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Helicopter Photography. Top Tips.

I recently asked a highly experienced American photographer and great friend, Paul Bowers, to take some helicopter photographs. Paul has kindly written the post below, which contains tips that will be of interest to anybody who wants to photograph helicopters or, I suppose, other large shiny objects.

Paul Bowers writes:


Here’s a very short list of ideas to vastly improve your photography:

1. It’s the light.

2. It’s the light.

So when I approached the photography of the EC-145, I knew the most critical part was the time of day we’d need to shoot.

In the studio where light is easily controlled, we choose the light appropriate to our subjects. Lighting modifiers allow for easy options- large, soft light banks that cast gentle shadows and broad specular highlights, or hard, focused lights that cast bright highlights and hard-edged shadows. But when shooting in the wild, one must count on atmospheric conditions to create the same choices.

The day appointed for photography was forecast to be sunny and clear, some of the worst conditions for photographing outdoors. Bright sun, unfettered by clouds, will cast hard shadows and bright highlights on shiny convex surfaces, which sounds a lot like a helicopter.

Good news was I could create our schedule, which meant an hour on either side of sunrise or sunset. Sunset it was.

When the sun is low, the light is diffused by the extra distance is travels through the atmosphere, and enhanced by the direction relative to the subject. As the sun approaches and drops below the horizon, different lighting results will provided.

Here are some images of the same helicopter at the same location. While shot with the same camera- a Canon 5D Mark II- there are differences. The first uses a 50mm lens, the second an 85. The aircraft is angled slightly different relative to the light, and the distance from the camera to the ground is slightly different. But the largest difference is the lighting.

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The first image is captured just moments before the sun dropped over a nearby mountain range. See how the light enters the cockpit putting direct light on the pilot and rear-seat passenger?  Note the long shadows behind the aircraft cast onto the tarmac? The surface texture of the asphalt is exaggerated by the light skimming across and an oblique angle?

Here’s another image of the intrepid Luviar aircrew mugging for the camera. Notice the light underneath the cap and skimming the ceiling inside the cabin?

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All possible as a result of the low sun angle, which is dictated by the time of day the images were captured.

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About a week later, we returned at a slightly later time of day. The sun had dropped below the mountains, providing a very different result. Notice the paucity of shadows and lack of direct light? Greater detail throughout the scene, particularly in the cockpit?

Nothing “wrong” with either of these images- I like them both- but for very different reasons.

Here’s the “kicker”- these images could have been easily shot with very simple cameras, even a handheld device. Once the lighting is correct, the camera of choice becomes a less important factor.

Paul Bowers

Paul M Bowers is a 30-year veteran commercial advertising photographer based in San Diego, who’s newest favorite assignment is photographing working helicopters.


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