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Shooting a Helicopter Search and Rescue Mission Team

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What You'll Be Creating

I had the opportunity to work with my local Search and Rescue and creating a promo for their Helicopter Rescue Team. In this walkthrough, I'll show you everything that went into creating their promo.

The full length promo premiered at a fundraiser event, but you can watch the 30 second TV ad I created for this project. The Rescue Team has a lot of GoPro footage from real rescues, but nothing attention grabbing. The goal was to recreate a rescue and capture it in a stunning, cinematic way.

Flight Preparation

Knowing everything you are going to shoot, and the most efficient way to shoot it is a must. During portrait sessions, product shots, and even weddings, there is latitude to experiment.

We were doing air-to-air shots, that meant two helicopters in the air at a time, costing thousands an hour. There was no time for adding unexpected takes to the shot list. It may seem like I'm going overboard with my preparations, but considering the cost and dangers involved, it can't be understated.

After sketching out a storyboard for our shots, we settled on 33 different shots we needed at the end of the day, divided into 10 different sequences. For any video production, shooting sequentially is nearly impossible for logistics.

I categorized each shot by where the camera placement had to be. We had three different camera positions: the large helicopter with the lift as seen in the video (Sno-Hawk 10), the small two-man helicopter for air-to-air shots (Sno-Hawk 1), and on the ground at the rescue site.

Google Maps photo of our rescue site on Mt. Pilchuck near Seattle. The "X" marks the rescue drop point. Sno-Hawk 10 approaches the drop point while being filmed from Sno-Hawk 1. I had 19 of these maps, one for each aerial shot on our list.
Fig. 2.2: Google Maps photo of our rescue site on Mt. Pilchuck near Seattle. X marks the rescue drop point. Sno-Hawk 10 approaches drop point while being filmed from Sno-Hawk 1. I have 19 of these maps, one for each aerial shot on our list.

All of the shots were organized to get the easiest flow for the day. First, I would go up in Sno-Hawk 1, capture the approach of Sno-Hawk 10 and circle while they do an up and down on the lift. Sno-Hawk 1 would then drop me off at the rescue site and head back to base, and Sno-Hawk 10 would repeat the rescue for the ground shots. Finally, I would get picked up by Sno-Hawk 10, getting the shots we need from inside on the way back. 

In addition to everyone on the Rescue Team in the video, we had a second camera operator for the ground shots and a script supervisor to make sure we were getting what we needed with each flight pass.

Recommended Gear

If you were shooting on the ground, then you can use anything you want. But when you have to get into a helicopter, choosing your gear carefully becomes very important. Everything you decide to pack takes up space and fuel. If you are shooting photos, here's a sample of what your bag looks like.

  • Canon 5D Mark III (x2)
  • High capacity memory cards to minimize card switching (32GB)
  • Extra batteries due to their shorter life in cold conditions)
  • 17-40mm
  • 70-200mm
  • 5-in-1 Reflector (used for actor close ups)
  • Warm clothes! Even in warm weather, wind chill can get you.


Ground view of the rig on Sno-Hawk 1.

Since I was doing video work, I had a few extra bits of equipment. I chose to stabilize my camera using a Merlin Steadicam. This system allows me to be flexible, quick, and it reduces vibration. The camera is attached to my body using the vest and arm (underneath safety harness), and I can jump off and get shooting the next location.

The only downside I experienced was if the arm sticks out the side door, the wind from the rotors sends it into a spinning frenzy. It took a minute to find the perfect balance between not holding it, letting the steadicam reduce vibration for me, and giving a firm grip to counteract rotorwash. 

There are other options as well. Going bigger, you can get a seat mounted gimbal. The advantage is you get flawlessly smooth footage at increased focal lengths. However, it took up a seat in a two man craft, was more expensive, less mobile, and would require more time, setting up, tearing down, and on set. If you're shooting for National Geographic or BBC then that makes sense, otherwise it seemed like overkill.

Going smaller, you can attach your camera to bungee cords and suspend it in the open door. This is cheap, easy, and maneuverable, but you need good ways to attach the bungees securely both to the camera and the helicopter doors. This setup is also a bit touchier than the steadicam, and the pilot has a bigger part to play in getting the shots you need. With the steadicam, I was able to hang out the side door (while securely clipped in) and have a lot of maneuverability.

If you are shooting photos and not video, then you can simply go handheld if you choose. You just want to make sure your camera is securely attached to you.

Since I had a steadicam, I shot everything with the 17-40mm on that. The second camera had the 70-200mm. Why have two cameras? You want to minimize switching lenses as much as possible. Not only is there a lot of wind and dust, but when you switch lenses, they are no longer secured. You want everything attached to you, and in the long run it is safer and cheaper to rent a second camera body.

Other Considerations

Once my gear was ready, I had to prep my camera. I removed my lens hoods. In addition to being flimsy plastic that could come off and become dangerous, it is also a giant sail on the end of your lens that catches wind from the rotorwash, making it harder for you get a steady shot.

Whether you are doing photos or video, you want to make sure you have a sharp image. First thing to do is make sure you have a high enough shutter speed. When shooting from the air, there are a lot of vibrations. Shooting around 1/1000 - 1/1600 sec will eliminate that and give you sharp images.

If you are looking for a more artistic effect, consider lowering your shutter speed. Not every shot you take will turn out, but a few will, and those few will have blurred rotors showing speed and motion.

Normally when you are in bright sunlight, you want to make your ISO as low as possible. When you are shooting from the air, raise your ISO to 400-800. This lets you get those fast shutter speeds as well as good depth of field.

