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PostPosted: Mon Nov 08, 2010 2:22 am 
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Location: SE Texas
Last week, I found myself, on very short notice, shooting photos from a helicopter, of subjects on the ground, at night in a big city. The first night, I only had time to rush home and add a layer of warmer underwear, and switch to my pre-Mark II Canon 50mm 1.8 lens, for its larger maximum aperture. I used my Canon 40D on aperture priority, to gather as much light as possible, set at 1600 ISO, the highest possible for the 40D. To say my photos were mediocre would be a kindness, though the occasional shot would be remarkably clear.

The problem was not light, but motion. An MD500 v-i-b-r-a-t-e-s, and there is not much room to pan when seatbelted to the rear bench seat. Helicopters do not normally hover at low altitude, as they need to be able to autorotate to a safe landing in the event of a mechanical problem.

Wearing a harness and leaning outside the aircraft is not an option available to me. Removing a door, to give me more room to pan, is an option. (They looked it up. An MD500 can be flown with one or both rear doors removed.)

I spent the next two days asking locally for advice, trying to find relevant reading material, and posting on a broad-based internet forum that has a photography sub-forum. I learned that VERY few folks seem to have shot from a helicopter, none of them at night, and those who have tend to use very expensive equipment.

I elected to accelerate the purchase date of a Canon 100mm 2.8L Macro lens with IS, so that I would at least have Image Stabilization, and a focal length better suited to the altitude and subjects. The assignment was to record images that will be used for event planning, during a time when the number of people attending a nightclub area would be expected to increase dramatically. The helicopter flies at 600 feet. My images needed not be exceptionally clear, just good enough to show people as individuals, and individual vehicles, and for the buildings to be recognizable. I do, however, want to submit the best images possible with my equipment's capabilities.

Well, on the second night, I somehow managed to bump the IS to the "off" position, and for a while I thought I had certainly made a mistake with the lens purchase. Then, I noticed the IS was off, and corrected that gaffe. I obtained some excellent crowd photos at a location other than my assignment. Unfortunately, the helicopter has duties other than catering to my assignment, and I was unable to get the requested photos at peak crowd times. This might mean I will repeat the assignment this Friday or Saturday.

I would like to discuss shooting from helicopters, please, preferably using my current lenses, and not spending much money. I am a public servant, and have spent a young fortune thus far. Most of my duties are close-up in nature, therefore the L-series macro lens purchase.

The helicopter, thankfully, has vibration-damped video capability. The crew recorded video while flying in the relevant area, but the assignment called for still photos, too. Stills taken individually from the video are apparently not very clear.

Ironically, I am attending an Advanced/Night Police Photography course this week, too late to help me for last week's shoot, though it will help if arrangements are made for me to repeat the assignment. Perhaps I can talk the instructor, Christopher Duncan, into providing me with some extra tutoring, but I am not sure he has experience shooting from helicopters.

I should be clear, that I am a relative beginner at DSLR photography. I am comfortable enough shooting in aperture priority or shutter priority, but have almost zero solo experience with full manual mode. My wife has coached me when using manual, including night photography*, but for liability reasons, she cannot go along on the helicopter, as she is not employed by the same agency as I. Even so, I am here to learn, if anyone has tips.

Thanks in advance for any advice and discussion!

*She has extensive experience photographing death scenes in low light, but no aerial photography experience. :)


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 09, 2010 3:42 am 
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Shooting at night is always a challenge, but from a helicopter would make it even more difficult!

Mechanical vibration is a problem, and depending on your IS system, it will either reduce it effectively, or not much at all. You may need to go for some kind of gyroscopic mount as used by video / film crews for a smooth result.

But fast shutter speeds are always King, and if it's sufficiently quick, it should eliminate any shake. The problem of course is achieving fast shutter speeds at night. Using lenses with bright focal ratios helps, but you'll almost certainly have to couple that with very high ISOs and accept you'll have some visible noise. Shooting in RAW may also give you more latitude for reduction and exposure tweaking later.

Don't forget you can also rent lenses to try them out, although the problem for the Canon system is not having stabilised primes below 100mm. If you don't need 100mm, then maybe try a 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM, as the shorter focal length will be more forgiving. Or even a 70-200mm f2.8IS USM, as that would give you a stabilised 70mm at f2.8.

Try Borrow Lenses via our affiliate page:

http://www.cameralabs.com/reviews/Affil ... ping.shtml


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PostPosted: Wed Nov 10, 2010 7:06 pm 
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Location: SE Texas
Thanks for the suggestions!

I learned much from Christopher Duncan*, at the advanced/night police photography course this week, but shooting from aircraft is not part of the curriculum, and he has only shot from a helicopter in the daylight.

I will be up in the helicopter again this weekend. Rental involving shipping is not really an option, due to time constraints and, quite frankly, buying the 100mm 2.8L Macro IS badly strained my budget. Thankfully, 100mm is a good focal length for the 600-feet altitude, for images that show vehicles and people at the right size in the image.

Time is a factor because I fly again this Friday/Saturday, and the supervisor needs the images by this Monday.

I have heard of a local rental place in Houston, but have had not yet had luck finding them. Alternatively, I might try buying a pre-owned lens locally, and then selling it after the assignment, before the American Express bill is due. Really, though, my new lens recorded good images of the crowd at the nightclub disturbance outside the assigned area, so it should do well again, hopefully in the assigned places.

The supervisor needs JPEG images, delivered on a CD, so RAW is not an option this time. Perhaps, another time, if I am lucky enough to get such an assignment again.

I do have an 18-55mm kit lens with IS, which I may try, on a spare body, but its aperture will be small when zoomed in from 18mm. Perhaps my 50mm 1.8 would be better, especially on the lighter XTi body, due to less inertia. The 100mm will ride on the 40D, of course.

*His book, _Advance Crime Scene Photography_, is available through Amazon, which of course can be accessed via Cameralabs' link, to benefit Cameralabs financially.


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PostPosted: Wed Nov 10, 2010 9:10 pm 
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Hi rex, I wasn't suggesting you supply the client the RAW files, but that you shoot with them for their extra flexibility, then convert them into JPEGs later.


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PostPosted: Thu Nov 11, 2010 6:53 pm 
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OK, thanks, that was a case of my not knowing what I did not know! I knew that RAW files can be converted to "tiff" files as a first step in converting them into something useful, but have yet to go beyond that bit of knowledge. My agency uses JPEG for just about everything except fingerprints and footprints, which are recorded RAW, but that is a job for specialized crime scene unit officers, with specialized equipment.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 15, 2010 3:14 am 
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Location: SE Texas
Well, a cold front with a rain squall kept me grounded Friday night, but I went along on two flights Saturday night. I managed to get some quite decent images for the assignment. I will share some images here when I learn how to do that; I have much to learn about posting images, especially the part about staying within the pixel limit.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 15, 2010 6:20 am 
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Just resize them to no more than 1024 pixels wide, upload them to a website somewhere, then you can link to them or embed them here. It's even easier if you upload to something like www.flickr.com as it'll do the different sizes for you and even generate the code for embedding them here.


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