Cityscape Photography Techniques from a Helicopter

What would you say to an offer to fly thousands of feet above your city and shoot photos under the setting sun? Did I mention you would also be wielding a 200-400mm lens? Wait until you see this video. Patrick Hall from Fstoppers chartered a Robinson R44 four seater single engine helicopter from Wings Air. With about 60 minutes of flying time at his disposal, he decided to photograph the city from high above while strapped to the helicopter that zoomed over the city skyline:

Most of us have taken an odd photo of a city as were were about to fly in or out from inside an airplane. But not many of us have had the privilege to attempt something like this. With one foot nearly out of the craft, and his lens at times peeking out like a careless sniper with a death wish, Hall made the most of his flight time making some unique images.

cityscape, photographing from a helicopter

Watch for the wind!

There are a million different things that can go wrong when you attempt such a thing, and since we’re not bothered about aeronautical engineering, it’s not considered here. From the point of view of photography alone, you could pick the wrong lens, encounter atmospheric haze, poor light, bad weather, etc. Any of these can ruin your photos. Hall did encounter a few problems, which gave him valuable lessons for his future attempts. Here are a few lessons, just in case you’re intrigued with the whole idea and contemplating attempting something like this yourself.

Test Shots

If you ever try something like this, make sure that you do a number of test shots in-flight to perfect your exposure. Set your shutter speed high, ISO high, and f-stop small to ensure that you get a proper sharp exposure.

Watch for the Wind

There is going to be a lot of wind against your face and camera. The main rotors will also produce a lot of downwash. Compensate by not sticking your lens outside and by bracing yourself.

Pick the Right Time of Day

As Hall found out, the transition time between late afternoon and the blue hour wasn’t the best time to shoot after all. The exposures were mostly dull, as there was an acute shortage of contrast. The golden hour isn’t perfect for all types of photography after all.

photographing from a helicopter

Atmospheric haze will impact your images.

Atmospheric Conditions

Depending on the part of world you try this, haze will be a major problem. If you want to catch some contrast, attempt it around two hours ahead of the blue hour.

tips on avoiding haze

This will ensure that the sun casts a strong, contrasty light and you will also be able to counter the haze problem.

Pick the Right Lens and the Right Angle

Hall soon found out that a 200–400mm lens isn’t the most ideal for this type of photography. Though he was able to get some cool shots, like capturing Midtown from all the way towards the end of Manhattan, for the most part, the big focal length was actually a limiting factor.

Unique shots of New York from a helicopter

Midtown all the way from the end of Manhattan

A 24–70mm was definitely a better lens given the circumstances, but the lack of ambient light and the fact that the city lights did not turn on by that time didn’t help matters too much. Hall recovered some of the images by converting them to black and white in post-processing.

All in all, this was not a wasted opportunity at all. Hall did walk away with some amazing images on his very first attempt. Additionally, he gained some invaluable experience which should help him capture even better images on his next attempt.

helicopter photography

Would you like to attempt something like this yourself?

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