Photography tips

You’re about to go on a helicopter tour and want to know how to get the best images. Here are some things to consider to ensure your success.

Camera or Mobile Phone?

Many mobile phones now offer image resolution that rivals point-and-shoot cameras. One advantage of using a phone for your vacation photography is that you’ll generally have your phone with you, something that cannot always be said about your camera. Also, a phone allows you to instantly send those images to family and friends or post them to Instagram. Makani Kai and Magnum Helicopters provide you with a free handy plastic pouch and lanyard to ensure your phone stays with you.

There are advantages to using a DSLR. The image quality and resolution are generally greater and interchangeable lenses offer much more flexibility. These considerations can offset the additional size, weight and inconvenience of carrying a camera.

What Lens?

Guests commonly ask which lens they should use for best results. Don’t be afraid to use a wide-angle lens. After all, your helicopter will rarely go above 1,500 feet and a wider lens will allow you to capture more of the great island scenery. Anything in the 24mm to 40mm is fine. My main lens for most aerial assignments is my trusty 28-70mm zoom. I’ve also used my 16-35mm for low level work.

These recommendations are for full-frame cameras. If you have an APS-C or Four-Thirds camera, the sensor is smaller than on a standard 35mm camera, so your lens’s focal length will be smaller. This difference is referred to as the lens conversion factor. A 28mm wide-angle lens on a full-frame camera is the equivalent of a 17mm lens on an APS-C camera. A 28mm-70mm on a regular camera would roughly equate to an 18-55mm on the smaller camera.

The main thing to remember: leave your long lens at home.


Many photographers attach a UV filter to their lens to protect the delicate surface coating. Because UV filters are clear and will not change the color or density of light, these are ideal for photography of sweeping landscapes. Polarizing filters can remove glare from water (or Plexiglas), ensuring a crisp, clear, more color saturated image. Polarizing filters can be rotated for desired effects and the results will produce dramatic blue skies and better contrast and color. For suppressing the over-abundance of light above the horizon during mid-day, consider using a graduated filter. These will allow you to capture details in the sky and valleys both.

What Time of Day?

As with most photographic situations, it all depends on what you are trying to capture. I love the light in the early morning, so I try to schedule photo sessions right after sunrise up until about 10:00 a.m. You’ll find that the tradewinds haven’t picked up yet in the early morning, so you may enjoy a slightly smoother ride. Then again, if your objective is to shoot the waterfalls, you might consider going mid-day, when the sun is directly overhead and light floods down into the valleys. And just to confuse you further, Waikiki, Diamond Head and south shore of Oahu show best in the afternoon, so if that’s your goal, plan your tour around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m.

Doors On or Off?

Do you have to ask? Professional photographers shoot without doors on the aircraft as it’s the only way to avoid reflections in the Plexiglas windows. Plus, having a wide-open space where the door used to be offers you a much greater field of view, so you can get creative and include the helicopter’s skids in the shot if you like. Just remember to secure your camera before getting it close to the slipstream: your camera must have a wrist or neck strap when flying with the doors off.

Regular Tour or Charter?

99 times out of 100, you’ll get wonderful shots on our regular tours. We designed the tours to fly over the most scenic areas, so you will not be disappointed. If, however, you have special requirements or you want to see the spectacular north shore of Molokai, ask about our charters. That way, if you see something of particular interest, you can ask the pilot to circle to your heart’s content.

What ISO?

Even on the smoothest days, shooting from a helicopter is in some ways like shooting from a moving car: it can be a bumpy and frustrating experience. Therefore, you’ll want to set your ISO at a minimum of 200 and 400-600 is even better. Raising your ISO will give you the ability to capture a higher quality photograph because it gives you the ability to use a faster shutter speed and smaller aperture (a larger aperture number) to get a sharper scene. 

What shutter speed and aperture?

The old rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed which is at least as fast as 1 divided by the focal length of your lens. Therefore if you’re using a 100mm lens, you should use a shutter speed of at least 1/100 of a second. But since we’re talking about aerial images here with all the bumps and vibration of normal flying, plan to at least double your shutter speed. 1/250th is a good start. Plan to set your aperture to a minimum of f8.

Speaking of which

Don’t be afraid to use the aperture and shutter speed setting on your camera. Shooting on auto pilot is convenient, but it’s always best if you have a hand in making those decisions yourself. Controlling your ISO, aperture and shutter speed can bring you better results.

Check List

___ Battery charged

___ Plenty of disk space

___ Lens clean

___ Neck or wrist strap

___ Filters


- P.J. O’Reilley