One of the most fun and best things I did for my photography business was to take to the air and shoot aerial images of the amazing beaches we have here in Australia. If I go anywhere now I will do my best to squeeze in an aerial shoot as they are so much fun and a great diversity to my collection.

Doing an aerial photo shoot isn’t exactly cheap and the last thing you want is to waste your money on a shoot that doesn’t give you the return you want. There many ways to not have a successful aerial shoot from not asking the right questions of the company your choose, timing of the shoot, how long, what’s their cancellation policy, limitations, being in control of your shoot, camera settings, post-shoot critique and much more.

In this series of articles, I am going to share with you everything I have learnt over the years with using numerous helicopter companies, clocking up over 20 hours in the air and spending over $15,000 in flying time. At the bottom of this article, you have the option to download a .pdf version of this article along with a 10 point checklist of questions to ask.

This being the starting point I am going to talk about how you go about choosing the right helicopter company for your first aerial photography shoot. So let’s get started.

FINDING THE RIGHT HELICOPTER

The Robinson R22 Helicopter.

When you have found a range of local helicopter companies that can service the area you want to fly in, the first thing you need to look for or find out is the range of machines (helicopters) they have. The most economical machine to hire is the Robinson R22 which is a two-seater. Once seat for you, one for the pilot. (It is very cosey). The R22 will hire out per hour for around $550 – $600 AUD.

If the company doesn’t have an R22 they will most likely have a Robinson R44 which is a 4 seater. The R44 will hire out for around $900 to $1100 per hour.

Personally, for me, I have flown in both and I have achieved just as good results from both. The R22 due to its size cannot hover you always have to be moving. The R44 can hover but the vibration from hovering isn’t good so your best to be moving all the time as well. The R44 has more speed and fuel capacity, so it is up to you. I always try and find a company that has an R22 for hire. But they have to also meet the other following points before you decide to fly with them.

From the moment the helicopter turns on to the moment it turns off your paying for it. So if your in an R44 at $900 an hour your paying $15 a minute. Scary isn’t it.

FIND THE RIGHT COMPANY LOCATION TO YOUR SHOOT

When looking for a company to hire keeping in mind where they are located (ie take off and land from) compared to where you want to shoot. Helicopters like aircraft have to follow flight paths and corridors unless they have special permission. Which you’re unlikely to get. So you might think you can just take off and fly directly to where you want to go, but you’re wrong. You might find they have to follow a certain route that will add time to your flight. if it adds 5 minutes to your flight then remember it is actually adding 10 minutes as you have to return. In an R44 at $900 an hour that extra 10 minutes is $150.

So when talking to the company ask them how long it will take from where they take off, to reach where you want to shoot. Then look to see if there are any companies that might be closer.

For example here in Sydney, I used a company once that flys out of Bankstown airport. If I want to shoot the Eastern Beaches of Sydney they had to fly along Paramatta River, over the Sydney Harbour Bridge out through the heads and down the coast. Took 20 minutes to just reach Bondi. So that’s 40 min return so for a 1-hour flight I had 20 minutes of shooting and then had to return. Now there is a company that I use that works out of Mascot airport and their flight time to Bondi is 5 minutes. Perfect. They are the best choice.

SHOOTING WITH THE DOOR OFF

Under no circumstances are you to shoot through the perspex window of the helicopter. You need to tell the company it is a doors off shoot. Taking the doors off the R22 and R44 is very simple and you will not be charged for asking for this. You can ask if there is a charge and if they say yes. Thank them for their time and find another company. I have only been told there is a cost for this when inquiring about a shoot in an area where there was little competition for the helicopter company so I think they could get away with charging for these extras.

Shooting with the doors off is completely safe. You are well strapped in. The seat belt in the helicopter is just like that of your car.

MINIMUM HIRE TIME

It is important to work out with the company the time you want to hire the machine for. You will find there is a minimum of an hour but ask. Ask about the flexibility of staying out longer as sometimes the pilot will let you know there is good access to areas in terms of air traffic control giving permission and it might be worth your while.

I usually find the only restriction to staying out longer is another booking, but letting the pilot know you might stay out longer will let them know to put a few extra litres of fuel in the helicopter just in case. When you confirm the booking they will email you the details of the flight and make sure it states on there the time you have agreed for hire. I had one occasion where I hired a machine and flew for 1.5 hours and the owner tried to charge me for two hours as that’s what I said over the phone, but it was subject to conditions. In my email confirmation, it said a 1.5-hour flight.

