We recently went on a once-in-lifetime flight with FlyNYON over New York City at sunset to test our Sony a9. Apart from blowing our collective minds and getting some great shots, we also learned a lot. Aerial photography is coming into vogue with more and more photographers going up in helicopters. To save you from the mistakes we made, here are our top 6 beginner aerial helicopter photography tips.
Know Your Flight Etiquette
You will likely share the cockpit with several other photographers. So please, no man-spreading. Everyone paid a lot of money to be here, and being courteous in a small space goes a long way.
Dress Warm (and Smart)
We went up at the beginning of October when it was relatively warm, but boy did we feel a chill at 2,000 feet. As a rule, dress warmer than the day suggests. It’s cold at the top, and you’ll need the extra layers. Leather jackets, which take up less space than puffy winter coats, are good standbys—or thermal underwear. Make sure to take anything out of your pockets, and wear contacts if possible. Glasses are a lot less effective when they’re plastered against your forehead.
Ask Your Pilot for Recommendations
Your pilot will know things from years of flying and schlepping around photographers. You, in all likelihood, are not a pilot. You will not know the same things as a pilot, even if you think you do, so you should ask. Our pilot, Amanda Mercaldo, set up a call a week ahead of time to discuss our flight path. While we certainly had some idea of what we wanted to see (the Brooklyn Bridge, “the triangle building”—aka VIA 47 West), Amanda came ready with suggestions and solutions. We had no idea what the “money shot” was until Amanda told us about it (the view of south Manhattan). Building a line of communication with your pilot in advance of your flight helps you plan your shot list and accessories.
Bring Multiple Cameras
There’s no lens switching mid-flight, but many flight companies let you strap on multiple cameras. We recommend bringing a wide-angle, zoom, and prime—of course, this also means you need three cameras. If you don’t own three cameras, then try to borrow at least a second camera for shot diversity. A wide-angle lens is ideal for panoramic views that (let’s be honest) you’re really paying for. Then, while telephoto zoom lenses are a little big for light aircraft like helicopters, regular zoom lenses will help you isolate a subject from above. Prime lenses take sharper photographs, but we only recommend them if you’re a little more experienced with aerial photography.
Take Light into Consideration
Know what kind of light to expect. Whether it’s blue hour, golden hour, midday, or midnight, quality and amount of light will have a huge effect on your pictures. If you’re flying at night, choose a lens with a fast f stop (we’re talking 1.8 or the fastest you own). Shooting during the day gives you more versatility, as you can use higher speeds without issue.
Spray and Pray
If you’re shooting at lower shutter speeds, there’s a lot of spray and pray—and that’s okay. Especially if you’re inexperienced, taking too many shots to get 4 or 5 usable ones is perfectly reasonable. Just be sure to use a larger memory card or two smaller memory cards.
Aerial photography is totally worth the price of admission. Some photographers note a bit of performance anxiety in the days before the trip, but as long as you plan your shot list and prepare your gear, the photographs make themselves.