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Old August 8th, 2013, 10:40 AM   #1
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Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Hi everybody

I've been asked to shoot some aerial footage of a country park in England. I've found a pilot with aerial photography experience and his own R22 helicopter.

We plan to go up on a calm sunny morning or evening in the next couple of weeks.

Can you offer some basic advice, please?

I can choose between a Sony NEX-EA50 (with options of 35mm or 14mm fixed, manual lenses), a Panasonic AG-HMC41 or a consumer SD900. I also have a new GoPro.

I can't remove the door but have a window to shoot through. I'm not planning to mount the camera or support it on the floor due to vibration and I don't have access to or budget for a gyro. I need to get the best handheld shots possible.

Which camera would you take?

What format would you shoot in? (50i, 50p, 25p etc.)

What shutter speed will work best for the chosen framerate?

How would you handle white balance?

Should I consider slowing the footage down in post? If so, does this affect the above choices?

Are there any tips for making handheld as steady as possible?

Sorry for the long list of questions. It might be easier if somebody could come and shoot it for me, rather than answer all those questions. I have seen discussions on some of these topics but some aren't conclusive and it will be nice to get the advice in one thread for other novices with a similar list.

I look forward to seeing some suggestions.

Thanks.
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Old August 8th, 2013, 11:05 AM   #2
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Hi Martyn,

That's a tricky one, but filming from any aircraft without the door off can be a nightmare as you can't hang out far enough to get a good ground shot. That means that the helicopter will either have to be quite a way off to do a gentle banked turn to get a decent view, or very low which ATC would probably not allow over a public area like a country park, so you may have a 2000ft height restriction. I would be very inclined to take the Panny 900 which would at least allow you get it through the window and maybe tilt down enough for a good shot and either one of the others incase it works out better than I would expect.

If the owner will allow you to attach the gopro to the underside of the nose, you may get some good angles if you can tilt it down and face it at perhaps 60 degrees to the direction of travel. If the pilot then maintains a turn around the park in that direction, you could get some useable shots. If you have the wifi version, you may be able to monitor it to direct the pilot in the turn.

One of the biggest problems may well be vibration, even hand held, as my experience with helicopters is that they tend vibrate much more than a fixed wing light aircraft and at a lower frequency. I haven't been up in a Robinson though.

Good luck,

Roger
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Old August 8th, 2013, 11:47 AM   #3
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Helicopters vibrate. Using a CMOS camera without a gyro stabilizer in a heli is a good recipe for rolling shutter problems.

Will your heli. operator allow you ride along when he's doing something for someone else just to do some testing? If he could, might help.
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Old August 8th, 2013, 12:24 PM   #4
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

I just did this a couple weeks ago. My first time too. Here's what I'd say:

• Choose the sharpest camera you can because you'll need to stabilize later. This means the EA-50.

• I used a 24-105 and it worked great. The lens had stabilization, which I think is a must. I shot between 24mm and 35mm most of the time. Go rent the stabilized EA-50 kit lens or something with image stabilization and a decent range, heli shots are special so make sure you have the right gear. You'll want to run aperture with pretty deep focus - F8 at least - so no worries about needing a fast lens.

• Shoot in 50p. More frames means smoother footage. Slowing this down to 25p makes things look great. Also, shoot with a crazy-high shutter speed like 1/500. I'm really not kidding here. You'll be so high up that motion blur isn't a factor and the footage will look buttery smooth. I shot at 1/250 and wish I had gone higher as it helps immensely in stabilization during post.

• I used the daylight preset so that the golden hour looked golden.

• The less the camera touches the helicopter the better. I used a Fig Rig with a big foam pad (pelican case foam) between it and my lap. It helped.

• The faster the pilot flew, the more CMOS rolling shutter I got. The best shots were at slower speeds. Also, keep your camera inside the chopper or else the wind will buffet you around a LOT.


Are you shooting through glass? Here's what I came up with my first time up, chopper was a Jet Ranger and I had the door off the left side with a harness on. Just rough footage not really color corrected. Shot with C100 and Hyperdeck Shuttle at 30p (an external recorder might help you too...). Stabilized with Lock and Load X, slowed down to 24p. password: olaf

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Last edited by Nate Haustein; August 8th, 2013 at 01:40 PM.
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Old August 8th, 2013, 12:36 PM   #5
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Thanks for the great advice so far.

