7 Things I Learnt From Photographing New York From a Helicopter

If you follow me on Instagram, you’d have seen recently that I ventured over the pond to New York for a long overdue holiday (they’ll be more on this in a later post). Not wanting to miss out on doing some photography while on the trip, I booked us a helicopter tour over Manhattan with FlyNYON. Wanting to see as much of the city as possible without breaking the bank, I booked us on a 30-minute tour of the city. This would see us fly over New York’s famous landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge, World Trade Center complex, Central Park as well as around the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Unfortunately, due to a UN meeting taking place on the day we picked, we could not fly as close to the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building as I would have liked.

To make sure I gave myself the best chance of getting some good photos, I did a lot of reading and asking around for tips on how to get good photographs from a helicopter. Now I have gone through the experience and put some of these tips into practice, I thought I would share them with you. So here are 7 things that I learnt while photographing New York from a helicopter:

1. Doors Off

I can’t stress enough what a difference this will make to the quality of photos you are able to get and is worth every penny. If you have ever tried to take photos from a viewing deck of a building behind Plexi Glass (like the Shard in London, or CN Tower in Toronto) you will already know what havoc reflections and finger prints can cause to your photos. You also struggle with sharpness as you have added another layer of glass in front of your lens. If you then couple that with travelling 120mph in a helicopter you are going to be in for a tough time getting sharp photos. Yes, some Helicopters do come with little windows you can shoot through, but they heavily restrict what you are able to photograph. Taking the doors off removes all these things and adds an extra layer of excitement to the experience. You can even do feet over New York like I did!

Feet Over New York
2. Set Up Your Camera Beforehand

I knew that once we got up in the air I wouldn’t have much time to change some of the more in-depth settings on my camera. So I made sure I did a lot of this before the flight.

Some of the settings I set-up before my flight were:

  • Image Stabilisation – You absolutely need this on if you want to get sharp pictures. The vibration from the helicopter plus the speed in which you are travelling make this a must.
  • Shoot in RAW – If you aren’t doing this already I would highly advise this. It gives you so much more control over the post editing process. It also doesn’t have to be solely RAW images either as most cameras have the ability to shoot RAW+JPEG. However be careful choosing this mode as you’ll fill up your memory card even faster than normal!
  • Continuous focus mode – As you’ll be moving quickly you will want your camera to constantly refocus as you move through the air. This will ensure you are giving yourself the best chance of getting images that are sharp and in-focus.
  • Continuous Shooting Mode – Highly recommend turning this setting on. One of my tips below is to not stop shooting and this is the easiest way to do this. You can fire off several shots as you move over a landmark really quickly allowing you to capture different perspectives. This certainly gave me lots of options when choosing which images to keep. 
  • Empty Memory Card –  Ok, so I did not follow this rule because I have a huge memory card however it is highly advisable that you clear yours before hand. This is because you won’t be able to change one mid flight meaning you’ll be stuck trying to delete images while missing everything. I took over 800 photos in my 30-minute flight over New York so make sure you have enough space.
  • Turn on Auto ISO – Because you won’t have much time to change settings during the flight you want your camera to be doing as much of the leg work as possible. By enabling auto ISO, you can have this setting move automatically as you adjust your aperture to allow you to get the best possible shot. I limited the max ISO to 800 as I was shooting at 3pm and the light was good.
3. Use a fast shutter speed 

Can’t stress this one enough. It is a real challenge to get clear pictures when you are flying at 120mph in additional to dealing with the vibration of the helicopter. I set my camera to manual mode and locked my shutter speed in at 1/1000 of a second. This should be more than enough to ensure a sharp image. Coupled with the Auto ISO setting I suggested above, the only setting I had to adjust on the fly was the aperture. This allowed me to make quick adjustments to get the sharpest/least noisy image possible.

4. Invest in a Circular Polariser Filter 

Before I headed out to New York, I bought a set of filters from Gobe which contained a thin profile CPL filter. While using the filter will lose you around 1 stop of light, it will reduce the glare and reflections you get off buildings and the water, especially if you are shooting in the day. An added bonus if you decide not to do a doors of flight is that it will also limit the reflections that come off the glass of the helicopter doors. 

5. Don’t Stop Shooting

30 minutes sounds like it is a lot of time, but it really wasn’t. As I was flying over Manhattan I was constantly presented with different compositions and angles. As I didn’t really have time to figure out what composition or angle I preferred and didn’t want to miss the shot, I set the camera to continuous shooting mode. This way I could capture every possible angle and composition I saw and could decide later which I preferred.

6. Get In Helicopter Shots

Nothing captures the experience better than photographs taken from the inside of the helicopter. As you are going to have people on the opposite side of the helicopter there are going to be times where you are facing away from the landmarks. So use this time to capture the experience.  I’ve posted my favourite picture of the inside of the helicopter below

7. Don’t Forget to Enjoy It

It is very easy to concentrate on taking photos for the entire flight and forget to enjoy the experience. For me it was my first time in a helicopter so I made sure I took some time to take myself away from the camera and just enjoy the view. this was particularly easy to do when flying towards another point of the city. 

So those are my 7 tips, I hope you found them useful. If you found this post useful please share on social media and sign up to my mailing list so I can let you know when new posts are published.

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