A Lot In A Little

June 24, 2020  •  1 Comment

When you are "burning dinosaur bones," as Chris Cornell put it, efficiency is important. The direct operating costs of a Robinson R22 helicopter might run $150-200/hour, while small turbine-powered helos can cost five times that amount. So, if you put up a good-size twin-engine turbine, like the Sikorsky S-76C++ you see in the following images, and a Eurocopter AS350 to carry the photographer, there's some real money being spent on beating the air. That photographer had better make good use of those burnt bones.*

The goal, as always, is to make eye-catching imagery that is maximally useful, making, also, the most of the time aloft.

There's a lot to see, so let's see how that photographer did. (Spoiler: The photographer was me, and I did a great job.) I'll touch on aesthetics and technique both, depending on the image. (Second Spoiler: The images get bolder the further you read.)

This first image, above, doesn't really grab a viewer, even if capturing the aircraft against that shadowed area certainly allows it to stand out. We appear to be in a wilderness area of no real grandeur, so why shoot and show this one?. To illustrate that I was just warming up, getting the focus dialed in and the exposure set, ready for this next shot.

We more than literally flew past the Hollywood Sign — it came and went in a mere 15 seconds, during which I shot 9 frames at 4 different zoom settings — so I made the first shot to prepare for what was going to be a short window. Then, no time to celebrate, but on to other locations, other backgrounds, other opportunities!

Not an iconic background like the Hollywood Sign, but indicative of an urban area, framing a beauty shot of the aircraft. There's actually a lot going on in this photo that keeps our attention on the aircraft. The S-76 is in direct sunlight, so is very bright. That direct sun, a setting sun actually, also means the aircraft is "warm," while most of each building and all of the streets are illuminated by the blue sky, so "cool." And notice how the background is soft, not crisply focused? I normally keep my ISO setting (the sensitivity of my camera's sensor) as low as practicable so I can keep the aperture of the lens (the size of the hole through which the light passes) large. That large aperture means less of the scene, from near to far, is in focus. Here, the helicopter is and the background isn't.

In focus.

Bright versus dark, warm versus cool, in-focus versus not — the aircraft fairly pops out of the frame.

This image is much like the previous one — bright/dim, warm/cool, in/out-of-focus. The warm/cool thing is even more stark, though the in/out-of-focus is less pronounced because I left the camera's shutter open for a bit longer to capture more rotor blur (not that the previous shot was lacking in that regard). A slower shutter means a smaller aperture, and that means more is in focus, near to far. (Especially viewed smaller, as we do in this article, the background might appear in focus, but it's not.)

Something that further differentiates this second pair of images? They are in the vertical, also called portrait, orientation, compared to the horizontal/landscape orientation of the first pair. Each orientation lends itself to particular applications, and I point this out to emphasize the value of capturing images in both orientations during a shoot, unless you have zero need for one or the other. As an example, look at this next image, made 14 seconds after the preceding one.

I've left plenty of space around the aircraft, too, which might be useful in an ad or brochure, where text or inset graphics could find a home, or just to emphasize the environment in which the aircraft operates.

And if you like having space around the aircraft, you might love this next composition as it stretches out to the horizon where the setting sun is illuminating the haze, lowering the contrast and delivering an atmospheric look, while the aircraft flies nearby, bold and un-hazy. I expect there's a graphic designer looking at this right now and thinking, "ooh, I could put a great-looking headline right across that bare space!"

Of course, including all that background means the aircraft appears small, which might limit the utility of the shot if it seems there is too much not-aircraft in the photo for a particular application. Well, by capturing these images with a high-pixel-count camera, hefty cropping is possible while still retaining print-quality resolution. The following image is an 11 x 8.5-inch crop of the above, and the aircraft still more-than-fills the frame. Yay, pixels!

An additional point to make about the images I've shown so far: they are all from the right side of the aircraft. If the photographer's aircraft allows only access to shoot from one side, it's possible the images will be restricted to seeing the target from one side. Such was not the case on this mission, and I switched from left to right sides of my platform throughout the flight.

Here's one from the left side of the S-76, which shows even starker bright/dim and warm/cool contrasts; and thank goodness — if those buildings had also been lighted by the sun, the aircraft would have been fighting for visual dominance against their angles and facets.

Vertical/portrait orientations are a challenge when showing a helicopter from the side, since they are physically long objects. Still, you should try to capture such arrangements in case they are needed to show off the profile of the aircraft while also fitting, graphically, onto something like a full-page magazine ad or the cover of a report.

I'd had enough of the city, so we headed to the ocean with the Sikorsky leading the way. By this time, the sun was fast approaching the horizon, so the lighting keeps changing. There is still a bit of direct sun on a few buildings, while most are in shade, and it appears the sky is no longer blue overhead, so the light in the shadows has warmed up. We still have good contrast in brightness levels and sharpness, which keeps the aircraft definitely the focus of our attention — and get a load of the reflection of the horizon in the glass!

When we made the beach, our first destination was the Santa Monica Pier. There's no denying the pier is one stop in our visual appreciation of this composition, but by giving the aircraft and the pier each their own space in the image, we can enjoy them both without the former clashing on top of the latter.

