Creating aerial photographs that our clients would like to use is a large aspect of our business. And because we don’t always know what the images will finally be used for, we shoot with the highest resolution HDSLR cameras by Canon. But sometimes, we stumble across an aerial filming helicopter with a camera system so stable, so powerful, that we just have to tell everyone about it.
Keeping the camera stable in aerial photography is one of the principal considerations of aerial photographers. A helicopter may look utterly stable from the outside, but air pockets, winds and turbulence, coupled with vibration, all combine to make it a challenging environment for cameras. My Canon EOS system has always been man enough for the task and a combination of EOS IS stabilised lenses, plus 1D series bodies gives my clients great results over the years. But this week, we were outgunned.
My friend Alex has long been part of the Police Air Support Unit, giving up his Volvo traffic car a few years ago for the observer’s position in a Eurocopter EC135. This week, I called in for a strong cup of crew room tea and to take a closer look at the stabilised camera systems he uses in his day to day job. The inner geek in me compelled me to find out more about the contents of that matte black ball you see under the nose whenever it’s overhead.
With ground power plugged in, the systems were powered up and the cameras stirred into life. The system is the FLIR Star Safire HD, as used in the Boeing Apache to great effect in combat. Controlled by what looks like an oversized, industrial strength Play Station controller, it even retains the triggers for weapons… The power of the camera system, with a combination of full HD and infra red imaging cannot be described. With 1.4x and 2x teleconverters coupled to software that is able to fix onto a location and maintain that view, regardless of the helicopters manuevering, it gives the crew a ‘stand off’ capability to observe activities from several miles away in close detail.
For me, the power of the system isn’t just in the cameras, but in the way the aircraft has been built from the ground up as a complete solution. This isn’t just a helicopter with powerful cameras, it’s a fully integrated system that can take mapping information from a variety of sources, from aviation maps, Ordnance Survey and even council street plans, then use that to locate criminals or vulnerable people on the ground. The volume of information available to the crew is massive and it will doubtless take a skilled operator to drill down through the data and pick out the vital information. Ten minutes sitting on the ground, picking out airport staff walking about and the white hot heat of Boeing 737 engines on ground tests was a fascinating exercise.The basics quickly become intuitive, but it takes experience, especially in infra red mode, to pick out information.
So, just how do you spot that man lost in the open countryside, or that drug dealer hiding in a wheelie bin? Says Alex, “You’re not actually looking for people, you’re looking for anomalies. Your experience tells you what the picture of normality should be, you’re looking for something that just doesn’t seem right.” Such as the heat signature of a man hiding in an alley beneath a tarpaulin just a few feet from ground Police, or the elderly diabetic man who inexplicably wandered off into a 15 foot high crop of Maize and then passed out. Just two of the short videos we looked at in the crew room.
Many people question the sheer cost of these assets, with many benefits being difficult to quantify on a spreadsheet. “When I was a traffic officer, a chase could last 20 minutes or more. Today, they’re around five minutes, because thieves know that once we’re airborne, the clock is ticking. That makes everything far safer for bystanders. Being able to direct ground based Police into a position where someone is surrounded, or being able to save the life of someone lost in open, dark countryside isn’t something you can enter into a spreadsheet. But how much was that elderly man’s life worth?” Alex and the crew make a very good point.
Professional photographers always invest in the best equipment for the job in hand. We work our cameras hard to make them earn their keep and indeed, for my aerial photography clients, the Canon EOS system has proved a great system. I can’t help but think that I’ll need more than a cashflow forecast and spreadsheet before my bank will spring for one of these things any time soon. For now, I’ll stick to Canon’s IS lenses and a Robinson with the door removed.