PHOTO CREDIT: © Jason Lam
Jason Lam has flown his Skyshutter Aericam (shown here) over Yankee Stadium, Coney Island, and the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco to capture some stunning aerial visuals.

Up in the Air: Shooting with an RC Helicopter Vs. Shooting with The Real Thing


AUGUST 02, 2010

By Dan Havlik

I'm in a helicopter with aerial photographer Vincent Laforet and we're hovering in the swirling winds some 1,500 feet over New York City's Central Park. There's no door on my side of the twin-engine copter, giving Laforet an unobstructed view to shoot the city. He's strapped in with a harness, sitting on the edge of the helicopter with his feet resting on the skids below. I'm in front, wearing a seatbelt that looks like it came out of a TWA flight in the 1970s. Every time I turn around to take a picture, the belt over my shoulder loosens slightly. Yes, it's a little unnerving.

"There's nothing like shooting from a real helicopter," Laforet says later and he's right.

Laforet's communication with his pilot, Mike Kwas and his assistant, Mike Isler, is like an improvisational dance between three partners who know each other well. "Back up 30 feet, Kwas. To the left just a bit. OK, perfect. I'm ready for the tilt-shift," Laforet says over the headphones as the frenetic squawk of air traffic controllers in the background alert us to the status of other aircraft in the area.

Unnerving, perhaps, but also an amazing way to capture the city as few others have seen it. But it doesn't come cheap. Our flight, which lasts just over an hour, will cost approximately $2,000. There are less expensive helicopter rental companies, with some charging as little as $600 per hour, but Laforet considers them unsafe and limiting since they use single-turbine helicopters that can't offer the same reliability or lift.

  • In the copter we're flying in, a Eurocopter AS355 TwinStar, if one engine goes out, there's another that can carry us back. But again, this level of performance comes at a price. Laforet estimates that all the time he's spent shooting from helicopters—including extensive work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—translates roughly to over $250,000 of airtime.

 Those costs may sound daunting to some photographers, which is why many are now exploring an aerial alternative: shooting from radio-controlled, or RC, helicopters. Once the domain of model airplane enthusiasts and rocketry club geeks, the RC helicopter is now being used by photographers and videographers as a low-cost alternative to renting an actual helicopter.

Along with being seemingly less expensive, RC helicopters can provide low-altitude still or video footage unlike anything you can get from a real helicopter.

"It's more close range and it's less obtrusive since you don't get the downwash you have from a larger helicopter," says photographer Jason Lam, who owns the New York-based Aericam company which manufactures and sells RC helicopters.

Lam is quick to point out however that it's not an "apples to apples" comparison. "We can fly in places where helicopters can't and they can fly in places where we can't," he notes.

Unlike a traditional helicopter which is a highly visible, highly regulated aircraft, smaller RC helicopters tend to fly below the radar. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which monitors both large manned helicopters and small RC helicopters or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), has had an uneasy relationship with the miniature remote-controlled aircraft.

FAA regulations in 2006 made it illegal to fly any RC aircraft for commercial purposes. Those regulations have since been changed, allowing an RC pilot to get certified by the FAA. Some photographers have complained that the FAA's certification process is unclear and expensive. Few, out of fear of government retribution, want to go on record with their complaints.

Because of the stealthy nature of RC helicopters, enforcement of the FAA restrictions is rare. Lam sees self-regulation as a better way to go. "You need liability insurance and good judgment," he says.

Lam adds that an RC helicopter should only be flown by an experienced pilot over non-populated areas. "The best shots are over water, forests or grass or in a controlled area where everyone is aware of the helicopter. They shouldn't be used guerilla-style over crowds."

Lam's helicopter, called the SkyShutter Aericam, sells for $10,000 assembled or $9,000 as a kit. Weighing 30 pounds, the SkyShutter offers a 7-pound payload, which allows it to carry a DSLR as big as the HD-capable Nikon D3s or Canon 1D Mark IV. He's also creating a smaller copter with a 2.5-pound payload—big enough for a Canon Rebel T2i—which he'll sell for around $5,000.

