Photographing Hawaii on a Helicopter, plus Helicopter Photography Tips

One of the things I really wanted to do during my trip to Hawaii was to photograph the coasts, mountains, and waterfalls of Hawaii from a Helicopter.  We visited Oahu and the Big Island during our trip to Hawaii.

Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach

I initially wanted to take the helicopter ride on the Big Island but the weather forecast called for rain and on the Kona side of the Island (where we were staying), they didn’t have doors off helicopter flights.  I decided to take an hour long doors off helicopter flight while we were on Oahu.

Door or No Door Helicopter Flight?

I would highly recommend taking a doors off helicopter ride for photography.  With a doors off flight, you don’t have to worry about glare and photographing through dirty windows.  You also have a clear view of subjects that are lower on the horizon.

I was a bit worried about flying with the doors off.  I’m ok with heights, but not great.  However after a of couple minutes in the air, I was completely focused on all the beautiful compositions and my nervousness went away.

There are some down sides to a no doors flight.  There is a lot of wind in a no doors flight and the operators don’t want anything loose in the cabin.  This means no changing filters and lenses.  I’ll talk more about the equipment I used later on in the blog.

You also want to keep your camera inside the perimeter of the cabin and have a strap around your neck or hand.

Even though I was in Hawaii, I wore a light jacket for a 10am flight and I wasn’t cold or too hot.  I tucked my hood inside my jacket to prevent it flapping around like crazy.  I had the seat next to the pilot who kept her door on.  The people in the back seat said it was really windy back there and were cold in shorts and short sleeve shirts.

Koko Head Crater

Koko Head Crater

Price of a Helicopter Flight in Hawaii

The price for a helicopter flight in Hawaii isn’t cheap.  I used Novictor Helicopters located at the Honolulu airport.  The price was $285 for a 1 hour flight (our pilot went a little longer). This also included transportation to and from my hotel in Waikiki Beach.  There is no difference in the price for doors on vs. doors off and each individual can choose whether they want their door on or off.

The nice thing about Novictor Helicopters is that they only carry 3 people plus the pilot so everyone gets a window or no door seat.

Overall, it was a great experience and I came away with some great shots.  I don’t regret spending the $285 to get compositions that I couldn’t have gotten without riding in a helicopter or airplane.

USS Arizonal Memorial, Pearl Harbor

USS Arizonal Memorial, Pearl Harbor

Photography Equipment

I used an Olympus OM-D E-M1 with a 12-40mm F2.8 lens (24-80 35mm equivalent).  Since I couldn’t change lenses due to the wind in the cabin, I went with a wide angle lens and left the ultra wide angle (8-15mm) and medium length telephoto (40-100 mm) back at the hotel.

Overall, I ended up liking the choice of the Olympus 12-40mm lens.  There were times where I would have liked to have a wider composition or to zoom in closer, but overall the 12-40 worked well for me.

The pilot did a good job of getting close to certain highlights like waterfalls and the USS Arizona Memorial.

I also opted to not use a polarizer filter.  While the polarizer would have helped with bluer skies and reducing glare from the water, having no filter helped with keeping the shutter speed high to compensate for the speed and vibration of the helicopter.

Foggy Green Mountain, Oahu

Foggy Green Mountain, Oahu

Tips for Helicopter Photography

  • Try to keep your shutter speed above 1/800 for sharper photos with the speed and vibration of the helicopter.
  • Shoot in continuous low or continuous high shutter mode.  You may get the rotors in your photos on compositions that are higher on the horizon.  The high frames per second increases the chance that you will not have the rotors in your photographs.
  • Make sure you have a full battery and empty, high capacity SD card.  You won’t want to change cards or batteries in a windy cabin.  You also may miss some good compositions while changing cards or batteries.  A fully charged battery should last you the entire flight.
  • Keep an eye on your shutter speed.  You’ll get both light (skies / water) and dark (mountain valleys) compositions.  Your shutter speed will drop with the dark compositions so you’ll need to change aperture or ISO to avoid blurry images.
  • Know your camera.  Know the buttons and switches on your camera by touch so you can quickly change shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, and ISO without looking at the controls.  This will help to ensure you change change settings quickly without missing compositions.

Written by Martin Belan

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