Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Flying in a helicopter is a rare and expensive extravagance.  Dropping $300-$600 for an hour’s entertainment might not be a big deal for CEOs or professional athletes, but for the rest of us, that amount of money leaves a big hole in the old budget.

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Anita and I with our chopper pilot. I think the Hawaiian hand gesture we are making means: “Look at us…We just spent a ton of money!”

And, truth be told, I’m a bit of a tightwad: (I can hear my kids laughing now as they say:  ”A bit of a tightwad?  Heck Dad, you make Ebenezer Scrooge look like a Saudi Sheik throwing money at a Vegas roulette wheel!”)  Be that as it may, I’ve long been fascinated by flight and aerial photography… so over the years I have occasionally coughed up the bucks for a chopper ride.

I’ve enjoyed all of those flights…heck, its FUN to hover and zip around like a big hummingbird.  But strictly as a photographer, I found that the expense was rarely justified.  Why?  Four reasons:

1)  First of all, aerial photography has its own unique rules and techniques.  None of it is rocket science, but until I learned the  basics, my results were often disappointing  (I’ll write an in-depth article next week providing you with all you need to know about aerial photography so you don’t have to learn the hard way).

2)  Second, most helicopters are not well-suited for aerial photography.

  • Typical helicopters have large, curved windows which create wicked reflections/distortions in your shots.
  • Many of these choppers have 6 or more seats.  Which means that some seats are NOT by a window.  In other words, you can end up in a middle seat and be unable to get a decent shot the entire flight.
    • Some tour companies will tell you that their helicopter was designed for touring and ALL the seats are great.  Don’t believe it.
    • Since seats are assigned  based on your weight to ensure that the chopper has proper balance, most companies will NOT guarantee you a window seat.

3)  Third, flights are relatively short…so unless there is a lot of great stuff to photograph in a compact area, you can only get shots of one or two locations.  This this makes it really difficult for most photographers to justify the cost.

4)  Finally, the cheap-skate that lives somewhere in the back of my head would tell you that most of the locations flown over by helicopters are accessible via cheaper (but less fun) methods.

Well, now that I’ve burst your bubble about helicopter photography, let me tell you about the one exception I’ve found so far.  A flight that is so incredible that it is worth the money even if you don’t take your camera along (which is a heck of a statement for a photographer).  The location is the island of Kauai, the oldest and, in my opinion, the most photogenic of the Hawaiian islands

So, why is Kauai the exception?

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

The legendary Na Pali: One of the most spectacular vistas on earth.

1)  The only way avoid the issues I described with typical choppers is to fly in a 4 seat helicopter that has removable doors.  These choppers are not commonly used by tour operators because they (understandably) want to maximize profits by taking as many paying customers as they can on each flight.

  • There are at least two tour operators on Kauai that use small 4 seat helicopters. Mauna Loa Helicopter flies the Robinson R44 and Jack Harter uses the Hughes 500).
  • Four seats mean that EVERY seat is a window seat
  • Both of these choppers have removable doors, which eliminates reflections & distortion (and makes for a much more exciting ride!)
  • Note: Some of the 6+ seater choppers do have sections of their windows that slide open.  That is better than nothing, but it pales in comparison to having the entire island at your feet (literally) in a doors-off aircraft.

2)  Kauai  has three world-class photographic subjects that you can easily reach during a typical one hour tour:

  • Incredible waterfalls (including the Wall of Tears on Mt Waialeala, the Five Sisters, Manawaiopuna Falls…aka Jurassic Falls),
  • Waimea Canyon, (the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’) and
  • The Na Pali coast (the Pièce de résistance..totally breathtaking)
Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Manawaiopuna Falls (seen in the movie Jurassic Park)

3)  Most of Kauai is inaccessible by road (the estimates range from 65-90%) and many of the most photogenic waterfalls are on private property, so you can only see them from the air.

  • You can hike Na Pali and Waimea Canyon.  However, Na Pali’s Kalalau Trail is a strenuous 22 mile round trip thatwillrequire two days.  Hikes in Waimea Canyon are less challenging.
    • Although both hikes offer good views, they aren’t incredible views like the ones you can see from a chopper.
  • There are small boat tours to Na Pali and I recommend them highly.  These tours are certainly cheaper than a helicopter and the photography can be very good. Again, just not quite as good.

Decisions, Decisions:

What time of day should you schedule your tour?

If your heart is set on Na Pali, then you will need to fly in the afternoon when the cliffs are illuminated by the sun.

