Flying Machines: Planes, Helicopters, Balloons and Drones
Planes is where we've probably done most of our work because it's more affordable. Tony, the plane that you've done a lot of your work out of dissimilar-
A lot of my work is done in dissimilar planes. I think this one's a 172. The disadvantage of a 172, or this type of aircraft, is the strut and the wheels that are sticking out, a little bit of a distraction or an obstacle to shoot through, which does limit the lens choices that you might have, and we'll talk about lenses in a little while. 210 Cessna there's no strut and the wheels are retractable, usually, which is a better plane. That's the platform I tend to use the most 'cause it's more affordable than a helicopter, but a lot more space. But again, with wide angle lenses, you gotta be careful of wings and things like that. So, they're not, they're probably, on average, between a third and a quarter the cost of a helicopter, and to do the same job.
Yeah, and you look there, on this particular shot, you can see the window. That ...
window just lifts, just pushes up, and I know a lot of photographers in Australia who've spent their, you know, 20, 30, 40 years shooting out of exactly a window like that to get their photographs. So, just not having glass is probably the important thing.
Yeah, yeah, all of my exhibition work over the last four years that has been based around aerial has predominantly been, maybe 10% helicopter, but 90% plane. Always with the door on, but the window up, and the plane, the link between the pilot and the plane and the photographer is the critical factor.
So, explain that a little bit more to me.
Okay, so when you're on the ground and you got a tripod, you can put the tripod where you want, you can move your sort of camera head to where you want. You can pick your angle, you can pick the orientation. When you're in a plane, it's all relied on the sort of pilot to put you in the right position. You've got a little bit of flexibility, but again, if you've sort of gotta tilt up, there's a wing, if you've gotta tilt down, maybe you pick up the bottom of the window, there's a restriction. So a pilot that can put you where you need to go, that makes the plane feel likes it's an extension of you, is really important. We've traveled, or I've traveled, with the same pilot probably 80% of the time that I've shot aerials, somebody you've traveled with as well, excellent pilot, understands what we want, and over time gets to know your idiosyncrasies of shooting, and often I'll use my hands to guide the pilot. So what I'll do, is I'll set up permissions. I think it's important, creatively, that I can say to pilot before we take off, I'm gonna ask for everything. I wanna be there, I wanna be here, I wanna be down there, up here, I want you to tip it. You take me where we can go safely, and if you don't take me there or you say no, that's fine, you're the boss, but I don't wanna hold back from asking 'cause I'm wondering, can we do it? And I'll be shooting, holding my camera, and I'm looking, and then I might bring my hand up and I'll go over, over, over, hold it. I'll use the points of a clock. It's at ten o'clock, it's coming up. It's at nine o'clock, bring the wing over, left wing down, left wing down, hold it there, a bit more, he says no, then you hear beep. He says that's a storm warning, we're not flying, we're jumping, time to straighten up. So, it's that connection.
Yeah, and the advantage, then, of the plane over the helicopter, or the helicopter over the plane. Is there a preference?
Apart from the dollar side of things, it can get pretty pricey, as you said, but you know, the beauty of a chopper sometimes is it can get you into places that a plane can't, insofar as it can slow right down and keep you over an area that you want to be photographing, whereas plane tends to come in, and you gotta do a few orbits. Helicopters can go up and down a lot quicker I believe. They can get you down a bit closer to the ground, a bit higher up, whereas a plane will have to climb up. A little bit like that. Sometimes it feels like you gotta lit bit more accessibility. Maybe with a helicopter it's unfair 'cause you do take the doors off most of the time, and you've got all of this vision, but you do have to watch those rotors spinning.
Yeah, you do, and that's where a lot of people think about wide angle lenses, and they're there shooting, and you don't see the rotor going round and round, but your shutter speed at 1-2000 per second normally gets one if not two of them in the frame. Then again, cutting away film, maybe you can get rid of it. So it's not necessarily the end of the world.
And people think, you know, like a plane, turbulence, bouncing around, you know, so you're flying along and you're getting a bit of this. A helicopter, they don't feel like you're going to get so much turbulence, but the problem is, when a helicopter hovers, which a lot of people think is an advantage, when it hovers, it does vibrate a lot more, so when you're sitting there hovering, saying, I just want you to hold it there, you're dealing with a lot more vibration. With a plane, it's a little bit smoother because it's moving forward. So what happens is, with a helicopter, is you tend to want it to move a little bit anyway-
So you're not getting the advantage that you think you're getting.
