I have a Canon T3i with the 18-55mm kit lens and the 55-250mm, both with Image stabilization. I will be in an open doored helicopter in a tropical setting-waterfalls etc-during the mid-late morning shortly. Any advice re choice of lens, need for filter, hood, camera adjustments... to get the best shots.


Your primary lens should be the 18-55mm. Helicopters have very few air restrictions and therefore will be getting close to the landscape. The wide angle will also reduce blur from vibration and movement.

A circular polarizer will only be needed if sunny. Skip it on a cloudy day to keep your shutter speed high. Only exception is if your shots are getting destroyed by reflections clipping in your shots.

If it's a doors-open flight, invest in a wrist strap. You'll be amazed by the photos you can capture with getting the camera out the door and capturing the side of the helicopter, but it's a moot point if your camera ends up part of the landscape below. Don't worry too much about wind, though, it's not as bad as you would think and you can comfortable get your hand 1-2 feet out and for a quick shot. Just get a wrist strap.

Hood would be helpful since cheaper lenses don't handle flair well. Take it off if the camera is going out into the wind.

If you're uncomfortable with a bunch of settings, sport mode is an easy fix. It will give you a wide aperture for a fast shutter speed.

Be mindful if when the helicopter is moving and especially when it is not. Your best opportunities are when it stops moving. Vibration increases slightly in a hover, though, so don't think you can slow down your shutter. When moving quickly, you may find yourself having to pan your shots at longer focal lengths. This is a sign that your shutter is too slow, but you'll save yourself some quality as opposed to not panning.

Side note: use the helicopter as a prop for some of your images! This is a great "wow" factor since it provides perspective. Army aviation specialist, photographer, and licensed pilot here. You hit a favorite topic of mine :)


My advice: aim for short shutter speed.

(considering the vibrations of the helicopter and possible high focal length)

  1. Watch the shutter speed: your focal length x 1.6 (crop factor) x 2 (or even 3) - added for the helicopter. For example for 250 mm you need: 250 x 1.6 x 2 = 800 - that is 1/800 shutter speed

  2. Most probably you'll have sun. Hence a good Circular Polarizer will help you. I'd recommend Marumi as a best price/performance ratio. I have them and I'm very pleased.

  3. Watch out at your wide(st) aperture. Because of CPL and your high shutter speed, it is likely to hit it. Not too much because of DoF issues but rather of resolution decrease which happens at these apertures, especially with cheap lenses like yours.

Hence I'd recommend to set up both your Tv (shutter priority) and M (manual mode) accordingly and try to use most the manual mode if your ISO stays in an acceptable range for your camera (100-400-800?)


Do not let any part of your camera or lens to make contact with the helicopter. Keep the image stabilizer on and use a fast shutter-speed. You biggest enemy is vibration so these together will reduce how many blurry shots you get.

Increase your odds of getting a sharp image but using continuous drive too. You can keep the hood on which is always a good idea.

A polarizer may help but you will lose at least one stop of light, plus your lenses are slow, so I would guess it will work out better without it.


I agree with most of what John Thomas said, but have a few minor differences.

Shutter speed will certainly be the most important, but even on a fairly cheap body, you'll be shooting in broad daylight, so it shouldn't be that big of a problem. Just make sure to shoot Tv mode so that you can ensure the shutter speed stays fast.

The circular polarizer is also a must have. You will be shooting from an elevated position and will get reflections of light off anything water. If you aren't doing a doors off tour, then you will also be shooting through plexiglass that can reflect what is inside the cabin. Polarized filters will help with both of these situations.

A lens hood would be helpful for preventing lens flare, particularly with your cheaper lenses, but is probably secondary to being able to get a) closer to the plexiglass (without touching) if shooting doors on and b) being able to make adjustments to your circular polarizer. If shooting doors on, another option is to get a skirt that you can attach to the plexiglass and the lens hood. This prevents light from reflecting off the plexiglass and will give a clearer shot out the window.

Since you are spending a bunch on a helicopter ride, this may also be a decent time to consider a faster prime lens to shoot with too. You can get an EF 100mm f/2 lens for $500 and would give you far faster shutter speed and better image quality than your cheaper lenses. 150mm might be a little bit short for some shots, but the extra shutter speed may be worth it. (I'd call it a toss up on being worth it, more so worth it if you'd have other uses for the lens after.)

Other helicopter specific advice, if you haven't actually booked yet, be aware of if it is a doors on or doors off tour. Doors off will afford you better quality photos, but it will make changing lenses far less advisable due to the windy conditions. Similarly, doors on will make lens changes easier, but you will have to shoot through plexiglass that will make your life more difficult.

You also want to go either early or late in the day if possible. If you are going with a decent tour company, then they should be able to advise you about the best time of day for photography at your location and time of year of your tour.

Finally, you want to make sure you can get an edge seat, preferably front of the helicopter. This will allow you the greatest range of visibility to be able to have the most options of things to photograph. Many helicopter tour operators distribute people by weight rather than seat preference, but with some searching you can find places that will allow seat requests or even places that offer smaller, more private tours aimed specifically at photography.

If you happen to be going to Hawaii and haven't booked yet or can change your reservation, I would be happy to offer some advice on helicopter companies. I ended up canceling my helicopter ride due to costs since we're saving for a house right now, but I did a bunch of research.

  • The OP specifically said the helicopter will be open door. Apr 19 '14 at 21:17
  • @OlinLathrop - so he did, though having info for both on and off is useful for future people with the same question.
    – AJ Henderson
    Apr 20 '14 at 0:12

My advice: wear black clothes to have less reflections in the plexiglass.

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