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Shooting aerial video from helicopter

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Alex Ojeda
Shooting aerial video from helicopter
on Apr 24, 2014 at 3:18:27 am


I will be shooting some aerial footage in a few weeks from now from a manned helicopter. This would be my first time shooting from it, so any tips, suggestions, do's and dont's would be greatly appreciated to any of you that have experience in this field.

Im not sure if I should shoot at a minimum shutter speed to get sharp footage, as maybe the helicopter movement and motor and air vibrations might blur it if not at certain shutter speed?

I havnt made up my mind yet, but I will be shooting either with a Canon XF300 or Blackmagic production camera at 1080p.

Many thanks for your help!


Alex Ojeda

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Mark Suszko
Re: Shooting aerial video from helicopter
on Apr 24, 2014 at 8:53:48 pm
Last Edited By Mark Suszko on Apr 24, 2014 at 9:08:21 pm

The safety speech comes first.

Never approach the helicopter until a crew member beckons, and watch for their instructions. Never approach the tail or tail rotor area, do not walk around the back of the tail to get to the other side, EVER, even when the motor is off. Instead, carefully and slowly walk around the FRONT, and very close to the left or right side of the front canopy, because the rotor blades can droop while spinning, reducing their head clearance, the further you are from the center of the rotor. Tail and rotor blades carry a lot of momentum when turning, even slowly. Tail rotors spin-up in a fraction of a second, once the engine starts.

Do not put your hand on anything that looks like an antenna or fin.: try not to touch anything but the door and door frame. Do not attempt to work the door yourself. Aircraft exterior parts, including doors, are deceivingly fragile. Engine parts are also very hot, even after some time with the engine off.

Do not egress from the craft until told to, and head forward towards the right or left quarter ahead, with your head down. If you look down on a helicopter from above, and the nose is at the Noon position, the safest paths to enter and exit are wedges leading to the doors, between 9-10 o'clock or between 1 and 2 o'clock.

Do not leave anything loose on the helipad and do not touch or attempt to help by operating pad-related gear.

Dress in close-fitting clothing, nothing should hang out or flap, like scarves, ID lanyards, etc. Hats should fit super-tight and have retainer straps on them, or don't use them. Put short "croakies" or retainers on eyeglass frames. Consider bringing gloves if operating in colder weather.

Unless you have a protective filter over your lens, and goggles for yourself, don't shoot the chopper landing, from nearby on the ground, as the dust and gravel kicked up can be dangerous.

The noise level of an operating helicopter is very distracting and impairs critical thinking, leading to people doing stupid things they normally might not do, so move slowly, think first and look before walking.

Is the lens shade detachable on the Canon? Because if you shoot with the side door open or removed (which is kind of standard in something like a Jet Ranger), the wind from the slipstream will grab at that lens hood, might pull it off. Bring some kind of safety lanyard for the camera to anchor it to your body. Keep spare batteries in an inside pocket. Also, if flying with the doors off, bring a harness and safety cable for YOURSELF and ask the pilot how to attach it to a hard-point in the craft. In the bad old days, my only safety gear was gaffer tape over the quick-release seat belt buckle to keep it from accidentally flipping open: Now I'm older and wiser and I ask for better safety measures.

Dress warmer than you would be on the ground, because at higher altitude, with the door off and 150 MPH wind just outside, you may feel a chill. I generally sit on the left side with the door off, my feet on the top of the landing skid and my knee supporting the camera in my lap. This lets the ankle and knee "float" like a shock absorber. I have a small bean bag I made, that straps around my knee, to support the camera. Keep a lens cleaning tissue and wet pack in a shirt pocket, just in case.

Sit on the same side as the pilot, if the doors are off. Learn nomenclature like port and starboard, or be able to ask for "a little right rudder" to crab the copter to the right a little, to better frame a shot. "Orbit" means to circle to the right or left at a steady height. Remember your camera is more or less fixed, and the pilot becomes your camera operator. You tell him how to frame the shot you want.

Before you go up, work out all the details of the flight plan, how many times you need to get each shot, from what direction and what altitude. Depending on the airspace, the pilot is restricted as to how low to go. I find my best shots were between 200 feet and one thousand, but I have done shots at about forty-fifty feet. (okay, 15 feet, but it was over water and just one time)

Don't chatter incessantly into the intercom; the pilot has a lot to concentrate on so don't distract him or her. Keep it super-quiet except for new commands like: "turn more left", "that was good, do it exactly like that, again, please", or "can you approach from the opposite side", or " Done with that shot, move on to the next objective".

The number one piece of advice I can give you about shooting from a chopper is: do not use your zoom: keep the lens wide open, with focus at infinity, and use the helicopter like it was a dolly or crane, to move in close to your subjects of interest. Zooming in, hand-held from a chopper, only exaggerates every bump and wobble. Those heavy Kenyon-7 gyroscopic stabilizers DO work, but they may be expensive to rent. I tend to use just a little bit of shutter if shooting interlaced, which helps the slo-mo shots look smoother.

Your viewfinder may not be good enough to see the framing, so bring a portable monitor that's bigger, and have a way to secure it or bring a producer along to hold it.

Are you at all prone to airsickness? Because the sensations are different when you're trying to keep your eye in a viewfinder while the pilot is doing banking turns. You can ask the pilot to keep the turns more flat: this may help some, as does looking at the far horizon instead of down. Being hot from over-dressing promotes the dizziness, I find, so I tend to dress for cooler body temp than others may like. I try to always take a Dramamine an hour before I go up, I don't overload on drinks, and I limit my eating to something small and bland, like crackers, just enough to keep the tummy occupied. It's good to have some gum handy as well, for helping your ears to pop. I never know from mission to mission if I will get airsick, so I just always assume I will, and I keep some wet naps and spare barf bags in my jacket.

Take along a wired lavaliere mic, and put it in the ear cup of your intercom headset: this gets a nice audio grab of whatever is said during the flight, without too much background noise. Yes, you can also do this with certain jacks plugged in direct, but the com systems vary enough between vehicles that I find the lav mic is more dependable and less hassle.

Go-pros and their imitators are so inexpensive today, you really have no excuse not to get one and arrange to gaffer tape it to some place the pilot agrees is safe and legal, for a second angle...

Finally: avgas is expensive, as is helicopter time. Don't do anything that wastes time or fuel, and you do that by using good thorough planning, gear prep, and communication before you ever get off the ground.

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Alex Ojeda
Re: Shooting aerial video from helicopter
on Apr 27, 2014 at 11:40:53 pm

Hi, Mark,

Many thanks for all this information and your great help! I really appreciate it! I will take note of everything and try to do my best, I do have a Gopro, so I'll see where Im able to attach it to.

Again, many thanks for the thorough response!


Alex Ojeda

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