You may remember Wong Kin Leong from an earlier feature in the Shutterbug series. Well, over the past few months he’s been very busy covering the Singapore F1 Grand Prix night race for the Singapore Tourism Board. One component of that coverage was aerial photos of the city at night during the race. I recently conducted an email interview with him, so read on to see what he has to say about helicopters, aerial photography and the preparations that went into the event.
CFI 1. You had seemingly unrestricted access to all parts of the Singapore F1 race. How did that come about?
WKL – I was called in to photograph and document the race for Singapore Tourism Board (STB) from the beginning of the season and the plan were to provide images for press releases this year as a post event promotion as well as pre event images for next years’ race to be used in various ways leading up to the actual race. It is basically a “shoot and let’s get it into everyones’ hands as fast as we can” kind of situation.
My directives for the photos were quite different from other photographers shooting the race as I had to keep in mind that my photos are used in the tourism industry, and hence, required the element of Singapore as a destination and document the people that came from all over the world to watch this race, including the human touch of making this race possible, including Singaporeans that put the race together.
Basically, they called me in around May this year, before any major production
was in place and I basically set off scouting and preparing for the shoots leading up to October. That got me a good 3 months to prepare and since STB are involved in a lot of tourism promotions with the properties within the race district, I had access to the buildings for the angles that I requested while scouting. STB were really keen on getting me into prime locations and access all the areas that would capture key locations, and many calls were made to make sure those images were captured with the race running within those 3 days. Of course, there were some restrictions that I had to work around but overall, I think I got enough elements of the race to put a cohesive collection of the event.
2. What expectations did you have going into the shoot?
I was really excited when I got the job. And there was a lot of possibilities running through my head when they said I would be doing the job. I knew it would be a grueling photo shoot, with the race spanning out 4 days, events leading up to the race started 1 month before and the construction of the track actually started 3 months prior the race, and I had to document all these events starting from May all the way to October.
I went into this giving myself a lot of space to learn and adapt to the situation as the photographic array of works spanned from event, sport photography, music photography, paparazzi, photojournalism, celebrity photography, landscape and aerial photography. It was a personal challenge to me and all this can happen in a very short time. Sometimes within the day itself, I can find myself in a concert, and then onto a press release to shoot a driver, and off to the race track to photograph the cars.
I knew I will make some mistakes here and there and a steep learning curve to cope with but keeping that in mind and making little adjustments as I went along, it made things work out more often than not.
Fatigue was also a big factor that I expected to overcome. During the race weekend, I got a list of events covering locations islandwide that I had to cover and it usually starts at about 10am and it doesn’t end until around 2am for that 4 days. After which, squeezing in sleep and still managing the image workflow to my clients within the day and camera equipment servicing in between became a struggle of need to sleep, and need to complete work. I actually made myself streamline my workflow processes way before the race. I had a workbench with a computer setup where I could download all my images, next to it is another setup where my camera gets serviced and charged, and by the next morning, everything is done, packed up and ready to go. That easily saved me an extra hour of sleep and looking back, made the 4 days much easier to work in. Preparing for a 4 day event actually took 2 months of planning for us and with that list in hand, the movement to and fro all the events had to be planned and timed so that we don’t miss any of the shoots. In addition to that, I had a great 5 member team that covered every aspect of the job logistically and this helped a lot when it really mattered most.
3. What equipment and technical requirements were there for the aerial photos?
The aerial photos was a really fun challenge and I have to admit, the highlight for me for this project. I started researching on a long list of equipment that I could use for this shoot and this happened around about 2 months before the actual. The first thing I did was to sit down with my clients and discussed their requirements for this element of the project. That cut down a lot of possibilities with regard to the equipment that I could use. As far as technical requirements go, they needed the whole track, twilight conditions and as wide a field as we can get. Oh, and on a helicopter. They basically handed the art directions and composition of the photos to me, which is a very brave thing for them to do. The thing is, no one has photographed that area in night conditions on aerial and we have no idea which angles would look good on the camera. So back onto Google and I started searching for aerial photography, for photographs of the Marina Bay area (F1 track) and any tips or tricks that I could use for this shoot. The research took a good 6 weeks for me and I came up with this list of equipment.
2 pieces of Nikon D700.
both on MBD-10 grips with 8 Ni-mh rechargeable batteries for 8fps burst mode.
Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 mounted
Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 mounted
Nikkor 50mm f1.8 unmounted
2 pieces Sandisk Extreme 3 32GB CF cards mounted
2 pieces Sandisk Extreme 3 16GB CF cards unmounted
2 pieces BlackRapid RS-4 Straps mounted
Lowepro Stealth Reporter D200AW with a cleaning kit
My own technical requirements for this shoot is a good ISO handling camera that could shoot very wide and had a very good sharp fast lens. I shot in 14 bit RAW which means large files of around 16mb and did not want to be swapping CF cards while in a helicopter that did not have a door next to me. Things dropping out of the helicopter would be a nightmare for me. My clients actually joked about painting glow in the dark paint on the cards should it fall into the sea beneath and they need to recover it. Also, the camera strapping system had to allow me to swap cameras efficiently and yet gave me the freedom to be peering out of the helicopter to get the angles that I needed while everything, plus me most importantly, is strapped securely.
4. You mention the BlackRapid RS-4? How did you find it working with these straps? I’ve been shooting with the RS-5 for a couple of months now and am very impressed with it – it’d be hard to go back to a “normal” strap now. Any thoughts?
