of your sensitive DSLR. Most pros carry bodies for each lens.

    A harness is a must if you're going to lean beyond the reach of your lap belt. Any aircraft can lurch unexpectedly in turbulence. You will instinctively reach for something to grab, so your gear must be attached in some way that doesn't require a hand.

    Amen to the unexpected beauty! Bring big memory media so you can shoot everything you see. Set your camera for aperture priority at the widest stop that gives good sharpness for your lens - then use ISO to get the least noise while keeping the shutter speed above 1000th/sec. The wind at the open door will make it hard to avoid speed blur. For focus, just set it at infinity, you don't expect to be closer than 300' to the ground.

    If they talk to Air Traffic Control, pilots can arrange to go almost anywhere. Plan a loop to shoot everything you ever wanted to see in your area. Browse Arthus-Bertrand's work for inspiration.

  • Mike Covington September 24, 2010 03:22 am

    I had an offer not too long ago to photograph a few golf courses in the area. I had spent time on helicopters 40+ years ago and was not looking forward to doing it again. I was totally wrong. Helicopter technology has changed a lot in 40 years and the ride was the most fun I had in years. The photos can be seen at www.heritage-golf.com and I look forward to the next opportunity for aerial photos.
    I agree with everything Peter said above although I was in the back seat with the door off. I took two cameras, one with a long lens, and one with a short lens and it worked out really well.


  • Steve1812 September 24, 2010 02:18 am

    Ive recently been up in a Gyrocopter - space, well no. Think mini car and more intimate.
    The yoke is very close to all important bits and the tightness of the harness/belt has to be felt to be believed. Very little room to turn and if the lens is long, chances are it will get a 60mph breeze knocking ti around. Door off is essential. Brilliant. Fast speed as possible because theres a lot moving in flight.

    On the ground taking shots, I realised that trying to get the blades blurred means less than sharp shots of the gyrocopter moving in for close ups and banking turns. So I also learned that a smidge of motion blur on the blades in "photoshop" adds enough to give the impression of movement. If you get the chance...go.

  • Des September 24, 2010 01:11 am

    Thanks for the tips, I'm going up in a balloon at the end of next month, so any tips for this would be gratefully received. Cheers.

  • JohnB September 24, 2010 01:04 am

    Shooting helicopter aerials with a D90, my ISO is usually at 400 on Manual with the Nikkor 18-70 zoom at 1250th of a second. I'm getting great results at those settings and can generally manipulate any little things in photoshop later.
    Can you suggest any better settings?
    Perhaps Auto ISO on Aperture Priority for higher aperture settings?

    One tip... don't lean against the door frame. By keeping my shoulder and hands free of the helicopter, it rules out any vibration, especially so when hovering.
    Two, I generally sit on the left side. Most pilots I fly with sit on the right. Anything that blows out can go straight back into the tail rotor and could make it your last flight. Ever! I snap the camera bag around my leg.
    Three, it's surprising how cold it can get up there. Forget steady hands when you are shaking with cold.
    Wear clothing that fits tight. A loose sweatshirt or jacket with the door off can ruin normally steady hands.
    Your website it great!

  • kirpi September 24, 2010 12:25 am

    While shooting from a real helicopter is definitely better, I understand that the costs involved, as well as many other practical and logistical issues might be a problem to many. On the other hand, I suggest that you try a quadcopter drone http://amzn.to/crOsKc which is very handy for may shots, and rather cheap as well. Quadcopters can efficiently and reliably lift small (but quality) digital cameras for aerial shots. They can be invaluable tools for professionals, as well as interesting experiments for nature photographers: you can gain absolute unique point of views.

  • Bill September 24, 2010 12:14 am

    Good suggestions. Any recommendations for "tourist" helicopter photography. We've booked a helicopter ride for our trip to Maui and would welcome any suggestions. Thanks.

  • Jordan September 23, 2010 11:59 pm

    This is a pretty awesome article. I don't know that I'll ever get the chance to take pictures from a Helicopter, but very cool nonetheless. Thanks.

  • Ubermoogle September 23, 2010 11:19 pm

    Would a polarizing filter work for reducing glare from the door, or would the fact that it's plexiglass introduce the horrible "rainbow effect" of shooting through plastic?

  • Jamie September 23, 2010 08:44 am

    I have learned that if the helicopter doesn't have a remove-able door to wear dark clothing. This will help reduce glare from the windows.