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Shooting Boats from the Air

I was recently asked for some advice by a young sailing photographer who had just been hired to do her first shoot from a Helicopter. I had already been planning a post on this subject but this request spurred me on to complete the article….

Shooting boats from the air is by far my favourite way of working, and not just because Helicopters are exciting to ride in but because there are so many benefits to my ability to get the shots I want.

Aside from the obvious advantage of getting the high angles only possible form the air, there is the ability to move from angle to angle very quickly.

A good Pilot can get you to just a metre or so off the water so the range of possible shooting angles includes almost everything you can do from a boat plus the wide open options available from the sky. The downside is that Helicopter time is expensive. That being said, I can produce a far more varied body of work from an hour in a Helicopter than from many many hours in a chase boat, so there is value for money.

Six tips for photographing boats from Helicopters

1. Safety First Ensure everything you take on board is well secured. A lens cap connecting with a tail rotor blade could lead to a nasty experience. And having a lens roll out the door could ruin your day not to mention some poor potential recipient below. Tape lens hoods on. Ensure all your bag pockets are zipped up. I don’t normally wear cameras around my neck but I do sometimes tie a tether from my cameras to the helicopter.

2. Safety Second too. Make sure you are well secured to the machine. Depending on how the chopper is set up for shooting, you may be sitting in the door with your feet hanging out ie facing out sideways (usually to the left) rather than straight ahead. In this case you will be wearing a harness with a tether attaching you to a hard point inside the machine. It is essential to ensure and test that you can reach and undo the tether hook yourself should an emergency develop. Also test that you can lean forward enough so as to get an unobstructed view for the angles you’d like to be able to shoot once in the air. Adjusting the tether length can be tricky after you’ve taken off. Alternatively you may just be buckled into a regular seat with the doors open or removed. All the choppers I have ever been in have had the, very easy to release pull style seat belt buckles. In this case I like to wrap gaffer tape around the seat belt buckle so I can’t accidentally undo the buckle with a camera strap or some other bit of gear. The negative of this is obviously I will have issues if I am ever in a chopper that has to ditch in water. Fold a tab into the end of the tape so you can get it off in a hurry if necessary.

3. Keep an Eye on your horizon Be aware that the g forces from accelerating, decelerating and even slight turns or banks will throw out your perception of where the horizon is. What feels level may not be.

4. Use a fast shutter speed to counter movement and vibration. I feel happiest when the shutter is firing at a 1000th of a second or faster. Additional help can be had by the use of inbuilt lens vibration reduction and / or the use of a gyro stabiliser.

5. Talk to the pilot a lot. It’s a good idea to be clear with the pilot what instructions he expects so you’re both on the same page before take off. They can’t always tell what you’re looking at, especially when you are shooting out of the opposite side from the pilot. I like to use simple direct terms. i.e. forward, Back, rotate left / right (alternately, left / right foot down) higher, lower, slide left / right. Hold position. When shooting above yachts, when I know the pilot can’t see the boat I will sometimes point to where the yacht is using my whole fore arm. Depending on the conditions (wind strength and direction) it may not be possible for the pilot to do exactly what you want. Helicopters can have issues flying backward as they may suck their own exhaust into the engine intakes. Exhaust heat shimmer can also effect your pictures not to mention it isn’t very pleasant to inhale. Hovering can also be an issue in gusty conditions. Even a little forward movement can stabilise the helicopter a lot. Forward movement is also your friend when very close to the water so as to avoid rotor wash spraying water around. Also keep an eye out for other aircraft and yacht masts, and don’t be afraid to tell the pilot what you see. Better safe than sorry.


Dress for the occasion. The wind will be a lot colder at speed. Loose clothing will flap about and add a lot of drag to your body. Floppy hats, loose shirts / jackets and trouser legs should be avoided. Working over water will usually require you wear a life jacket, and some air authorities may require you to wear a survival suit if going offshore by more than a certain regulated distance.

A note on shooting sailing. Some helicopter pilots won’t understand the effects their rotor wash will have on the wind being used by the yachts you’re photographing, so be mindful of where you are asking the pilot to put the helicopter when upwind or ahead of a sailing yacht. This may not be an issue when shooting glamour shots or assignments but racers will hunt you down and hurt you if they believe you have affected their finishing place. They also hate the noise of choppers overhead when it makes on board communication difficult, so get the shots you need and then give them their space.

This shot was achieved by mounting the camera to a monopod and poking it down below the aircraft so that the 10.5mm lens would get a shot clear of the landing skids.

Being a teensie bit paranoid with the blue tape?

Waiting our turn to get the shot in crowded air space over CAMPER.

Shooting America’s Cup racing in Valencia in 2007, Nikon 600mm f4 on a D2xs. (Photo curtesy Giles Martin-Raget)

That's me in the middle

Office in the air, transmitting photos from the helicopter after shooting the start of the Volvo Ocean Race at Alicante in 2011.

Shooting SailGP practice with the best pilot in the business, Tony Monk

Shooting Kings Cup in Cowes from the SailGP TV chopper


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