There is almost no reason to shoot with shallow depth of fields from the air. Everything is so far away, you don't get the advantage of foreground elements or out of focus backgrounds. There are a lot of moving parts when you are shooting air-to-air, so shooting at a more narrow aperture also gives you some safety room.

Safety First!

Most of what is in this article is a guideline, but here's the one section that should be chiseled in stone. Safety always comes first. You do everything you can to prepare, but it's all for nothing if you violate any of the safety rules.

  • Listen to everything the pilot says. In the sky, their word is law.
  • Never walk around the rear of the helicopter.
  • Call ahead to shoot with the doors off.
  • Have a harness and always have 3 points of contact.
  • Never leave anything loose in the helicopter. Camera gear, water, phones, etc. should all be stored safely.
  • Unless it's 100 degrees out, dress warm. Wind chill is very real at high altitudes.
  • It is easiest if you are on the same side as the pilot. They see what you see and this makes communication easier.
  • If you have a second person with you, shoot out the same side of the helicopter.

Day of the Shoot

The morning of the shoot, the team assembled in the hangar. The camera gear was checked, safety equipment was checked and double checked, then we went over the flight plan. I went through all 26 of the 33 shots that were aerial with both pilots. They were kind enough to lend me toy helicopters so I demonstrate visually and look a bit silly.

We ironed out all the maneuvers and passes so we could minimize confusion in the air. We also get a safety check from each pilot for all the passes I wanted them to do.

Once we got into the air, I had a bit of time to practice handling the rotorwash. If you are doing just photos, a high ISO and fast shutter speed will do most of the work for you, but it will still take some getting used to dealing with the extra wind.

If you are doing video and choose to run a steadicam, then the trick is to keep your fingers firmly on it just on one side. If you man-handle it too much, then it negates the use of the steadicam. If your touch is light like you are used to on the ground, then it will spin out of control. A few minutes practicing was sufficient.

A landscape I made on the way to the rescue site.
Our chosen rescue site from the ground.
Our rescue site was treacherous enough to make for good video. Hikers do actually get injured there. It was also open enough to safely maneuver two helicopters in the area. We could not land, but we could load and unload people and gear doing a low hover.
Image from Sno-Hawk 1 during the first rescue pass.

Things to keep in mind when you are shooting.

  • Shooting in manual will save you. Shadows from the rotor blades, flare from the sun, and reflections can affect your cameras meter.
  • Check the back of your camera to check and make sure you are getting what you want from your camera settings. Use the histogram if sun glare is keeping you from seeing the LCD.
  • Once you know you are getting usable exposures, don't chimp the LCD. There isn't time for it. For the approach, they initially approached (pass 1), circled back around (pass 2), then it was on to the rescue drop. It moves fast to not only conserve time, but also fuel.
  • Helicopters rarely stay still. They are usually moving a little unless the pilot is actively keeping you in place. Drifting is ok because it gives you different angles.
  • When you've drifted too far and have to turn back around, don't spend too much time looking at the camera. The shot you want could be at the beginning of your approach and disappear in a blink.
  • Click off several shots in a row. A single photo could be blurry or have unfortunate rotor placement. I'm not usually in the "machine gun it" camp, but having a series to choose from later is useful.
  • If you are doing video, try to adhere to the old rule "you don't have it until you have it twice."

Both helicopters unloaded the film crew and rescue teams, then headed back to base. Sno-Hawk 1 (the two-man "chase" vehicle) was done for the day, and Sno-Hawk 10 needed to empty out and refuel so it could pick us all back up when we were done. We had one hour to get the story telling elements we needed for the rescue scene.

When Sno-Hawk 10 came back to pick us up, we were done shooting whether we had everything or not. To be able to finish in such a tight time crunch, we had to sacrifice the golden rule of film "you don't have it until you have it twice." Having a camera op, a script supervisor, an assistant holding the reflector, and sticking to the original shotlist, we actually finished with a few minutes to spare.

When the crew came back for pickup, they staged one last rescue, giving us angles on the ground. Having two camera operators is incredibly useful in situations that have to get done in one take. We chose to have one person shooting wide, and one shooting tight. 

Since were both on the same page with the storyboards, each camera operater knew what needed to be covered during the rescue from what angle. For the sake of storytelling, knowing what needs to happen in the field and what can be recreated at base on the landing strip is invaluable.

Take a look at this three shot sequence (taken from the longer feature).

In quick succession this sequence tells the story we need. Shot #3 is the only shot in this sequence that needed to happen in the field. The other two could be faked back at base. Shot #1 could be done on the ground, and shot #2 could be done in a low hover. Add in a few close ups of the medics and rescue techs looking over our victim on the landing pad and you get a full rescue story.

Combining Both Photo and Video

Whether your plan is to shoot primarily photos or video, you should plan to do at least a bit of both. Photographers can get short clips that put any slideshow presentation you do above and beyond the competition. 

If you are focusing on photos, then you don't need to have a lot of videos, just one or two really good ones to put together a fusion piece that stands out. You can even pull stills from video files that still be used for both print and web. Videographers should likewise consider shooting photos.

There is one huge advantage that photos have over videos is metadata. Photos go much deeper into camera settings, allowing you correctly match white balances across your videos, and even remember what aperture and shutter speed you had used. I make a habit of shooting one photo of anything when I change camera settings or see the light change, making my post production work go much smoother.

High Flying Thrills

Thanks for coming along with me on this helicopter search and rescue shoot. It's not everyday that we get to shoot such an exciting subject.

I was once told by a veteran commercial photography that the job is 90-10. He said that  90% of the shoots he did were pretty boring and standard, but 10% were so cool that they made the career worth doing. He'd then look you straight in the eyes and ask, "what doing think the percentages are for an accountant?"

If you have any aerial tips you've picked up from your shoots, I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

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