If waterfalls are your primary focus, then mornings are usually best since many of them are shaded in the afternoon.  The air is usually calmer and clearer in the mornings as well.

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

At first I was disappointed when we flew into Waimea Canyon and saw that it was shrouded in fog….but the mist was actually a blessing

Waimea Canyon often gets pretty foggy/cloudy in the afternoon which washes out colors, but the clouds can make for dramatic photos (see above).

Personally, I was excited about Na Pali, so I flew in the afternoon.  Now, if I had won a Powerball, I would have taken a morning flight too, but…

What Lens?

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Nawiliwili Light Station. You will see this moments after leaving Lihue airport..

You are not allowed to change lenses while in flight (some silly concern about things flying out of the chopper and hitting the tail rotor), so you will want to have a full-range zoom lens on your camera.  On my full frame Nikon, I found that nearly all of my shots were between 28 and 135mm (if you have a cropped APS-C sensor camera, then the equivalent would be 18-84mm)  Since you will be shooting with a fast shutter speed, you will want to use the fastest zoom you have that covers this range.  (I have written a detailed  blog about aerial photography that provides details on your other settings and gear.  Click this link to see it.)

What time of the year?

The winter is best for waterfalls.  Kauai gets a lot of rain (Mt. Waialeale is sometimes referred to as the ‘wettest spot on earth’ with 461” per year!)  December thru March are the wettest…which has a dramatic impact on the waterfalls.  For example, the shot below on the left is of the ‘Wall of Tears’ taken during the winter, compare that to the same shot on the right I took in September.

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Each company offers a lot of different helicopter tours, which should I choose?

Nearly all the tours follow the same clockwise path around the island and follow a pretty rigid schedule with very little flexibility in what you will see and how long you will see it.  In other words, if all the waterfalls are covered by fog and not worth seeing but Na Pali is bathed in glorious sunshine, the pilot won’t spend less time at the waterfall and more at Na Pali.

However, there is at least one exception:  Mauna Loa Helicopters offers a “Photographer Tour”  With this option, you basically charter the chopper, so the pilot will go nearly wherever you want, spend more or less time at particular locations, swing back for a second pass, etc.   This was the best option for me.  Surprisingly, this tour isn’t significantly more expensive than the standard tours. The cost is $660 per hour.  So if two of you are going on the flight, it is only $110 more than paying $275 each for the standard island tour.  Heck, if you are already blowing over $500, then what’s another C-note, right? And if you have two friends with you, it is actually cheaper.  By the way, I don’t get any kind of compensation or free flights  from Mauna Loa or anyone else for that matter.

Weather

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Kahili Falls (one of the “Five Sisters”)

A significant number of flights get cancelled due to weather,  If you are going to be on Kauai for a few days, be sure that your flight is scheduled on your first day…so if there is a cancellation, you will be able to reschedule.

One other thing, even if the weather is great at the airport, there is a good chance that it won’t be perfect everywhere on the island.  On my flight, Waimea Canyon was socked in by fog, but the waterfalls and Na Pali were beautiful.  Be flexible.

Safety

I can’t avoid this topic.  After all, it seems like there are reports about a tourist chopper going down somewhere every six months or so.  While it is true that the accident record for private helicopters is higher than for commercial airline aviation, statically your chances of getting injured in a car accident on the way to the heliport are a lot worse than while in the air  But everyone has their own tolerance for risk and if you are uncomfortable flying you probably won’t enjoy this tour no matter what the numbers say.

Final thoughts

Personally, I thought this flight worth was every penny.  I got some incredible shots that simply couldn’t have taken any other way.  Additionally, the scenery was beautiful and the feeling of the wind zipping by the open doors was really quite a rush. If there is a Hawaiian trip in your future, a helicopter flight over Kauai should be on your itinerary!

And remember, photography is about more than just pretty pictures.

