Tuesday, August 30, 2016

High altitude flight over New York with the Leica SL

The altitude limit for typical helicopter traffic over the city is 2000'. Above that and you enter into the jurisdiction of the local airport traffic control requiring permissions to move about. I did a recent blog post featuring sub-2000' aerials over New York. This time my flight took me up to 7500' over the city where I could shoot straight down and include the entire island of Manhattan in one photo. The idea of a high altitude flight like this is to capture the shape of the city defined by its lights.

My main camera for this flight was the Leica SL with a 24-90mm Leica Vario-Elmarit f/2.8-4 ASPH lens.  I find little reason to use a long zoom at high altitude, since the whole purpose is to include as much area as possible. The SL is a full-frame camera built on a very sturdy platform with a menu system that is extremely easy to navigate, a very helpful feature when flying at night in high winds and no doors. It also has a large accessible knob on top for changing the over-under exposure. This enabled me to set the camera in auto-aperture mode and simply adapt the exposure by turning just one knob.


When photographing night time aerials of a city there are three main considerations: The first is noise caused by using a high ISO.  The second is motion blur exacerbated by the moving helicopter coupled with gusting winds from the open doors, and movement from hand-holding the camera at low shutter speeds. Third is achieving a correct exposure that doesn't lose detail in the highlights when the camera tries to expose for the overall, dark scene.

I prefer not to go over 3200 ISO to keep the noise under control, and even like to drop that one or two stops by using a fast aperture lens. In this case I had a variable aperture f/2.8-4 zoom. An aperture of f/4 is more than I normally like, but I knew from experience that I would be using the lens mostly at the shorter 24mm focal length where it works at f/2.8. I often pack a second camera with an f/1.4 prime 24mm. This allows me to drop the ISO one to two stops or increase the shutter speed by the same amount. 

Our helicopter flight began over Governor's Island where we cork-screwed up to our cruising altitude of 7500' picking up different perspectives of the city as we went up.  This is a 24mm view from about a mile high. 
Using shorter focal length lenses also allows for shower shutter speeds to stop action. At 24mm I find that a minimum of 1/90th of a second is about as low as I can comfortably go before I begin picking up considerable blur. With the extreme motion caused by the moving helicopter and high winds, even 1/250 second can be a problem. The best way to protect against motion blur is to put your finger on the shutter release and hold it there to capture as many exposures as possible. I call this "bracketing the shutter". It is not uncommon to end up with only one in ten images acceptably sharp. 

Being able to compose and focus easily on the rear screen is a major plus for using a mirrorless camera, like the Leica SL
The Leica SL is a mirrorless camera, which is easier to use for night photography than a DSLR because you can compose and focus on the rear LCD. The winds were so strong that I found myself lifting the camera over my head and composing with the rear screen in an effort to keep it closer to the ceiling of the helicopter where the winds were calmer. 

In a tight shot like this of  brightly lit Broadway I under exposed by -2 to -2 1/2 stops to maintain detail in the extremely bright highlights. No need to worry about the shadow noise in a scene like this because the shadows are not important to the scene.
Achieving a correct exposure that holds highlight detail is a matter of under exposing the image from the meter reading. I find myself work at -1 to -2 stops under exposed depending upon the importance of the lit areas. When shooting in tight on something as brightly lit as Times Square at -2 stops was mandatory. When I pulled back to capture the entire city I set the camera to under-expose by only 1-1 1/2 stops. 

There is another technique I use, and that is to set the camera to auto-bracket by taking three shots. I combine this with a 1-stop underexposure setting to arrive at a final bracket of three images, one exposed for the meter plus a -1 and -2. 

This is what the city looks like facing south from over Central Park at our maximum 7500' altitude and a 24mm focal length.

The large knob on top of the camera made it extremely convenient to bracket my exposures with a simple twist. 
The Leica SL coupled with exceptional Leica optics delivered sharp results with no coma or blurring along the edges of the frame. The noise level, even at 3200, was very controllable in later post-processing, and the color rendition was spot on. I definitely found the SL to be absolutely the right tool for the job. 

