Part 3 will focus on some shooting tips, and show off some of the finished shots flying with NYonAir flight. (For flight videos, see here, and for some tips on gear see here). My Instagram with even more photos is here: instagram
I’ve shot from helicopters before- so I had an idea of what to expect going in. The NYonAir flights are certainly better than the average heli flight, due to the lack of doors- which makes them great for photography. Still, there are some things that you need to remember when shooting from anything moving. Worry about the vibration!
A fast lens is definitely a nice to have, but not exactly a must. One of the lenses I used was the Nikon 80-400 4.5-5.6- not exactly fast. However, it did have VR, which I feel was very helpful in reducing the shake. Further, using a D610 and D800, I was able to get great clarity, even when using a higher than usual ISO- more on that in a minute. Couple good ISO, with the VR and a fast shutter speed- and clear pictures result.
As far as camera settings go- there are lots of different opinions on how to do it: manual mode? Shutter or Aperture priority? Shutter speed definitely matters; 1/750+ is needed to eliminate the vibrations inherent in the helicopter, especially when really zoomed. Since the lenses weren’t all that fast, I chose to use A mode, and force the Fstop all the way open, for the most light. As far as ISO goes, I used Nikon’s great auto-ISO setting. I put in the max ISO in the mid 2000s and shutter at 1000 (for the most noise I would tolerate before changing shutter speed or upping the setting). “A” mode let the shutter speed flex with ISO to get the right exposure, rather than having a fixed shutter- I honesty think either will work. With a D800-like camera there is enough dynamic range in .raw, so you have a LOT of room to play with. I kept the A/Auto ISO setting nearly the entire flight on the D610. At sunset I started plying more with the ISO manually, upping it a bit on the D800 and shooting the histogram a bit more left. Overall, a shutter of 750+ and a tolerable ISO is easily achievable with a new-ish full frame body. I dont think S or A mode would really matter, as long as you manage all of your settings in unison. (note- I know some pros who recommend S mode- I think S or M are more useful in really low light like at night).
Shooting in bursts really helped to not only nail the focus, but also to get just the right angle. As the heli was almost always moving on our flight (we hovered around the WTC, but otherwise moving), sometimes a shot would only line up for a split second. Spraying a 5 frame burst of a particular scene helped to ensure that at least one would be crystal clear, without shake, and hopefully have perfect alignment. The Bryant Park shot below is one of 4 clear ones, but the only one perfectly straight on.
One additional thing to consider with the 80-400, or any big lens, is the size of it. Not usually a problem, but when holding it fully out of the door, it definitely gets shaken around a lot more by the rotor wash. Hold it close, use the strap to stabilize it, and keep it inside the door when you can. The below is a 100% crop of a skyline shot at 400mm- during processing I thought thought there were birds around the top of the WTC, turns out the shot is clear enough to recognize the silhouettes as helicopters!