Now that video and filmmaking drones have reached maximum popularity, one might wonder why anyone would need to use a helicopter for aerial shots. In this video, we put both to the test.

Nowadays, most filmmakers are either considering purchasing or already own a drone. It’s become a no-brainer. They’re now very affordable, and their functionality has exceeded all expectations in just a few short years.

However, let’s not forget how filmmakers captured aerial shots before drones became so popular. Helicopters. So which is the best way to get aerial shots: drones or helicopters?

Watch the video below for our take on the matter.

To settle this issue, we decided to rent a helicopter (and a pilot!) and compare the results with similar drone shots. We were in the helicopter for about two hours, flying between Fort Worth and Dallas and covering quite a range of different landmarks and skylines. It was a lot of fun.

For this test, we wanted to keep everything as budget-friendly as possible. So, while the best and most professional way to get helicopter shots is to mount a huge gimbal to the outside of the helicopter and fly a much larger cinema-style camera, we opted for a simple Sony A7III and a Ronin-S gimbal.

Drones vs. Helicopters: Which Is Better for Professional Aerial Footage? — Camera Setup

While drones are truly amazing pieces of equipment, they have some significant limitations — and in my estimation, helicopters overcome almost all of those limitations. However, helicopters have a couple of limitations of their own.


Low-Light Capabilities

Drones vs. Helicopters: Which Is Better for Professional Aerial Footage? — Low-Light
Fort Worth at Night from a helicopter.

A common limitation of most drones is poor low-light performance. With each new model, this seems to get a little bit better, but even the best drones still introduce a good amount of noise as the sun starts to go down.

The big appeal of getting aerial shots with a helicopter is that you can use the camera of your choice. So, low-light capability is based on your camera of choice, not the built-in camera on a drone. This was one of the aspects I was most excited about in the helicopter — I wanted to get those nicely exposed shots of the city lights down below. The helicopter and the A7III definitely delivered.

Drones vs. Helicopters: Which Is Better for Professional Aerial Footage? — Low-Light Limitations

With the sun almost entirely gone, I got plenty of low-light shots of the horizon and city skylines. I was able to get shots that you could never get with a drone. (At least, not until we get another couple of iterations of drone technology.)


Flight Time

Drones vs. Helicopters: Which Is Better for Professional Aerial Footage? — Flight Time

Another limitation of drones (though completely understandable) is their limited flight time. Currently, I believe the longest flight time available is the near-30-minute flight of the DJI Mavic Pro 2. The batteries aren’t necessarily prohibitively expensive, but they’re close. At around $150 a pop, each drone operator will probably only own a few. Regardless, you still have to always keep an eye on battery life, and you’ll find yourself landing quite often just for some peace of mind.

Obviously, helicopters can fly for much longer than that. As such, you can cover a lot more ground. In one flight, we went from a wooded rural area to Fort Worth and then to Arlington, around downtown Dallas, and back to Fort Worth. I was gathering different shots the whole time, and in one flight I was able to capture about 20 minutes of usable footage.


Rules and Regulations

Drones vs. Helicopters: Which Is Better for Professional Aerial Footage? — Rules and Regulations

I think my biggest issue with drones is that I’m always way too nervous to fly them anywhere. There are so many rules and regulations about them now, and a lot of those rules will be found pretty deep in some FAA regulations — not to mention, each city or area may have different rules.

For one, you have to get clearance from each airport if you intend to fly within five miles of it. There are many more airports and helipads around than you might think. For me, personally, this pretty much rules out ever flying near any city and most towns. I’m sure I could do the research and contact the right people, but that’s just not how my mind works. I’m a cinematographer, not a producer (nor a lawyer, for that matter). So I just get too frustrated with the red tape.

Drones vs. Helicopters: Which Is Better for Professional Aerial Footage? — Skylines

So, naturally, it was really refreshing having such unfettered access to these aerial shots of the various city skylines. At one point, the pilot even landed us on a helipad right near Reunion Tower, giving us a great lower-level shot of the city.

We were flying over highways and lakes, even sports stadiums, without fear of legal retribution. All of it was a lot of fun, and I was really happy with the footage that I captured.

Drones vs. Helicopters: Which Is Better for Professional Aerial Footage? — Verdict

So, which is better? Drones or helicopters.

I definitely think that going up in the helicopter was one of the best experiences of my filmmaking career. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m thankful for the opportunity.

At times, the wind in the helicopter was more than the gimbal could handle, and I had to put warp stabilizer on some of the footage. If I were to do it again, I would have also picked a different lens — probably something a bit sharper and with some zoom to it. I went with a couple of primes (a 50 and an 85), but I would have had a bit more flexibility with a 24-70 or something like that.

If you have the means, I definitely think getting some helicopter shots is worth it for bigger-budget projects, but it’s important to consider that one flight like this can cost about as much as just buying a drone.

Regardless, this is an amazing time for aerial shots, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.


Interested in the tracks we used in this video?


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