We leave the pier behind and I capture a simple portrait of the aircraft against an energetic yet non-distracting background as we head northwest along the coast.

Back to the other side of my, and the target, aircraft, taking full advantage of that gorgeous sunset for both its lighting and for catching another reflection of that horizon. It appears, too, that the sky overhead has again gone blue. If we were pointed northwest a moment ago, and are now pointed southeast, we will again discover…

…the Santa Monica Pier. But this time, we maneuver around to its southern face and the entire scene is backlit, de-emphasizing the colors of the pier and the aircraft, letting the ocean, mountains, and sky take the front seat, color-wise. There are so many elements, yet we are not confused about the subject, despite it not occupying even one-tenth of the image area. Notice that our attention flits from aircraft to pier, then up to run along those indigo mountains to the left edge of the frame, then back to the aircraft, the pier, and finally back to the aircraft. Always back to the aircraft.

My aircraft skirts around to the shoreward side of the Sikorsky, putting that aircraft against nothing but ocean, in blue, contrasting with that gorgeous orange/yellow sky. I can't recall if I timed the shot to grab one with the red strobe flashing on, but sometimes I make that effort as it can really help with these otherwise backlighted compositions, bringing some extra "life" to the aircraft. Sometimes you just get lucky. Whichever it was, effort or luck, I'll take it!

We return to the city, but have one more stop to make before heading for home. This image is not that stop, but it grabbed my attention, what with the violet lighting on the background, left over from the deepening sky.

And this isn't it, either, but shows I've moved back to the other side of my aircraft, is a vertical shot showing high-rise buildings to really communicate "city," and that city is much less in focus than the aircraft, though we are again hampered in seeing that difference at this small size.

We were closing the gap between us and positioning the two aircraft for the final shot, but still I was watchful for interesting compositions and caught this one as it floated by.

So, where is that final destination? The last place we want to see? The coup de grâce? Why, it's the 405!


It might sound kinda funny that a mere road, the 405 Freeway, was our final destination, but we had in mind a truly stunning image with traffic on that road: Legendary traffic heading north from Los Angeles after sunset and, by gum, that's what we put together.**

It's not an easy shot, either. Hovering helicopters are not pinned to a point in the sky, immovable in the air. They are constantly shifting left and right, up and down, by usually small increments, which can help or hurt the pursuit of a composition. Still, thanks to the skill of the pilots in both aircraft, I was able to capture just the shot we had in mind. And in case you thought I might have forgotten…

…I shot it in landscape orientation, too.


In these 20 images (Really? 20? Yes.) we saw the aircraft large and small in the frame, the frame oriented tall and wide, the lighting direct and indirect, the backgrounds detailed and important or not. In other words, these 20 images provide a broad range of choices to show off an aircraft and its operations. And choice means having the right tools to communicate effectively. If a customer saw two images — one on the web and a totally different image in a brochure — they might not even suspect they were shot in the same 50-minute flight.

Wait! Did I just say the flight was only 50 minutes?

Yes, though I admit that's not the full story. From the first photo, above, to the last, only 38 minutes had transpired. The other few minutes were occupied in transiting from the Van Nuys Airport to the first shot, and from the last shot back to the airport.


When setting up an air-to-air shoot, make the most of everything at your disposal. Plan for the right time of day — very early or very late work well not only because the main light source is low in the sky, better revealing the dimensionality of the subject, but the light is usually less harsh, more colorful, and more changeable, as the sun rises or sets. Plan for a variety of locations or backgrounds, and approach them from different directions. Shoot a variety of compositions, not always filling the frame with the aircraft, and shoot in both vertical/portrait and horizontal/landscape orientations.

And, by the way, shoot a lot. I mean, a lot! These 20 were selected from nearly 900 frames I captured in those 38 minutes. If I had been shooting on 24-exposure rolls of 35 mm film, that would have been one roll through the camera every minute!

They say time is money, but when aircraft are running, it is truly money that is money. Make that money worth the most it can be.

A big "thank you" to Helinet Aviation in Van Nuys, California, for the very productive flying.

* I know that direct operating costs for helicopters comprise much more than just the fuel burn, but it's not as poetic to say, "when you are burning fuel, consuming oil, deteriorating seals, stressing rotors, eroding compressor blades, insuring machines and people, and just plain ol' spinning up the Hobbs meter," compared to "burning dinosaur bones." I recalled that line from a song, but couldn't remember who sang it. So, I checked around and discovered it was written by Chris Cornell of, at the time, Soundgarden, one of the leading "grunge" bands, though he was not referring to helicopter operations. As an added humorous note, I was actually familiar with the song as performed by Johnny Cash. Who knew Cash did grunge?

** You can see this image on the cover of the 2nd Quarter 2020 issue of ROTOR, the magazine of Helicopter Association International, by following this link. In addition to the photos populating that story, there are 11 more pages of content by yours truly!


Anthony Harrington - Editorial Director Business Aviation Magazine(non-registered)
Great article, enjoyed every line and every shot, really helped to explain the art of air to air shooting. Great stuff!
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