Thoughts on Aerial Photography

As I mentioned in the previous post I was given an opportunity to take aerial photos of the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center. I was stoked and quite honored to be given this opportunity, realizing that it’s a pretty big responsibility. I had been in a helicopter once before, but not to take pictures, so I was more nervous than usual.


When we got there they debriefed us on all the worst-case scenarios. “Please note the location of this fire extinguisher. You will notice that it’s quite small; that’s because it’s for putting out people, not the aircraft. … If you start feeling sick, pull out one of the manila folders; do not puke in the folder because it’s not big enough. Instead pull the paper bag our of the folder…” Those comforting words came with other instructions like what to do if the helicopter crashes over water, how to exit if the blades start breaking apart, how to manually inflate the life preservers… basically, I think they were really just trying to scare us out of going.

After all that we finally took off and headed for the National Harbor area. I brought two cameras with me and equipped them with different lenses. One camera had a 70-200mm f/2.8, and the other had a 17-55 f/2.8. This allowed me to quickly switch from telephoto to wide angle without having to mount lenses –not to mention the risk of dropping something out the open door to my right.


Possibly the thing that surprised me the most was how much my back started hurting. My seat faced forward and I was strapped in pretty well, so my mobility was limited. On top of that, I was carrying 16 pounds of camera gear around my neck. To make matters worse the door had to remain open so I could get some clear shots; this meant there was a lot of wind resistance as I leaned out to shoot. At one point I almost lost a contact because of all the wind.

After about 10 minutes I noticed how much it was hurting my back, but really there was nothing that I could do about it. They were paying me to get the shots, so that’s just part of the job description. Next time, I’ll ask if there is any way I can be strapped in facing the door.

Technically speaking, I knew my biggest enemy would be camera shake. I set both lenses to “Active” Vibration Reduction, and I made sure I was using a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. I used a shutter speed of 750 for most shots, but I could have easily gone to 1000 or 1500. The blades of the helicopter showed up in a number of photos (though slightly blurred).

Editing this batch of photos proved different from usual. Most of the work was spent on cropping and straightening the composition. Color correction was a bit of a challenge because colors desaturate with distance, meaning that everything receding into the background becomes a bluish gray. I had to remind myself that this is natural and does not need to be “fixed.” I even noticed a significant difference between the two lenses. The telephoto lens added its own color cast to the image. This phenomenon becomes exaggerated at great distances, making color correction all the more difficult.


All in all, it was a remarkable experience –one that I won’t ever forget. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to do it again some time, and I hope someone else can learn a thing or two from my experience.

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