The unique helicopter flight was supplied by FlyNYON, which specializes in offering photographers daily, open-door flights over the city -- definitely one of the most exhilarating ways of seeing New York.

High altitude flight over New York with the Leica SL

The altitude limit for typical helicopter traffic over the city is 2000'. Above that and you enter into the jurisdiction of the local airport traffic control requiring permissions to move about. I did a recent blog post featuring sub-2000' aerials over New York. This time my flight took me up to 7500' over the city where I could shoot straight down and include the entire island of Manhattan in one photo. The idea of a high altitude flight like this is to capture the shape of the city defined by its lights.

My main camera for this flight was the Leica SL with a 24-90mm Leitz Vario-Elmarit f/2.8-4 ASPH lens.  I find little reason to use a long zoom at high altitude, since the whole purpose is to include as much area as possible. The SK is a full-frame camera built on a very sturdy platform with a menu system that is extremely easy to navigate, a very helpful feature when flying at night in high winds and no doors. It also has a large accessible knob on top for changing the over-under exposure. This enabled me to set the camera in auto-aperture mode and simply adapt the exposure by turning just one knob.


When photographing night time aerials of a city there are three main considerations: The first is noise caused by using a high ISO.  The second is motion blur exacerbated by the moving helicopter coupled with gusting winds from the open doors, and movement from hand-holding the camera at low shutter speeds. Third is achieving a correct exposure that doesn't lose detail in the highlights when the camera tries to expose for the overall, dark scene.

I prefer not to go over 3200 ISO to keep the noise under control, and even like to drop that one or two stops by using a fast aperture lens. In this case I had a variable aperture f/2.8-4 zoom. An aperture of f/4 is more than I normally like, but I knew from experience that I would be using the lens mostly at the shorter 24mm focal length where it works at f/2.8. I often pack a second camera with an f/1.4 prime 24mm. This allows me to drop the ISO one to two stops or increase the shutter speed by the same amount. 

Our helicopter flight began over Governor's Island where we cork-screwed up to our cruising altitude of 7500' picking up different perspectives of the city as we went up.  This is a 24mm view from about a mile high. 
Using shorter focal length lenses also allows for shower shutter speeds to stop action. At 24mm I find that a minimum of 1/90th of a second is about as low as I can comfortably go before I begin picking up considerable blur. With the extreme motion caused by the moving helicopter and high winds, even 1/250 second can be a problem. The best way to protect against motion blur is to put your finger on the shutter release and hold it there to capture as many exposures as possible. I call this "bracketing the shutter". It is not uncommon to end up with only one in ten images acceptably sharp. 

Being able to compose and focus easily on the rear screen is a major plus for using a mirrorless camera, like the Leica SL
The Leica SL is a mirrorless camera, which is easier to use for night photography than a DSLR because you can compose and focus on the rear LCD. The winds were so strong that I found myself lifting the camera over my head and composing with the rear screen in an effort to keep it closer to the ceiling of the helicopter where the winds were calmer. 

In a tight shot like this of  brightly lit Broadway I under exposed by -2 to -2 1/2 stops to maintain detail in the extremely bright highlights. No need to worry about the shadow noise in a scene like this because the shadows are not important to the scene.
Achieving a correct exposure that holds highlight detail is a matter of under exposing the image from the meter reading. I find myself work at -1 to -2 stops under exposed depending upon the importance of the lit areas. When shooting in tight on something as brightly lit as Times Square at -2 stops was mandatory. When I pulled back to capture the entire city I set the camera to under-expose by only 1-1 1/2 stops. 

There is another technique I use, and that is to set the camera to auto-bracket by taking three shots. I combine this with a 1-stop underexposure setting to arrive at a final bracket of three images, one exposed for the meter plus a -1 and -2. 

This is what the city looks like facing south from over Central Park at our maximum 7500' altitude and a 24mm focal length.

The large knob on top of the camera made it extremely convenient to bracket my exposures with a simple twist. 
The Leica SL coupled with exceptional Leica optics delivered sharp results with no coma or blurring along the edges of the frame. The noise level, even at 3200, was very controllable in later post-processing, and the color rendition was spot on. 

