Fireworks from above

Taking photos of fireworks from a helicopter at night is a very challenging, but rewarding photography experience.

My friend Kris Gourlay called me up on July 4th and invited me up in the air to test out a few new fireworks shot ideas he'd been playing with. Kris is a talented helicopter owner and pilot. He's always thinking of new ways to combine his love of flying with his knowledge of Hawaii's beautiful scenery. In addition to working with photographers, he operates various luxury helicopter experiences. Today, he wanted to check out some of the different firework shows across Oahu.

Photo: Andrew Agcaoili

Photo: Andrew Agcaoili

The fifth of July is my birthday. As a child I spent every fourth pretending the fireworks were ringing in my birthday. I don't get so excited about birthdays anymore, but watching fireworks from the air brought back those giddy childhood feels.

My boyfriend Andrew joined us for the adventure, and brought along some new lenses he wanted to try out. Her took this shot (above) of me while we were waiting to take off.

I did a little preliminary research, but "Firework Photography from a Helicopter" didn't bring up a lot. I knew that you normally shoot photos from a helicopter at a very hiiiiigh shutter speed, at least 1/500 of a second and up, because the levels of vibration are so high your photos will be blurry otherwise. I also knew that to capture fireworks you would typically use a tripod and a slooooooooow shutter speed, because it's so dark, plus longer exposures allow you to capture the light trails instead of the fireworks looking like little pins of light in the sky. So take a slow photo from a helicopter that requires fast photos..... 

The best night time aerial photos I found were achieved with expensive gyros for stabilization. Since I don't have one, I decided to bring a few options and figure it out in the air.

Sony - ISO 1600 - 55mm - f/1.8 - 1/200 sec

Sony - ISO 1600 - 55mm - f/1.8 - 1/200 sec

I brought a Canon 5D Mark III with a 16-35mm 2.8 and a 24-105 F4 with IS. I've read mixed reviews about if internal stabilization helps for aerial photography. I also brought a Sony A7rii with a 55mm 1.8, and my metabones adaptor. The nice thing about the 2nd edition of the Sony mirrorless is that the internal stabilization is built into the camera, so regardless of which lens you attach, you have IS. Since the Canon prime lenses don't have IS, you end up having to choose between stability or speed. With Sony, you can have your cake and eat it too. I only wish I had the SonyA7sii, as it handles low light and high ISO much better than the A7rii. 

Sony - ISO 2000 - 55mm - f/1.8 - 1/125 sec

Sony - ISO 2000 - 55mm - f/1.8 - 1/125 sec

Kailua fireworks began first at 8pm, so we headed out towards that side to start. As we passed Waikiki, we could see boats lining up for the show in the dusky evening glow. I quickly realized my F4 Canon lens was not going to be of any help, IS or not. It was already so dark I was struggling to get enough light with the 2.8 lens. I ended up shooting almost exclusively with the Sony and 55mm 1.8. I now know that in this situation prime lenses with a low f-stop are the only way to go.

Sony - ISO 1600 - 55mm - f/1.8 - 1/50 sec

Sony - ISO 1600 - 55mm - f/1.8 - 1/50 sec

As we made our way along the coast, I experimented with a few slower shutter speeds on the A7rii. Obviously they weren't tack sharp, but it wasn't as bad as I had expected. 

Sony - ISO 10,000 - 55mm - f/1.8 - 1/100

Sony - ISO 10,000 - 55mm - f/1.8 - 1/100

We arrived just in time for the start of the Kailua show, and picked a spot from the water behind the islands. Getting enough light to capture the islands in the foreground was especially tricky. It helped that we still had some dusk lighting. 

Sony - ISO 10,000 - 55mm - f/ 1.8 - 1/60 sec

Sony - ISO 10,000 - 55mm - f/ 1.8 - 1/60 sec

Once we got into position, Kris was able to hold the helicopter in place for enough time to fire off a few sharper shots. Everything was manual focus, since neither camera did particularly well at focusing while moving quickly at night, especially Sony. 

Canon 5dMkII - ISO 12,800 - 19mm - f/2.8 - 1/80 sec

Canon 5dMkII - ISO 12,800 - 19mm - f/2.8 - 1/80 sec

Canon 5dMkIII - ISO 12,800 - 35mm - f/3.2 - 1/80sec

Canon 5dMkIII - ISO 12,800 - 35mm - f/3.2 - 1/80sec

I wasn't able to get any photos that were bright enough to show the islands in the foreground with the Canon, but I did use it when we pulled around to check out Kailua with the city lights. While I had to use a higher ISO, and I think there's slightly more blur without the IS, the Canon handled slower shutter speed reasonably well.  It was also slightly harder to focus quickly while moving - the focus peaking on Sony really is nice for things like that. 

Canon 5dMkIII - ISO 12,800 - 35mm - f/2.8 - 1/40 sec

Canon 5dMkIII - ISO 12,800 - 35mm - f/2.8 - 1/40 sec

As we headed back from Kailua, we could see the fireworks starting in Waikiki, so we moved in for a closer view.

Sony - ISO 10,000 - 55mm - f/ 1.8 - 1/125

Sony - ISO 10,000 - 55mm - f/ 1.8 - 1/125

The view looking back with the city lights in the front was stunning, especially with the reflections of the city lights on the Ala Wai.

Sony - ISO 10,000 - 55mm - f/ 1.8 - 1/125

Sony - ISO 10,000 - 55mm - f/ 1.8 - 1/125

Unfortunately, air space can be kind of tricky at night. At this point, several airplanes were taking off in our area, so we were forced to land before the grand finale in Waikiki. We caught a few last glimmers as we descended back towards the airport. 

Sony - ISO 10,000 - 55mm - f/ 1.8 - 1/125

Sony - ISO 10,000 - 55mm - f/ 1.8 - 1/125

Overall, I was pretty happy with the results, given this was my first try. In the future, I would definitely stick with prime, low f-stop lenses, and perhaps a camera that handled high ISO better, like the Sony A7sII. Despite the challenges, I was happy with the results.

In the end, it was one of the best ways I've ever rung in a birthday, and pretty good fourth of July. :)

Have any tips for night aerial photography? Which camera do you prefer for low-light high ISO? Comment below and let me know your thoughts!