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.
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?
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)
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips
Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips