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


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Eric said...

That's a great write-up. So much info to process but for the me quick take home lessons came from the shutter speed requirements for the rotor and asking the copilot to hold the flash.

Were you able to communicate with them while they were airborne and you were shooting on the ground?

July 07, 2008 12:37 AM  
Blogger Huan Pham said...

Great post David. You have pushed the envelope further with this assignment. Thanks for sharing.

July 07, 2008 4:26 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

Great stuff David, really showing the flexibility of these little strobes.
Was there a reason why you couldn't get the next county's chopper in the end? I thought you were going to shoot theirs at the same time as a sort of payment?

July 07, 2008 5:46 AM  
Anonymous Niall Macpherson said...

Congratulations. Very informative and inspiring as usual. I look forward to the next post.

July 07, 2008 6:01 AM  
Blogger Tim Broyer said...


Great post! Glad to see you posting these types of posts again. They are the reason I read your blog.

Thanks again. You truly inspire.


July 07, 2008 6:15 AM  
Anonymous Ruprect said...

Great article and description of the Chopper shoot.

It reminds me of the Nikon Expo held in February, where Danish Nikon Ambassador Casper Tybjerg showcased the new rescue helicopter EH101 (and the Nikon D3). He told of the difficulties lighting the interior and how he solved it.

He said that one of the coolest things about the shoot was when he was put on the ground and using the radio he guided the crew of the helicopter so he could take some cool shots of the EH101 flyby.

Article (in danish): http://www.ttf.dk/Dansk/Tybjerg/Nyheder.aspx?M=News&PID=2642&NewsID=142
Article (translated to english using google):

Click the Nikon Expo link at the first paragraph to view more images.

July 07, 2008 7:42 AM  
Anonymous Todd Hibbs said...

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.

Thanks for saying that. That's how I feel every time... although I haven't shot anything nearly as exotic.

Nice to know that a pro has some of the same reactions as this hack.

Love your blog David. It's taught me a LOT.

July 07, 2008 7:55 AM  
Anonymous Michael Connor said...

I didn't see you mention using an assistant as an option next time. Someone via radio in the back seat out of the way that knows how to work with your flashes would have been perfect to trouble shoot without having to land.

Give me a call next time -- I love helicopters!

July 07, 2008 8:27 AM  
Anonymous Richard Cave said...

great post, i am definately going to get some radio triggers now. looks good in the chopper, just looking at the future possibilities.

Looking forward to more,


July 07, 2008 2:50 PM  
Blogger Ben Roberts said...

Way cool. Did you consider using a color cast on the strobes inside the rear of the chopper? I almost feel like the light behind the guys heads is too white and I want green or red or something... maybe I've just seen too many movies? Either way, just shows what can be done with radio triggers and small flash. Amazing!

July 07, 2008 5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't help but think that a couple of strobes on the ground adding a rim-light to the bird would have been really sweet.

July 07, 2008 5:43 PM  
Anonymous wedding photographer french riviera said...

Magnificient photographs. Well staged!

The first thing I thought when I saw this photo is "How did the photographer get in the sky"? Indeed you seem level with the heli and I initially thought of a hill or mountain.

Very clever the way you did this!

July 08, 2008 5:46 AM  
Anonymous Keahi Pelayo said...

I was directed to you by David Coxford. Cool site.

July 08, 2008 3:02 PM  
Anonymous duracellbunny said...

Just found some time to watch the second Strobist Lightning Seminar DVD (the morning session). Great stuff! I wonder if you realize that you were wearing that light stand over your right shoulder for 1 hour and 15 minutes, David? Made me smile anyway. :-)

July 08, 2008 3:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which dome?!


July 08, 2008 7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>which dome?

Probably the Stofen Omnibounce which comes with each SB800.

David - thanks for the blow-by-blow on this. It helps me learn an awful lot. Love your site!!


July 09, 2008 12:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good thing that you didn't use modded chinese triggers. They could interfere with the heli electronics and crash it down :o That would have been the first photographic accident in history :D

July 10, 2008 2:29 AM  
Blogger Daniel Han said...

perhaps you should've used PC cords for more reliability. :P

(but that'd create another first photographic accident in history...)

July 23, 2008 6:14 AM  
Anonymous Bjorn said...

Hi David.

I was browsing through all "On Assignment" posts. And I see that the
"John Dohrn: Lord of the Flies"
is missing with the error "Can not find the page". Is it removed or is the URL wrong.

Keep up the good work, and Thank You for all the good articles.

Best Regards

August 01, 2008 9:00 AM  
Blogger David said...


John removed his photos from Flickr, so the post had to come down. I thought I got all of the inbound links to it, too. If you know of any others, I'd appreciate a heads-up.


August 01, 2008 10:22 AM  
Blogger Tiago said...

I've been reading your blog on and off for a while now, and although I come about a year late, this is for me the best 'On Assignment' yet.
Just plain awesome!

You're an inspiration! Thanks!

September 02, 2009 11:54 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

Great stuff again David, very well solved and further than that, even nicely explained!
Thanks for all that!

September 27, 2010 8:15 AM  
Blogger Dave S said...

I hope you were paid a commercial fee for use of your great work on this web site:


November 25, 2012 11:59 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Ugh. No, Singularity Hub did not ask or license, they just stole the photo. Thanks much for your heads-up. Going after an infringer is not my ideal way spend a Sunday, but I am also really, really not cool with yet another image theft.



November 25, 2012 1:12 PM  
Blogger Ruben Solaz said...

newby question, sorry, why dont just use a permanent light inside the cockpit ? why so complex synching ?

August 30, 2013 10:42 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home