9 Photography Tips When Photographing Cityscapes from a Helicopter

Aerial photography has always been something that I have found interesting. Seeing so many of our writers like David Geffin, Mike Kelley, and Noam Galai capture exciting photos and video from the sky has inspired me to finally attempt my first doors-off helicopter excursion. In just one short one-hour ride, I've learned a lot of do's and don'ts as well as a bunch of things to experiment with again. I even attempted shooting with a $7,000 lens that everyone told me would be a disaster — and it nearly was!

The Location

New York City is one of my favorite places in the world. Like Las Vegas, I can only handle N.Y.C. in small amounts despite actually having an apartment in Brooklyn. But when I am in the City, I get the feeling that anything is possible and it lifts my spirits up more than any other place I've visited. New York is both glamorous and gritty, busy and lonely, and exciting yet terrifying all at once. The diversity is so amazing, and in my opinion, no other city in the world compares to New York. That being said, I've always wanted to photograph N.Y.C. in a way that captures what the city means to me at this time in my life when it really is a home away from home here in Charleston.

The Concept

I've been to most of the touristy spots in New York, and honestly, they are all great locations. Whether you are at the top of 30 Rock (my favorite), Empire State, the new One World Trade, or in Dumbo near the Brooklyn Bridge, there are so many great and iconic locations to photograph the city. Some of them require a lot of planning and perhaps a brush with security, and others are literally a few blocks from a subway station. The problem I have with all of them though is that they all look like someone else's experience instead of my own experience. Every photo I've taken from those locations makes me feel like I've taken a Xerox copy of an image shot millions of times by other photographers — and my copy never holds up in comparison. I guess that's the nature of landscape photography and perhaps why I've never spent too much time chasing down iconic locations (although Elia Locardi has changed my mind quite a bit on this recently).

My favorite photographs I've taken are the ones that have captured a true experience in my life. Unfortunately, most of those images live only on my iPhone, but on those rare occasions where I actually have a professional camera with me, I really do appreciate having an image I can print and put on my wall. This year I asked my dad if he wanted to go to the U.S. Open in Queens, N.Y. since he is a huge tennis fan (and can still whoop my ass even though he is now considered a senior). Watching the world's best tennis players battle it out in Arthur Ashe Stadium has been bucket list for both of us, but on this father/son trip I also wanted to take the time to do something I've always wanted to do: photograph N.Y.C. from a helicopter.

My first helicopter ride was beautiful, but not ideal for photography.

I've been in a helicopter once before near Interlaken, Switzerland on our Fstoppers road trip to Photokina in 2014. It was a spur of the moment decision and it wasn't necessarily a great flight for photography. The doors were on, the lighting wasn't perfect, and we only had a few mirrorless cameras with us with very few lenses. What I did like about the helicopter ride through the Swiss Alps was both the thrill of being in a small aircraft and also the idea of taking a photograph in a location that no other photographer could exactly replicate. When we flew our DJI Phantom all over the world on Locardi's Landscape tutorial, we all really enjoyed capturing HD video from a unique perspective rarely seen. The problem with most aerial drones is that you are pretty much forced to shoot with wide-angle lenses which works well for many locations, but it was not something I necessarily wanted to do in New York. I wanted to shoot something much more telephoto.

Farily typical wide angle photograph of N.Y.C. from a helicopter.

All of this brings me to my crazy concept for this helicopter session. One question I always like to ask myself before attempting any photo series is "how can I approach this in a way no one else has ever captured it," or less ambitiously, "how can I capture this in a way I have never seen before?" All of my aerial photo taking friends have advised me to take an ultra-wide-angle lens and a normal to medium telephoto lens up with me in the helicopter. The most common advice I kept hearing was "shoot wide," "don't go past 200mm," "you'll need super fast shutter speeds," and "definitely stop your lens down to capture the most depth of field possible."  

This of course made me think, why don't I take a 200-400mm f/4 lens up with me, shoot it wide open, and compress the shit out of N.Y.C.? That could potentially look really cool, and I couldn't find a single reference photograph online that captured the city from this perspective. Perfect, what could go wrong?

