Monday, April 15, 2013

Shooting Hires Stills from Helicopters

During the production of Spartacus: Vengeance and Spartacus: War of the Damned I was lucky to shoot thousands of environment reference photos from helicopters. There are a few things that I learned, some of them the hard way. I'd like to share them with you!

The core of the post comes from a message to my friend Lobo , who asked me about it. It is for shooting high resolution stills with a DSLR from a helicopter.

Shooting from helicopters! 

Most importantly - are you taking a 'tourist flight' or are you chartering a helicopter, specifically for shooting? I would recommend the latter and all my advice is for the chartered flight, since one can't do much on a tourist flight.Even half an hour on a chartered chopper is better than two hours on a tea & biscuits flight!


Heli's are expensive - time is money, so be prepared! Make a plan where to go and a backup route just in case weather or other factors don't work out.

Use Google earth to virtually scout your locations if it's somewhere you haven't been.

Brief the pilot before the flight, so he knows what you are looking for. Bring visual examples of it - photos, drawings etc.

A good pilot makes all the difference. Always listen to them!

A good pilot makes all the difference. They know their machine, they know the area.
While you're busy shooting away on a spot , the briefed pilot will try to get you the best shot. A good pilot has worked with lots of photographers before so they know how to support you.

Ask the pilot what he can do, what he can provide flight wise and what you are allowed to do.

One helicopter is not like the other - if given a choice, know your needs and pick accordingly


As for a helicopter - there is a difference between a small one and a more powerful big one. I found this out after one flight and kicked myself.

A powerful helicopter has a much easier time hovering.

So if you need to stay in one spot to shoot, to do 360s for instance, pick a strong helicopter. I needed to stick on a spot on a crater ridge and the helicopter we flew with was too weak - still worked out - but a strong machine like a "Squirrel" Eurocopter AS350 would have held it's place.


Have a backup camera. Nothing worse than being in the air and the only camera goes belly up - then it's game over!

Have your favorite lens on the main camera and an alternate on the backup - so you can just switch cameras instead mucking around with lenses.

Bring as many memory cards as you can - you'll burn through a lot of shots. I easily shot 64GBs in 3-4 hours.

Pack what you need - no more, no less. Pack well - you will not have time to rummage around. And there's nothing worse with stuff flying around the heli once the door opens.


Vibrations don't matter as long as you are shooting handheld. Once you mount stuff to the heli, it becomes a whole different issue - don't do it for digital high resolution stills. From my experience, handheld is still the best option in a helicopter.

Open door: when shooting through glass, stuff gets a bit fuzzy, so your hero shots need to be done with the door open, you hanging out.

Wear dark / black clothing, so when you shoot through the glass, your own reflections are minimal.

Most professional  helicopter companies provide a harness - or at least they will secure the seat belt, so you can turn towards the door and shoot. No need to hang out - once the door's open, there's a great view - almost a 180 degrees.

Those pesky rotor blades are in the frame! Just shoot two or more photos - if you're not totally unlucky, the blades will be in a different position in those other exposures. At home those photos can easily be blended to one clean photo in your favorite processing app.

 Exposure settings:

If  the heli's moving, never go under an 800th. You'll get motion blur when the helicopter is cruising along or  turning on the spot.  Try not to go under a 5.6 aperture - rather up the ISO - not higher than 320 normal, 640 in emergencies would be my rule of thumb..

Cold Environments:

When I shot in the winter, or up in high altitudes,  I needed gloves, a big jacket and a baklava. Is so surprisingly cold up there - batteries will run down quicker too! Thin gloves allow you to still operate the camera without your fingers freezing stiff.

An experienced second crew member can save your bacon and almost double the amount of photos taken

Helping Hands:
If you're taking someone with you, have them help you out with handing you stuff, changing memory cards, and lenses so you can keep shooting non-stop.

They can also shoot through the opposite window with the backup camera, while you're busy working the main view.

Shooting like that we got over 2000 shots in one hour on one flight.

In Conclusion: 

In my years as a matte painter, helicopter reference photos were often the most sought after - helicopter altitude is often used in movies for establishing shots. No matter how hard you try - stuff shot from the side of the road just doesn't cut it.

So, once the helicopter is in the air, it's on!  Gold mining time. One might be tempted to sight see a little bit and look out. I never do - I am constantly on the lookout for stuff to shoot and fire at anything that looks interesting.

Other than that, enjoy the flight, be nice and listen to your pilot and bring home thousands of stunning photographs!

Here's a little video from our White Island shoot. My colleague Berrin flew with me on this one and showed me how valuable a second person can be. Thanks again Berrin!


On the North Island of NZ I flew with Heletranz - pilot Tony Monk is a seasoned pro that made this trip a success. Absolutely recommended.  

In Queenstown, on the South Island, I flew quite a few times with Jason from Heliworks. Jason is an ace and Heliworks is an absolutely professional, well equipped and friendly outfit. Also absolutely resommended.

Disclaimer: All statements in this post are my opinion only and are in no way associated with Pacific Renaissance / Starz or any individuals but myself.

Please leave comments with questions and remarks!


Rahul Venugopal said...

Thanks for the great article Peter. I do wonder how you go about referencing different perspectives you might need for specific shots. Is it based on storyboards, concept art or a basic sketch by yourself?

Firecrab said...

Rahul, these photographs were taken before the concepts and way before post production. I got my guidance from the production designer. Of course we also used them for final assets.

Lino VFX said...

Good article Peter! I experience the thrill of shooting from a helicopter only once in Hawaii. Lucky for me the helicopter had no doors and I was sitting right on the edge. If I can add another piece of advice. Make sure that your setting is set to shoot RAW+JPG. I had mine set to JPG only with a medium filesize and was kicking myself afterward. Up there you have no time to review your files or change settings. Good preparation is key! Cheers

Firecrab said...

Thanks Lino! May I also add that I never ever shoot JPEG! Always RAW - Bridge or other apps allow to quickly write out some JPEGs when needed. RAW ... always! ;)

Pipera said...

Awesome article, thanks for writing and sharing! What lenses did you used, any ultra wide angle 14-24 mm ?

Firecrab said...

Hey thanks Pipera! I've got a super wide angle lens but I find them too geometrically problematic for reference material. But as always it depends on your needs which lens you choose. I shoot a lot of stuff on a 50mm prime lens.