Photos from a Helicopter
a type of aircraft that derives both lift and propulsion from one or more sets of horizontally revolving overhead rotors. It is capable of moving vertically and horizontally, the direction of motion being controlled by the pitch of the rotor blades. informalchopper, copter, eggbeater, whirlybird
-By Dag Larson
To see the world from above has been humankind’s dream since it first saw a bird float blissfully through the updrafts and master its environment.
There have been many great aeronautical inventions during our short span as a civilization but, in my mind, none as amazing as the helicopter. Such a simple yet complicated instrument of travel. It has always been one of my dreams to shoot from a helicopter like in all the great ski movies I grew up watching. The exhilaration of leaning out the door with the blades rotating right above you, looking down the mountain with no obstructions and feeling exactly what a bird feels while it floats amongst the thermals.
The past few years of creating photos with The Public Works have been full of firsts for me. The adventures we have embarked on across the globe for clients has been a dream. When Mike mentioned we were going to Whistler and shooting from helicopters for Eddie Bauer, you can imagine my excitement. I raced to my computer and started researching every blog article that mentioned photographing from these magnificent machines. To my surprise there weren’t many. Luckily, I was going with seasoned veterans so I gathered my climbing gear, stuffed it in my camera bag and tried to get some sleep before our flight to Canada.
There is something truly magical about Canada. It may be the feeling that you’ve crossed some imaginary line that separates our two countries and you have entered a foreign territory. It felt like a great frontier as soon as we touched down. Vancouver is a sight in itself with their city architecture, people and food. Once our bodies were properly nourished by flavorful seafood burritos and tacos, we headed North. We traveled along the sea-to-sky highway. The mountains rose straight out of the ocean bays in an amazing contrast of land and water with a little highway skirting along the edge. If you have never driven from Vancouver to Squamish, I highly suggest you do it at least once in your lifetime.
Once we arrived in Whistler, we were not allotted much time to engage in tourist activities. Our agenda called for an early morning of dotting i’s and crossing t’s at Blackcomb Helicopters as well as receiving education on the safety precautions. Once the fear of decapitation, death, dismemberment, explosion or many other grim thoughts were placed in my head, I was ready. I strapped in with the communication headset nicely sized to my obtuse cranium. I felt the turbines kick on. Vibrations were sent through the cockpit and shadows quickly skipped across the instrument panel as the blades began to spin furiously above. A young Swiss man by the name of Yoann was our pilot for this journey. He balanced out all the opposing forces and lifted us off the ground with ease. I felt an extreme joy race through me as I started to see trees fly by the windows which eventually would turn into snow and mountain tops. The numerous rides over the next 48 hours in the helicopter would blend into a visceral sense of awe and intense studying as I watched Yoann’s feet and hands respond to different situations. I tried to figure out what does what, in case a situation arose where I would be needed; I would be ready.
In the final hours of shooting, we had made the decision there was enough time and gas left to do some shots from the helicopter of the athletes. My moment had come, my dreams were about to become reality! I quickly strapped my climbing harness on and anchored myself in with a nervous excitement. I don’t remember how many times I checked every point on my harness and anchor but i’m pretty sure no one has ever done a more thorough safety check. Once the team was secure and the doors were removed from the ‘copter, we were set and ready. Feeling the full down thrust of the blades while trying to shoot out the side was exhilarating. I experienced a sudden vertigo feeling as Yoann orbited and dove around the peak of the mountain while my focus was through telephoto lens on my camera. Nothing can truly prepare you for shooting in that environment. As a photographer, you are not only on this wild rollercoaster ride 500-1000 feet off the ground but you are having to frame your subject, focus, correct exposure, all while minding the props from the helicopter aren’t in your shot.
My best suggestion if you find yourself in this situation is the following:
Tether you and your gear in so it does not fall.
Use fast shutter speeds because of the vibrations from the rotors and shoot frequently to make sure you get the shot you spent a lot of money on (better safe than sorry with both of these.)
Have an empty and large memory card in the chamber so you don’t have to worry about filling up and swapping cards and missing the action.
Preferably have two camera bodies with a strong zoom and another focal length to switch to depending on the situation and proximity to the subject. My 70-200 worked but I found that I wanted to zoom more. You do not want to be switching lenses mid flight because of all the air flowing through the cabin with dust as well as the risk of falling and (gasp) breaking!
Wear warm layers regardless of the season.
Finally have someone in constant contact with the pilot describing the movements you want so you can get your shots fast and save fuel for your ride home.
Now that I have my first one in the bag, the gears are spinning and I can’t wait to get back in the air and shoot again. Regardless of how many amazing shots that may or may not have been created there is always room to do better and grow.
Gear for the job: (clickable links to providers)
Canon 5D Mark iv Camera Body
Canon 5D Mark iii Camera Body
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM Lens
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM Lens
Sandisk Extreme CompactFlash Memory Card - 64 GB
F-Stop Mountain Series Tilopa Camera Bag
Black Diamond Momentum Harness
Black Diamond Positron Screwgate 3 Pack
Black Diamond 18mm Nylon Runners