Tips on shooting from a helicopter
When I went to Kauai in September I knew I was going on a helicopter tour. I had never flown in a helicopter let alone tried to takes photos from one. I feel pretty confident shooting from the ground. I usually know which lens to grab and camera settings to use for a particular situation. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from riding in a helicopter though so I did a bunch of research beforehand in order to be prepared. I wanted to share what I learned, both from others’ recommendations and now my own experience, here.
I chose Jack Harter Helicopters in Lihue, Kauai, for our tour. This decision was easy because I knew I wanted a helicopter that flew with no doors in order to get the best photos. Jack Harter was the only company in Kauai flying a doors-off tour. Flying doors-off also meant that I’d be restricted in the amount of gear I’d be able to take. I wouldn’t be able to change lenses as there can be nothing loose in the cabin since it could fly out the door! In addition, I knew there would be extra vibration from wind entering the cabin and I’d need to take that into consideration when choosing a shutter speed. I chose a mid-afternoon flight which departed at 2pm. I usually like to take photos at dawn or dusk, but the woman I spoke with on the phone at Jack Harter said that afternoon was great for photographers because the high sun allowed a lot of light to get into the narrow Kauai canyons.
Question #1: Which lens to take? Wide? Telephoto? Something in the middle? My first thought was that the 24-120mm f/4 should be pretty versatile on my full-frame Nikon D600. I’d be able to do both wide for big vistas and moderate telephoto for landscape abstracts. I did worry about the fact that the barrel extends when zooming on the 24-120 and thought that might allow a lot of extra dust to enter the lens in a windy environment. I considered renting the pro-built 24-70mm f/2.8 as an alternative, but as I started looking around 500px and flickr to see what focal lengths people were using from helicopters, I began to think that I was going to want something wider than 24mm. The super-wide shots looked very impressive! I also got recommendations from a few photographers I found online—including someone who had specifically shot over Kauai—that I’d want wider than 24mm. My 16-35mm f/4 was starting to look like the best choice for focal length and, because its barrel doesn’t extend when zooming, I didn’t have to worry about dust either.
I ended up going with the 16-35 and have to say it was a great choice. The majority of the shots I took were wider than 24mm. There were a few times I wanted to go past 35mm, but not many. After the flight, I actually had people with kit lenses come up to me to say they were jealous I had a wide-angle lens! I’d like to point out that I think the even wider pro 14-24mm f/2.8 would be a worse choice than the 16-35 too. Firstly, if you go too wide you start to get the inside of the helicopter or rotor blades in your shots (and you can’t stick your lens out the door because the wind will grab it!). Secondly, I used a polarizer (more on that later) which wouldn’t be possible on the 14-24.
I’ve been using cameras long enough to know that you can’t fix a blurry image once you get home so I wanted to make sure that I had a fast enough shutter speed to counter the motion and vibration of the helicopter. I read recommendations online for a shutter speed anywhere between 1/250th and 1/1000th of a second. The recommendations for 1/250th seemed to be coming from people who hired an airplane or helicopter specifically for photo shooting where they could tell the pilot to slow down. I wasn’t going to have that luxury. I wanted a lot of shutter speed to eliminate any possibility of coming home with a memory card full of blurry images even if it meant that I was going to have to increase my ISO. The noise, even at ISOs over 1600, is manageable with the D600, so I wasn’t too worried. I decided I would try 1/800th and go from there but as soon as we took off and I realized just how much wind there was and how fast we were moving, I bumped it up to 1/1000th and didn’t look back.
I chose an aperture of f/8. Now, shooting from a helicopter pretty much means that focus will be set at, or close to, infinity and depth of field just isn’t going to matter. I could’ve chosen f/4, had more light, and about the same depth. The 16-35mm f/4 is plenty sharp at f/4, but only in the center. Sharpness on the edges is pretty lacking at f/4 and isn’t much better at f/5.6. For a lot of shots this doesn’t matter but for landscapes where the entire frame is the subject, you want sharpness from edge to edge. The 16-35 does this starting at f/8 so that’s where I set it.