The SD900 is small enough to have in my pocket, Roger, so that's a great idea. And I'll see what he says about the GoPro. Good tip about the 60 degree angle for turning into. But fixing to the outside is a big ask, I think.

Nice footage Nate. I'd be happy with that. I already have the EA50 kit lens. When you wrote "crazy high frame rate of 1/500" is that the same as shutter speed of 1/500?

I can shoot through an open window, according to the pilot, but a 'test' run is not an option, Bruce. I need to read up on 'rolling shutter problems'.

Cheers, guys.
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Old August 8th, 2013, 02:05 PM   #6
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Sorry, meant shutter speed. Post has been edited for clarity.

Obviously there are more professional ways to shoot aerial footage, but for situations like mine and yours, sometimes it's a matter of getting the best footage with the time and resources you have. Good luck!
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Old August 8th, 2013, 03:05 PM   #7
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Just a thought. I wonder how those hand held three-axis gimbals (movi and clones like the BeSteady) would work in this situation? Might be sufficient that you can avoid stabilizing in post (which can take a lot of time). Might be able to rent a Movi M10, but they might not be available in time, IDK. Just a thought.
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Old August 8th, 2013, 03:34 PM   #8
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Thanks Nate. High shutter speed will dictate wider aperture on the lens, but using the wide end of the zoom and focusing at virtually infinity, this will be OK. I'm assuming no gain is best.

Bruce, my guess is that one of those stabilising rigs will be awesome. Thanks for telling me about them. There sure is a lot of kit hitting the market at the moment.

My problem is the cost. I'm a one man band and pull in just enough work to make a decent living. Last year was REALLY expensive for me, adding a Nikon D800, a Sony NEX EA-50, two new lenses, a GoPro Hero 3, a Rhino Slider and stabiliser, Hague tracking dolly and a small Hague jib. I've put it all into bespoke Packhorse flight cases and my accountant is having a fit. Not to mention my wife.

The rental scene in the UK doesn't seem to be as accessible to small operations like mine, compared to the US, especially the west coast and NYC. My clients like my ability to tell their story and seem less concerned about technically perfect images, as long as I am getting the very best I can with the limited resources I have.

But its vital to know what is out there and what I might be needing next, so I appreciate the info.
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Old August 8th, 2013, 07:46 PM   #9
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

I'll go out on a limb here and suggest the Movi and similar technology won't provide sufficient reaction to vibration to be useful in a helicopter. Although the material I've read states it is gyro stabilized, it is pretty light so I don't think the mass is there to provide sufficient rigidity in space like a pair of Ken-Labs gyros with their tungsten masses spinning at high speed. It looks like the Movi is maybe using motors to drive reaction as determined by the accelerometers and the gyros may play some role in the physical reaction or the sensing.

At any rate, enjoy your flight, I'm sure you'll have a blast.
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Old August 9th, 2013, 04:13 AM   #10
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Actually Nate, listing my recent purchases last night reminded me about the D800. The Nikon has the biggest sensor by far and my 24-70mm f2.8 lens is very sharp. I also have a lovely old 35mm f2 manual lens.

Should I be shooting on the DSLR? It doesn't have the optical image stabilisation.
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Old August 9th, 2013, 09:48 AM   #11
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim Michael View Post
I'll go out on a limb here and suggest the Movi and similar technology won't provide sufficient reaction to vibration to be useful in a helicopter.
Interesting thought. The gyros they use come from RF helicopter drone technology: quad-copters and the like. Such small light drones have a natural frequency well above that of a full size human piloted helicopter. A buzz compared to a thrum. And you're right, I suspect that devices like the Movi just don't have the power to handle the large amplitude low frequency vibration. But.... we won't really know until someone tries it and publishes their results. And in a couple of years, one of these companies will have a device designed for hand holding on full sized helicopters. You know it's coming... ;-)
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Old August 9th, 2013, 09:53 AM   #12
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martyn Moore View Post
Actually Nate, listing my recent purchases last night reminded me about the D800. The Nikon has the biggest sensor by far and my 24-70mm f2.8 lens is very sharp. I also have a lovely old 35mm f2 manual lens.

Should I be shooting on the DSLR? It doesn't have the optical image stabilisation.
I'm sure it would gather some wonderful footage. The photographer that was in the front seat on my flight had that same exact D800/24-70 combo. Not sure if the image quality of the D800 bests the image stabilization of the EA50 though.
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Old August 9th, 2013, 12:50 PM   #13
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Highly recommend the KenLabs 4x4. Not that expensive to rent for a week and has been proven to work from most heli's. The guys at KenLabs can recommend mounting options and were very helpful when I needed to shoot from an R-44.