The Gear

The most important thing to consider when shooting out of any fast moving vehicle where gear can be tossed about is security and safety. Everything has to be secure which means you aren't going to want to have to change lenses, batteries, memory cards, or lens caps while up in the air. Your helicopter pilot will definitely drill this into your head so it's good to go ahead and already prepare for as little gear as possible. That being said, Dylan Patrick and I decided to take three camera bodies each mounted to a unique lens.  With these three systems we were able to cover 24mm all the way to 400mm:

We shared three cameras with three different lenses ranging from 24mm to 400mm.

Since we did not have any extra room for a video crew, I decided to document the entire process with three GoPro Hero 4 Silver cameras. Two of these GoPro cameras were mounted to the Feiyu FY-WG 3-Axis Wearable Gimbal which we incorrectly mounted to the hot shoe of our cameras. The threaded mount on these gimbals is designed incorrectly in my opinion but there is a way to mount these units so that they are flush with the viewfinder. As you can see in the video, it was near impossible to completely look into the viewfinder when shooting which added yet another challenge to the already difficult shooting conditions. The final GoPro was mounted to our favorite handheld stabilizer, the Feiyu G4 3-Axis Gimbal, which I let my dad use to record some behind the scenes.

Other than these three cameras and three GoPros, we left everything else behind. Weight is a big issue when riding in a helicopter and every extra pound will not only slow you down but will reduce the overall distance you can travel. Since they only fill the choppers up with just enough fuel for your itinerary, you want to make sure everything is as streamlined as possible.

The Challenges of Shooting from a Helicopter

Since I had previously never taken a "professional" photograph from a helicopter, this short 60-minute aerial photo session taught me a lot. I've decided to make a list below that summarizes my experience and hopefully you can learn from some of the mistakes I made as well as the useful tips I discovered.

1.) Lighting can make or break your image

This should come as no surprise to any seasoned photographer, but there were a few things I learned from this single ride. The first thing I learned was, as Mike Kelley warned me, you might want to shoot with the sun higher in the sky than you would normally expect. Usually the best time to photograph landscapes is right as the sun is setting. This gives you nice golden light that is also very directional. Directional light is important because it gives definition to your landscapes by producing highlights on one side and shadows on the other. However, with huge cities like New York, if the sun is too low on the horizon, the tallest buildings will be lit well but many of the shorter buildings will fall completely in shadow. If you've seen Mike's amazing images of Los Angeles, most of his images were actually captured 2–4 hours before the sun hit the horizon. So while sunset might be a great time to shoot a coast line, it isn't always the best time to shoot a high-contast city with massive skyscrapers. The below image was one of the images I shot around 300–400mm, and while it is really cool looking and extremely moody, I think it would have been even better if I could have taken the photo 40 minutes earlier.

New York City skyline shot at 320mm with the Nikkor 200–400mm lens.

2.) Predictable weather can still be unpredictable

It goes without saying that good weather is just as important as good lighting. Good weather doesn't necessarily mean clear skies with no storm fronts either. Most of the time "good weather" means dramatic weather and it can really make your photos look amazing. For this photoshoot, the weather was actually non-existent. The skies were pretty clear and there were no dramatic clouds in the sky at all. This was actually perfect for the high-contrast telephoto image I wanted to capture of New York. One thing I did not anticipate though was the level of haze caused by the atmosphere. In order to compress the city skyline into a single frame at 300–400mm, the helicopter actually had to be above Central Park and to the west (off the Jersey shore). I knew my basic position going into the flight, but what I did not anticipate was just how much the humid air and smog would play havoc with my camera's autofocus system. Basically there was little to no contrast in the scene. As you can see in the image below, the scene should have been much more high contrast because of the position of the sun, but it actually turned out extremely muddy because of the atmospheric haze (I was probably shooting through five miles of sky). I left the photo above in color to accentuate the hot and humid weather, but I thought it would be interesting to convert another frame into black and white to lessen the hazy feel.

Crazy amount of atmospheric haze even on a cloudless day.