Jeff

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Is that a view or what? Afternoons are usually best for lighting at Na Pali….clouds often build up later in the day as well which can have dramatic results

Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

 

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14 Comments

  1. Darrell H July 22, 2016 at 11:18 am #

    Hi Jeff
    I really enjoyed your article but unfortunately it is making me second guess my lens choose. I actually already booked a doors off flight with one of the companies you named above, Mauna Loa for 3pm (actually booked before I read your article). I’m a Nikon shooter as well (full frame) and I’m bringing my 14-24, 24-120 and 80-400 on the trip. Prior to reading your article I did a lot of research on 500px to see what focal length people typically used and my research lead me to want to bring the 14-24mm since it seemed everyone shot on the wide side of the lens they used. I saw several using 16-35 lens and the majority of the photos they posted were at 16mm. I reached out to a few and again they said most of their keepers were at the wide side. I understand I’ll have to work around rotor blades when shooting wide but plan to do short bursts to get around that (hello 64GB card x2) as you mentioned in your other article.
    Did you really find that you were shooting long that often on Kauai? I’m getting torn on this because Kauai probably a once in a lifetime trip and shoot. Thank you again for your great article.

    • Jeff Stamer July 23, 2016 at 3:01 pm #

      Hi Darrell,
      You are going to have a great time on this chopper flight. The photography is incredible and it is just plain fun to fly with the doors off!
      I just went back and reviewed the shots I took on my flight to check on what focal lengths I used. The focal lengths I most used were between 28 and 105mm (on my full frame Nikon). I really don’t think you need anything wider. I’d suggest you take your 24-120mm. You will fly over a lot of waterfalls and at the minimum flight height of 500′, you will need that 120mm length to fill the frame. When you are on the NaPali coast, the 24mm will be wide enough to shoot the coast. I really think the 12-24 will just be too wide and you will end up cropping a lot of the shot and wasting resolution. Take a look at the shots on my blog, those views of NaPali were taken at 28mm at the widest and you can see the full coast. By the way, you can always just tell the pilot to take the chopper up another couple hundred feet if you need a wider view…remember, you’re chartering the chopper and you are the boss.
      Let me know how your flight goes and I’d love to see your shots!
      Jeff

      PS: Of course, a second option would be to bring a second camera body mounted with the other lens…

      • Darrell H July 25, 2016 at 12:07 pm #

        Thank you for the response Jeff. We are taking the general tour not the photography tour so I’m not sure how much say we will have. It is my understanding that they keep a tight schedule. I just hope the weather cooperates. I’m taking risk scheduling tour in the afternoon but that is when the Napali coast is lit up. I shoot with the D810 so I do have a little resolution to spare but obviously don’t want to throw it away if I don’t have too. Were you shooting with the 28-300? Were you only shooting tight on the waterfalls or are there other areas as well? Sorry for all the questions.
        BTW I’m really enjoying your blog. I’ve read a lot of your posts and there are so many places that you have been to that are on my bucket list.
        I’ll be in Hawaii for the new moon so I’ll be shooting the galactic core as well. Not sure when I’ll sleep but there is always the plane ride home. LOL. It is our 10 year anniversary so it will be a delicate balance. So many beautiful landscapes to photograph and enjoy.
        Thanks again
        Darrell

        • Jeff Stamer July 27, 2016 at 10:07 am #

          Hi Darrell,
          Yes, I shot the 28-300 the whole time. It isn’t my sharpest lens, but it gave me the option for everything from wide angle to telephoto without having to carry a second lens. Yes, a second camera could be a bit awkward, but it is a option worth considering. I shot tight on the waterfalls and some of the unique structures on the NaPali coast (like the open top of sea cave that had fallen in). You will see a lot a great waterfalls and it would be a shame to not have a zoom to capture them well.
          Afternoon is definately the time to go…weather is always iffy but if you are lucky you will catch NaPali in its full glory…might not be a better vista in the world!
          Your Anniversary huh…yup…that can be a bit challenging. I remember last year when I was in the Carribean and left my wife at midnight for a couple hours to catch the Milky Way on our Anniversary. That took some effort on my part to smooth over…but I got a great shot!
          Glad you like the blog and feel free to ask all the questions you want!
          Jeff

      • Darrell H July 25, 2016 at 12:11 pm #

        Forgot to mention I have a old D7000 that I can take as a second body but I’m not sure I could fit that in my bag at this point and I’m not sure if I want to fuddle around with two cameras. I’m guessing it is going to be windy with the doors off and everything will be bouncing around.

        • Jeff Stamer July 27, 2016 at 10:10 am #

          If you take the d7000, just hang it around your neck and slide it behind you until you need it. I didn’t even take a bag since the chopper pilots don’t like you to take anything that isn’t strapped down (some silly concern about spare batteries, lens caps or lenses flying out the door and ruining their precious tail rotor)! Just make sure you have fresh batteries and a big empty memory card.