I have thought about the MOVI or Defy systems and the one thing I see as a positive is they both seem to remove the bounce and vibration of walking naturally which is more of a low frequency vibration like the blade thwap and natural motion of the heli being bounced around in the air. I may be giving the Defy a chance when their heavier version meant for DSLR's comes out. Til then...KenLabs!

On a different note...the R-22 is REALLY tight for shooting video. Also, they are much more "squirrely" because they are so light. No chance of your pilot renting an R-44 for the day?
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Old August 11th, 2013, 12:51 PM   #14
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

The best advice I can give is keep it simple. Your apparently doing this on a low budget so here is a low budget solute that works well.

Helicopters are extremely effected by weight and balance, the R22 has two bladed main and tail rotors and don't have terribly sophisticated articulating main rotor hubs so if the rotor isn't well balanced you will feel a medium frequency vertical vibration, if it out of alignment you''ll feel a medium frequency lateral vibration. Someone mentioned to not let the camera touch any part of the helicopter, that is good advice. However, if you rest the camera on anything, on some foam on your lap for the example used earlier the camera will still pick up the medium frequency vibration. Your body supplies a little more mass which will slightly dampen the vibration but it will still be there.

A simple inexpensive solution is to take some yarn and wrap it securely around the barrel of your lens as close to the body [center of gravity] as possible, find a bungee cord that has a good amount of stretch with the weight of your camera but doesn't "bottom out," connect the yarn to the bungee and the bungee to the helicopter to support the weight of the camera. If the R22 has sound proofing you'll need to ask the pilot to pull it back, its usually attached with snaps or velcro so its not a big deal, it would be nice, but in an R22 not likely, to have the bungee drop down directly from above you. But the idea is to have the bungee support as much of the weight of the camera as possible so that all you have to do is control where you want to shoot. If you have the right strength bungee it will remove all of any vertical vibration and if you relax and don't apply a "death grip" on the camera you won't add any lateral vibration.

Not sure why the pilot wouldn't remove the door but if you have to shoot out of an open window make sure you don't get the camera into the slip stream, you can ask the pilot to fly slightly out of trim or 'crab' the acft to give you a better shot out of the side. Also safety wire your camera to something inside the helicopter to make sure you don't give someone on the ground a free camera. If you have to shoot out of the 'glass' wear dark clothing to reduce reflections.

Here's a video, kind of long and boring but I used this technique shooting outside of the helicopter, inside shooting out of the door and from the front through the glass.

Good luck and have fun.
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Old August 29th, 2013, 11:20 AM   #15
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Re: Advice on shooting from a helicopter

Since my last post I decided to do a 30-minute test shoot. The pilot agreed to a quick flight at half the hourly rate, giving me the option of a second 30-minute flight if I needed it. I think I need it.

For a week I've been "waiting for a call from my helicopter pilot", which I've really enjoyed saying to people.

It came this morning at 7.30 and we were in the air by 9am.

You all said how difficult it is to hand-hold in a small helicopter. Crikey, you are right. Coming from the world of still photography where a fast shutter speed fixes most motion problems, I got a shock, despite all your well-meaning warnings.

I set the Sony NEX EA-50 to manual and used a shutter speed of 1/425sec. I worked the iris manually. I recorded in PS mode (1080/50p) and used the normal daylight white balance setting. The optical stabilising was set to 'active' and the zoom spent most of its time at the wide end.

The video I've linked to below is typical of the 20 minutes of footage I brought home. It is played back at between 40 and 70 per cent of full speed to try to smooth the bumps.

To be honest, I am disappointed. I thought I could do better than this and I now bow deeper to your experience and knowledge. The movement seems to be a 'rocking' wobble that might come from the movement of the aircraft. Those R22s are very small. There's also a pronounced 'jello' effect over the city centre and when I zoom in on the cathedral, around 1m 30s.

Any advice you can give me to either improve this footage in post (I use Premiere Pro and After Effects CS5 - no Warp Stabilizer) or improve my footage next trip will be most welcome. I also have the option to shoot with Panasonic SD900 or AG HMC-41. The little one does 1080/50p, offers manual shutter speeds and has very good OIS.

I look forward to your comments. Be gentle with me.

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