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Helicopter Aerial Photography

Ever since the first rotary winged aircraft began flying, the use of the helicopter for aerial photography has been clear. The ability to fly at low speed, or even come to a hover, to frame the perfect shot is a desirable skill. However, helicopters are not without their problems when used for photography. No matter how expensive or modern a helicopter may be, there is one issue that is not compatible with taking high quality aerial imagery; vibration. The nature of a helicopters transmission system will always lead to airframe vibration, an issue that had to be solved if high quality aerial photography was to be viable.

There were two main solutions to this issue. The first, and cheapest, was to use camera lenses with inn-built image stabilisation. This solution was suitable for low speed and hover photography, for example in aerial photography of houses and buildings. However, when wide angle and high speed photography was required a more robust solution was required. Externally mounted cameras were the solution. Mounting the camera in an external, vibration damped, rotating and panning mount produced a vibration free image suitable for high quality aerial photography. It also solved the second major issue with helicopter aerial photography, stabilisation. Unless the helicopter is in a perfectly stable hover, the image will move with every pitch and roll of the aircraft. In order to solve this problem the external mounts took an input from a gyroscope (a very accurate pitch, roll and yaw measuring instrument) that produced a “gyro-stabilised” image. The result was aerial imagery that remained in focus and stabilised regardless of the movement of the aircraft. This technology has been taken one step further in airborne police photography where the camera mount can automatically track and keep a vehicle in the centre of the image, regardless of the movement of the helicopter.

Helicopters are now used extensively for both television/movie filming and static aerial photography. With the ability to stay airborne for up to 4 hours, fly at low level or high altitude and provide high definition stabilised images, the helicopter has become the workhorse of the aerial photography industry. The art of helicopter aerial imagery is communication between the pilot and the cameraman. Constant dialogue between the two ensures that the aircraft is always in the right position in relation to the area being filmed and the sun, and that minimal time is wasted repositioning the aircraft.

Many helicopter charter companies have realised the revenue potential from aerial photography and invested heavily in high definition camera pods that can be easily fitted to and removed from their aircraft. This allows a single helicopter to be easily used for both commercial charter work and aerial photography, a much valued revenue multiplier. So, next time you watch the opening scenes to shows like the BBC’s “Coast”, you’ll know how those stunning high definition aerial images where obtained; from the ever versatile helicopter.