As Always, Photo Composition is Key
Post writen by Ryan P. Gutz, Commercial Helicopter Pilot for Rotorzen Helicopters, Inc.

Riding in a helicopter in a hover or moving 30-40 mph can make it
tough to concentrate on composition
. The noise, the height, vibration, and wearing a headset can all create a very unfamiliar environment for the photographer. Tuning out the distractions and concentrating on getting the image takes practice
Below, are some common issues associated with aerial

1)     Horizon.  It’s easy to forget about leveling the camera. Wide shots highlight the problem. It’s a quick fix in any photo editing software, but getting it right inthe original image is best.  In ahelicopter, you are sitting, legs forward, while twisting your upper body 90 degrees and it’s easy to tilt the camera without noticing.  


-Constantly check both main
subject composition and a level horizon as you shoot.
-If you have a grid-pattern available in your view
finder, and it helps you, then use it.

Soldier Field Stadium, Chicago, Illinois. In back ground: The Shedd Aquarium, The Museum of Natural History, Grant Park and Downtown Chicago
2)     Lateral composition.
Each of the photos below can all be acceptable, but are all very different.  The perspective changes rapidly in a helicopter traveling at 30-40 miles per hour. These images were taken in the span of about 10 seconds. Flight doesn’t allow for as precise composition as on the ground.  Even in a hover, a helicopter that seems to be stationary is often drifting at the equivalent of a brisk walk.  


-Have a clear idea of the exact image you want to create and ask your pilot to
fly slow or hover in the area of interest.

-Don’t try to too hard to get the ”perfect”shot while in the air, but instead, shoot many frames.  Each frame will be slightly different and the finer details can only be analyzed afterward, while editing

St. Ignatius, Chicago, Illinois
St. Ignatius, Chicago, Illinois
St. Ignatius, Chicago Illinois
3)     Altitude.
This is often a new element for photographers entering the realm of aerial photography.  Similar to lateral composition, 50 to 100 ft higher or lower drastically changes an image.  As you compose your shot, look carefully at the position of the buildings and their relation to each other.  Also, check the horizon with relation to buildings.  A lower altitude brings the horizon to the middle part of buildings and can help to highlight the tops of buildings against a neutral sky. When shooting from a higher altitude, down onto buildings, the tops can sometimes be lost in the clutter on the ground.


-Communicate with your pilot. Trial and error applies here.  Several passes may be required at different altitudes to get correct

Just an altitude change of 100' can change perspective:
The United Center, Chicago, Illinois- Approximately 600' above ground level
The United Center, Chicago, Illinois- Approximately 700' Above Ground Level
Experience is critical. Both you, as the photographer, and your pilot need to work as one to a achieve success.  Remember, the photographer hits the shutter release, but your pilot is helping compose the shot.  Fly with an experienced pilot and especially one familiar with the area you want to shoot. I hope these tips will assist you.  Please feel free to comment. 

Photos taken by Ryan P. Gutz
Ryan is a photography hobbyist as well as a commercial helicopter pilot

Camera: Nikon D5000, 18-70mm 3.5-4.5

The good news for customers of helicopter services in the Chicago area is that there isn’t a bad helicopter operator in this area.

As much as I’d like to say, “Rotor Zen is the best!”  I have to admit that it’s my own subjective opinion.  All the helicopter operators in our area are pretty good!

So what should you look for when purchasing a helicopter tour, Helicopter ride, or helicopter services? 

Here are my suggestions for customers:

• Are you dealing with the operator or just a reseller?  It’s always more efficient and cost effective to deal with the helicopter operator directly.  There are many broker companies that sell helicopter services but don’t own a single helicopter. Often these companies mark up the price.  Buy directly from the commercial helicopter operator if possible.  This is really important for the purpose of planning if your plans are unique or you have a lot of questions.

Read the Helicopter company reviews but keep them in perspective.  Reviews can be found on Facebook, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other sources.  Remember that even good companies sometimes get a bad review. 

• Consider the location of your helicopter tour or service provider.  You can save time and money by using a helicopter company that is near your desired location.

• Make sure that the helicopter is available when you want to fly

If you’re planning a special occasion, tell the company!  Many helicopter companies can assist you with wedding proposals, wedding plans, and other special events!  

The good news is that all the helicopter companies in the Chicago area have highly skilled and professional pilots with comfortable, well maintained helicopters.  In the end, what makes a good experience is the availability of the helicopter and the convenience of the location.  



    Eric Rudzinski is a Commercial Pilot and FAA Certified Flight Instructor.


    September 2013