Ah! Those BlackRapid straps. I have been using them for sometime now and those straps needs some simple modifications to make sure that they don’t unclasp prematurely. Other than that, they work as should. For the aerial shoots, they are an improvement over the original camera straps in the sense that the straps harness the cameras across the body diagonally. So on goes the camera straps on each side, then I am strapped into the seat of the helicopter by the onboard 4 point harness and that way, the helicopter harness is actually over the BlackRapid straps and the BlackRapids are secured tight underneath. There is no way the cameras are coming off you once that happens and with enough release, I have full access to both cameras and can easily swap them as I wish.
5. Having reviewed your images, what would you do differently next time?
I usually let a photo rest for a week or two before deciding on whether I like the outcome of it. And odd that you mentioned this because I did a review of the photos (around 3500 shots within 2 hours using both cameras) to select for you and I could see certain angles that I should have done differently. I do believe a photo matures with age, and there are some that would be used straight off by publications without questions but there are some that are kind of sitting on the edge of acceptability. Of course with 3500 shots that night, we are spoiled for choice when it came to selection. The thing about shooting with an ultra wide angle lens like the Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8, very little shifts changes the outcome of the composition by a large margin. With so much landscape on the photograph, and on a helicopter that tilts and rocks constantly, it needs a lot more concentration and focus to get the shot right.
There were a few restrictions however that I had to work around and one of them is definitely being in the passenger seat of a helicopter. It is a challenge to communicate an angle to the pilot. Especially in that area at that time, we were experiencing a lot of turbulence and there were times that we couldn’t achieve a shot because we couldn’t position the helicopter at the place that we wanted to. I guess given another run at this, it would be to get those positions given better wind conditions. And I learnt a lot from shooting on a helicopter after reviewing my photos too so I think a really good advice is to look at the things that we’ve done, review them and improve on it all the time.
6. You shot from a helicopter. Was this the first time you’ve done so, and how did you find the experience?
Yeah. That’s the first flight for me and believe it or not, I have a fear of heights. When I accepted the job, my mind was protesting. Sitting in a helicopter, 2500ft and with no doors isn’t my idea of safe. But I took the job because I wanted to challenge my fears without a backdoor out. Oddly, at the end of the day, and trust me when I say this, I was more scared of shooting bad photographs for my clients than being up there in the helicopter. I didn’t know if I would get pin sharp photos until I landed and downloaded it straight into my computer. And all the whilst up in the helicopter, I was so absorbed in trying to get good photos, that I forgot I was scared of heights. And as odd as it is, I am still scared of heights now. But everyone needs to sit in a helicopter at least once in their life. The view up there is just out of the world, and every second, everything changes below you, and you are a witness to all that is happening. Just a dream to
have a chance to be there at that moment in time.
7. Some of the photos show some very bright lighting around the track. How did you expose for that without blowing the highlights out?
I shot on manual most of the time and my main concern was camera shake caused by the helicopter. I shot all the images on 14bit RAW and kept the shutter at a relatively high speed so I only had ISO and aperture to adjust for the lighting conditions. I didn’t have to worry too much on the track blowing out as my objectives were to show a lot of the city with the track as the subject for many of the wide far shots. But when we were shooting close ups, like for the pitbuilding, I controlled the lighting much more and made sure everything was exposed properly and got as much details out. The good thing was, for the shoot, STB called all the properties in the area to light up as much as they could and this helped in compensating for the very bright tracks. This made the job a lot easier for me and with shooting in RAW, I could bring out the details on post processing.
8. Any tips you’d care to share?
Never give up! And concentrate on the moment that you are in. Preparing for the moment is pretty important too.
Make sure you understand what your client wants before you begin your research. It cuts down on a lot of options and helps you to focus in the right direction straight away plus it frees up a lot of time that would have been needed considering all the useless factors.
And technical tips? Maximize the equipment that you have. I’ve been told that we need a gyro for helicopter/aerial photography (even in daytime) but I managed it without one. A gyro would have set me back more than ten thousand dollars and would have been hardwork wrangling one for 2.5 hours against the motion of the helicopter.
Fast shutter speeds, good ISO performance and a steady hand would be a good substitute for a gyro. Calm down and take a deep breath and trigger the camera as smooth as possible.
It is also very easy to be carried away by the occasion too, being in a helicopter and with the beautiful landscape before you. Have a list written out before you start and stick to that list. This way, you make sure your objectives are met and you can enjoy the rest of the flight knowing that your job is done right. Definitely calms a lot of your nerves when you don’t have to wonder what you might have missed out.
I mentioned maximize the equipment that you have earlier on. I suppose what I am trying to get at is, equipment available in the consumer market these days have reached a stage where we can run out and buy a camera and pretty much have a very highly specced camera for a fraction of the price ten years back. Looking back to those days, there were already some pretty awesome photos being shot in technical terms as well as aesthetics, so the cameras available now will definitely be a leg up from then. So while we are spoiled for choice in the 21st century, maximizing the equipment we have saves us some money along the way and also could lead to better performance as well.
Also, shoot as much as you can. I clocked in 3500 photos at 14bit Raw and rotated shooting between the cameras once I maximized each buffer. Then sorted out the images only on ground. With so much investment into a 2 hour flight, it would be a shame not to maximize the flight time.
Lastly, enjoy and have a moment to yourself. Photography to me is about taking in the moment and feeling the emotions that aren’t necessarily seen on the photograph. Feel the moment you are having and try to convey that in your photos. It really helps if you are also in the mood to show the moment as well.
So that concludes our short interview. Don’t forget to check out Wong’s site for more great photography. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below. Thank you.