Some days my job is fun. Some days its really hard work. Once in a while it can be a bit scary. Rarely is it all three at once, but when it is I know at least I'll have a good story to tell. I was assigned by my paper to do arial photos of the New York City Marathon as it's runners crossed the Verrazano Bridge. It's such a great New York moment and deserves every bit of effort and preparation you can put into it to do something fresh. Getting to fly for it was something I'd never done and was really excited about it.
Now, one thing you learn in photo school, is your lens is only as good as the worst piece of glass on it. They tell you that so you buy a high quality filter to protect the front of a lens. After all, what good is it if your spend $2,000 on a lens and then put a $5 filter made of window glass on the front of it? Makes sense, right? Well, that same principle can be applied to something like a helicopter's window glass; If you can avoid it, you don't want to shoot through it. Now, whoever designs these helicopters normally doesn't put in roll down windows, so there's one obvious solution... Just take the whole door off.
When I walked onto the runway at Westchester County airport and saw the helicopter I would be flying in I was a bit taken aback by the size of it, or the lack thereof. Imagine a VW Bug with a propeller. Now, as you're taking off, imagine sitting in the backseat of said VW Bug and someone has taken the whole door off of it. There's you in your seat belt (not a harness mind you, but a seat belt) the open air, and 1,500 feet down to the Hudson river below. This might be a good time to mention I'm not wild about heights either.
After about a 20 minute flight past Manhattan (absolutely beautiful by the way) we got to the airspace around the bridge where there were 8 other helicopters all buzzing around the bridge looking for the best angle like us. My new helicopter pilot has never flown for these big New York news events before and was freaking out about the proximity of all the other helicopters. He enlisted me to help him as a spotter to find the other helicopters so we didn't crash into one another. I'm not the biggest wimp in the world but it is a bit scary when your pilot starts shouting, "Where'd the red one go!? I lost the red one! He was really close. Where is he?" At this point I'm not too reassured of my pilot's abilties and probably not focusing on the actual photography that much.
Now, back to imagining the backseat of that VW Bug with the door ripped off. Sometimes, shooting straight down to the ground can make a really cool picture in the way it flattens out the subject and makes for a very graphic, 2 dimensional picture, the effect can be quite nice. To do that picture, you have to bank the helicopter at at angle so you can hang out the window and shoot straight down on the crowds as they go across the bridge. 1000 feet up, one hand on your camera, the other hand on the most solid object you can find in the helicopter, and your heart firmly planted in your throat. Good times.
In the end the shoot went well. I got some pictures that I really liked and a good variety of different photos for my editors. They were really happy with the results, and so was I. But not nearly as happy as I was to have my feet back on the ground.