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Filming in HD from remote helicopters: <br class="br_visual" />an EOS adventure

Filming in HD from remote helicopters:
an EOS adventure

© Henning Sandström

October 2013

Henning Sandström is taking aerial cinematography to new heights thanks to a combination of purpose-built remote helicopters and Canon imaging technology. CPN writer Mark Alexander finds out how this young Swedish photographer has achieved these incredible 'flights of fancy'.

Henning Sandström has come a long way since he borrowed his dad’s film camera for a project at school. Today, big-name corporate companies queue up to commission the talented Swede who is developing something of a reputation for capturing remarkable visuals that offer a unique view on the world around us. By embracing the digital age, the possibilities of video and the freedom of flight, Sandström’s career has – quite literally – taken off.

© Henning Sandström

Please click on the play button in the window above to watch Henning Sandström’s stunning aerial film ‘ICEHOTEL’, filmed with the EOS 7D and EOS 5D Mark II DSLRs.

“I was excited that you could shoot digital and still have good images and a shallow depth-of-field,” he says, recalling his first encounter with a digital SLR. “That was the start for me.”

Today, Henning Sandström spends 80% of his time shooting video with a tendency to take the aerial route whenever possible. His camera of choice is the EOS 5D Mark II DSLR, which revolutionised professional video imaging when it was launched in 2008. Like many photographers, it was this camera that gave Sandström his first tantalising glimpse into shooting video with a DSLR body.

“Like everyone else, I was blown away by the camera when it came onto the market,” says Sandström excitedly. “I had been shooting video before that but not seriously and certainly not commercially. To be honest, I didn’t think it was within my reach to achieve the quality of images that we got from the EOS 5D Mark II.”

Flying high

His first documentary film delved into the world of sustainability. Five years later, he has just finished shooting a commercial for Scania trucks filmed at Stockholm Harbour using his now trademark remote control aerial wizardry.

© Henning Sandström

Before the octocopter came the ‘normal’ remote helicopter rig, seen here with an EOS 7D fitted underneath.

“I was driving somewhere and I remember wondering if it would be possible to fly a camera around on a helicopter,” says the 27-year-old. “I started researching it and found there were people already doing it, but most of the stuff was not so good, so I got really interested.”

In 2009 Sandström ordered a small helicopter and started experimenting with a compact camera. Despite some initial success and the buzz of taking his visuals to new heights, he soon discovered that investing in the right equipment would be crucial if he was to achieve the look that he was after. “The single-rotor helicopters are slightly tweaked hobbyist gear,” he says. “They might look high-tech, but they’re not. Today it is different because you have multi-rotor helicopters which are more suitable for smooth filming.”

Sandström now uses octo- and hexacopters that create greater stability and control. To complete the set-up, the filmmaker invested in a three-axis gyro-stabilised camera gimbal, which added yet more steadiness as well as the option to carry greater payloads. “For the first time we could start using longer lenses like the EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM,” he reveals. “That was the biggest benefit. Before we could only use wide-angle lenses.”


Balancing act

Before the introduction of the $12,000 (€8,800) rig, Sandström restricted much of his film work to the fast and ultra-wide EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens which offers a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture, making it perfect for low-light photography. It is also relatively light and the short focal range ensures only minimum rebalancing is needed on the gimbal. For those unacquainted with the complexities of film camera support, the gimbal’s three motors, which keep the camera perfectly still, are extremely sensitive to weight and its distribution. In fact, the unit is so responsive that changing the focal length on a lens can cause some instability issues.

© Henning Sandström

Not your average equipment! Henning Sandström and his remarkable octocopter with an EOS 7D fitted underneath.

“You have to balance everything,” Sandström explains. “Normally if you balance the gimbal for 28mm and then change the focal length, you have to rebalance the set-up. With the EF16-35mm you can change the focal length, but the balance doesn’t need to be changed that much. You might have to re-balance it a little bit, but not much compared to other lenses.”

Although Sandström limits his lens choice to the wide-angle EF16-35mm and the macro capabilities of the EF100mm, the intricacies of what he does means he often collaborates with fellow creative Mattias Andersson, who makes in-flight camera adjustments while Henning Sandström concentrates on piloting the helicopter.

In terms of recording his work, Sandström has relied throughout his career on the EOS 5D Mark II that provides full HD video in stunning 1080p. With its full-frame CMOS sensor, the groundbreaking camera became the benchmark for video production finding its way on to location shoots, film sets and television studios. For Henning Sandström, it was the perfect balance between image quality and manoeuvrability, although the EOS 5D Mark III is now on his radar...

“I am really happy with the camera’s image quality,” he explains. “It is also easy to work with because it is relatively small compared to other digital cinema cameras. That is really important. You can fly with bigger cameras, but the helicopter needs to be bigger which means it is tricky to transport, the flight times are shorter, you need two people to carry it and you can’t fly through woods as easily. Everything is harder. I like the EOS 5D Mark II and III because of the size and the image quality they produce.”

Tested techniques

To ensure that his videos meet the frame rate required for the PAL broadcast standard, Sandström shoots 25fps at 1920x1080 using Technicolor’s CineStyle profile. To give his videos greater depth, he often opts for an f-stop anywhere between f/9 and f/16, although, by focusing on infinity and ploughing for f/2.8, he is able to create a surreal, dream-like look. To finish off his videos his post-production software of choice is Adobe Premiere.

© Henning Sandström

Inside the remarkable ICEHOTEL with the remote control octocopter and an EOS 7D.

In the field, Sandström enjoys exploiting the 5D’s manoeuvrability by flying close to his subjects or spiralling skyward to look down upon the scene from a great height. For instance, he put his aeronautical skills to good use during the filming of a promotional video for the world’s largest ice hotel, which is located 200km inside the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. Braving the extremities during a year-long shoot, he produced an enchanting piece of work that begins with what appears to be a meandering walk through a wood next to the Torne River (from which the ice for the hotel is sourced). Passing trees in a dream-like glide, the viewers eventually finds themselves skimming over the fast-flowing river just before it freezes solid.

The control required to execute the shot and the precision of the resulting frames genuinely make you believe in human flight. The comments that link to the film on the social media site Vimeo give the video a resounding nod of approval from the video fraternity, although Henning Sandström remains sceptical...

“A lot of people liked it; that’s what I’ve heard,” he says, modestly. “It’s not often you get negative feedback, but people don’t say a lot if they don’t like something. If I get a lot positive reactions, people might think all the reactions are positive, but I don’t think that is the case.”

Judging from what Henning Sandström has already achieved in his career, he might find a lot more positive reactions coming his way, especially now that he’s looking at acquiring an EOS 5D Mark III.

Technical

Henning Sandström’s kitbag

Cameras:

EOS 5D Mark II
EOS 7D

Lenses:

EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Accessories:

Freefly Cinestar 8-rotor ‘octocopter’ and 6-rotor ‘hexacopter’
MoVI MR stabilised camera gimbal

Biografia: Henning Sandström

Henning Sandström

When Henning Sandström left school he knew he wanted to be a photographer and sought work, and a career, with local company Milling Production AB. Gaining experience in the competitive world of commercial photography, he has been there ever since and now heads up the company. More specifically, the 27-year-old Swede has carved out a niche for himself in aerial cinematography and now works with big brand names, including Coca Cola, Scania and Liquid Force, to produce stunning promotional videos and eye-catching TV commercials.