The mountainous center of Kauai is a world unto itself, cliffs that drop into the mist below, endless waterfalls, pinnacles of weathered lava cloaked in green. This hidden landscape can only be photographed from a helicopter or some modern Lewis and Clark.
… And our intrepid enthusiast was there, with knees jammed against the seat in front to give a false sense of security.
I’ve done an occasional helicopter and small plane tour and the experience is always powerful. Human perception is trained from birth to see the world bottom up. And seeing a place from a height can evoke moments of wonder.
That said, most copter rides will disappoint the photo enthusiast artistically … if not done right. Usually on these tours, you’re shooting through a small window. That means only a foot of latitude when it comes to pointing the camera and worse, too much window glare for a usable image.
So I hadn’t considered a helicopter on our upcoming Kauai trip until I read that a couple of companies do “doors-off” tours on the island. Now that got me thinking.
Doors-off means no window glare, no tiny window to shoot through. Yes, you’re still totally strapped in, these tour folks are scrupulous in their safety procedures. But from a creative perspective, doors-off offers some serious benefits. No doors means your range of motion with the camera is excellent — as good as you’ll get while seated and strapped in.
I had an intuition about all this by the time we got to the Bali Hai Resort. And I asked the tour desk folks about the tours. The Wyndham folks ran down the two companies that offer “doors-off” (and yes, they also do doors on). So I booked the tour (and got the Wyndham discount) with Jack Harter Helicopters (808-245-3774), working out of Lihui.
In their confirmation email, the company suggested a warm jacket, it gets cool at 5,000 feet, even on Kauai. They also said to show up ahead of time for all the pre-tour stuff you’d expect.
That afternoon, we went through all that and got our instructions. The Jack Harter offices are about a mile from the Lihue Airport, (there’s a van to carry folks to the helicopter pad). The participants included several photo enthusiasts, plus newlyweds and even a Special Forces guy stationed on Oahu and his wife. We chatted till the van got there.
As an Army brat, talking with the Special Forces guy was like catnip. My new friend had done more copter rides than he could count. He was stoked about cruising this vacation spot doors-off — and sharing the experience with his wife. Like most participants she was a first timer but being an Army wife, she was totally game.
The pre-tour overview helped but there were some jitters out there on the tarmac. I spent the time getting my gear ready and checking my settings. They only allow one camera and lens per person, no other loose items at all. … Imagine loose gear in the open cockpit of a helicopter traveling at 100 mph.
While waiting, enthusiasts had the lens discussion. With what you’re paying for your photo shoot, choosing a lens is important. There’s something to be said for having a lens with some range, 24-105mm, 24-70mm, etc. That range is perfect for the times you’re moving through the distinctive Kauai ecosystems. You can capture most vistas or lock in on a waterfall at the far end of a valley.
But on this kind of trip, a wide angle zoom rules. The shoot locations are such unique landscapes, wide valleys, huge swaths of uninhabited coast, cliffs half a mile deep. And when the copter nudges you into those expansive parts of the Lost World, a 16-35mm or 17-40mm has to be your tool of choice. Otherwise you’re leaving out important parts of the composition.
Going wide angle zoom was my take on the perfect lens discussion. At that point the van took us down to the airport. Each of the copters was a 5-seater. So each passenger (except the one in the middle front seat) is open to the elements.
Once Ian, our pilot had everyone communicating through the headphones, the engines geared up and the copter eased up light as a dragonfly.
I was a bit queasy by now. Seeing the ground disappear, feeling how freeform a copter navigates through space, it all made me wonder if I’d be making a deposit into the little brown bag. But as we rose, that sense of fearful height became an abstraction, like it is on an airline. And by the time the views expanded, the creative juices kicked in. Showtime.
Composition as a Vertical
On this trip I had to adjust how I see landscape. Most landscape shots are in flat landscape mode (duh). But in the copter, your frame of reference has to include the fact that your vertical axis is in constant flux.
You also notice that with no door, you’re open to the world. The pilot banks and you find yourself staring straight down. And if you move the camera out into that space, you feel the 100 mph winds blasting. So use the camera strap.
It’s an invigorating feeling. But if there’s any moisture in the air (and you are in the clouds); your gear may need drying. This became an issue when we headed into the highlands. In that mist, poking the camera into position was enough to dampen the lens.
Compositional as Visual Improv
At these speeds, composition moves fast. Landscape photographers tend to revel in a new shoot location; we like to breathe the place in, notice the foreground elements and such. That’s the magic of shooting a sacred spot.