 If you don't want to buy an RC helicopter and spend hours learning how to fly (and, inevitably, crash) it, you can hire an expert to pilot one for you. That's what Laforet himself did for a video shoot last year of pro surfer Jamie O'Brien. The pilot he hired was Tabb Firchau, who runs the Seattle-based Freefly Cinema company.

Firchau flies German-manufactured Minicopter Jokers and says learning how to pilot these copters is no joke.

"I probably spent $30,000 in my first year crashing them," he laughs. "And that was just the model ones that didn't even have a camera attached."

After over a year of flying them every day, Firchau finally got the nerve to attach a camera to his copter and eventually became adept at guiding it through tight, low-altitude turns to create stunning visuals. He also flies full-size helicopters but says he prefers the miniature versions.

"On the days we shoot from a remote helicopter I'm more excited because there are a lot more angles you can shoot from. I like going after shots you've never seen before. It's difficult to get something unique from a full-size helicopter because people have been shooting from them for years."

(To see a reel of Firchau's work shooting with an RC helicopter, visit his FreeFly Cinema site by clicking here.)

With the help of a downlink from the helicopter, the pilot and photographer can monitor the aerial HD footage from a monitor on the ground. They can also live broadcast the HD footage to TV directly from the helicopter.

Firchau says flying an RC helicopter is actually more difficult than flying a real helicopter because they're less stable and your orientation is always changing depending on which direction the copter is flying. "My thing is: safety first. We have a perfect safety record but these helicopters are extremely dangerous. "

Ron Chapple, president of Aerial Filmworks, which uses gyro-stabilized Cineflex HD camera systems in helicopters to shoot video, and a Hasselblad H3D-39 and Canon 5D to shoot stills, thinks there's room in the air for both types of copters.

"There are certain applications where shooting stills and video from an RC helicopter are the optimum solution—for example, when there's a confined area, or a lower budget project, or where the noise and rotor wash of a real helicopter could affect the outcome," Chapple says. "As an aerial photographer/cinematographer, I'm pleased when clients want to use aerials, regardless of the platform. Fixed wing airplanes, hot air balloons and airships all have their place as well."

Chapple also stressed a "safety first" policy. "Whether an RC or a real helicopter, safeguards need to be taken. The activity is not inherently dangerous but those blades rotate incredibly fast. Bystanders have been killed by RC helicopters, and real helicopter accidents, while rare, do happen. No shot is worth a life."

 Where RC helicopters may have a leg up on their larger counterparts is for photojournalism in dangerous situations. Much like unmanned predator drones puttering over battlefields, RCs can be sent to environments where it might be too risky to send a real helicopter.

Former Getty editor Anthony Jacobs, who runs perspectiveAerials, hand-launched a radio-controlled helicopter of his own making off the back of a boat in the Gulf of Mexico in June and captured incredible 360-degree images of the devastating oil spill.

Jacobs shot his footage with a Canon 5D Mark II attached to a camera mount on the bottom of the copter. He has plans to add "GPS and altitude hold" capability to the next version of his helicopter, which uses four propellers to increase stability and mobility.

"Imagine the craft with a 5D Mark II mounted underneath, autonomously holding its position at altitude, allowing the operator to actually compose shots and the camera's tilt/pan position without actually 'flying' the craft, all while looking down at a wireless video feed showing what's seen through the 5Ds lens in real-time," Jacobs says. "This will definitely blow a lot of folks' minds."

One person's mind who has already been blown by Jacobs' device is Andrew Boyd, the online desk photo editor for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Boyd interviewed Jacobs on his blog, The Discerning Photographer.

"I think it's fascinating," Boyd says. "I can see a lot of applications for Anthony's helicopter that we could do locally, particularly for places you might not be able to normally get a camera."

He adds that getting access to the oil spill has been something of a nightmare for photographers because of the federally imposed 3000-foot ceiling over the Gulf. "From 3,000 feet up, things look pretty small," he says.

Boyd was able to get around the restriction by shooting from a government helicopter that didn't have to adhere to the rule. New restrictions were piling up though, including a recent Coast Guard rule requiring boats to stay 60 feet away from any boom material in a marsh.

"If that's really the rule, you won't be able to go out and photograph oiled pelicans and a lot of these compelling images we've seen could probably not be shot."

Unless, of course, someone was able to fly an RC helicopter in there.


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