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Archive for October, 2011

Chopper Work

Oct 31

In In The Field at 9:27am

Last week, I was tied to NYC, pleasantly so, via PPE, that annual, orgiastic, nearly pagan celebration of the pixels held at the Javits Center, hard by the Hudson.  It’s hard for me. I haven’t caught up to the last two new things yet, and here we are, face to face with the next new thing.

One good thing I did to clear my head was go airborne. I checked the weather, and NY was visited last week with one of those fall days, the kind of which happen only occasionally, a day that brushes over the city like a beautifully scented broom, sweeping the lingering, stale sweat of summer out to sea. As Bruce Cockburn sings, it lets the bad air out.

As a NY shooter, I almost feel it’s an almost religious obligation to update skyline views of NY. The city is dynamic, and the skyline changes and morphs over time. The energy down at the street can’t sprawl outwards—it ain’t Vegas, hemmed in by nothing but sand and cactus. In response to people, money, numbers, time, and the determination to recover from disaster, the heartbeat of the city pulses relentlessly upwards.

I made arrangements with Pete Zanlunghi of Air Metro, who I’ve flown with over twenty years. (Been flying so long over the city I flew with his dad, Chuck, who was the legendary dean of the chopper pilots who ply the nervous airways over the city.) I also called my bud, RC Concepcion, because I know he is in relentless search of good overviews of his hometown. I simply told RC I got us a spot with a great view. He was psyched. I called him back and told him to bring a sweater. I didn’t tell him our vantage point was going to have blades and a tail rotor.


I’ve got hundreds of hours by now in all manner of these nimble hummingbirds of the sky. In certain areas of the world, I’ve gotten into some prudence might have dictated avoiding, but then, I always feel, the pilot knows the machine, so I place my trust in that knowledge. It’s worked out so far. It’ actually really fun to cowboy around with bush pilots out in the hinterlands, in relatively uncontrolled airspace. They get their ya-ya’s out, and can park you in the sky in some some pretty cool places, like just about inside one of the dishes at the Very Large Array.

I even taught a helicopter workshop once, in Dubai. I was dubious. I mean, it’s hard to make a workshop out of, “Hold the camera steady, and point it at something interesting.” But, we did one day prep, and one flight the next morning, and as I thought my way into it, there was a fair amount of strategizing and, I don’t know, knack, might be a good word, that can be discussed. You do it, practice it, and eventually you develop a knack for it.

This particular workshop was interrupted by a huge fire that just blew up, while we were in the air. One of the Dubai skyscrapers just turned into a sixty story matchstick. Strange stuff happens up there sometimes.

Camera holding is crucial, obviously. I don’t use an external gyro, which is probably anathema to some airborne shooters. I just find them useless weight on the drag strip. I try to insulate the camera with my body, trying to cushion it against the vibration of the bird. I brace, anticipate the shot, and squeeze. I shoot on consecutive high, always, and try to be mindful of the buffer as I track into and approach the crucial frame.

Relationship with the pilot is key. Within the bounds of safety, it’s your bird, and it goes where you want it to go. The better chopper pilots are aware of the shadow the machinery can make in your picture, and maneuver to get themselves out of the frame. Pre-flight, even a brief one, is crucial. What are the visual objectives? How much air time can you budget for? How much time on station? Often, the vehicle comes in from somewhere else, and you have to pay for that transit time, and that will affect you fast you have to shoot and work.

(It’s also advisable to strip a loop of gaffer tape on the seat belt release. It’ll rip easily enough in an emergency, but it prevents it from accidently opening  by catching on a lens, or making a careless move.)

My workhorse lenses for chopper stuff are currently the 14-24, 24-70, 70-200mm zooms. Occasionally I’ll work the 200-400, which is actually a great chopper lens. I shot a couple of double trucks for a Geographic story on the electrical grid last year with that lens. (The wind towers are shot out of a Cessna—much harder platform to work off of than a helicopter.)

I also (gulp) work a 600 up there, which can get to be challenging. It’ not so much the weight of the glass, it’s the narrow field of view. If your bird hits wind, or is bouncing around, you can feel like you’re looking at the Zapruder film as you have your eye in the viewfinder. You’ve got to settle in with it, get as stable as you can, and make a series of runs.

We worked the harbor, and One World Trade, the East River and gave a birthday tip of the hat to the lady. We had some extra fill light on the city from RC’s ear to ear grin. I’m sure he’ll post some stuff over on G+.

It was fun to get out of the Javits Center and actually use some of those pixels.

More tk….

Beijing Update

Oct 12

In Links, Travels at 10:24am

Been back from Beijing for a bit now, and cranking away, finishing a new book, Sketching Light. I’ll be done writing in a couple of days, which is good, or I’m gonna go blooey. My long suffering editor at Peachpit, Ted Waitt, probably thinks I already have, and I’m holed up like the Unabomber in a shack someplace, with an old Royal typewriter and a kerosene lamp, laboriously typing out a change of heart manifesto titled, “Flash is Bad.”

Had the pleasure of shooting with a bunch of good photogs over there, Trey Ratcliff amongst them. He’s a terrific shooter, with an amazing touch for HDR. He also uses his Ipad as a bit of a flying carpet, zooming around, doing videos, interviews, and BTS stuff with it as he shoots. By contrast, Mongo here just use it to see movie on plane.

