On Assignment: Night Chopper, Pt. 1

In this two-part On Assignment, we'll be walking through a night shoot of a Bell 407 helicopter, photographed for the Howard County Police Department earlier this month.

Just like the CFL On Assignments, we'll break this one up into two parts: Planning and problem solving first, then the shoot itself. Keep reading to learn more about the prep, to be followed next week by a walk-through of the night shoot.

Visualizing the Photos

Normally, when I shot aerials for The Sun, we would fly in a dinky little Toys R Us Robinson R-22 helicopter with the door removed. You say a little prayer, try not to put your full weight down and knock off your shot list with an 80-200mm. If you keep your camera on a shutter speed higher than a 1/500th of a sec everything is usually hunky dory.

What I wanted for this shot was ground-to-air shooting, at dusk, with the chopper's interior lit by a group of SB-800s. I explained the idea to pilot (and, fortunately, former Sun shooter) Perry Thorsvik, and he was up for it.

If it worked, it would be pretty cool, and would hopefully produce some neat photos. But there were several problems that would have to be solved first.

First Problem: Flash Sync

Apologies in advance for the Pocket Wizard geek-out session here, but I was going for as much range as possible.

I knew I would be using PWs, but it would be a stretch even for them. To complicate matters, mine were the old "Plus" models which were only rated to 800 feet.

The new Plus II's are rated to 1600 feet. But even if I dug into the wallet for a set, that 1600 feet does not account for things like the metal fuselage of the helicopter and RF interference from the avionics. So the first order of business would be figuring out a way to improve the reliability and range of what were already the best remotes going.

So I sprung for two new Plus II's. Not cheap, but fortunately they are compatible with with my Plusses -- and every previous model PW has produced. So I could be assured of at least one 1600-foot capable signal between the camera and one of the flashes in the helicopter.

I decided to try to improve my odds by putting one of my older Wizards on every flash in the aircraft, and to set the SB-800's into slave mode.

A quick test showed the flashes would sync in both modes simultaneously -- way cool. This meant that if even a single PW'd flash picked up a radio signal to fire, all of my flashes would go off. This worked brilliantly, and gave me both more range and more reliability than a single PW.

Again, those SB-800s aren't cheap. But having both a PC jack and a super slave built in makes them fantastic little speedlights.

I also considered using a second PW Plus II transmitter, in relay mode, (explained here) to broadcast a simultaneous second sync signal on a different channel. The I could put at least one PW receiver on that second channel to get another layer of signal diversity.

But that would have involved buying a third Plus II to daisy chain the relaying PWs together, so the kids would have had to eat cat food for an extra week. Ummm, no.

Second Problem: Light Design

I did some research on the Bell 407. This gave me an idea of what to expect when I went to the airport to scout the actual helicopter I would be shooting in the air later.

Next step was to pop over to the airport to see if I could light it realistically with a few flashes.

Think of the chopper's interior as a tiny, two-room suite with big windows, small pass-throughs around the headrests and transparent floors in the front. Not an easy place to hide lights -- especially when you also are trying to mimic the ambient that would exist in the cabin.

BTW, that last idea is also known as "motivated" lighting. It is old-school, classic MoLaD stuff. There should be a logic to the light, or it just looks unreal.

You wanna stick an up-lighting SB in a toilet, knock yourself out. But just because it looks cool, doesn't mean it is going to register as logical to the viewer's brain. So the idea is to imitate -- but shape and amplify -- the light that might normally be there.

So I decided to go with gelled, diffused SB's in the front and back. I wanted the light to be omnidirectional, like the cabin's ambient light fixtures. Same principal as with the motorhome in Lighting 101.

A 1/2 CTO on the back cabin lights and a 1/2 CTB on the front would give me two options: First would be cool, instrument panel pilot lights and warm cabin lights. Or, I could lasso and easily color shift the whole cabin warmer in Photoshop, to give me daylight pilot lights and full CTO back cabin lights. I liked the idea of having that choice after the fact.

No real good place to mount motivated lights, either. Especially the one(s) that will ape the lights coming from the instrument panels. All of the glass will mean I can see the cabin. But I will also be able to see many places I would like to stick a flash.

Ugh. Not good.

