Taking a scenic flight amongst NZ's mountains is undoubtedly one of the best ways to see the incredible shape and details of the landscapes and to get up close and personal with our amazing mountain scenery. Imagine flying past our tallest mountain Aoraki Mount Cook, getting so close you can almost touch it, or seeing the jaw-dropping vertical cliffs of Milford Sound above. No matter where you fly, the experience is bound to stay with you forever, but it's not always easy to do justice to what you've seen with your camera so that you can keep these memories for all time.
Taking images through plane windows can be quite difficult with reflections and glare, and experienced aerial photographers might tell you that they only shoot through open windows or with the doors-off. Even though this is the ideal, it's not always viable nor cheap to arrange a flight with these options. The majority of us have to work with shooting through aircraft windows, so I have a few tips to work around this.
Then there's the fact you need to shoot at a relatively fast speed to take into account the plane vibrations, let alone allowing for settings to compensate for low light if you are shooting during sunrise or sunset. You also have to be sure your camera is focusing well on moving subjects as you're flying past the mountains at speed too. Here are my 5 Top Tips for ensuring great images from your experience and a review of NZ's Best Scenic Flights:
Polarisers are an essential tool for any landscape photographer's kit, and I wouldn't dream of taking a scenic flight without one. They help hugely to cut the glare and reflections from the plane windows and accentuate the colours of the sky in your shots, whether that's blue skies in the middle of the day or pastel hues during sunrise or sunset. I take my Kase Filters 82mm magnetic CPL and attach this to the front of my lens without the need for any kind of holder, it's slim and works a treat!
Another tip is to wear dark clothing and not have anything with you that can cause reflections on the glass - sometime even holding up your camera with a camera strap that has writing on or is different colours can show up in your shots. You could go further and purchase a rubber lens hood that you can attach or hold up to the glass, but these can be bulky and you might find flight companies don't want you to use them on their windows - so always check rather than assuming it's OK.
Getting great shots from a plane also requires the use of the right lens and focal length. More often than not, you have to zoom in to avoid plane wings or struts (though this is not such an issue from a helicopter), and you want to be able to zoom right into the mountain peaks. For this reason, I shoot with my Sony 24-70mm f2.8 GM lens - it's wide enough to get a good shot of mountain ranges with valleys below but also allows you to zoom into the peaks to bring them up close. If you can shoot with a lens that goes down to f2.8 you'll find it easier to shoot in low light too.
You can have all the right clothing and equipment but it can still be hard to get the shot right in camera. This is due to the fact the aircraft is moving at speed and causing vibrations. So how do you set yourself up with the best chance of success? Firstly, shoot with a fast shutter speed - I recommend no slower than 1/500 seconds. I then change my aperture and ISO during a flight depending on the available light - for a sunrise flight if you are shooting before the sun is up, you might have use a combo of f/4 and ISO 800 - yes your shots will be a bit grainy as a result, but this is unavoidable and it's better to have a bit of grain while still producing sharp shots with a fast shutter speed. I always adjust my settings throughout the flight, as the light gets brighter I'll move towards a higher aperture - say up to f/8 and also lower the ISO to 400 or below.
If you fly during the middle of the day, then low light generally won't be an issue and you can keep your settings quite fast - think 1/500 to 1/1000 for shutter speed, f/8 for aperture and ISO 100 for the best combination.
Having taken flights at all times of the day, I can say with certainty sunrise or sunset flights are by far THE BEST. The light and hues at this time of the day create far more beautiful images than shooting in the harsher daytime light which produces contrasty light and shadows and often you'll end up with the same blue skies in all your shots. You may not be able to choose a sunrise or sunset for your scenic flight, but if there are flight time options, I would always aim for early morning or late afternoon rather than right in the middle of the day for better lighting conditions.
The seasons can also make a big difference to the look and feel of your images. The holy grail is to fly in winter when there is snow on the mountains and the light is generally softer, but flights at other times of the year are still worth exploring.