Very graciously, he shot a couple of chats we had and posted them up over on G+. We talked a bit about the picture above–this elegant Chinese musician at the Peony Pavilion opera. It’s an ISO 2000 shot on a D3S, out of camera, with no noise reduction. Not a photo to rattle anybody’s timbers, but I simply enjoyed the serenity and the expertise this young lady demonstrated during the performance. I found myself tuning into the music, honestly, more so than the actual staging of the show. Trey has since posted up a part 2 of the Ipad chat here. Speaking of Google Plus, we’re going to get more active on it shortly. Right now, just about every keystroke is about the book. Sigh….

Beijing was fascinating, as it has always been. Eventually going to post some stuff that dates back to my original visit there in 1987, but for now, thought I ‘d throw some stuff up from the recent trip.

At the Water Cube…..

Science Museum. Amazing the tools we have now. ISO 1600, D3S, 16mm fish, AF. I’m not looking through the camera. I’ve got it extended at arm’s length, over a glass splash board down into the bubble bath these kids are playing with. Try that with a non AF film camera….

More tk….

On-location (20 stories high) with Epson..

Oct 5

In In The Field, Jobs at 7:24am

Had a blast recently shooting a new ad campaign for Epson that is just starting to make its’ way into print. It was just one of those jobs where the client, the ad agency, and the shoot day just came together really smoothly.

Big part of that is the fact that we were working for Epson, and long time friend Dan Steinhardt. He’s their marketing manager for the Epson pro division. He’s also a heckuva photographer, and, as it turns out, a damn good art director as well. It was his collaboration with the terrific team from MC Saatchi LA that kept the whole deal on the rails. Which is a good thing, ’cause when you’re 20 stories up, and have people flying 15′ in the air, you want things to stay firmly on the rails.

When it started, for subject matter, the client/agency visual direction centered around kids. Maybe even…babies. Smiling through my tears, I said of course. I do lots of kids shoots, and enjoy it, and have done baby shoots, which are actually fun, if a bit stressful. (The little darlings!) But, here’s the great thing about working for another shooter. Dano mentioned that I should throw into my roster of presented ideas something I had always wanted to do. So I went to my rather lengthy photo shoot bucket list and checked one off. My ideas are often so whacked that the client immediately realizes I’m in desperate need of counseling, and they move on, or, they go…hmmm.

Dano asked for a few more notions. Back to the bucket list. What has been there, perennially, for me, is working with the Anti-Gravity dancers. I have worked with these amazing athletes, and their formidable founder and creative director Chris Harrison off and on for twenty plus years. But I had never had the chance to work with the aerial specialists (Rayshine Harris, Vitali Buza and Daniel Stover) who perform with the patented anti-gravity boots. These, once strapped onto the legs of dancers, gymnasts, and acrobats turn these already high flyers into Supermen. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

Which is kind of the visual we created. Flying, real time, over the NY skyline.

The rubber met the road on shoot morning. We of course had two locations paid for and reserved. The rooftop, and a warehouse interior for weather backup. Had to have a fall back, as the weather report was not a total green light. Dano and I talked. Okay…..yikes….gulp. Do we risk the roof? That’s where the better picture was, so we committed. That’s another great thing about working with a team like this. They have confidence in you, and follow the picture.

Have to say, it was a privilege not just working with Epson and the gang from Saatchi, but our own team of characters in NY pulled this off in amazing fashion. I was in heaven, working actually with two of the most astonishing producers in the business. Lynn and Lyn. Lynn is our own Lynn DelMastro, who has literally made a 9,000 pound elephant appear for me in the middle of a dry lake bed. And Lyn, is Lyn Wik, the peerless producer who rolled out all the international jobs we’ve shot for FedEx in the last 5 years. I knew, with both of them on the roof with me, it wouldn’t dare rain. We had also the usual wonderful gang of New York. Rapaz and Lenz, Cali and Grippi, Andrea Kennedy, aka AK, Kim the makeup mojo, and of course Drew Gurian, who shot the production pic. It was a bit of an upside down day (not referring to the moves of the dancers) in that we spent all day crafting the shot, but that shot, the ad shot if you will, runs small compared to the production shot. We had to pay attention to both, and make sure they both worked together, as the production picture was scheduled to run big. We couldn’t just toss it off, the way you often do when just making record snaps of the set.

The Gang!

The finished ad, in print now.

And, here’s a historical flash….working with Anti Gravity…..for literally 20 years now. High flyer below is Salina Bartunek, who went on to American Gladiator fame.

And of course, if there’s a dance group who will embody even the stranger bits of my imagination, it’s certainly Anti-Gravity. Below is a fashion test at what the meat district in NY used to look like. Now it’s the hottest real estate in the city. This location is just down the block from a huge new Apple Store. The city never sleeps!

More tk….

Changing New York

Oct 3

In history at 10:24am

Been rattling around the city quite a bit of late, and made a quick snap of what I presume is electronic sign maintenance at the north end of Times Square. TS has always been a whirlygig of light, but what it was, back in the 70′s, when I first moved into the Big Apple, was positively quaint compared to what’s out there now. Comparatively, it could have been the equivalent of an old movie marquee on a otherwise darkened main street in a small town somewhere, as opposed to the computer driven maelstrom of neon, LED, tungsten, merc vapor, and what-have-you sources of illumination that are out there now. There’s a tidal wave of wattage in Times Square, flaring across the masses, who respond with pinpricks of point and shoot flash in return. Those little flashes basically light the air five feet in front of the lens, but hey, in New York, that could be interesting air, and worthy of a flash solution.

A far cry from the first time I climbed the Coke signage at the upper reaches of the Square years ago.

As I said, quaint, right? Every bulb had to be changed by hand…..more tk…