3.) Telephoto lenses are your friend

When you think about landscapes and cityscapes, it's easy to gravitate towards wide-angle lenses. If you only shoot wide angle from a helicopter, however, you are going to miss out on some really beautiful opportunities to capture the city in a unique way. Once we approached the financial district of Manhattan, we were too close to shoot with the 200–400mm telephoto beast, but there were still many, many opportunities to capture an interesting image in the 100–200mm focal range. Not only do telephoto lenses let you isolate your subject, but they also compress the scene. The above image is an extreme example of compression (I made most of Manhattan look like a single skyline), but this photo below (shot right above the One World Trade building) shows Midtown looking straight down 6th Avenue. Even at 200mm, you can see how small Central Park has become with the Bronx filling in most of the upper frame. At this point the sun had just set on the horizon so the lighting is not very dramatic, but this image was still a pretty cool unexpected keeper from the session.

Midtown Manhattan from above One World Trade.

4.) Never stop shooting

One thing I did not expect when I got up in the air was I found myself not shooting enough. There were so many iconic locations I wanted to photograph that I found myself not shooting anything until we approached what I thought I wanted to photograph. Once I got back to my computer I found that many of the shots I was excited to take actually turned out pretty boring, yet the photos I didn't even realize I took wound up being some of my favorite images from the entire session. The lesson I learned was never stop shooting! If something of interest is too far away, start shooting details down below as you approach your main target. Take photos of buildings you've never noticed. Look for geometric shapes, strange lighting patterns, people crossing the street, playing in the park, flying in other helicopters. Many of your favorite images might be photos that occurred in the blink of an eye and you don't want to miss something special. Also, because of the massive amount of parallax that occurs when you maneuver around dense buildings like this, the composition of each frame will vary greatly even just a few seconds apart (compare the two similar 300mm images above to see what I mean).

The photo below was also shot with the 200–400mm, and even though it doesn't capture the most iconic part of New York, it does tell an interesting story. This image reminds me of what Pink Floyd's "Animals" album cover would look like after decades of major urban sprawl.

New York's Upper East Side.

5.) Try photographing iconic structures in a unique way

Everyone wants to photograph the most iconic landmarks in their entirety. These photos are sort of the postcard shots we have all come to associate with each particular location. My black and white shot of the Empire State Building below is a good example of that, and it is still one of my favorite images from the session. However, it's also important to try to capture these iconic scenes with a new and fresh perspective. In the big scheme of things, very few people get to experience the top of the Empire State Building from a helicopter, so why not try to capture something everyone recognizes in a unique way? Truth be told, many of my favorite landscape images (from a helicopter or on the ground) are shot from a completely different angle than what I would expect. For me, this photograph of the top of Empire will always remind me of our pilot asking us to wave at the tourist and me looking back only to see my dad holding on for dear life. Did I mention my dad is deathly scared of heights? Yes, I'm a horrible son sometimes!

Top of Empire State at sunset.

My dad not looking too amused.

6.) Capture the helicopter experience

Because our pilot had to distribute our weight evenly, Dylan Patrick and I wound up on opposite sides of the aircraft. Most of the time we both had a unique opportunity to take photos from different directions but every now and then we would make a sharp turn leaving one of us with nothing but sky on our side. If you find yourself with no shot, don't fail to capture the inside of the cockpit for a cool first-person perspective. Since I was in the front passenger seat, I had a unique opportunity to capture the entire dashboard of the A44 helicopter. Below are a few of my favorite images.

Cockpit view of Manhattan.

Flying over Central Park.

Looking straight down on Times Square.

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7.) Depth of Field is not as important as you think

One of the tips I kept reading about online before my flight was that you will want to stop down your lens to get the maximum depth of field possible. At the time this sounded reasonable, but once I got up in the air I soon realized that my aperture was near wide open for most of the flight. If you fly in the middle of the day, it is probably best to stop down to f/5.6 or even f/8 if you have enough light. Once the sun sets however, you are going to need as much light hitting your sensor as possible, so shooting at f/2.8 or even faster is ideal. Since the 200–400mm lens only has a max aperture of f/4, I had to retire that camera completely pretty early on in the flight. For the remainder of the ride, I shot with the 24–70mm at either f/4 or f/2.8 exclusively. Once the city lights started to come on and the ambient light balanced out perfectly, I found that my ISO was already at 3,200 and I was in fact wishing I had an even faster lens.

