Helicopter Aerial Photography

Helicopter Photography - Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii

There are certain photos that you are only going to capture from an aircraft (and drones are unable and unpermitted to fly everywhere). The helicopter is an extremely flexible aircraft platform to shoot from, and fresh off of a helicopter photography charter on the Na Pali Coast of Kauai, Hawaii, I'll share some helicopter photography tips with you.

After deciding that you need to be in the air, you need to select who is going to take you up. Which helicopter charter or tour company are you going to use? While some locales have little selection in who you fly with, while others, such as Kauai, HI, hold an assortment of options.

To narrow down my selection, I was asking several questions. A priority question was: What type of window seat can be guaranteed? For photography, you want a window seat, bBut not all "window seat"s are created equally.

If you fly with a general helicopter sight-seeing tour, you may not end up with a window seat — even if you have been told that you will have one. When boarding, the operator may instead use body weights to place clients in the helicopter — for a balanced load. Even if you get a guaranteed window seat flight, you may not be able to shoot from that seat. The center front seat in some helicopters is low and has controls intruding upon the seating space. Shooting from this position would be difficult.

Will the operator reschedule your flight if conditions are not good for photography? Most operators will not want to fly if the weather is bad, but ... there may be a gray area between what is bad for flying and what is bad for photography (lack of sunlight being perhaps the biggest issue). Be sure that your flight operator will reschedule your flight if the weather is not favorable for photography.

Kauai's Mount Wai'ale'ale receives, on average, over 460" (1,168cm) of rain per year. Basically, it is always raining there, but not necessarily everywhere around those highest peaks. And some clouds are desired in landscape photos. Still, in my example, I wanted to be able to reschedule around weather that was ideal for my needs.

Book your flight early in your trip so that rescheduling can be accommodated.

If not enough clients book a specific flight, some operators will cancel that flight. Find out your operator's policy before signing up. I booked the Kauai flight that was guaranteed to fly (with weather remaining a contingency). Again, booking early in your stay can allow for rescheduling.

If you are flying to shoot a specific subject, ensure that your flight is going to give you adequate time with that intended subject, as some tours only fly a standard script. If one pass is all you need for your subject, the standard tours will likely be more cost effective. In Kauai, I wanted many passes on the sea cliffs, and no standard tour would have catered to that need.

Doors on or doors off? You can shoot through the expansive, mostly-glass helicopter doors, but ... you will lose contrast in your images, and reflections will be a problem. In that case, wear dark clothes to reduce your own reflections.

Optically optimal is to shoot from a doors-off flight. Some companies encourage doors off flying, while others want doors on and closed at all times. One big name tour operator quoted me $750 to take the doors off and wanted $2,200 per hour to fly a private charter. I was later told that the model helicopter they were flying simply requires the doors to be locked open. Basically, they did not want to vary from their scripted tour flights. I don't have a problem with that practice, but that was not the right tour company for me.

Flying with the doors off from a window seat gives you a clear view of your subjects — as long as you are on the correct side of the helicopter. However, flying with the doors off introduces a wind issue. I'm not talking about just a little wind — I'm talking about extreme wind. There was so much wind on my flight that I could barely press my back into the back seat I was in. Other helicopter models produce less of this effect.

There can be nothing loose on the doors-off flights for risk of the loose item blowing into the tail rotor. This also includes camera gear. You are typically permitted to take just the camera (I took two) on a neck strap, with no lens hood or cap. Any loose fitting clothes (such as hoods) are going to to be highly irritating if not painful. Do not expect to keep a baseball-style hat on.

Dress warmly. Ask the operator for more specifics on this recommendation, but a winter jacket and jeans with air temps on the ground in the upper 70s (f) was comfortable.

You will likely be given a headset for communication with the pilot and other passengers. The headset has a cord and a mic boom. The wind will then blow your camera strap off of your head and tangle it with those headset accessories. Even holding onto the camera may require a strong grip.

