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.