Blackout 42nd Street (Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times)
In a helicopter stability is the biggest obstacle. "Never lean out in the wind," Laforet says, "and never lean against any part of the helicopter." He has tried gyroscopic stabilizers but says they don't work well because they're made to keep the camera horizontally level and therefore fight against him when he shoots pointing downward. In his aerial work, Laforet has found Canon's image stabilization technology to be helpful with shorter focal length lenses but not notably effective at telephoto focal lengths.
Though he tries to keep his shutter speed at or above 1/1000th of a second, he often shoots at 1/500th or 1/250th and says he can even get sharp shots at speeds as low as 1/60th with a wide-angle lens.
Laforet has no reluctance to use ISO settings as high as 1600 on his EOS-1D cameras. "I'm shooting for newsprint, so that's really sucking up the grain," he says, "and I've been really happy with the EOS-1D's performance at high ISOs when you actually have good light. I'll bump the [ISO] up before I'll bump the shutter speed down."
Brooklyn Cab (Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times)
Fortunately, Laforet says, he rarely wants to shoot aerials in fading light anyway. "New York is pretty special in that there's so many tall buildings, and long shadows generally are not your friend. They'll ruin a lot of pictures. So I try to go two to three hours before sunset."
Besides the tall buildings, other obstacles to shooting New York from the air include the city's crowded air space and the bugaboo of nearly every photographer who's ever brought eye to viewfinder in a flying machine: the heaves.
"If you see something you can't just tell the pilot 'okay, stop'," explains Laforet. "You have to get every single move cleared by one of three air traffic control towers – Newark, LaGuardia, or JFK. So you've got to have a strong impulse to stop. It can't be just a little whimsical thing."
"And you can rarely hover at those altitudes. You're usually looping around something, and when you're looking through a four to six hundred millimeter lens, it really gets you. I'm really good with heights. I never get sick. But when I shoot with those long lenses, I do generally want to hurl."
To make effective pictures from the air, Laforet says, "I think you've got to really pay close attention to geometry – shapes and color. Very often you have to fight your instincts to stay loose and say, 'I'm going to go tighter, and see if it works.' At the same time, if you shoot it too tight, and you have no context, then it's [just strange looking]. You have to find that careful balance."
When he lands, Laforet hops in his car to drive the ten blocks to Times headquarters. He can set up his laptop on a small automobile desk apparatus that sits on the passenger seat, and he'll often download his CF cards during the drive. A stunning number of 512MB cards can be downloaded in ten blocks of crosstown Manhattan traffic.
Chrysler Building (Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times)
The images are transferred using a Zio USB 2.0 CF card reader. Until recently, Laforet's laptop was a 1GHz 12-inch Powerbook G4 with a 40GB hard drive and 512MB of RAM. As of this writing, he's using a 14-inch IBM Thinkpad T40 with a 1.5GHz Pentium M processor, 512MB of RAM, and a 40GB hard drive. (He's planning to get another, as yet unspecified, Mac for the Olympics.)
The images are "ingested" and automatically captioned by Photo Mechanic 4. Caption information is inserted into the IPTC fields of the images and includes date, city, state, country, Laforet's name, the newspaper's name, and a general content caption that's the same for every picture in a particular assignment. Later, in Photoshop, Laforet will add detailed content information such as subject names to the captions of individual photographs.
(Although the proximity of the helicopter landing pad to the Times building means Laforet usually drives his images back to the paper, he could, if necessary, transmit photos back to the office using Verizon NationalAccess, the cellular-based wireless Internet service that Times staffers use for transmitting images from the field.)
At the Times offices, Laforet usually shows his take to the photo editors on his laptop screen. If deadlines are short, he'll show the raw take. If he's had time to edit, he'll show only selects that he might have cropped or made tonal adjustments to in Photoshop. (He uses both version 7 and CS.)
The Times receives images into its database via FTP, so Laforet, when in the office, plugs his laptop into the Ethernet network and logs onto the FTP server using Fetch 4.0 (on the Mac) or WS_FTP Pro 8.0 (on the PC) to transfer his pictures into the paper's workflow.
With "Me and My Human" Laforet was fairly sure he had a special image and even made a mental note of which CF card it was on when he shot it. His editors liked it enough to run the picture on the front page of the February 23, 2004 edition as a standalone image – that is, it wasn't used to illustrate an article.
Two days later his in-box was filled with 200 e-mails about the picture, and his web site had 200,000 new hits.
Lunch Break (Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times)
Laforet likes the shot, too, but he's not so sure about all the hullabaloo. "It's just some people skating in a circle," he says again with a somewhat puzzled laugh.