Shooting Video From a Helicopter

Aerial videography has exploded in the last couple of years largely because of drones. But did you know that aerial photography has been around for decades with the use of planes and helicopters? As great as drones are, there are a lot of benefits to shooting aerials from a helicopter over a drone, too.

Getting a bird’s eye view for your productions can increase production value and audience engagement immensely. It’s a perspective that will never get old and sometimes entire videos are shot with just drones.

Video camera and remote controlled gimbal inside helicopter

You all know we’re big fans of drones. Drones are popping up everywhere- military, toys, surveillance, racing and photography/videography drones.

Drones are not without their flaws and limitations, though. The largest drawback to drones is the lens options available and flight time. The most popular drones are quadcopters, meaning they have 4 rotors, and can only carry a very light payload or camera. Thus, the GoPro is most popular camera for drones today.

Despite the fantastic image quality of GoPros they are severely limited in the lens choice available. In fact, you only have one choice of lens with any GoPro camera.

You do, however, have a few different shooting options ranging from SuperWide, Wide, Medium and Narrow- but these options simply crop in on the same lens.

There are times when you want to use to better optics for aerial photography because your project demands it. You can use a larger drone, such as a hexacopter or octocopter, which have six and eight rotors respectively, that can carry larger cameras with interchangeable lenses.

Drone batteries currently last about 20 minutes in the best case scenario. Best practices suggest that you always land your drone with you have 15% battery left. A drone that runs out of batteries mid flight can be very dangerous and land on innocent bystanders or damage property.

There are times when you want to use to better optics for aerial photography because your project demands it.

Batteries are also greatly affected by atmospheric conditions. Winds, payload and age all affect the capacity of a battery, so it’s imperative to maintain and routinely check your batteries.

The work around is to get more batteries. This will allow you to stay in the air longer but you still have to land the drone and change the battery on the ground. This can be time consuming and costly depending on the subjects you are shooting.

Alternatively, you can use a helicopter for aerial videography.

There are positives and negatives to both options, so let’s break them down.

Shooting with a helicopter means you can go higher and cover larger areas in a quick amount of time. You’ll be under strict FAA regulations but if you have an experienced pilot you can get away with a lot.

Here’s a quick clip of us hanging over the San Diego airport hovering as a commercial jet took off and flying around the beaches.

We asked permission with the FAA, of course, but until this experience I would have never guess this was possible.

Why? Because drones are subjected to strict FAA laws, too. In fact, you can’t legally fly a drone within a 5 mile radius of a commercial airport without FAA permission- which isn’t easy to obtain.

Helicopters are also pretty expensive to fly and operate. If your budget is small you probably can’t afford a helicopter.

We recently went up in a helicopter that held 4 people including the pilot. What was great about the experience was that we were able to shoot 4K images with professional Veydra Cinema lenses on a GH4.

The Veydra lenses are high quality, heavy glass options that were released late 2014. We were able to fly at high and low altitudes and get incredible shots that we wouldn’t have been able to get with a drone.

To stabilize the shots we used our favorite tool, the DJI Ronin. This allowed us to get buttery smooth shots in a dual operator setup. One operator holding the unit and controlling the camera, while another operator was using a joystick monitoring the shots and composition.

Ronin gimbal stabilizing images from helicopter.

How to shoot video from inside a helicopter.

Ready for action!

The Ronin provides for 3-axis stabilization and the option to remotely control the position of the camera. When you’re shooting from a bird’s eye view and your subject is far away, you don’t notice much shake. But still a helicopter is constantly shaking and vibrating, so anything you can do to stabilize the camera is ideal.

We took the door off to remove any elements that would degrade the image quality. It was summertime when we shot this, so it was warm but the wind provided another element to be careful of- and something that can quickly derail your shoot.

Our pilot warned us that the last group he took up with a similar setup didn’t last :30 seconds before the camera rolled inside the Ronin stabilizer. The wind resistance means that you must have perfect balance as being in a helicopter is more sensitive than usual.

Luckily for us we had perfect balance and didn’t roll the camera once. I would recommend that you sit back away from the wind as much as possible. You’ll get smoother shots way and the operator will have plenty of room to frame shots.

Side note: When we shot the HouseCall explainer video we used a pre-production Gremsy that was 2+ lbs over the weight limit that we rolled several times. The unit held up remarkably well considering we were so far over the limit but it’s a drag when you roll a gimbal stabilizer. I can imagine it would be a disaster if you’re in a helicopter trying to find balance.

If you use this setup make sure you bring with you an extra battery for the Ronin or gimbal stabilizer of your choice. Since the helicopter is constantly shaking they tend to work the motors harder and use more energy from the batteries.

Bird's eye view, aka view from a helicopter.

Looking down form a helicopter.

A majority of what we shot was on the 16mm and 25mm focal lengths. Since we’re shooting on a micro 4/3’s camera with a 2x crop factor, this would be equivalent to 32mm and 50mm focal length- a far cry from what you can get with a GoPro, even on narrow mode.

We took off from Carlsbad Palomar airport and flew down to Coronado Island adjacent to downtown San Diego in about 18 minutes. We spend about 10 minutes shooting Coronado, hopped over to downtown then flew back up to north county via the Interstate 5 freeway.

A dual-operator setup rocks!

Using dual operators allows you to get much better, smoother shots and the results are amazing. The smooth panning, tilting and rolling keeps your images smooth and level. It also let’s you sit further back and keep still while the second operator can control the unit. Using two operators from a helicopter is highly recommended.

Other Helicopter Options

Another option when shooting with a helicopter is to use a Cineflex or Shotover camera system. These systems mount on the front of the helicopter and are controlled remotely from an operator sitting inside.

Both these options have a built in stabilization and controls for focus, iris and zoom. You’ve likely seen shots that came from one of these systems in car commercials or National Geographic shows. They are pretty incredible, but, also prohibitively expensive for most shoots.

Helicopters are great for aerials and allow you to do so much. Here are the best benefits of shooting from a helicopter:

  • Camera and lens options available are nearly endless
  • Time in air is very, very long. You can easily spend hours in a helicopter
  • Area coverage is vast
  • Height and speed are much less limited vs a drone

What questions do you have about shooting from a helicopter or a drone?