The unique helicopter flight was supplied by FlyNYON, which specializes in offering photographers daily, open-door flights over the city -- definitely one of the most exhilarating ways of seeing New York.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Conceptual layering in Photoshop

Worked on yet another conceptual composite image, this one of a model's portrait combined with a palm leaf background using layering in Photoshop. For this setup the palm leaves layer was above the model's face and the layer set to "Overlay".  A separate gold/yellow layer of pure color was put underneath everything else and the upper layers painted out wherever I needed to soften their detail.



Saturday, August 27, 2016

Mixing daylight and tungsten light

We were doing some photos with a hand model in the studio this week. For this scene of a glass globe in the model's hand I used a single tungsten light from the right mixed with natural daylight from the window on the left. Later in Adobe Camera Raw I enhanced the colors to increase the contrast between the blue daylight and the yellow tungsten. I also darkened the left side considerably to achieve the day-into-night effect.

The photo was taken with a Nikon D750 and Nikon 85mm tilt/shift macro lens. I like using a tilt/shift lens for close-up work because it allows me to control the focus areas by tilting the lens instead of having to close down the aperture too much.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Multiple exposure for mood

Yesterday we were experimenting in the studio with creating cloudy backgrounds by swirling food coloring in water. Later I combined one of these images with two photographs of a model, one a portrait, the other a full silhouette of her walking. The idea was to create a moody background image.

The photos of the model were done against a white seamless and layered over the color swirls with their layer modes changed to "Light" in Photoshop. This resulted in the white areas blocking the layer beneath while the darker areas would allow the colors to pass through.




Friday, August 19, 2016

New York night time aerials - balancing the light

Photographing a city at night from a helicopter will often challenge a digital camera's ability to hold onto detail in both the shadows and highlights. With a city, like New York, the timing of the shoot is critical and generally should be done early in twilight time. In New York civil twilight lasts for about 30 minutes after the sun drops below the  horizon. When photographing the extreme bright city lights of Broadway, it is best to begin as soon as the sun goes down to maintain a light balance that contains detail in both the artificial lights and the sky.




Last night I had planned a 30 minute helicopter trip that would begin right after sunset -- the timing chosen to provide a good dynamic range at the beginning of the shoot, and drop down to harder contrast for drama at the end. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed by a critical 10-15 minutes and we ended up photographing the end of twilight into the actual night time. I knew from experience that the highlights were going to blow out under these circumstances so to protect myself I set my cameras -  I had two cameras with wide lenses -- to bracket the exposure. At first I set them for a 3-frame bracket, and as the twilight transitioned into night I changed that to a 5-frame bracket each one stop apart. This provided me with at least one exposure where the lights did not completely burn out and I could still pull out some detail in post-processing from the shadows.


For this photo and the one below I had to rely on one of the darker bracketed shots to maintain detail in the bright highlights. They were completely blown out in the "normal" exposure of the scene. 


Here is an example of where a bracketed exposure helped me balance out the dynamic range of the scene that included the extremely bright lights of Broadway signage.

The city looking south with Broadway lit up on the right. By the time I took this photo including the Broadway lights it was already night time. Detail in the brightest Broadway signs were impossible to balance with the ambient tone.

For anyone interested in doing a doors-off, exciting experience of helicopter check out FLYNYON. It is one of the most exciting ways to photograph New York, day or night. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Lightning storm over Manhattan

For the past week or so we've been treated to late afternoon and evening thunderstorms with dramatic cloud formations often accompanied by lightning strikes. Last night we had a dry storm with lightning. I set up my X-Pro2 on a tripod to try to capture some of the strikes. With an aperture of f/11 and ISO 200 (This is when I wish Fuji had a lower 100 as the base ISO.) I ended up with a shutter speed of 4 seconds. When photographing lightning you need to keep snapping away with a slow shutter speed. In this case, I was using a 4 second exposure. I usually time my exposures by waiting several seconds after a strike and then opening the shutter for a time exposure. Then you've got to be lucky.