The last decade has been a turning point for the arm chair photographer. Once a fringe art practiced only by those who had the patience to deal with the intricacies of film, today, becoming a “photographer” is as simple as going to Best Buy and picking up an entry level DSLR. But even the newest, most feature packed camera will never take good pictures if you don’t have the slightest clue of what you’re doing. Taking good shots of model helicopters isn’t easy. Taking great shots is even harder. In this post I’ll try and lift the veil on the basics of what gear you need, some common mistakes to avoid, and most importantly, how to use that gear to it’s greatest potential.
Starting from the ground up
So you’ve decided to take the plunge into a high end DSLR system and finally take “real” pictures of your toys. There’s only one problem-that is, you have absolutely no idea which camera to buy!
At first glance the DSLR camera market can seem intimidating, and you’re right, but there are a few basic things you should look for and keep in mind when buying a camera:
1.) What do you intend to use your camera for outside helicopters?
Believe it or not, most of us photographers shoot things outside of helis. Landscapes, weddings, cat photos (who doesn’t take cat pictures?); all of which require some specific camera requirements.
2.) Do you ever intend to get into video production?
Most modern DSLRs now have the ability to shoot HD video, which ranges from stellar to not so stellar . You must remember though that DSLR video production is much more difficult than using a standard camcorder, and in many cases would probably be better suited to the task at hand.
3.) What is your budget?
This is probably going to be the largest factor in deciding which camera you’re going to buy. In the highly unlikely scenario that you’re a high ranking Wall Street executive, by all means, go out and pick up Canon’s newest pro body-just remember that the pictures you take, for all intents and purposes, will look exactly the same as the ones from an entry level DSLR. The most important point to remember is that new gear will not make you a better photographer.
With that being said, here are my top picks for seriously getting into photography. But before you buy anything, remember to go to a camera shop and feel it in person. See if it works for you.
1.) Canon 7d/Nikon d300s- Great compromise between price, performance, and versatility. ($1500)
2.) Canon 60d/Nikon d7000- Not as feature rich or well built as higher end offerings, but will last years and produce great images. (~$1000)
3.) Canon T3i/ Nikon d5100- I only recommend these if you don’t have intentions of seriously getting into photography. They’re small, dinky, and you’ll want to upgrade soon after buying them. ($800)
4.) Canon 5d- This would be my personal choice if I was starting again. Mind you this is the FIRST GENERATION 5d, not the new one. These can only be bought used, but they offer incredible full frame image coverage and are truly pro level cameras. If you can find one used, it’s a great camera, even being over six years old.
One thing I should note, though, is that the body you buy should be the least of your concerns. Image quality in digital cameras, for the most part, has not gotten significantly better in the past seven years. Most features on newly released bodies are gimmicks to get people to upgrade that will not make better pictures. What you should spend your money on is lenses. Better lenses do make better images. So let’s talk about that.
Ultimately what lens you purchase will have a lot to do with what you intend to photograph outside of helicopters. Planning to take a lot of family shots? You need a wide/general purpose lens. Want to shoot your son’s high school football game? Time for a fast, long lens. For this reason I will solely focus on lenses that work great for shooting helicopters.
70-200 f/2.8- This lens is the king of indoor/outdoor sports photography. When you watch a basketball game, this lens dominates the press pool. It offers a great zoom range to get in close to the action, and a fast aperture to blur the background. But that convenience comes at a cost. This pro lens will run you well over $2000, not to mention the fact that it is heavy and draws a lot of attention.
28-300 f/3.5-f/5.6- Only offered by Canon, this is the ultimate all in one lens. You can go wide to take a picture of your family on the holidays, and then zoom in tight for action shots. But with this comes weight, and of course, price. $2500
70-200 f/4- Again only offered by Canon, this lens packs a serious punch. It offers the same focal length of it’s more expensive brother but with a one stop slower aperture. It is universally known for being a very sharp lens out of the box and the quality is top notch. The price is reasonable to boot. $600
100-400 f/4.5-f/5.6- Great zoom range, good optics, decent price. $1500
If you don’t have huge piles of cash laying around or photography isn’t a priority of yours, these lenses may be your best bet. The images taken with these lenses will still be miles ahead of those taken with a point and shoot camera, but don’t expect pro quality results.