Yeah, yeah, so it just needs a little bit of movement, I've been told by the pilots.
Yeah, so it can go slower. And the other thing with a chopper, of course it can crab crawl and do things like that a lot easier. A helicopter can go sideways and allow you to keep getting that shot, whereas a plane will go past it and you might have to come around again.
And it'll also allow you to get in closer to mountains, for instance-
Whereas a pilot, because a pilot has to have a long, fast trajectory, a helicopter can come in, up and down, just get you in to exactly the right spot, so it depends.
I don't shoot a lot of wildlife, but I've a little bit of, you know, crocodiles from high up, and sharks and things from above, and what'll happen is, if you, we were in a plane, a plane will have to come in and sort of pull out quite quickly, so you've got a small window of opportunity to capture the shot, whereas a helicopter can come in and just slowly move around it and give you a larger window of opportunity to capture those shots.
So, I guess the important thing, though, whether you're going to grab a plane, a helicopter, or a balloon, though, you're not gonna have any problems with a balloon, is just thinking about the glass, the windows, the doors, and the harnesses. So, these are practical things a lot of people will look at and say, well, I can get a joy flight for $49 over somewhere. Chances are, $49, there are going to be a whole of you in the helicopter, there may be no guarantee that you have a window, and if you do have a window, you're shooting through glass, and generally speaking, shooting through glass is not a good outcome. Why is that?
Well, it provides you've got all this expensive glasswork in your lens and suddenly you're going to put a plastic in front of it, Peter, and it's usually curved and it's inconsistent, often it's vibrating, you don't notice that. If you ever shoot through the window of a jet plane, you know, a passenger liner, you get this little, shoot a video through, you'll see it. So, why would you put a piece of perspex in front of all of that glass.
Or the reflections from behind coming through, bouncing on.
Reflections behind, you get diffraction of the outside light coming in, reflections, all sorts of things. So, yeah, you don't want anything in between. Just going back, I just wanted to point out, with the helicopter there, one of the other advantages of a helicopter is in transporting you to other locations, so it's not quite aerial photography. We were doing a project, which we wanted to be put on top of a range, and a plane would not have been allowed, not have been able to land anywhere near this location. So, we had about a 50 to 60 minute flight to this location, which was fantastic aerials on the way, but once we got there, the helicopter could find a spot, and it was quite rolling hills, and the top of the hills were quite a peak, but he could find a spot which didn't have too many trees, and he could put the helicopter down there. I mean, he was a good pilot, a Swiss rescue chopper pilot, but that was another advantage that we had with a helicopter. As well as getting the aerials in and out, we could be put in places that we wanted to get, which I know in mountain areas can be advantageous.
And then too, there's for landscape photography, generally, so it's an expensive way of getting there. But certainly it's from the air that we like to play.
So, when it comes to organizing a plane, say with a, you've looked at the design and it's satisfactory, we can talk to the pilots about taking the doors off or allowing us to have the windows up, they're not always interested in helping out photographers. My experience is that you need to find-
Work with someone who is happy to do it.
Yes, absolutely, 'cause they won't all do it. I mean, for instance, and this is a point that Pete and I maybe differ a little bit on. I feel more comfortable shooting from one side of the plane, so I need a pilot that's flexible. I know we're gonna talk about that in a minute. But if you don't have a pilot that you can actually connect with that actually appreciates what you're doing. I feel that you, it's like having a tripod where all the legs won't go where you want them to go. You need that connection, you need someone who appreciates what you're trying to do because they are becoming a part of your process. You know, they're not somebody who's standing, it's like a bus driver on a photo tour, takes you to a spot, once you get out of the bus, they're irrelevant, not irrelevant, but they're not going to be part of the process. When you're in an aerial shoot, when you're with a pilot of a helicopter or plane, they are part of the process.
I just know that in the past where I've hired a plane, you get there and you turn up, in the earlier parts, at any rate, and the pilot says I haven't got time to take the door off, or I've got a job after yours, and so I won't have time to put it back on, and that sort of stuff. There are a few little pins that can be a little bit finicky. Other pilots say, oh, a photographer, fantastic, love working with you guys, we'll get the doors off and all of that. And all I'm just saying is that before you agree to spend, whether it's $300 an hour or $1200 an hour, depending on where you are, make sure that you're going to get what you're paying for.