Given that I knew I wanted an exposure of at least 1/1000th of a second and an f/8 aperture I used the D600’s Auto ISO feature to fill in the ISO. I set the camera to aperture priority (f/8) and set Auto ISO to go up to 6400 but keep the shutter speed at least 1/1000th. That’s it! I was free to shoot and not worry about exposure anymore (well, except in a few extreme circumstances). Pixel-peeping once I got home I can see that there’s still some slight motion even at 1/1000th. Certainly not enough that you can see at web size but enough to know that I’m glad I shot as fast as I did. I ended up with ISOs in the 450-6400 range, the majority at 1400 or higher. On a less capable camera those ISOs just might have been too high, but I felt it was fine on the D600. The images cleaned up pretty well in Lightroom and look great down-sampled.
I shot in Continuous High mode. This meant when I pressed the shutter I got 3 or 4 nearly similar images that I could choose from when I got home. Many of the shots at or near 16mm ended up with the helicopter rotor blades in the shot. Having a few images to choose from meant I could pick the shot that didn’t have rotor blades (if I was lucky!) or at least the one that didn’t have a blade right in the middle of the image. I actually used the information from the other shots to help me Photoshop out the rotor blades if I needed to.
Other settings: Auto White Balance, Matrix Metering, AF-S (could’ve easily been AF-A or AF-C too), Single-point AF (using the center point), and 14-bit RAW Lossless compressed. Given that Vibration Reduction has little to no effect at shutter speeds over 1/500th (and there’s some that say it could actually do more harm than good) I left VR off. I didn’t bracket my exposures. I felt the D600’s metering was good enough and given the range in RAW sensor data I could push or pull an extra stop in Lightroom if I needed to.
As mentioned above I took a polarizer (I use a B+W Kaesemann). I was uneasy about this for two reasons: (1) Being at 1/1000th and f/8 I was already going to be low on light even in the afternoon sun. Adding a polarizer was going to lose me an additional 1-2 stops. (2) Using a polarizer on a wide-angle lens can be a little weird because the polarization effect won’t be even across the frame. I decided to bring it because I’d seen so many recommendations to have a polarizer and just as many “I wish I would’ve brought a polarizer!” comments online. Given that we’d be flying over water and possibly damp foliage, I figured cutting the reflections from the mid-day sun and getting more vibrant colors was a justified tradeoff to the light loss. Was it worth it in the end? I think so. I obviously don’t have side-by-side with-and-without polarizer images to compare, but because the effect was a little uneven across the frame on the wide shots I can see where it was most useful. I think the images look good even if the effect is a little uneven. There’s a lot of detail and texture in my shots (and not a lot of clear blue sky) so it’s not too noticeable. That said, the polarizer was an added complication in shooting because I had to keep turning the polarizer as the helicopter moved to get the maximum effect. If I did it again I’d still take it though.
I left my lens hood at home. There was a good chance that it would’ve flown off unless I taped it on; I really didn’t need anything else for the wind to grab onto and make shooting more difficult. Also, given that I used a polarizer, a lens hood would’ve really gotten in the way.
I wore a wrist strap for security (which I usually do even just walking around town). I didn’t want my camera flying out the window and the wrist strap feels really secure. I use—and love—the “Cuff” from Peak Design.
I hope this helps anyone looking to take a helicopter tour and is wondering about camera settings or lens choice. The experience was out of this world and by far the most memorable and exciting part of our trip to Kauai! If you’re considering going on a tour, I highly recommend it! For photographers, go with a doors-off option if you can. I was a little scared myself at the prospect of flying with only a seat belt for protection, but after about 5 minutes I got used to it and it was no big deal.
If you have any questions I haven’t addressed, leave them in the comments. Also, I’d love to see your helicopter shots! Post a link and let me know if you have any good tips that I missed!
Click on the images here for a larger view and be sure to see my Kauai gallery, which has more helicopter shots!