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Methods - Helium

8m Helium Photography Balloon Unit

Methods of Aerial Photography - Helium Filled Craft

There are only a very commercial 'Lighter-Than-Air' (LTA) photography systems in the UK. They virtually all use helium as the sole method of lifting professional cameras into the sky, although there is some experimentation with the use of hydrogen again, its cost being the main advantage over helium. Some are tethered to the ground by various means and others are un-tethered and powered by remote controlled engines. Helium filled balloons (and some airships) are well established methods and are used by certain professional aerial photographers because they can be controlled and positioned to achieve the desired results. This is in direct contrast to hot air balloons which fly only in the direction of the wind and are not generally used in commissioned professional aerial photography. The exceptions are 'balloon to balloon' photography or when the prevailing wind direction during a flight coincides with the target location to be photographed.

Today (2010), the deployment of large aerostats (17-70m long) in forward positions in conflict zones (eg Afghanistan) is considered of critical benefit for aerial surveillance. They are an ideal method of elevating optical and infrared cameras, radar for military surveillance and also for communication systems for use over extended periods and over large areas of terrain.

(Kite Aerial Photography [KAP] is another viable method of lifting cameras into the sky, albeit a method very reliant on good weather and wind conditions, but as there are so few professional KAP operators in the UK this method is not covered on this web site as a commercial photography alternative to LTA and other methods such as UAVs).

TETHERED BALLOONS (ALSO CALLED AEROSTATS OR BLIMPS):

ADVANTAGES: Able to operate at lower altitudes than fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, especially in cities and other built-up areas. Classified as an 'aircraft' by the Civil Aviation Authority, tethered helium-filled balloons are allowed to fly in urban environments where other aircraft are unable to operate. Helium balloons are able to place the camera in fairly specific positions to take close-up shots or those with unusual perspectives. Balloons can lift and maintain the camera at measured heights (using calibrated tether lines, laser range-finders and GPS) for extended periods to take a series of photographs covering 360 degrees. A common application of balloon photography is when property developers require images of the views from different floor levels before the building is constructed so that they can be placed in the floor plans in marketing brochures and web sites. (For accurately capturing 360 images from specific locations, balloons have now largely been superseded by the latest generation of UAVs which have sufficient payloads to carry DSLR cameras and are more controllable in locations where there is restricted space to operate from). Helping Town Planners see the roof height of proposed towers are common uses of balloon photography, as seen in the example below where 2 balloons will be marking the heights of proposed tower blocks on a construction site.

                         

When mobile balloon systems are used to move around in open terrain, many different photographs with different perspectives are able to be taken during an assignment. A unique advantage over other methods is that helium balloons are silent in flight allowing photography in environmentally sensitive areas and where there is livestock.

DISADVANTAGES: Balloons need good weather conditions with low wind. CAA permission is needed for flights above 60 metres or in/near restricted airspace, which may take several weeks to obtain. Urgent work, however, can occasionaly be approved more quickly. Operating height is limited by a number of factors including proximity of hazards, especially in urban areas (tall buildings, cranes and power lines etc), wind conditions and length of tether cable. This method, however, may be chosen for its ability to fly at low levels for sustained periods, so long as there is ample space around it for the balloon to be blown off the vertical axis, as it nearly always is). There are only a few helium balloon operators in the UK, due to the highly specialised and expensive equipment required.

HEIGHT RANGE: For standard photography, up to approx 170 metres (500 feet), dependent on length of tether cable and size of balloon. (The examples below shows the advantage of a low perspective).

Balloon Height     


UN-TETHERED, REMOTE CONTROLLED AIRSHIPS (ALSO CALLED BLIMPS):

ADVANTAGES: As with balloons, airships are able to operate at lower altitudes than fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, especially in cities and other built-up areas. Some small airships are used in conference halls and other indoor arenas for promotional purposes (see Aerial Advertising section). Helium-filled airships are allowed to fly in urban environments where most other aircraft are unable to operate. Airships are able to place the camera in specific positions to take close-up shots or those with unusual perspectives, but are still subject to CAA regulations and weather conditions. Airships can lift and maintain the camera at measured heights for extended periods to take a series of photographs covering 360 degrees. In open terrain, many photographs can be taken from different perspectives while balloon is being remotely manoeuvred around and therefore are able to take many different photographs from varied locations during an assignment.

DISADVANTAGES: Airships, like balloons, need good weather conditions with low wind. Airships for photography are less common than tethered helium balloons and there are only one or two helium airship operators in the UK, due to the highly specialised and expensive equipment required.

HEIGHT RANGE: For photography, up to approx 300 metres (1,000 feet), dependent on the capability of the remote control equipment and size of the airship.

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