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Vincent Laforet's digital aerials
Friday, April 23, 2004 | by Eamon Hickey

What does it feel like to get admiring e-mails about one of your photographs from fans at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, from a former Life magazine picture editor, and from several hundred random strangers, all in the space of about two days? "I was pretty stunned," says New York Times staff photographer Vincent Laforet. "That picture has gotten more reaction than any photograph I've ever taken."

The image, called "Me and My Human," is an aerial view of ice skaters in Central Park that Laforet shot in February 2004 with a Canon EOS-1D. "And it's just a simple [picture]," he says. "It's a very mundane photograph of people skating in a circle. But that's the amazing part of aerial photography. You see the world from a different perspective, and you start to appreciate a different dimension."

"Me and My Human" is the most recent in a series of interesting pictures of New York City that Laforet has made from helicopters over the past three years. Pulling them off takes special flavors of the visual artistry, technical know-how, and resourcefulness that are basic qualities in any good professional photographer.

Me and My Human (Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times)

Laforet gets his minutes in the air whenever the Times has a laundry list of desired images that can't be shot from the ground. On the day that he shot "Me and My Human", for example, the list included proposed sites for two new sports stadiums in Brooklyn and Manhattan, a newly opened commuter rail station in Queens, as well as Yankee and Shea Stadiums.

When he gets such an assignment, Laforet says, "I tell [the pilot] 'this is what we have to do. It's boring. We'll do the best we can on it because this is what's paying for the flight, and then at the end of the hour let's shave off ten or fifteen minutes, and let's have some fun.'"

That basic plan, plus a little luck, landed Laforet his memorable ice skating image. He squeezed an extra few minutes out of that day's assignment and headed over Central Park with the notion of shooting ice skaters but no real idea of what he would find. Striking out at the first of Central Park's two ice rinks, he remembered the other, Lasker Rink, directed the pilot to head for it, and arrived just in time for everything to fall into place.

The photo was taken with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens zoomed out to nearly 400mm as Laforet's helicopter circled the rink. "We looped for about five minutes," Laforet recalls. "The helicopter is inclined when you're circling, so I'm contorting my body trying to keep everything lined up and waiting for something to happen. And then the woman skater did a pirouette. As soon as it happened, I knew I had it."

Central Park (Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times)

Laforet rents his helicopters from Liberty Helicopter Tours, a company whose main business is flying tourists around Manhattan. For his purposes, Laforet tries to get a helicopter with a sliding door or, failing that, a door that can be removed. He sits on the standard rear seat, belted in with the helicopter's stock five-point seat belt or, if one is available, a special mesh harness. Often, he dangles his legs out the side. And he seals the buckle of the seat belt or harness with gaffers tape. He acquired that habit after noticing, while flying over Florida one day, leg dangling out the open door, that "I have an uncanny ability to [accidentally] open my belt buckle with my camera straps."

Photographer Vincent Laforet (Photo by Lara Cerri)

Laforet takes three Canon EOS-1D bodies in the air with him. Generally, one body carries a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens, another is equipped with a Canon EF 28-70mm f/2.8L, and the third carries his 100-400. "The idea is you don't want to be changing lenses in the helicopter," Laforet says. "I've done that, and I've had little disasters." Even so, he also brings along a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L USM, which occasionally comes in handy.

"For me," Laforet says, "the revolutionary lens for aerial photography was the 100-400. It has allowed me to dump the big fixed lenses. I used to bring only prime lenses, and it would really break my back. And I think it's just too dangerous, because if you ever drop that thing..." He leaves the likely result unsaid but adds that he clips the straps of each of his cameras into his five-point harness and secures other items to the helicopter in similar fashion. That way, anything that slips out of his hand won't also slip out of the aircraft over, say, Fifth Avenue at lunch hour.

For picture storage, Laforet takes twelve 512MB Microtech CompactFlash cards, although he says he's never filled more than six in any single flight. He makes sure to format them before the flight and keeps them in a chest pocket where they're quickly accessible. Extra batteries and the 14mm are kept in a fanny pack.

Laforet shoots JPEGs almost exclusively. He almost always uses one of the manual white balance presets or dials in a direct Kelvin temperature (and in non-aerial work will sometimes check a test shot on his laptop to verify the color temperature). He turns in-camera sharpening off, and uses Color Matrix 1.

Sutton Place (Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times)

Laforet favors JPEG files for the obvious reasons: speed of processing/editing and smaller file size. "I tend to shoot a lot," he says, explaining that vibrations and the position of obstacles such as the helicopter's skids and rotors are impossible to predict. "So you counteract that by hammering [the motor drive]. Sometimes everything is moving so fast, you can't really see what you're shooting, and you just hope you get one good frame in there." At the same time, "you've got to be careful [about overshooting]. Editing aerials is really time-consuming, because it's all about little details. And I'm almost always doing it on deadline."

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