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On Assignment: Night Chopper, Pt. 2

In part one of the Night Chopper shoot, we talked about some of the problems that had to be overcome in preparation for an interior-lit, ground-to-air shot of a police helicopter.

Today, we are going to walk through the shoot itself, see what unexpected problems popped up and look at some of the edits from the take.

Perry, the pilot, landed the helicopter in 50-acre field next to the Howard County Fairgrounds about 45 minutes before sunset. This ensured that we would have time to plan out shots and light the interior. After a quick flight around the area to get some interior pilot shots, we landed and began to set up the light for the main shoot.

As the ambient light started to drop down, I placed a single diffusion domed SB-800 in the rear cabin, clamped to the back seat and set on 1/8 power. You can see this light at camera right.

This would give me plenty of light in the rear of the aircraft. It's a bit of a location cheat, but it would give me omnidirectional light -- similar to a car's dome light. I lowered it because I was worried I would see the actual strobe in the photos if I didn't.

Quality-wise, this would have been fine (for the back) by itself, but I decided to stick a second strobe in the back as well -- on the armrest between the two rear facing seats. You can see this light at camera left. Both of these strobes were gelled with a 1/2 CTO for some added warmth, as was discussed in Part 1.

The reason for the second light is another layer of redundancy for the sync. It gets its own Pocket Wizard, which improves the odds that at least one of the flashes will fire. Remember, I only need one good reception and all of my flashes should fire, thanks to the SB-800s' built-in slaves.

Since I added a second light, I dropped them both to 1/16th power to bring the total output to a level equal to one strobe at 1/8 power.

At this point I was getting a little worried. It was just about time to shoot, and I still was not sure where to mount the front light. I needed three things: Low, hidden, and omnidirectional. Which meant using a diffusion dome on this one, too.

But the gauges were right where I needed the light to be, with no way to mount it. There was really no way to do it even with a Bogen Magic Arm. The problem was both the angle and a lack of a suitable mounting surface.

That's when Mark, the copilot, saved my butt: "I could hold it," he said.

Of course he could! Never even thought of that -- and likely would not have. But looking at Mark's seating position it quickly became obvious that he could hold the light in the exact place it needed to be, and move it if they needed to see the instruments.

This light was set on 1/32nd power, BTW, with a dome and a 1/2 CTB cooling gel. So even with the pilot catching a direct flash, the equivalent was somewhere around 1/256th power. Barely a wink. And at that point, Mark became what as far as I know was the world's first VAL-CP (voice activated light stand copilot.)

I quickly walked around front and chimped a few frames from closer to the actual shooting angle. Looked great -- we were good to go. I backed way up, shooting test frames as I went. We were golden, getting a 100% synching rate, even way back form the chopper.

We waited for the ambient light to drop down to our desired shutter speed range for good-looking rotors. (You can't just shoot those at a 250th, or they look silly -- frozen in mid-air.)

When the sky dropped a little more, they took off and we began shooting. At first, I was overexposing the sky a little, just to get a good rotor shutter speed. I could always fix that in post. No worries.

After two passes we realize that the front flash is not firing. Damn. Our ambient window is very tight, and now we have to land the chopper to see what is wrong. As it turns out, the front flash (hooked to an older PW) was likely not getting a radio signal and was relying on the slave.

That would have been fine, except that it turns out that Mark was holding the flash in such a way that his finger sealed off the light from reaching the little slave receiver window. That's not Mark's fault -- it's mine. Too many things on my mind, and I neglected to explain the importance of that little window.

So, the tech is working pretty well. It's the processor between my ears that is a little obsolete. But that is a quick fix and we are off again.

Now, as the ambient drops well into my range, I can vary my shutter speed to get different densities in the sky. Typical ambient balancing -- just like a sunset portrait. There is no right or wrong -- it's rather like BS'ing your way through a term paper in Comp 101. You decide what tone you want in the background and go with it.

Because I am shooting raw, it is easy to move that sky color around a little in post, too. Since the helicopter body is near black, it is a piece of cake to find a selection area where you can preserve the cockpit and shift the sky. Moving the color balance around gets you a wide selection of moods.

Mind you, I am shooting from the ground in this photo. Perry could buzz past with that nose way down, which gave the illusion that we were both in the air as long as I did not include a horizon for reference. He got it down so far on some runs that it looked like I was actually above the chopper. Visually, we had created a chase chopper for free. Sweet.

(Note to self: Next time, remember to bill the higher-ups for the second chopper and split the money with the pilot...)

As the sky dropped down, I switched to a 17-35/2.8 and tried to keep my shutter speed from going below 1/40th of a sec. The sky just continued to darken, so my exposures got richer. This just affected the sky, mind you, as the chopper's interior was lit by flash. And flash only cares about the aperture.

I could darken the sky by dropping my shutter, as I did in the photo above by going to 1/125th of a second. It as all happening pretty fast, but you still have a little time to experiment if you keep making frames. They are all gonna look pretty good -- just different. You don't really need 200 frames of the same look, right? Right?

For the last few frames they turned the spotlight on my car as they flew by. I would have loved to have something better in the foreground, but we were out of warm bodies. And we only got a couple of passes before the light went bye-bye.

Looking Back

I am very happy with the way this shoot turned out, especially being it is the first time trying something like this. Was it perfect? Nah. But I learned a lot, and the we came away with some cool photos.

Given a second opportunity I would like to think we could erase our screwup-induced delays and get maybe 3x the shooting time for the short ambient window. But I'm not complaining.

Next stop for photos in the HCPD: Tactical, I hope.

I have me some ideas. But that's for another day.


:: Planning for this shot ::
:: Sunset portrait ::

NEXT: On Assignment: 50 Years


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