They need to know you're shooting photography. They need to know where you wanna go, at least roughly, 'cause there may be some areas they can't go. There'll be some areas that are restricted air space. So, what you don't want to do is plan to from here to there and there's a military base in between because you might put in a flight plan, you get close to the military air base, and they say, sorry, you can't come through today. You just blew your money 'cause it's too long to get around. Some places you can't get low enough. I wanted to come and photograph Sydney. I was over that side of Australia, we were coming past, we had a flight plan that would let us in, and on the day, we were getting to position, sorry, window's closed. So, you gotta be aware of these things, and you'll have certain pilots will say, look, I'm gonna see what I can do, and they'll have connections 'cause they love what you do and they wanna help you, and there's others that say, look, we can't do it.
So, we're gonna get ourselves into a chopper and hopefully we're going to be able to get the doors off or there's going to be a window where you can shoot through without glass. If you can't do that, is there anything that we can do to improve the situation?
Well, you mean if you have to shoot through glass?
If you've got no choice, or you've just got an opportunity which came up and there's a great photo.
Yeah, look, I mean even flying into Seattle, you know, sitting in a plane and you're looking out the window, and I looked at something and I thought wow, I just want to get that, so out with the phone, and you take a picture, and yes, it's on a phone and yes, there's glass, but you know that if the sun's coming in from a certain angle, you might wait till the plane turns, which is what I did because a light was coming in, so just being conscious of the light, conscious of reflection, conscious of how the lights in the cabin around you are going to effect what's coming back off the perspex in front of your lens, getting up close to it, shielding it, all these things will help.
And getting the lens in close, you know, if you've got a black jumper or something, even wrapping that around the lens so that there can't be any reflections coming from behind and hitting the glass and coming back in. Sometimes there's a little bit of color to the perspex or to the light or the glass. Generally that can be fixed up in post production. Sometimes you lose a little bit of contrast as well because you're shooting through glass or perspex that's not clean enough, again, a little bit of contrast can help you again. So, there are, if you can't get the window or the door off, still take the photos, for heaven's sake, but it's not optimum, and certainly the photos that we're showing you have all been taken either through an open window or with the door off.
It's more note-taking if I'm shooting in that situation, it's more note-taking for reference, for future, you know, but definitely, you gotta, and that's why, as you alluded to, get on the phone when you're ringing and ask the questions. Can we take the door off? Can we go here? I wanna go to this spot, I'd like to go at this time of day, is there gonna be any restrictions? Don't find out when you're in the air and he says, oh, we can't go there. Or she.
So, you talked a little bit before saying you preferred a seat on the left.
And I said I didn't really have a preference. No, I don't.
And so, seating positions, when you get into a balloon, it's probably no preference because everybody's on the outside and the balloon can turn around during flight and usually the really good stuff's happening over on the other side, anyway. It's just how we always feel.
It'll turn around for you, yeah.
But when it comes to a plane, there's often only one or two seats, maybe three or four. In the helicopter, there's often three seats, maybe five, depending. So we just wanna say that there are different options there, so we've got the front or the back, we've got the left or the right, forwards or backwards, in other words, are you looking forwards or backwards, 'cause on some of the bigger helicopters, it might have five seats, but two will be shooting backwards, and three will be shooting forwards. And then of course, what is your body shape like? Are you good at doing that? Are you better at doing that? Do you feel comfortable, you know, like this, because after shooting for an hour or two hours, you're in this position, I mean, already feeling it today, talking to Tony this way. I better move my back around, you know what I mean. These are things that are, you might think, ah, do I have to worry about that? Yeah, I reckon you do.
Yeah, well, I mean, I've come off a project early this year where I spent several weeks in a small plane, you know, on and off over a period of time, and one of the things you gotta do is find a position that you can work comfortably in. And for me, shooting this way is a lot more comfortable than trying to do that. Now, I'm still amazed that Pete doesn't feel a difference because for me, the right hand on most cameras, pretty much all cameras, is the trigger hand, right? So, when I put that hand up, this brings this elbow up, which brings this shoulder up. So when I turn that way, I feel like I got more restriction than when I can go that way, all right. So when I come this way, I feel like I can look further back. On the right side of a plane, for instance, that's gonna limit me. But interestingly enough, most pilots of small planes, well, pilots fly from the left seat, that is the flying seat, okay. And not all pilots have permission or are legally allowed, at least in Australia, to just switch seats at random. They actually need to be cleared to fly in the right seat. So for me, it's important to have a pilot that can fly right seat because they're the ones that'll sit there and they'll reach over to turn the plane on, but at least I feel comfortable to shoot. If I do this, I tend, maybe it's a crook shoulder, I don't know, whereas Peter, you said it didn't bother you as much.
