Originally published in N Photo magazine.
Funny the things you think about when cruising 1200 feet high over the Great Barrier Reef in a helicopter with no door. Am I strapped in properly? Did the pilot remember to fill up the petrol tank? More importantly, did I bring those spare batteries and cards? Hanging out of a helicopter may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but I love it as it gets me out of my comfort zone as a landscape photographer and enables me to obtain a different perspective.
Unless you have a drone (and they’re being restricted more and more), sometimes it’s the only way to achieve views like these so taking to the skies was the perfect solution. The Great Barrier Reef is greater in size than the UK, Holland and Switzerland combined so knowing precisely where to go is essential. I had my sights on the heart-shaped coral reef oddly enough called Heart Reef that has become a popular tourist attraction.
Take to the skies
I’ve shot from helicopters and planes before, so I know how important preparation is. The last thing you want to do is waste time changing lenses, as the hourly rate for a helicopter is the price of an international flight. I like to use the Nikkor 24-70mm lens as it gives me the flexibility to shoot wide enough without including parts of the helicopter and also zoom in for closer compositions.
A polarising filter is essential to remove the reflections from the surface of the water and let the true saturated colours show through. Screw on filters work best, but when I compared my Tiffen screw on filter with the Lee landscape polariser, the Lee filter had the edge for quality. Not ideal though, as it fits on the outside of the holder that has a quick release and you don’t want to release anything at this height…
Finally, and most importantly, is the shutter speed. It has to be fast enough to obtain sharp images over the vibration of the helicopter so I used a shutter speed of 1/1,250 second. There isn’t any need for depth of field so a wide-open aperture or a couple of stops down is fine. The main thing is to maintain a fast enough shutter speed to combat the immense vibration. It is possible to reduce the vibration of the helicopter momentarily by asking the pilot to slow the rotors, but you do run the risk of falling out of the sky if done too much! Everything was going very well in this case, we had just finished shooting over the reef 82 kilometres out from the coast; the colours and patterns were stunning.
My heart skipped a beat and all I could do was watch it disappear out the door down to the deep blue coral sea.
As we were heading to photograph what has been voted the most beautiful beach in the world, Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island, I accidentally knocked the quick release on the Lee holder. My heart skipped a beat and all I could do was watch it disappear out the door down to the deep blue coral sea. I have never accidently hit the release, but wouldn’t you know it when I’m a quarter of a mile in the sky, it decides to go in for a swim. Lee has now brought out a new holder with a lock so luckily this can’t happen again.
My first thought, after several expletives obviously, was how to shoot Whitehaven Beach without my Lee Polariser. Luckily I brought the Tiffen polariser as a backup. Preparation is all so important to capture the best image not only with equipment, but also with other factors, such as tides.
After explaining my photo needs to the pilot, he determined that we needed to be there at mid tide in order to get the shapes in the estuary. If the tide is too high it’s all water and no shapes, too low and its mostly sand.
I was able to make a variety of images in one circuit around the estuary showing wide views and more abstract detailed views. It was an experience that will always be engrained in my memory, for so many reasons.
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