When it comes to depth of field, the buildings you are shooting are typically already falling into the infinity focal plane so shooting at f/1.8 on a 50mm or 85mm lens will still produce a large depth of field. The next time I fly, I am considering only bringing two fast primes with me just so I can capture the city lights at a reasonable ISO setting. The three photos below are some of my favorite from the entire flight but unfortunately all three were shot at ISO 3,200. They are super sharp throughout but the noise grain definitely leaves me with some regret.

Times Square, the Empire State Building, and 8th Avenue from the Park.

8.) Your shutter doesn't have to be as fast as you might think

When I loaded all the images on my computer, I was very surprised to find how few of my images were blurry. My biggest worry in terms of image quality was that my shutter speed would be too slow and the movement of the helicopter would introduce motion blur into all my photos. This actually happened very rarely. Obviously the 200–400mm lens required super fast shutter speeds of around 1/2,000 of a second minimum, but for most of the shots taken on the 24–70mm camera, my shutter was right around 1/60–1/250 s. Since our pilot was extremely smooth with the helicopter and there were very few gusts of wind above the city that night, I felt pretty comfortable shooting with a shutter speed that was much slower than I would have ever imagined.

For my next flight I'm definitely going to try to fly a bit later into the blue hour and utilize slower shutter speeds with fast apertures to capture more images of the city glowing. Unfortunately by the time the ambient city light was balanced with the fading sunlight, it was time to start heading back to the airport. The final image below is one of my favorites but I can't help but think that it might have actually been even better just 10 minutes later. This image looking straight down Park Avenue at Grand Central Station is the only image I captured showcasing all of the major iconic skyscrapers in Manhattan. I definitely want to revisit this composition again the next time I go up.

Park Avenue at sunset.

9.) Processing in Black and White can give life to dull color

The perfect balance between natural ambient light and the city's artificial light happens in just a sliver of time. We are talking maybe 20 minutes maximum. This means that during your flight many of your images captured just before the perfect lighting event are going to have less contrast and color. This is where converting your images into black and white can really save a bunch of otherwise mediocre frames. Luckily New York can be a super romantic city in a desaturated format, and using the natural highlights from the modern architecture can work really well here. Be careful however, in many cases images that "pop" because of the bold colors may become dull after converting them to a monochromatic color space.

Conclusion

All in all, experimenting with aerial photography while flying over one of my favorite cities in the world was extremely satisfying. This is obviously not the type of photography I do on a normal basis but I think it is something I would like to practice more and more. I can see how people get addicted to aerial photography, and no matter how advanced the image capturing ability of our radio controlled drones becomes, nothing can replace the adrenaline rush that comes with physically hanging outside a flying helicopter. With N.Y.C.'s Photo Plus Expo right around the corner, I think it's fair to say my second photo excursion is definitely happening. While I might not take the time to rent another 200–400mm super telephoto, I know for certain I'm going to bring a few fast primes up with me and focus more on the glowing city lights. Who knows, perhaps the colder fall air will even make the hazy N.Y.C. atmosphere less of a problem than it was during this flight.

If you have any questions about shooting out of a helicopter, feel free to leave your comments below. If you are planning on visiting New York City soon and want to experience the city from above, I would love to recommend the helicopter charter company Wings Air. They are based out of the Westchester Airport in White Plains, N.Y. and they offer very reasonable rates on photo tours. If you wind up with Anthony as your pilot, tell him Patrick from Fstoppers says hi.

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30 Comments

Fraser Almeida's picture

Great video and article. Thanks for that. I'm looking forward for my aerial helicopter shots here in Las Vegas.

Tam Nguyen's picture

These are some good tips. Thank you, and thanks for the invite! Oh wait...