Oh, look, I think, anatomically, you're probably right, 'cause I'm listening to you, and if you're going to turn, If you wanna shoot backwards, like you're facing forwards, but you wanna shoot backwards, I think it will be easier for you to go around like that and get the camera than it will be, because you're gonna be crunched in to get around there. So, I can agree with you from that point of view. I guess, though, that I, my experience hasn't been that I've missed shots that way because normally, if I'm sitting left or right, I am shooting forwards rather than back. Most of your stuff is going to be going that way, and I don't know, I guess I've just got a flexible back, it doesn't worry me at all. I've never worried about it. So when people are juggling to positions, I often sit back and say, I don't care. Then I'll show them the really good shot I got from the side that they chose not to be on afterwards. (laughing)
You know, and it does depend, some things, it comes down to lens choice. I shoot with a standard lens which is not going to take in everything we're looking at. So I want to have that flexibility to say, well there it is or I've just missed it, so I'm gonna get it as it goes past 'cause it's a better shot there. Whereas here if I miss it, I've missed it. I suppose that's kind of part of what drives me, but there's definitely a comfort factor for me, and that's something you need to be aware of. If you do a bit of flying, you'll start to understand what works for you, and front seat, back seat.
Well, interesting. So, let's talk about a helicopter, for this situation. So we've got a four seater, something like a Robinson, and the pilot's front right, interestingly enough, there's the front lift, which is really nice and shielded, there's the back lift, which is okay, and there's the back right which is okay if the pilot has his door off as well. But if you've got two doors off on the left and only one door off on the right then you have a Venturi effect, and certainly if the prevailing, I can remember doing a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef from the Hamilton island, and I think it was Holly, was sitting next to me on the helicopter, and she was up behind the pilot so, and I was on the left. And she just couldn't move 'cause the wind just came flying through. It was really uncomfortable, it was also cold, and you know, but putting your camera out there was just impossible. So, I think that that is a bad spot in a helicopter if the front, if the pilot has got the front door on, but if it's off, it's not such a problem, it's equal.
And again, this is why it's important to talk to the pilot, find out, do they do aerial? Are they familiar with it? Will they do this and will they do that? And we had that situation in Middlehurst, in New Zealand, where we ran a workshop, and we actually had a helicopter come in, land next to the house, it's all very, very exotic and crazy, and the pilot was cold 'cause we were up in the mountains and there was a bit of snow, it was winter. And we said, can you take the front door off? And he took the doors off, he left his on, and he said, oh, my hands will get cold. I said, we'd appreciate if you took it off because of the effect on the person that was sitting in the back, and he did, you know, it really was good. So, he put his gloves on and he put his jacket on.
He froze with us. We all froze together.
He said, that's fine. I don't mind, I don't mind. He said that's fine. You know what happens if my hands freeze on the stick. (laughs)
No, keep your hands warm. (laughs)
So, I guess that, apart from that, in terms of photo opportunities, I don't see any difference, 'cause you don't know what's going to happen. And certainly when we're taking guests up on a helicopter, we would say to the pilot, okay, go around from the right, turn around, now go around from the left, so that both sides get it. If you're paying the dollars and you are on your own, I would probably sit in the front next to the pilot.
Yeah, I think so 'cause you can see things coming. What you learn to do is to start to anticipate the shot even though you're not over the top of it. So you will learn to see where the light is. You'll see is the light low and is it picking up the texture across the ground, or the texture across the water? So if you've got a little bit of ripple you'll get that nice textural effect on the water. If it's early light and there's trees, you get those long shadows. And you'll look ahead and you'll see color, you'll see shape, you know where the light is. You can direct the pilot in rather than go in, look around a few times, okay, I need to be over there, you'll get to a point where you look at it and you go, right, the best place to shoot this from will be on that part of the arch, so as you come in, you'll say to the pilot, I want you to come in, stay wide, and then when I tell you now, bring it around, and hold that loose arch, tight arch, loose arch, tilt it over, tilt it down, depending what your subject matter is. That comes with experience.