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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….

28 Responses to “Chopper Work”

Mark Olwick says:

on October 31, 2011 at 9:31 am

Livin’ the dream!

Fernie Castillo says:

on October 31, 2011 at 10:06 am

Joe, you’ve done it again…amazing! Your ability to show the different vantage points is perplexing. Thanks for sharing…keep up the great work!

Mark Benigno says:

on October 31, 2011 at 10:51 am

Glad to see you shooting downtown in my hood! Sunset through WTC1 is great! I have always wanted to get up and over the city like this. I may be getting in touch with Pete soon.

john says:

on October 31, 2011 at 10:58 am

Amazing vantage points here! I’d love to get the opportunity to get up in a chopper and take photos like this… maybe one day

Kristina J says:

on October 31, 2011 at 11:49 am

Joe, how close did the Cessna get to the wind towers?

Thanks for another cool post, I love aerial photos.

Ahmed Sharif says:

on October 31, 2011 at 1:54 pm

wonderful examples of extreme vantage point!!
they give a lotta power to the photographer… and to the viewer too!!

pete collins says:

on October 31, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Joe, you had your chance… I could hear it now…
“Well you see officer, it was RC’s first time in a chopper and I told him not to get too excited and move around…and well he just got too close to the edge…and well… Dang I am going to miss him.” :D

ron hiner says:

on October 31, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Joe… this is awesome! Lynn has my phone number — she must have called the day I forgot to charge my phone. I’m glad RC got the seat! ;-)
thanks .. this is really really cool.
Ron

Tim Skipper says:

on October 31, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Love these images.

Jay Mann says:

on November 1, 2011 at 2:26 am

Always nice to see you having fun. Whenever I have been in a flying eggbeater, we were not allowed to have loose objects in the cabin, like cameras. :(

Cris da Rocha says:

on November 1, 2011 at 5:38 am

This must be a very nice thing to do.

BTW, the picture of the VLA is simply amazing!!

Apratim Saha says:

on November 1, 2011 at 8:18 am

A great post Joe ! Great pictures !

Jason says:

on November 1, 2011 at 8:19 am

Shooting doors-off is quite a thrill, isn’t it? I did some pro bono work for a local chopper company as they wanted some product shots to use on their website. A couple nice 16×20′s came out of the shoot – more are here, along with my own take on shooting from a helicopter for the first time:

http://www.canonblogger.com/2010/12/17/shooting-is-for-the-birds-eye/

Cindy Dyer says:

on November 1, 2011 at 8:47 am

Joe! What a great post all around…amazing photos and such a great vantage point. I’ve decided that I want to be you in my next life!

Debra says:

on November 1, 2011 at 8:52 am

Joe, as always, thank you. Your photos are a love letter from home for a displaced east coaster like me. And your words are poetry, for the city you clearly know and love as well. Your “birthday tip of the hat to the lady” is exquisite.

Dave Finley says:

on November 1, 2011 at 9:22 am

Joe, I remember well that flight over the VLA, because I’d hitched a ride. It was a great day, with good light, and the pilot did an excellent job. I’m still using some of my shots on the observatory’s web site.

Dave Finley, Socorro, New Mexico

Linda Brinckehroff says:

on November 1, 2011 at 9:28 am

OH NO! You have jsut dosed my helicopter-junkie addiction! Jeff at Cloud-9 Helicopters in Palm Beach Gardens, FL is my favorite pilot. It is beyond cool to soar above the flying cranes through the Everglades, count Manatees in Jupiter inlet and just to be nosy, hover over Tiger Woods’ house. It’s not just the view, but something about that shaking while you try to get a steady shot. Nikon VR lenses do come in handy. Thanks for the tip about gaffer tape on the seat belt.

Tony Bynum says:

on November 1, 2011 at 9:44 am

Joe, very fun trip and thanks for sharing the images! After enjoying the photos, i had to return to the shot of you with the 600. . . you’re shooting with the door off, are you really untethered? Not a critique as much as an observation. Having done a good bit of aerial photography myself, that shot makes me quiver . . . No disrespect, just concern . . . Tony

ivan mendez says:

on November 1, 2011 at 10:13 am

joe thank for many ideas and make your experiences ours

Maria Sacadura says:

on November 1, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Great pictures. Thank you for sharing .

Will Dochertaigh says:

on November 1, 2011 at 7:28 pm

I work at WTC, have since ’93. I shoot engineering photos as part of my job plus tens of thousands of reconstruction progress, even quite a few worthy of fine art printing n framing.
But these – WOW!! Absolutely stunning!!

xar nicolo bayot says:

on November 1, 2011 at 9:15 pm

very nice!!!! i love your job. the image of the statue of liberty was simply amazing!

Albert says:

on November 3, 2011 at 7:00 pm

That’s great,I like it.

Anirban Chatterjee says:

on November 4, 2011 at 8:00 am

Is it me or in reality the structure in the 3rd photo (left bottom corner) actually looks like a zoom lens of a compact camera :0

Rick Lewis says:

on November 6, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Just incredible stuff!! Thanks Joe!

Alberto says:

on November 6, 2011 at 9:48 pm

So it was you flying around downtown while I was getting married ;)

Tom says:

on November 7, 2011 at 9:25 am

Fantastic aerial shots. Really good work

Hotel en Cerler says:

on November 7, 2011 at 11:24 am

lovely images

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