It’s no secret that photographing New York City is always a good idea. But have you thought about capturing the skyline from above in a helicopter? I totally recommend doing this bucket list item at least once in your life! As someone who hates rollercoasters and has a fear of heights, surprisingly, I always feel calm riding in an open-door helicopter above the concrete jungle. As an NYC-based photographer, I get some of my favorite photos from these tours. I’ve gone up a few times, and every flight is an adrenaline-packed experience. You can choose to do either a closed-door or open-door flight. Which option do you think I do?
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Going on a helicopter ride is not cheap, and doing multiple flights a year can really add up. If you’re doing this only one time ever, all the more reason to go up during a special occasion that’s worth your while. Golden hour, sunrise, or sunset any time of the year are the best times to go up because of the warm and colorful light coming from the sun. Summer obviously is the warmest time to go, with spring and autumn getting pretty chilly up there. There’s no point to mention winter unless you’re a psychopath.
Dates such as September 11 and July 4 are big events that are incredible experiences to see from above. These are usually the helicopter companies’ busy seasons though so they might charge extra. I went up to photograph the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and it was totally worth it!
Always layer up, even during the summer! I forget the science, but higher up in the atmosphere is always colder. Wear a windbreaker with a hood, and then a hoodie or sweater underneath. During spring and autumn add an extra layer with a down jacket. I’ve never gone in the winter and never plan to. If you do, godspeed. One of my photographer friends went up during the winter, and while the ground was already freezing, the air was 7 degrees. No thanks. Catch me staying warm beneath my covers. If you have long hair, covering it with your hoodie also helps to keep your hair out of your face. Even tied back, the wind can really whip your hair into your eyes and camera.
Have your camera on a strap so it’s attached to you. For open-door excursions, the helicopter companies won’t let you on if there’s anything that can accidentally drop out. They should have a locker that you can leave your stuff in, but I prefer to leave my stuff in the glove box of my car.
No need to have a phone holder. The helicopter companies have them to loan out. If you do an open-door flight brace yourself for the wind and have fun!
When it comes to what camera gear to bring aboard a helicopter to photograph New York City, I’m on the “less is more” train. I keep it pretty simple by only using one body and a zoom lens because it’s already difficult for me to maneuver. Fiddling around with two cameras on the ground is already a hassle, let alone in the air. If you feel comfortable using two cameras, make sure you attach them to a harness or cross-body strap!
If I go up when there’s enough light, then I’ll use my Sony a6400 + Sony E 16-55mm, f/2.8 lens. APS-C has an advantage in situations like this because the 1.5x Sony crop factor makes the subject more zoomed in. My 16-55mm lens actually gets me to 24-82.5mm.
For night flights though, having a bigger camera sensor for lowlight takes priority so I’ll use my full-frame Sony a7iii + Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8 because I want to avoid bumping the ISO too high. If you have a lens that opens wider than f/2.8 use that! Doesn’t matter if it’s a prime lens or not, your pictures will be better off.
Shutter speed is the most important factor since the helicopter is moving quickly, and literally, every second is a photo opportunity! Having a fast writing memory card really comes in clutch so it’s imperative to use one of those in a high-speed situation like this. You don’t want to miss an opportunity because you just used burst mode and now you have to wait while the data is being written onto the card. I use Lexar Professional memory card.
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In a fast-action situation such as photographing New York City from a helicopter, being familiar with the technical aspects of your camera is crucial. The light is constantly changing, and the helicopter is always moving in one direction or another. With open doors, the added element of the wind can break your moment if you don’t steady yourself.
These are some recommended starting camera settings, but don’t take them to heart. The only way you’re going to know which settings work for you is to be familiar with your hardware and have fast fingers when the time comes (That’s what she said for any Michael Scott fans out there).
Photographing in low light or at night is already challenging enough, but doing it from a moving vehicle in the middle of the air and wind pushing you is next level.
Most of the helicopter companies that I’m aware of tend to be located on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. This is most likely because a lot of the surrounding area is industrial and more spacious. Always read the fine print and make sure to show up an hour before flight time because of all the safety procedures that they need to go over with you.
FYI these companies usually run a promo with heavily discounted prices (40-50%) many times a year. If you’re able to wait for them, they typically run during the national holidays and some other random times, buy then. One of my life mottos is never paying full price if possible, and that applies to experiences too!.
Located in Kearny, NJ, FlyNyon is probably the most well-known helicopter company. They do a lot of influencer marketing and their facility is pretty snazzy. If logistics is an issue, they also offer a round trip shuttle service between NYC and their facility for an additional fee. The thing I’m not a fan of is how short FlyNyon’s flights are. They’re only 15 minutes long and if you don’t buy at a discounted rate it’s about $359 +tax.
If you’ve passed by the east side of lower Manhattan by South Street Seaport, chances are you have passed by the helicopters run by HeliNY. They are a convenient option if you’re based in New York City, and just want the ability to experience a flight. I haven’t flown with them so I can’t talk to any experience, but a quick look at their website seems like they have some standard tours between 15-30 minutes.
Located in Linden, NJ, Heliflights is my preferred helicopter company to fly with when photographing New York City. Their facility is pretty bare-bones, and they only provide one seat belt like in a car. With FlyNyon as my first experience and all the safety measures they have in place, I was like “OMFG” when I realized. That being said, when I fly with them their flights are an hour, and at the end of the day, I’m paying to be in the air. Disclaimer: I get a discount on price and time.
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