I need at least one bare-bulb light coming from relatively high in the back, and a light coming from low front. I considered a Lumiquest Soft Box II, on top of the instrument panel but even that was too big -- and not omnidirectional enough. Not to mention too high.

Besides, there was no good real estate on the panel in which to mount the flash. I decided to file that little problem away for later. (Procrastinators: The leaders of tomorrow...)

I always like to test as much as possible, and this shoot was certainly not gonna be an exception to that rule. So, my stand-in chopper a few evenings before the shoot was our Toyota Highlander, parked in an empty lot at dusk. Not exactly an Apache Longbow, but it'll do for testing purposes.

This gave me a little more confidence in both the lighting design and the sync range. Although the former would have to be adjusted when we saw the results in the helicopter later. And the lights would be subject to additional problems with the high visibility and RF noise in the cabin while flying. Still, this kind of exercise helps me to not worry as much before the shoot.

Third Problem: Flash / Ambient Balance

This was the one I was saving until last. (Well, before I put off figuring out the front light position, anyway.)

I have pretty much figured out how to do the ambient/flash balance thing by now. It's all about shutter speed manipulation. But what if your ambient will be quickly dropping, and the rotors only look right on the fast-moving chopper at speeds of 1/100th or below.

I could decide to shoot through my ambient light window, and then try to get someone to quickly adjust all of the lights down two stops when it got too dark. Then I open my aperture (or bump the ISO) to get some ambient shutter speed back.

But since I could not count on an SB-savvy passenger in the chopper, I would have to live with the window and try to stretch it as much as possible. I would start shooting at 1/125 -- but do so when the sky was one stop too hot at my shooting aperture. Then I would let the sky settle into the right exposure. That would buy me a little time.

As the sky further dropped, I would open my shutter until I got to my bottom limit (say, 1/50th). As it dropped still more, I would keep my shutter speed constant and underexpose the sky as the ambient fell more. That would stretch my window even more, and I could fix it some in Adobe Camera Raw if need be.

So, there was everything that I could control before the shoot. The biggest wild card turned out to be the weather, which rained us out at least three times. But we finally got out to the fairgrounds on a nice night.

In Part 2, we'll look at the shoot, and those last couple of pesky problems.


NEXT: Night Chopper, Pt. 2


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Anonymous very1silent said...

I remain somewhat surprised that you didn't go for the radiopoppers on this shoot. You'd have had the ability to remotely control your flashes, and to use FP sync. This would have consistently allowed you to use a faster shutter speed, and to adjust the flash power to match the ambient, giving you a longer shooting window.

Heck, you could have set up both pocket wizards and the radiopoppers, and used each for part of the shoot.

June 30, 2008 10:21 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Strobist is back. I've missed this kind of stuff.

June 30, 2008 11:29 AM  
Blogger David said...

This is *way* out of RP range, Very1Silent.

In fact, the tweaking got uw extra sync range from the PW's, which are the 600-lb Gorillas WRT synching range.

June 30, 2008 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Zeke said...

Sweet! Great article. Can't wait to read part two.

June 30, 2008 11:47 AM  
Blogger David said...

Meh, there is no Part 2. We're just making all of this up...


June 30, 2008 12:00 PM  
Anonymous very1silent said...

David: Thanks for pointing that out.

June 30, 2008 12:00 PM  
Anonymous Stroboholic said...

Just for the record, the next time you need an SB-savvy passenger in the chopper, or the car, or the closet, or the toilet... uh wait, scratch the toilet... Nevermind... Well, anyway, the next time you need that guy in the chopper, you make sure and call me. :D

June 30, 2008 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Mike Perrault said...

I'm glad you're doing an "On Assignment" again. This is my favorite part of Strobist. While my paper doesn't typically send me out on stories like this, it does help me learn how to think like a creative pj, which seems to be somewhat of a rarity in this business.

I'm shooting a rodeo this weekend and I've got a photo in mind that uses some illogical lighting, but should serve a cool purpose. I want some strobes in the bullpen to light the dust up. Then I'm gonna kill the ambient. I'm hoping for a "dark alley-you+angry bull" look.

June 30, 2008 12:11 PM  
Anonymous Tuffer said...

On Assignments are my favorite! Sounds like its a little nice to not be on the PJ ethics for this shoot so you can think things like "I'll lasso it and colorshift". Its always nice to have one more tool in the "digital bag".