Dylan Patrick's picture

This was a blast, I definitely had some of the same challenges as Patrick on this flight...really high ISO's, haze, along with shutter speed challenges as I was shooting the 70-200 the whole time, definitely made for a great learning experience. NYC has lower humidity and cooler temperatures in the spring and fall which help to get clearer skies, so when I go back in May I'm absolutely calling these guys up for another trip.

Stephen Strangways's picture

I love how there is a dual-time kitchen timer stuck to the helicopter's instrumental panel.

Some great tips in here. My favorite shot was the one looking directly down on Times Square with the helicopter landing rail in frame - gives a real sense of that vertigo-inducing scale of looking down from such a high position.

A tip on the 'atmospheric haze' - it will be a significant problem in such a dense city like NYC, it's a direct result of pollution. It will always be worst in the golden hour and I don't think it can be avoided entirely, but I recommend booking a helicopter flight immediately after a large storm system or period of rainy days finishes. Rain does a great job at taking a lot of those particles out of the air (for a short time). Also try an early morning flight as you will (generally) have calmer, cooler air and less haze. Conditions will be worst on hot/humid afternoons.

Also, a circular polarizer is an obvious help for telephoto shots in these conditions for cutting through the haze and increasing contrast - but I learnt the hard way that you should check with the pilot beforehand whether or not the aircraft canopy is polarized itself. If it is, you will get horrible banding patterns in your images from the two layers of polarization - and there may not be an opportunity to remove your polarizer in-flight for FOD risk (as mentioned by Patrick)

I have a new bucket list item.

Tim Foster's picture

Whoever told you to stop down on a wide lens for an aerial doesn't understand how depth of field works.

Tim Foster's picture

Not normally. Legally I think it's 500 feet. With a 35mm lens at F1.4 you're down to a hyperfocal distance of under a hundred feet (I use the same calculator you linked to), and I personally wouldn't want to be that close to a building unless I was landing on it.

Sander van der Veen's picture

Nice! I'm going to NYC end of October, still figuring out what time I should go up and which lens to bring. (I probably take the 40 F/2.8 and 85 1.8 with me..

Sander van der Veen's picture

Why do I need to play with that? :)

Patrick Hall's picture

I've shot on the top of 30 Rock as well and I can tell you, no shot is exactly the same if you are on a different building. As I wrote above, the parallax in a place like NYC causes buildings to move in the foreground really fast compared to the background. So if you shoot on the top of 30 rock south towards Empire, One World Trade can move significantly as you walk from one end of the observation deck to the other end. Add a helicopter mix into it and you will always have a different composition. For one, the copper is always higher looking down compared to any other location in the city. Top of the Rock is one of my favorite spots if you want something easy to get access to though.

Sebastian K's picture

How much do helicopter rides go for in NYC? I've seen some quotes for a basic 20min tour for about $150, however I'm guessing if you're looking to fly doors open to take photos it might be more expensive?

Patrick Hall's picture

The cost per flight depends greatly on the type of helicopter you go up in. The Robinson 22 and 44 options are the cheapest because they are also the least powerful and consume less gas. For 60 mins the cost was about $750 and you can split that with 3 total passengers. You also have to factor in about $200 in taxis to get up there and back from the city.

If you go with another photo tour company or get a larger more powerful helicopter, you can easily get to $2000 per hour or more. I'd love to take a larger heli up and compare it but honestly we were all so surprised how stable the Robinson 44 ride was and most of my images were super sharp at relatively slow shutter speeds. It might have more to do with capturing video and using gyros but for stills I think the small helicopters are great.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Great video. Is dad okay? :)

Patrick Hall's picture

Yes dad is okay, I think he secretly enjoyed the flight and just wanted to make it sound more dramatic than it actually was. He did refuse to go to the top of the One World Trade observation deck the next day though...I think he got his fill of heights on this trips