But when you’re getting swung through these vast canyons, there’s zero time to breathe in a location. The pilot banks and you’re looking 2,000 feet down and holding on for the ride. Composition has to be instantaneous: see it, shoot it, see the next shot location. Because the angle you liked so much is gone in 3… 2…
On top of that, the copter is never level for long. So you either make an instant adjustment to level the image or all your shots will be tilting. (Tip: It helps to not frame the composition as tightly as usual — that way you’ve got a bit of leeway for leveling the image in post.)
This is camera improv for the landscape enthusiast and if you didn’t get 300 shots at bare minimum, you must’ve been too sick to look through the viewfinder. A copter shoot is the ultimate photo improv, real time — at 100 mph.
Plus you’re only able to shoot from your seat in the copter. That meant there were shots that the photog to my left got served up and a different set that came my way.
One challenge with these tours is that pilots aren’t allowed to just hover there next to one of those 2000 foot cliffs. FAA rules have been clearly defined for Kauai’s unique challenges, how high you can go under various flight conditions, how close you can get to a cliff face, etc.
As photographers, we want (and need) a level of control. Our image will be better if we can tell a pilot: “OK, little to the left … now let’s try the same shot from 300 feet higher.” When you’re hiking or doing a four-wheel photo tour, you control how you engage the environment. So this tour is a roller coaster that can’t stop on the tracks.
This video game world has a specific plot structure: airport to back country to Waimea. Then over to NaPali and up the misty mountains and the return along the lowlands.
So imagine a Richard Avadon style photographer, shooting image after image, capturing one amazing sight after another. But the feeling comes with the clear realization that you’ve missed as much as you got.
The typical landscape photog will often look for a foreground object to play off of the rest of the vista. But unless you’re using the copter itself as a foreground element (and that gets boring), you find that the whole scene is out there in the middle and far distance. However, a cliff face that’s only a hundred yards away can become a powerful foreground choice if it lines up just right. Plus wide angle lenses have a wonderful way of exaggerating the scale of whatever’s closest.
Once you get further back from the NaPali Coast, you’re in landscapes that seem created for giants. The ancient volcanic cores of Kauai have been scooped into near-vertical cliffs. And since the copter covers this section from above, that becomes how the eye sees the image, cliff top to valley.
Shutter speed. I didn’t want to hassle with shutter speed or the other settings while we were up there. But being in a moving helicopter means you want shutter speed to be a bit higher than usual for a wide angle. In addition, a tour like this will have moments of bright sun, overcast and even some deep misty conditions. So I shot in Aperture mode and didn’t ride the shutter speed at all. Instead I set ISO and f-stop so as to give myself the most leeway.
ISO. I set ISO higher than usual, 800 and up to 1200 in spots with thick mist. That wasn’t an issue since I had a full frame.
F-stop. With my lens choice, the Canon 16-35mm, and with foregrounds fairly far away, I could shoot as low as f4-f5.6 and still get everything in focus.
Hindsight. There were a few spots where my shutter speed went as low as 1/20 sec. and those images are OK but not crystal sharp. And in retrospect, I could have upped my ISO. But my biggest takeaway was wishing I had taken a towel or worn something to clear up the moisture on the lens. That was really my biggest issue.
My choice of gear was tand my (full frame) Canon 5Dsr. If I’d brought a second lens, it would have been a 24-105mm. Obviously adjust your lens choice for a crop camera. So if I had chosen my Fuji X-T2 (with a 1.5 crop), I would have gone with their 10-24mm.
Composition. There are plenty of ways to work composition for this kind of a situation.
Foreground/background compositions can work but in a helicopter that usually translates as mid-ground/background. The only true foreground is what’s in the helicopter.
Leading lines are everywhere (waterfalls, cliff ridges). Rule of 3rds, juxtaposition, etc.
Even when moving this fast you want the eye to make sense of these mythic shapes. It’s easy to just shoot nonstop for a hour without seeing the composition, like the 1,000 monkeys typing Shakespeare. And that’s a waste of good silicon. So see what compositional ideas come and work fast.
And most of all, just have fun. I found that the hour I spent up in the clouds challenged me in all kinds of ways. I wished I could have afforded a private tour or gone back the next day and sat on the other side of the copter. Because there are amazing opportunities on a doors-off tour and a range of challenges we rarely face.
And don’t get bothered if you didn’t get as many keepers as usual. These nosebleed inducing images are unique, as abstract as sculptures by Henry Moore but vastly larger. If you get 5 good ones out of the mix, you’re better than most. And each image has a story behind it.