June 30, 2008 12:30 PM  
Blogger Terence said...

Funny story:

BusinessWeek once came by to do an article for my day job. We have a room that is a UL-test room for ozone degredation; it is a purpose built chamber, framed with aluminum paneling on all surfaces.

The poor photog setup his lights on some sort of radio slave... he had a set of AC powered strobes outside, firing through the observation window with a sheet of tracing paper tacked to the window to diffuse the light. Tested the lights, chimped his shots...

... then he closed the door, and the outside strobe no longer fired. We had the dang chamber built so well, he was essentially boardcasting inside a faraday cage. :-D

I felt good that day...

June 30, 2008 1:34 PM  
Blogger Thiago Silva said...

I think you forgot to remove one of two slightly different phrases on this paragaraph:

"I did some research on the Bell 407. This gave me an idea of what to expect when I went to the airport to scout the actual helicopter I would be shooting in the air later. This gave me a good idea of what to expect when I went to the hangar to scout the actual helicopter I would be shooting."

Or maybe you just want to add some emphasis :-)

June 30, 2008 4:18 PM  
Blogger David said...

Oh, no -- I always stick stuff like that in on purpose, to make sure you are paying attention...

(Fixed - thanks!)

June 30, 2008 4:21 PM  
Anonymous James said...


Hey David - they just leaked info on the SB-900 - thought you'd like to know.

June 30, 2008 4:22 PM  
Blogger Daniel Berman said...

Fortunately or unfortunately, your pilot was a former Sun staffer?


June 30, 2008 5:01 PM  
Blogger Mo said...

This sounds like fun! I spent a bit of time in the Robby R-22. Little scary tin box. Ick.

Oh: my kids have learned to REALLY like cat food! Purina kid chow!

Can't wait for part 2...the pics on your stream are really nice, David.

June 30, 2008 5:50 PM  
Blogger Cameraman said...

The link to the relay video on Youtube no longer works. David is there any way to do a relay without putting a camera into the mix? This is one point that is not clear.

I would like set up a long line of strobes to light a big object at night and have a PW relay to more strobes along the line that are to far away or behind an obstruction. Can relay solve this problem?

June 30, 2008 5:58 PM  
Anonymous Joe at Aperture Almanac said...

I'm surprised you haven't used the built in slaves and pocketwizards mixed before. A friend showed me that a while back, but mainly just so he gets the audible ready beep from the slave mode to keep him from shooting faster than the recycling speed, and keep a more consistent exposure.

Once you train yourself to listen if your lights aren't firing/syncing properly it becomes very obvious that there is a problem on the set. Sometimes you're concentrating so hard on your subject you might not visually pick up on a background or fill light not firing till it's to late. But your ears will pick up on problems before your busy eyes tell you otherwise.

June 30, 2008 7:22 PM  
Anonymous upsidedownmark said...

Have been thinking about doing something similar *on the ground*.. I think your pilot friend is somewhat out of his mind to be airborne (around dusk?) with flashes going off but kudos in any case :)

Avionics should not present a problem as they're well shielded (guess why..) Having the igniters running on the engine would be very bad news from an RF viewpoint, but that may be standard procedure low down.

Getting a pw *outside* may help with reception if pactical.

Can't wait to see the results.

June 30, 2008 11:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a dumb question.. At least it will probably considered dumb. :) Why all the light setup with this when you could just turn on the cocpit lights themselves?

July 01, 2008 9:43 AM  
Blogger Kunz Family said...

OK David, pull this one off and I'll get you into the flight deck of the 777 next time your in Dubai :) :)

...then again, of course you'll pull it off :)



July 02, 2008 1:53 PM  
Blogger Mikey said...

I realize this is an OLD thread and the question was fairly old as well but as to "why not use the cockpit lights?" there's a few reasons:

1: they'd be WAY too low for any decent shutter speed.

2: They probably can't keep them turned on all the time due to reduced visibility/glare when the amount of daylight is falling. Ever try looking out a window from a brightly-lit room when it's dusk outside? (Or just turn on your dome light in a car while driving at night.) You can't see anything. Turn off the inside light(s) and you can see rather well. The cockpit lights would only be used when on the ground or ONLY as needed when in the air (if yer high enough, you can handle them being turned on for a few seconds.)

December 21, 2010 8:58 AM  

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