I recently had the pleasure of photographing West Maui from a doors off helicopter. It’s not something I have ever done. I’ve photographed from sea planes and from a helicopter with doors on it but both are a different experience.
During this trip I was accompanied by two real pros.Andy Dunaway and Stacy Pearsall are two veteran U.S. Air Force combat photographers – Stacey is a two-time combat photographer of the year and the only woman to win the award twice. She and her husband Andy shared some tips with me that proved to be invaluable. To the degree my photos were successful, I give them credit.
The first challenge to going doors off is to remember to watch out for the wind. If you stick any part of your body (or your camera) outside the frame of the helicopter, you’re likely to wish you hadn’t.
Once you get used to the idea that you need to stay INSIDE the helicopter, the next thing to think about is dealing with vibration. The helicopter creates a great deal of vibration which can make it a really big challenge to keep things in focus.
I decided to shoot in Shutter Priority setting my minimum shutter speed at 1/750th second. In some instances where I felt the vibrations increasing, I upped my shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second. I also used a Nikon 70-300 lens with Vibration Reduction turned on.
It was also important to remember to keep as little of my body touching the aircraft’s airframe as possible. Each surface tended to pass more of the helicopter’s vibrations to my camera. So I leaned forward to keep my back off the front seat of the copter. I also kept my elbows tucked in close to my body to minimize shake.
I made my ISO 400 but took advantage of Nikon’s Auto ISO feature. When the light dropped to the point that I couldn’t keep my minimum shutter speed of 1/750th of a second, the D3 simply automatically upped the ISO within a preset range. In this case, I had set ISO 3200 as my maximum ISO. The Nikon D3 performs well, even at this high ISO so I set it and I forget it. This is STILL one of my favorite features of the D3. I tended to shoot in the neighborhood of F/5.6. Given my camera to subject distance, this allowed for plenty of depth of field. In some shots my aperture was stopped down when we went close to the ground to F/8.
The last little exercise I needed to undergo was thinking in terms of patterns. The difference between shooting down on a subject from the air versus AT a subject from ground level forces you to see in new ways. I have experience shooting patterns in the Palouse but I did appreciate Stacey’s gentle reminders of what to look for. She was excellent, offering just enough advice and encouragement at just the right times. I was also constantly reassured by Andy. Neither of them could have known that this was my first trip in a helicopter since the war. I wasn’t sure how I’d react. Well now I know – it was a blast. No problem for me at all. None. Stacey and Andy’s presence helped for sure.
I have to say that the entire Maui Photo Festival was great but this experience of shooting doors-off in a helicopter was the highlight of the trip. I plan to do it again here in Maui next January. I also plan to do it again at next year’s Maui Photo Festival and I hope that I get to go on another flight with Andy and Stacey.
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