Night Shots from a Helicopter

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The view from the backseat.

I recently had the opportunity to be out in Las Vegas to visit some family, and while I was there one of the things that I wanted to do was to get some aerial shots of Las Vegas at night from a helicopter. So I booked a trip with one of the many companies that offer helicopter tours and with camera in hand set out to get some images that would capture the lights and magic of Vegas at it’s neon best.

Of course it wasn’t that easy. There are a lot of challenges to getting shots of a dark subject matter while being bounced around in a machine that’s trying to shake itself to pieces and because helicopter flights aren’t cheap, I figured I’d throw some tips out there for others who may be thinking of doing this in the future.

To keep this somewhat organized I’m going to break this down into five parts.

  1. Booking the Trip
  2. Camera Gear
  3. Camera Setup
  4. Shooting during the flight
  5. Post Processing Tips

 

  1. Booking the Trip
    • A typical flight around the Vegas Strip is usually about a 15 minute helicopter flight and will run around $100-$150 dollars per person as of August 2016.
    • Price does not always indicate quality of the trip. Ask around for references, or check around on line and read reviews. I flew with a company called Maverick, a friend of mine flew with a company called 702 Helicopters. Both of us were satisfied with our experiences, and would recommend either of these two companies.
    • Make reservations ahead of time. During peak seasons flights can be booked up and if you’re only in town for a couple of days you might end up out of luck.
    • Pick the right time of day. This may sound simple but it needs to be said. You need to know when sunset is before you book your flight time.
      • If you want black nights skies then you need to schedule a flight that is at least an hour after sundown.
      • If you want the mixture of the city lights with the twilight sky, then book your flight for as close to – but not before – sunset as possible. If you’re flying just before sunset then the sun is going to limit your shots and pose all other sorts of issues such as lens flares etc if shooting to the west.
      • Your camera gear may help push you to choose the twilight time over the black night skies, but I’ll get into that in the next section.
    • Be on time for your reservation. The helicopter will leave without you. They have a tight schedule to keep and depending on who you book with you could be on the hook for the fee whether you make the ride or not. Traffic on the strip can get crowded at times, so leave yourself time to get to the airport.
    • Bring along some extra cash. Most all companies offer souvenir pictures of you with the helicopter or with the pilot – or offer T-shirts etc… So if you think you might be tempted, be ready for that.
    • I didn’t see everyone doing it, but I did tip the pilot. Not a ton, but enough for a few cold ones on me… not that I would encourage them to drink and fly.
  2. Camera Gear 
    • Inside the helicopter is going to be cramped. So only take what you absolutely need. Plus the flights are short, so you’re not really going to have time to rummage around in your bottomless bag of gear for lens after lens to try out.
    • Camera – If you have more than one camera use the one that has the best low light capabilities. You’re going to be shooting a dark subject from a moving object, you’re going to have to crank up the ISO or else you won’t be able to keep a shutter speed high enough to keep the pictures from being total blurs.
    • Lens – Grab the widest angle lens that you have that has the widest aperture that you can find.
      • You want the wide angle to get the big wide vistas of the sky and surrounding area; anything in the 28mm or wider tends to work okay – just don’t use a fisheye lens… ugh.
      • You want the widest aperture so you can suck in as much light as fast as possible. You’re going to be shooting off into the distance so you don’t need to worry about depth of field issues here.
    • Tripod – Not a chance. There’s no room for it, and even if there was the helicopter rattles around like crazy.
    • Flash – Nope… just dead weight and I’m pretty sure if you started popping that off inside the cockpit with the light bouncing off all of the windows the pilot would be sure to thank you graciously for blinding them.
    • You may want to consider borrowing/renting a lens for the trip. I found a lens with a 2.8 aperture was hard enough to milk good shots out of. Anything more than that and I don’t think I could have pulled a salvageable image off. If you’re going to go to the trouble of going all the way there and take the trip, might as well stack the odds in your favor and use the best glass you can reasonably obtain for the shoot.
    • If you absolutely can’t do a 2.8 or lower lens, you might want to consider booking the twilight flight. There will still be some ambient blue light in the sky, and it might be enough to still get some nice shots that still show the lights on the casinos and hotels. It’s an iffy proposition, but it might be the best chance for success. Even if you quickly realize that the pictures aren’t going to come out well, just relax and look out the window. It’s still a cool experience to enjoy.
  3. Camera Setup
    • There’s no hard fast rules here, as it will depend upon your lens/camera combo but most likely you’re going to have to make some compromises, as this is not a forgiving subject to shoot.
      • Shoot in RAW – you are going to have to post process these images to get the best out of them. Shooting .JPG will limit the range of data in the image that you have to work with.
      • Set a shutter speed of at least 1/100th of a second. Anything less and you seriously run the risk of blurry images. Even at 1/100th the images can be soft. The rule of thumb of 1/x where x is your focal length won’t work here because you’re not standing still.
      • Crank the ISO up. If your lens only opens up to a 2.8 aperture then you’re likely going to be pushing 3200 ISO. I’m speaking from experience on that one. My friend had a lens that opens up to 1.8 and they were able to shoot at 1600 ISO.
      • Get all the settings set on your camera before you get on the helicopter. Flight time is picture time, not futz with the camera time.
      • I personally chose to shoot in manual mode. Even with the camera set at ISO 3200, shutter 1/100 and an aperture of 2.8 my shots were still registering as under-exposed by several stops. Had I been trying to shoot in shutter priority then the camera would have been balking at me trying to shoot so underexposed, and I didn’t want to have to keep fidgeting with the Exposure Compensation buttons. The images may not look pretty in the camera, but fear not there is still hope for them later. Below is one of the shots As-Is from the camera.