In my many years of visiting the South Island for photography, I have flown on many flights in different locations with different companies, all of which have incredible and varying views. Here's some useful info on each one:
This was my first ever scenic flight in the South Island, needless to say I had my eyes on stalks the entire trip. The flight leaves from Tekapo so you have a chance to enjoy aerial views of both Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki on the journey towards Mt Cook. You then get to enjoy views of all the main peaks of Mt Cook National Park, a brief glimpse of the West Coast Glaciers as well as Hooker and Tasman Lakes, and the braided Tasman River valley on the return journey. Being my first ever flight, I was a bit of a novice and I'm not sure I really did the experience justice with my camera but I was still on a huge high from everything I saw.
Being able to fly in both a ski plane and a helicopter on the same trip was pretty unique, travelling in a ski plane on the way up and helicopter on the way back. This flight takes you up to the very top of Tasman Glacier and you land there to enjoy the views of the glacier which include incredible ice formations and pristine, deep powder snow. The snow was so deep in fact that I lost my sunglasses and my friend nearly lost her cellphone in it! On the return journey we passed so close to the top of Aoraki Mount Cook that I really felt I could have touched the peak.
This was a unique moment to experience, standing on Tyndall Glacier not long after the Australian bush fires and seeing the extent of the smoke that had drifted all the way across the Tasman Sea. It actually turned the ice on the glacier brown! The views of Mt Aspiring, the waterfalls cascading down below Rob Roy Glacier and the Matukituki Valley as we headed back to base were also amazing.
It was my first time seeing the Fiordland mountains from the air, and what an experience! We chose not to do the Cruise part of the trip having been out in Milford Sound on other occasions, instead enjoying the opportunity to visit Lady Bowen Falls up close (you can book a water taxi to get over the harbour at the Milford Sound terminal). For me, the highlight of this trip was flying right into the Lake Quill amphitheatre and seeing the sheer scale of the V-shaped mountain valleys stretching off into the distance (if you've watched Mission Impossible - Fallout you'll see this exact route in the movie). If you want to read a more detailed review of this flight, check out my post here.
I was so wowed by my first experience flying to Milford Sound that I vowed to bring my husband the next time AND do it in winter with more snow on the mountains. So I returned a year later and took him on a belated birthday trip as we'd been in NZ's COVID lockdown on our actual birthdays. It was amazing to see the mountains with an icing sugar dusting of snow and on this flight path we were also able to get extensive views up and down the West Coast, as well as flying past Mt Tutoko, Fiordland's highest mountain.
Glenorchy Air - Mt Aspiring & The Glaciers Sunrise (1 hour 15 min, autumn, departs Queenstown)
This was a new flight introduced by Glenorchy Air over winter 2020 and I missed out on doing it that year, so when I had a few days spare in Queenstown after my Autumn workshop in 2021, it was top of my list of things to do. Mount Aspiring is one of NZ's most impressive peaks, often likened to the Matterhorn in Switzerland for its sheer angle at the top. Seeing the sun appear over the horizon and kiss the tip of the mountain was a pretty magical moment. We also flew back via Mt Earnslaw, over the Rees Valley and down the length of Lake Wakatipu on our return leg, and it was a truly incredible morning.
Lake Heron Station - Southern Alps Sunrise Flight (1 hour, winter, departs Lake Heron)
My most recent (and now my favourite!) flight was with Philip Todhunter, the owner of Lake Heron Station in his private plane while staying at the station. My 3 workshop attendees and I went on a sunrise flight with Philip, starting with a journey over the Rakaia River, followed by several loops around Mt Evans and Mt Whitcombe, and views of Aoraki Mt Cook in the distance as the sun came up. I think you'll agree from these images it was truly sensational light. We could also see all the way out to the West Coast, and deep into valleys with aqua lakes below. On the homeward leg, we flew back via Mt D'Archaic and the Ashburton Lakes (Lake Clearwater, Lake Camp and Lake Heron). What made this flight so special was the incredible hues before sunrise turning the sky pink, and then the golden light on the mountains after sunrise, memories that will live on in my images and mind's eye for years to come.
I hope that these tips and reviews are helpful for you planning your next flight in NZ. And if you have been on a different scenic flight that you recommend, I would love to hear about it!
Sign up to my newsletter to get all the good stuff!