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.