Novice photographer Steve Madgwick gets ‘flown in the deep end’, receiving a masterclass in aerial photography (in a helicopter with the doors taken off) from Grand Master photographer David Oliver. Here’s how he fared under the tutelage of the 20-year veteran attempting to capture the stunning Whitsundays Islands in a Volkswagen sized Robertson helicopter.

Why take the doors off a perfectly good helicopter?

David Oliver: The glass in a helicopter is thick acrylic, not pure glass, which tends to get scratches. So your view is not absolutely clear because of the scratches, the weather and, of course, the reflection. The great thing is that if you see something you really, really want to photograph, the pilot can slow down and circle around with nothing at all obstructing your view.

Conquering the fear of flying?

David Oliver: A lot of people I take up are worried about taking the doors off but these helicopters are made for it – and you’re strapped in anyway so you can’t fall out. We’ve had a lot of nervous people in the workshops, but I’ve never had anyone refuse to fly. We once took up an 82-year-old lady who’d only flown once in her life, and that was the flight to Hamilton Island just before she went up. She insisted we had to fly with her – strange, because we’re not pilots. She said it was the most amazing experience of her life.

Steve The Novice: I won’t lie, my palms were sweaty and my pulse was raised, more excitement than sheer terror I think. Luckily, the Whitsundays laid on a tranquil sunny day. Initially I felt uneasy sitting in a small cockpit, which seemed about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle inside, exposed to the elements with three others. However, the entire flight was just so smooth and stable, from the elevator-like take-off to the banked turns, so my confidence never wavered. Cross-winds did make it a bit noisy, even with headphones on. It never felt like we were going ‘fast’ either.

What photography skills do you need to get ‘that shot’?

David Oliver: It helps if you’ve done a course if you want to get your exposures and compositions right. It’s best to use a DSLR with something like a 24-120mm lens – 24 for ‘wide’ landscapes, the 120 (or similar) for zoomed details of stunning patterns in the Whitsundays’ sea, sand and coral. Using a point-and-shoot camera that doesn’t have interchangeable lenses might be a little disappointing, to go up with an iPhone probably even more disappointing.

The million dollar question: which settings are best up there?

David: You could use a quality DLSR, rely on ‘automatic’, and end up getting great pictures. But to take it to the next level, you have to have an understanding of aperture and shutter speed. The aperture is usually very important, because it decides your ‘depth of field’, but it isn’t as important as shutter speed in aerial photography. Because in a helicopter you are looking down a single plain into one depth of field (as opposed to at ground level where you have a background, midground and foreground). Because of the thud, thud, thud vibration of a helicopter you have to have a very fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur (camera shake). This may require you to bump ISO in lower light (not a factor problem on sunny days Whitsundays).

Steve The Novice: I used a brand-new Nikon D810 DSLR (on loan*) with a 24 to 70mm lens. On David’s advice, I set the camera to ‘aperture priority’ mode – manually set aperture, in this case on 8, and the camera ‘works out the optimum’ shutter speed, which ended up being ultra fast (around 1/2000 of a second). Single auto focus (recommended) worked well when there was contrast in a shot, but often the camera would not focus on low-contrast scenes, for example of open water. When the camera was ‘hunting’ (for focus), I would half depress the shutter, try to pick out some contrast, a boat or an island, and then pan back to my subject. Mental note: leanr more about infinity points and manual focus.

What not to do

David Oliver: Hold the camera just in front of your eye and really make sure you have a great look around away from the viewfinder- and enjoy the flight! I’ve known people who have gone up and had their eyes focused exclusively through the camera for the whole flight [one person in our group took more than 700 shots in the 30-minute flight]. I look around for an interesting composition with my eye and, then, bang the camera comes up to my eye and I shoot. Also, just because parts of the helicopter obscure the shot, don’t let this stop you taking the picture. You mightn’t get the chance to get the shot again and you can crop the picture in Photoshop (or similar).

Happy with the photos…

Steve The Novice: I took around 80 photos, of which I thought 10 were good, 50 were okay and 20 were badly framed, out of focus or simply rubbish. I regret not speaking up more and asking our pilot to circle around some sections of reef when I “missed the shot” or the subject was on the other side of the helicopter. The aquas and the blues of The Whitsundays are relatively easy to capture, but in a lot of my shots the green forest on the islands below turned out too dark, almost black, in contrast. I have plenty to learn in terms of exposure, composition, focusing and post-production. Hey, there’s always next time. Absolutely exhilarating experience!

Handy heli-hints

  • Pick the right lens. You definitely don’t want to be changing them while you’re up there.
  • Wear warm clothing, even if it is a hot day at sea level. Can be chilly up there.
  • Empty your pockets: change, phones – especially if the pocket is ‘air-side’.
  • Don’t stick any part of you or your camera out of the cabin into the ‘slipstream’– the rushing air could dislocate a shoulder or your pricey DLSR could go skydiving without a parachute.
  • Remove your lens hood: Seemingly harmless camera accessories can become dangerous projectiles, particularly if they end up going through the helicopter’s tale rotor – the pilot will make sure you don’t forget this!


More information

Costs: $780/helicopter for half an hour flight with Hamilton Island Air

David, a Nikon ambassador, hosted Steve on I Am Your Escape photography workshop, which coincided with the launch of Nikon’s newest DLSR, the D810 (see My Nikon Life, for more information). To see more on David’s photography visit