          • Darrell H July 27, 2016 at 12:55 pm #

            Thanks again for your continued dialog. I’m almost embarrassed with how much memory I’m bringing for this trip so that won’t be an issue. So many things to photograph on the two islands we are visiting. I also read your blog post on underwater photography as I’m bringing small mirrorless camera with underwater housing and the milky way as I will be doing that several nights as well (going during new moon). I’m going to do some more research on what focal length people have used before I decide. The hard part is that you don’t see the shots that people didn’t like or couldn’t get. The 14-24 f 2.8 is such a sharp lens, it is hard not to use it. According to what I read on your blog post there are three real photographic areas and two of the three lead more toward wide angle (not that 24mm isn’t wide).
            I want you to know that I really appreciate your input regardless of which direction I go in. You have really made me think about this… a lot… lol.

          • Jeff Stamer July 28, 2016 at 10:11 am #

            Hi Darrell,
            The chopper ride over NaPali is a once in a lifetime experience…I’m glad you are doing the research to make the most of it. You will have a great time whatever you decide!
            Take care,
            Jeff

  2. Andrew December 8, 2014 at 3:36 pm #

    Fantastic photographs Jeff. I wanted to get your opinion on whether you think a 21mm f/1.8 prime lens would be a good choice for aerial photography of Kauai on a Hughes 500 doors-off. My 35mm prime is unavailable at the moment, and my 50mm prime probably wouldn’t be wide enough. I appreciate any insight you can provide. Thanks, Andrew

    • Jeff Stamer December 9, 2014 at 9:26 am #

      Hi Andrew,
      I’d really suggest you take a zoom rather than a prime lens. I found that I took shots ranging from 28 to 300 on my chopper ride in Kauai…you really need that flexibility to capture the range of views from wide angle to detail. If you don’t have a zoom, you might want to consider buying one (or renting). If you forced me to pick between your two primes, I’d take the 21mm…which would allow you to get the wide angle shots and you could crop in post production for details. You will have a great time in the doors-off Hughes and should get some great shots. Share them with me when you get back! Jeff

  3. PixelFish May 7, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    I’m so excited to see that you got to go to Kauai because it is my favourite island and my first time visiting was the time I found your blog since I thought I’d try some night photography for the first time ever. You have some really gorgeous shots. I wish I could take the helicopter tour, but it makes me nervous. Was it very bouncy? Those waterfall shots look AAAAMAZING and totally worth it. (Plus, one of the things that calms me during flights IS staring through a camera lens.)

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE Napali and Waimea. BTW, I mean to go back to get the road wiggle on the road up to Waimea. I suppose you’ve left, but if you haven’t GET THE ROAD WIGGLE. It’s about five or six miles from the base of the canyon road and just before it dovetails onto another road. I looked it up because it was so awesome looking and found that, yes, somebody else had taken that pic, but I mean to go back and get it myself. I couldn’t at the time, because I’d promised my husband no more pull-overs for photography. (More fool me.) Two other people’s shots of the road wiggle: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jensenl/visuals/album/2008/kauai/IMG_3206.jpg and http://static.panoramio.com/photos/original/8025185.jpg

    My own pics of Kauai: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pixelfish/collections/72157636660853113/ (You’ve already seen my early attempts at night photography. I assure you I will be trying again when I next go back.)

    If you are still there, make sure to see Limahuli: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pixelfish/10322662765/in/set-72157636634940126

    And my own rendition of Waimea: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pixelfish/11063952143/in/set-72157636634940126

    Sorry about the linkvomit, but Kauai just makes me so excited! I hope everything was/is awesome.

    • Jeff Stamer May 7, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

      Hi Elizabeth,
      Boy, I love your enthusiasm! I think the purpose of photography should be to excite us and I’d say you have got it right. I also love Kauai…I hope to go back next year for an extended photo shoot, but I live in Florida so that will depend on the budget.
      The flight wasn’t bouncy, no worse than many airline trips. You have to go the next time you visit.
      I checked out your links on Flickr, you have some wonderful shots. You should be proud of them,
      Take care!
      Jeff

  4. Ed Rosack May 4, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

    Lovely photos, Jeff. I especially like the Waimea Canyon black and white. –Ed

    • Jeff Stamer May 5, 2014 at 10:12 am #

      I’ve always admired your B&W work, so I truly appreciate your compliment Ed! Funny, I remember how disappointed I was when we flew into Waimea Canyon and saw that it was covered in fog…it was only later reviewing the shots in photoshop that I thought they might work in black and white…

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