For my Kauai charter, I selected a "Photography Flight" on a 4-passenger (including the pilot) Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter, an ideal choice for photography. The rate (per person) was not significantly different from a standard tour rate, but the pilot was able to cater to my needs and desires. Ad hoc requests were not a problem as the pilot was free to go where I wanted (within airspace permissions).

My flight duration was also flexible. I was able to shoot until I was confident that I had captured what I wanted. We had a target time limit to the flight, but finished about 10 minutes early.

For this flight, I was provided the ideal seat for photography. Having the back seat to myself, I could lean (within the tight seat belt's limits) far enough to shoot from both sides of the helicopter.

While most good pilots can follow photographers' instructions, pilots experienced in flying serious photographers are an advantage. Shown below is a Robinson R44 Raven II helicopters navigating the "Front Door". The massive sea cliffs dwarf the helicopter.

Mauna Loa Helicopter's Robinson R44 Raven II helicopters

With the wind, vibrations, and motion, expect to need a fast shutter speed for sharp images - even with image stabilization - when shooting from a door's off helicopter. Prior to the flight, I was recommended minimum shutter speeds ranging from 1/500 through 1/1000. I made 1/500 work at times, but at other times, 1/1000 was not fast enough. Longer focal lengths need faster shutter speeds, as expected.

Huddling behind the pilot's seat (pilot had his door on) may be advantageous as there is a little relief from the wind there. Still, accurate composing is not easy. Frame slightly wide so that cropping and straightening can be done later. Be sure to always keep the camera level.

If you want your images to have an extra pop, you probably need to use a circular polarizer filter. Of course, CP filters reduce the amount of light reaching your sensor. This means that the fast shutter speed is going to require a wider aperture and higher ISO setting.

Depending on how far you are from the subject and the focal length you are shooting at, you will at times be able to make a wide-for-landscape-photography f/5.6 work for you. At other times, f/8 or even f/11 may be needed. As usual, the ISO setting should be selected to achieve the image brightness you want at the aperture and shutter speed you need. Depending on the color of the terrain, Auto ISO with or without compensation may be optimal. If the subject brightness varies too muc, including shaded mountains being an issue, opt for manual settings, and watch the histogram.

The focal length needed for aerial photography depends on your subject, but longer focal lengths are more difficult to shoot from a helicopter than wide angles. Conversely, a too-wide focal length will make it more difficult to keep parts of the helicopter out of the frame. A general purpose zoom lens is probably the best option for most aerial scenic photography. The full frame 24-105mm equivalent angle of view is often preferred.

The farther you are from your subject, the more that haze destroys contrast. This also makes shooting wider angle focal lengths more favorable than telephoto focal lengths for the same desired framing, assuming a desirable perspective remains. Have the pilot fly closer.

Load the camera with a large capacity, high speed memory card(s). Because of wind, the pilot will not want you swapping memory cards (or anything else, including lenses) during the doors-off flight. Then capture short bursts in continuous shooting mode. Depending on the shooting direction, helicopter rotors blades end up in the frame with regularity when the pilot is moving in the direction you are shooting, and in that case, you will often throw 2 or 3 of every four shots away. Here is an example:

Helicopter Rotor Blade in Photo

Your flight time of day matters. Know the best time of the day for sun direction on your subject, and know the typical weather for that time of day. Also consider where the helicopter shadow will be at that time of the day. My mid-late afternoon departure time was ideal for the Na Pali Coast, resulting in some shadows in the cliffs but plenty of sunlight reaching the overall area.

You (or if you are fortunate, your company) are paying a lot for the air time. Over shoot, even when you have only one intended subject. Always be looking for images to be captured, including patterns of trees, fields, waterways, or anything else that catches your attention. Some of these subjects can yield nice bonus images from the flight.

Aerial Photo of Grove of Trees

Do you get motion sick? While I have flown without such problems, I was starting to feel green after continuously looking through a viewfinder from an unsteady platform for over an hour. Take preventative measures if you are so inclined.

The rewards of photogrpahing from a helicopter are great. Take the next chance you get to do so.

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