75-300mm f/4-5.6- Low quality optics, low quality build, but it’s dirt cheap. This lens will get you close to the action yielding very tight shots, but they will not be sharp.
55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS (EF-S mount)- This EF-S mount lens will only latch to Canon’s 1.6 crop factor bodies, i.e. their consumer bodies. It offers decent optics and a great zoom range. However, the variable aperture causes some issues when shooting wide open.
All these suggestions are for specific canon lenses, but remember that for all intents and purposes Nikon’s line up directly competes with Canon’s, so they produce very similar lenses in the same price ranges. Regardless of which system you plan to go with though, make sure to invest the most in lenses because at the end of the day, they are going to have the greatest influence on final image quality besides the person standing behind the camera.
Now if those past few paragraphs made absolutely no sense to you, I highly suggest you read these articles at The Digital Picture. They’ll give you all the information you need to make an informed decision, and most importantly, help you understand what you’re buying.
Helicopter Photography Basics
You’ve got the gear -bodies, lenses, and extra batteries- but now it’s time to put them to good use. After becoming somewhat acquainted with your new toy, it’s time to take it to the field and put it to use. Most people will go to their local flying field, set the camera on auto, and let it do all the work for them. This is fine but it will certainly not deliver great photos that you can brag about on the forums. In this section I’m going to outline a few basic mistakes camera noobs make when first starting out and how to shoot like a pro and what you can do to improve your images.
Helicopter orientation- One of the most common mistakes amateur helicopter photographers make when shooting is, to put it quite bluntly, taking boring pictures. No one really gives a damn about the bottom of a heli agains the blue sky. Photos like that are not compelling and people will skip right over them, like this image.
Shooting tight- Another common flaw in amateur photos is the fact that they are not shot tight. When writing this I mean that the subject is a disproportionately small element of the photo with a lot of empty space. A 1500 foot autorotation is a lot more interesting on video than it is in a still photo. This is a prime example of a shot that wasn’t worth taking because it is not tight enough.
Editing will never save a bad photo- Sometimes you get a shot that you know would be perfect if it wasn’t blurry. Well guess what. You cannot save an out of focus photo by sharpening in photoshop. If the detail is not there, it’s not there and there’s nothing you can do about it. At this point I’d show you an example, but as a good photographer, I’ve already deleted them all.
Composition- Composition is a very subjective aspect of images, as much as some people would like you to believe it is not. To put it simply, composition describes the placement of the elements in a photo. In terms of helicopter photography, this means the helicopter, the background, and possibly the pilot. A good composition is usually not centered, meaning that the subject is not 100% in the middle of the photo. You can learn more about composition by reading up on the rule of thirds. But when it comes to helicopters, just remember that since the subject is so boring to begin with, a good composition is necessary to create a compelling image like this one by Earl McCoy.
Another aspect that is crucial for a good shot is blade blur. The key to understanding how to get it to show up like in the photo above comes with understanding shutter speed, a conversation that would be too long to fully discuss in this article. But for the sake of time, you’ll need a shutter speed of 1/500 or less to get any blade blur in most cases.
Lighting- There is no easier way to produce bland, uninteresting photos than to shoot at midday. Afternoon sun is notoriously flat and creates harsh shadows. Shoot in the morning or at sunset to get the best photos that literally “pop”.
That just about covers it for this guide. This is the most basic information you need to get started with shooting helicopters. Just like rc helicopters, cameras are an addictive hobby that are not only incredibly complex, but a hell of a lot of fun. Here are a few links that can help you further your knowledge of cameras and photography in general.
Best camera forum- FredMiranda
Canon lens/camera reviews- The Digital Picture
Snarky, funny, mostly untrue camera blog- Ken Rockwell
Rent lenses and bodies before you buy them- Borrow Lenses
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