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        As-Is shot from the camera. 10pm flight. 16mm at f2.8 1/100th second at ISO3200
  4. Shooting during the flight
    • First things first… get a seat next to the window. May sound obvious, but some tours have helicopters that seat 3 or four across. If you’re sitting in the middle you are going to have a hard time getting clean views out of the window. If possible go with a company with smaller helicopters that seat fewer people. If that fails, talk to the people when you book the flight and tell them what you’re wanting to do. Between them and the pilot they’re likely to try and accommodate you as best they can.
    • DO NOT USE YOUR FLASH. I mentioned it before, but it needs mentioning again. Not only will it just bounce off the window and destroy your shot, you will night blind the pilot and they will get mad. Make sure it’s off and stays off.
    • As soon as you start to take off, knock out a couple of quick test shots and see if you can make any minor tweaks to your settings before the helicopter gets up to full altitude. If you review your histogram just make sure that you’re not blowing out the highlights. If you are try a lower ISO or faster shutter, the images are night images they are going to be heavily skewed to the black side of the graph. If you’re coming up too black you’re going to have to raise the ISO or sacrifice shutter speed.
    • Be wary of reflections on the inside of the windows. The pilot’s gauge cluster is going to reflect inside the helicopter. Try and use your hand or lens hood to block them out as best as possible. (You can see the reflections in the image above. Those aren’t UFO’s over the horizon.)
    • Do not lean against the door or windows. Not only is it possibly unsafe. They shake and rattle, a lot. Typically leaning against a solid surface helps stabilize your images, this will be the opposite in the helicopter. Your seat and the windows are not vibrating in sync with each other. Grip the camera tight to your body and face, and just accept that you’re getting shaken like a martini. This is why a faster shutter speed is critical.
    • Take multiple shots. While people talk bad about the spray and pray technique, since you’re likely already shooting at the ragged edge of your camera’s abilities to get a good shot go ahead and pop off a couple of shots of something you want to capture. It just increases your chances of getting one that is less blurry or slightly better than the others. In a controlled studio… do it right the first time… in the field under difficult and typically cost prohibitive conditions do what you have to do.
    • Not a camera tip, but since you’re hogging the window, try and give the other folks a chance to see around you every now and then. Just be conscientious about the fact that everyone on the flight is there to see the sights too.
  5. Post Processing Tips
    • I use Lightroom and Photoshop to do my post-processing but most other photo processing software offers some similar corrections so you should be able to follow these steps without actually having to use either package.
      • After loading up your image into your editor of choice the first thing your probably going to want to do is boos the exposure. For my earlier shot I raised the exposure by 2.5 stops to get the look I wanted.
      • I also decreased the contrast on my image to help brighten up the image a little.
      • At this point you’re going to really see the noise in your image because of the high ISO being used to capture the images. To tame some of that I went in and adjusted the Luminance Noise Reduction slider to about 31 in Lightroom. I recommend just playing with your software’s noise reduction filters until you get a look that you’re happy with.
      • Now tweak the Highlights, Shadow, Whites, and Blacks to get what you want. For me I dropped the Highlights to -90 to tame the bright spots, raised the Shadows +60 to bring out some of the detail in the ground areas like the cars in the parking lots etc… I pulled the Whites up a little to get a little pop back into the lights, to help offset dropping the highlights down so far to control glare and flare. Then I lowered the blacks to -10. This introduced more black than what I would normally want in a regular image, but it helped crush out the black in the sky and helped bury some of the noise in the sky.
      • Next was to boost the colors in the image by raising the Vibrance by +40 and the Saturation by +7. The trick is to make the colors stand out but try not to make them so saturated that they look cartoonish. The images are going to have a stylized look to them, but you can go too far.
      • Below is the image after color correction in Lightroom.
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        Lightroom adjusted… notice the lovely reflection in the sky. That’s got to go…
  • After adjusting the image in Lightroom I took it over into Photoshop to clean up the reflections. I could have done it in Lightroom, just as I could have done all of the color corrections in Photoshop. It’s just the workflow that I personally use. Basic edits in Lightroom, more complex stuff I go over to Photoshop. Use what works for you.
  • In Photoshop I used the Clone Stamp tool to remove the reflections from the sky, then when done I exported the image back out and ended up with my final image which is shown below.

 

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Final image.

Getting night shots from a flying platform was more challenging than I originally imagined it was going to be. I often shoot things in low light, just not from a shaking platform. You don’t have the luxury of long shutter speeds. You just have to be willing to push your camera to it’s edges and then try and reel it back in with post processing. A lot of knowing how far you can bring an image back comes from having taken a lot of bad shots along the way, and then spending time trying to recover them. So spend some time in post, even with some of the bad shots from time to time. You may be surprised just how far back from the dark depths you can pull an image and don’t be afraid to shoot intentionally dark if that’s what it takes to keep a high shutter speed. Just try to keep it in check as best you can.

Thanks for reading, and I encourage those of you who get a chance to do something like this to give it a try.

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