Spectacular Night Photography of London Causes Awe, Vertigo

Jason Hawkes has a very difficult, expensive, and spectacular kind of work: he takes pictures from the sky. And while it may not sound very difficult, obtaining these crystal-clear shots while hanging out of the door of a twin-engine helicopter, everything vibrating like in an earthquake because of the rotor blades, and shouting orders at your pilot over, it's a very challenging job that requires the best technology you can get your hands on. We talked with Jason about how is it done in this new Gizmodo section that we like to call "How Is It Done."

Jesús Diaz: Jason, I can imagine the difficulty of taking such amazing shots from a helicopter at night... What camera and lenses did you use to catch this?
Jason Hawkes: I use quite a few different cameras. I started out shooting night aerials using film about six years ago. For my day aerial shoots I often shoot using a Hasselblad, but at night it is just not suitable because of the noise over 200 ISO.

JD: So what about now?
JH: For night shoots I now shoot using Nikons and Canons. Obviously I only work digitally. I sometimes shoot tethered directly to a Mac to look through the images as I take them, and my cameras are also directly attached to a GPS, which adds latitude and longitude information directly into the Metatdata. So together with the mount, there is quite a lot of equipment around the camera.

JD: What mounts do you use?
JH: I use two separate gyro stabilising mounts, mounted together into one larger mount to get the stability you need for really crisp images.

JD: What are the typical settings you use (ISO, aperture, etc)?
JH: Previously with film I could only go to 400 sometimes 800 ISO but with the very latest crop of cameras you can easily shoot at 1600 with good results.

JD: What was the biggest technical challenge?
JH: I have specialised in aerial photography from helicopters for 19 years so am used to the other difficulties, i.e. cramped and very noisy condition. You fly with the door of the helicopter open wearing a headset to direct the pilot. In daylight without a mount you have to shoot at 1000 sec because of the vibration caused by the rotor blades, so having to shoot at very low shutter speeds at night it takes quite a while to change your habits in order to correctly use the gyro. Flying over cities you need a twin engined helicopter that costs £1100 ( GBP ) per hour, so its a very expensive technique to perfect.

JD: How many photos do you take to come to one of those amazing shots?
JH: At night I shoot around 500 images per hour and about 90% come out okay.

Visit Jason's web site for more examples of his stunning work. His Britain from Above series is simply spectacular. [Jason Hawkes]

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