THEIR CANCELLATION POLICY

While on the topic of making sure you have some things in check so you don’t get overcharged an important one is to make sure that the company knows it is an aerial photography flight and the conditions need to be optimal. Obviously, when you are making your booking for have done some research into what kind of whether you will have on the day. But you need to let them know that should the weather change against you, you will need to cancel the flight and rebook.

I have never had a problem with companies doing this and flights have been rescheduled two or three times without any issue, but you really need to clarify this point. In terms of paying for the flight especially for a first time flyer using a company for the first time, they might ask for your credit card to secure the booking. I have never agreed to this and say I will pay on the day. But it is up to you and obviously the terms and condition of bookings for the company.

PILOT EXPERIENCE

I remember when I first started to look into helicopter flights I was told to ask for someone with at least 10,000 hours experience. I found this to be unrealistic, you will find that the helicopter companies you use will not have bad pilots flying their machines. If anything I have had pilots who have been too polite with asking air traffic control for clearances that have affected the flight but it has never been their ability to fly.

So just ask for a pilot who has experience with working with photographers under instruction. Odd’s are there just going to give you anyone of their pilots and you won’t know any different.

ANY LIMITATIONS AND DIFFICULTIES WITH THE FLIGHT

Looking over Bondi Beach when the R44 is banked almost 90 degrees. Ton of Fun.

This kind of falls under planning but is worth mentioning here and that’s finding out if there are any limitations or difficulties with your proposed aerial shoot. I know here in Sydney that because of the location of Mascot airport that getting access to fly directionally over places like Bondi beach for those beautiful directionally down images can be a pain, as to go into Bondi airspace requires approval and getting out is subject to approval. Or in my case, I was given access of 4 minutes to get in and out and the female pilot got in there and flicked the R44 around like we were in some kind of action movie. Was a lot of fun and I got the shots I needed.

Some general limitations of flying are you can’t be lower than 1000 feet over built-up areas and people and 500 feet over the water. Any lower and you need clearances. Though I don’t believe you will get it lower than 1000 feet over built-up areas, but I have got it over water.

FILLING EMPTY SEATS

When you hire an R44 for yourself I know you’re going to be thinking “wow I got two spare seats”. Before you start to text your mates your think you can get your partner to have a joy ride you need to know that they won’t permit it. The only way around getting someone in the helicopter with you is if they are partaking in the flight actively or play a part in the role of the commercial shoot.

With the R44 they will need to know the weight of all persons on board and your equipment, as they need to calculate the carry weight of the machine and also the fuel amount. If you load up the helicopter with other people you might find it will reduce your flight time and also it might distract from the purpose of the flight, you might have to reduce the amount of gear you take. As I have done shoots in the back of the R44 with my camera back in the seat next to me so I can access my other lenses.

Your decision… but something to note.

WHEN DO YOU START PAYING

When you book a one hour flight, what you paying for is the time the machine (helicopter) is running. From the moment the pilot starts the engine and prop begins to spin the clock is running. So keep this in mind when. On one flight out of Mascot

On one flight out of Mascot airport, the pilot asked for takeoff clearance and we were told to wait. At this time we were sitting in the helicopter ready to go. Checks all were done but the pilot to their credit hadn’t started the engine as they knew it could take time to get a window to take off. We were given a window so the engine was started, we then waited and waited for the final clearance that came 15 minutes later. AKA $225 of sitting on the Helipad doing nothing. This is frustrating, I would have liked the pilot to ask again for the clearance, as that 15 minutes felt like an eternity, we weren’t forgotten but you’re at the whim of air traffic control as your little R44 helicopter doesn’t get much priority over taking off and landing passenger aircraft. Now, this doesn’t happen often but just know that it can, maybe even discuss in your pre-flight briefing (which what you have when you get your safety briefing before you head out, the pilot will give this to you). More on this in the next article.

CALLING WITH A CHECKLIST

With all of the information above you should be able to put together a good checkpoint list of questions and by asking these questions you will be giving the person your talking to a solid and comprehensive idea of exactly what you want to achieve from them and your expectations of what you want to get out of the flight. Hiring a helicopter for a private photography shoot is no little matter as there is serious money being exchanged and also the safety factor of flying around with a door off over populated areas. The more you plan and questions you ask the better informed you and the company will be.