Eduardo Cavasotti's picture

Guys this is awesome! I work with the guys at Wings Air and they are great. Did you get to see the prints around the hangar? Those are mine.. :) You can see one of them in the beginning, the empire state one looking down right by the stairway.. Wish I could have met you guys.. I am a big fan..
Here are some of my aerial shots with Wings Air:

http://www.cavasotti.com/Portfolio/Landscape/Aerial/

I never advise shooting slower than 1/250.. I also have auto ISO on. I try my best to keep the shutter above 1/500 just to be on the safe side.. I feel like as you get closer the 1/200 and below it is hit of miss and I got a lot of shaky shots.. All my shots were taken with the nikon 24-70 like you did..
Great article and great to see you guys go up with wings air..
Best,

Eduardo

Patrick Hall's picture

Ah yes, I remember seeing your photos and thinking they looked great. I recall the one of the tip of Manhattan looking down the side of the helicopter. Very cool. I think we are going to book another flight during Photo Plus.

Eduardo Cavasotti's picture

Great stuff man.. would love to meet up when you guys are in town. Maybe we do a fight together :)

jon galione's picture

Great shots. Have you seen the work of Michael Hitoshi? His work is of a similar vain, http://www.michaelhitoshi.com/gallery.html
:)

Hi Patrick, fantastic video! I'm travelling to NYC early Feb next year and I was hoping that you could recommend what time of the day would be the best to chatter the helicopter for.

Patrick Hall's picture

Hey Dylan, I'm not exactly sure, it depends on the type of photos you want. If you want the low light dusk shots like I got then you need to be in the air during the sunset/civil twilight time. You can use an online resource to find out when the sun sets next year in Feb. If you go through WingsAir then you will probably want to take off from the airport 20-30 mins before the lighting event you want but if you have another company that is right near NYC then you can avoid the 15 min flight down to Manhattan.

Thanks for getting back to me Patrick. I'm really undecided if I'm going to try and capture the city lights or go during the day. The thing I am worried about trying to photograph during the blue hour is having to use a really high iso. Do you think you can get enough DOF with an aperture lower than 2.8?

Patrick Hall's picture

Yeah I did a second flight with the 50 and 85mm lenses and shot them at f/1.8 at a later time than this flight (I was up above the city about 30 mins later than I absolutely wanted, it's tricky to find that perfect window to leave the airport).

The 50mm must have been mis calibrated or something because every single image was out of focus and I realized that during the flight. The 85mm lens looked awesome though. In general, everything will be slightly softer at 1.8 but because you are basically focusing at infinity the DOF is still pretty wide with a super fast prime. The only time you will have massive issues is if you fly by a building and focus on something much closer to the helicopter.

That's so unfortunate about the 50mm, how annoying!

I'm looking forward to seeing your images :)

Great article! I'm flying out to NYC this week and am looking to find a photo helicopter company. Which company can you recommend?

Patrick Hall's picture

I've flown with Wings Air every time I've gone up. They are about 30-40 mins outside of manhattan but they are relatively inexpensive and allow you to take the doors off which you want. If you call up there, talk to Anthony as he was my pilot both times and we had a blast. Good luck and post the photos you take when you get back

Great video and info - we are booked with Wings air this coming Saturday on our trip over from the UK - been looking forward to it for AGES!!! - your article has been a massive help in getting some background info on the flight.

Thank you for the article, great tips. I'll be shooting Manhattan for first time from a helicopter this weekend (sunset) and this is a great source of info.
I am planning to bring my 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8 but reading your article about the lack of light after sunset do you think bringing a 200mm f2, 105 f1.4 or a 85mm 1.4 instead of my 70-200mm f2.8 is a good idea?

Ryan Cote's picture

Late to the game, but thanks for a great article. Interesting you didn't find you needed very fast shutter speeds. I took a helicopter flight in Kauai and I lost a ton of shots to motion blur or multiple images. I was also in a Robinson 44. Even shooting at 16 mm with VR turned on, I needed way faster shutter than I expected. 1/100 was way too slow. More than half of those shots were bad and so were a lot of the shots at 1/200. Only a few of the shots at 1/500 were bad. I'm going back soon and I think I'm going to go up to 1/1000 or 1/2000.