More and more often I hear from travelers who, while on cruises and land based trips, are planning to take helicopter tours at their ports of call and destinations and convert the great views they see into wonderful images with their cameras.
Helicopter touring can provide travelers with spectacular views, amazing photographic opportunities and a chance to visit venues unreachable by other means.
Two great places for helicopter touring are in our 49th and 50th states: Alaska and Hawaii. I have two favorite helicopter tours, one in each state.
In Juneau, Alaska, there are a number of excellent helicopter touring companies, like Era, with great tours. My favorite is the Juneau Glacier Adventure, which flies over at least four glaciers and lots of other spectacular scenery, including the port of Juneau. It even lands on one of the glaciers to let you walk on it for about a half hour to see what these amazing ice fields are like up close.
In Hawaii, Mauna Loa Helicopters has historically done a great job for travelers and photographers on Kauai. They’ll take you to such wonderful sights as the Na Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon, Manawaiopuna Falls and, weather-permitting, Mt. Waiale’ale Crater. They’ll even take the helicopter doors off for photographers to get clear shots at all angles.
Whether you’re photographing through open doors, open windows or closed windows, it’s critical to properly prepare for your shoot in order to get great images inflight.
• If you’re a photographer you want to arrange a tour, if possible, where the helicopter company will take the doors of the copter off or at least lock them in the open position. By having the doors off or fully open, you’ll have no obstruction and no cabin glass or Plexiglass between your lens and the panorama before you.
• If the doors are on, see if you can position yourself to have access to one of the helicopter’s sliding windows, which the pilot will hopefully permit you to slide open. Shooting through glass or Plexiglass can easily degrade your images by altering the images’ color and causing distortion.
• If the doors are closed, even if there will be an open window to shoot through, there may be times you’ll be shooting through glass or Plexiglass. Therefore, wear dark clothes to minimize reflection problems and use a circular polarizing filter on your lenses to control any remaining reflections to the extent possible.
• Whether the doors or windows are open or closed, it will be noisy in the helicopter. As a result, you’ll likely be given a headset with microphone to wear to be able to hear instructions from the pilot. You’ll need to use a strap to ensure your camera won’t hit the floor or go out the window or door. Make sure the cable from the headset doesn’t get tangled with your camera gear.
• If the door is open, you’ll encounter windy conditions and it can get cold. Check with the pilot, as you may need a jacket. Leave your hat in your bag and take off your lens shade, as it will be blown off. Everything must be strapped to you or the helicopter. If the doors are open you’re not going to want to change lenses on your DSLR in the helicopter due to dust and dirt blowing around. So, you’ll want to have a 2nd camera body with you, if possible, with a different lens mounted. Even if the doors and windows are closed, I still suggest using two bodies. You could miss some spectacular shots while changing lenses.
• For DSLR lenses, I suggest a wide angle to normal zoom lens, such as a 24–70mm, for the landscapes you’ll be viewing. To capture details, zoom in to animals, etc., you might want to have a second lens, such as a 70–200mm or a 70–300mm.
• For your exposures, a high shutter speed is essential. When photographing from a helicopter you’re fighting the movement of the helicopter inflight, and if the door or windows are open, the wind from the flight and the overhead rotor, plus vibration primarily from the rotors. I recommend a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000 sec., though 1/1500 sec is better yet. Turn off your vibration reduction/optical stabilization, as at those shutter speeds it’s unneeded and won’t work properly anyway.
• Be aware of the helicopter rotor blades and skids (the ‘feet’ the helicopter stands on while on the ground) not only for your safety, but also for framing your shot. Before the helicopter takes off, use test shots to judge your widest focal length before the blades or skids start to show. Soon after you’re airborne, check it again.
• Mid-day, the sun is more difficult than earlier or later, as it’s a flat light, causing few shadows. Choose a flight earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon to provide better shadow detail, and therefore generally sharper, more contrasty, better photographs.
• If you suffer from motion sickness at times, it may very well affect you in a helicopter. Be prepared for it by having a remedy available.