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Magical night flights: cities from the skies

Magical night flights: cities from the skies

© Vincent Laforet - AIR

May 2015

Photographer and filmmaker Vincent Laforet has flown over some of America’s most iconic cities at night with a camera – with breathtaking results. He is now winging his way to Europe and wants you to be a part of 'Project AIR', as he explains to CPN Editor David Corfield...

“This is, without a doubt, the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on,” admits Vincent Laforet, “and yet it very nearly didn’t get off the ground.”

Looking at Laforet’s stunning aerial night-time images, depicting America’s most iconic cities in sublime detail and beautiful colour, you’d be forgiven for thinking that anyone turning their nose up at such stunning work would be in need of a full sanity check… but the reality is just that.

© Vincent Laforet – AIR

Please click the window above to view a promotional film from Vincent Laforet on Project AIR, a study of cities at night from the air.

“It began as an editorial assignment in November last year,” he explains. “The images were to illustrate a piece about psychology and my idea was to shoot from up high because I thought that the streets looked like a computer chip or brain synapses. But the magazine was actually not interested in the idea at all; they fought me.”

He continues: “It was a week-long fight to get up there in the air. Finally they said ‘do the daytime stuff and go waste our money at night’ and that’s what happened. They ran one picture and nothing happened. But then I published these images on a new online platform that I’ve been helping with called Storehouse – allowing you to publish images easily from your iPhone or iPad – and before you knew it the images had over 40 million views in less than a month, which is insane. So from that we immediately got enough funding and support to shoot four more cities in the USA.”

Laforet set plans in motion to shoot Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas and San Francisco. And as the interest kept growing, so people kept asking him ‘why don't you take this worldwide’. “My answer was ‘why not?’” he laughs. “Of course the only reason was the obvious one: cost. And that’s where G-Technology, the hard drive company, stepped in and wrote me a cheque. And that enabled me to photograph not only those cities but now most of Europe, too.”

Taking technology to new heights

Laforet is quick to thank modern advances in technology for the success of this project, in particular Canon’s development of the CMOS sensor and its ability to shoot in virtually no light at all. “The technology has totally enabled this project,” he admits. “We shoot anything from ISO 1600 over very bright parts of a city to ISO 12,800 in the darker parts. You could not have done these images a couple of years ago. The sensitivity of the sensor has come on in leaps and bounds.”

© Dustin Snipes

A Eurocopter helicopter was chosen as the best platform, capable of the higher altitude needed for the aerial views.

Laforet has been working with Canon’s EOS-1D X DSLR and fast prime lenses and as well as praising the legendary camera’s sensor, he loves the accompanying L-series optics for their quality.

“We shoot with every single prime that Canon makes and recently I tried the new EF11-24mm L-series zoom which was a phenomenal lens. It totally redefined my appreciation of a wide-angle zoom,” he admits. “But usually we use primes because they are extremely sharp and extremely fast. The typical kit consists of 17, 24 and 45mm tilt and shift lenses along with EF L-series primes such as the 24mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.2, 135mm f/2 and 200mm f/2 and that’s basically what I use.”

Naturally, with all these lenses on board, safety is of paramount concern, as Laforet explains. “I am strapped into the helicopter with a full body harness – the same kind that search and rescue crews use – and so is my technical assistant. The gear is strapped to both us so there is nothing loose on the floor because obviously if you did drop anything and it fell out of the helicopter’s open door it would become a deadly projectile.”

Laforet has been shooting from helicopters for a long time, along with his technical assistant Mike Isler. “We have shot for National Geographic, Vanity Fair and really big corporate clients and commercial clients around the world so shooting from a helicopter is old hat for us. We work with a line producer called Greg Ferguson, who has done 15 Superbowl commercials, so we know all about aerial photography and complex logistical challenges. We have flown pretty much every helicopter type in the world and usually we shoot from a Eurocopter AS355 ‘Twin Star’ and fly with the door open or removed completely.”

“We mount the cameras on Kenyon Laboratories image stabilising gyros because we are really pushing the technical envelope of what’s possible,” he continues. “You’re not supposed to go shoot from a helicopter at night, so we need to ensure great quality material right the way across the board, using the best sensor, the best camera and the best lenses. We shoot at 1/125sec or 1/160sec and we are absolutely wide open on primes. And yet we aim for a high hit rate of eight out of ten usable images, which is the norm.”

© Dustin Snipes

Vincent Laforet reviews an aerial image taken from his EOS-1D X DSLR.

“I shoot about 5,000 images per flight. But it depends on the city,” he admits. “We hammer the shutter on the 1D X because you never get a second chance on shoots like these. We’re in the air for about one to three hours per session so we have to shoot as much as we can because flight time is expensive. We record images onto 128Gb SanDisk CF cards and of course the EOS-1D X has twin card capability. Once both cards are full we then copy them off onto the ATC (All-Terrain Case) hard drives from G-Tech and then put the selects on Dropbox. We never want to lose this material – the cost is just too high. You take it very seriously and we make multiple copies right the way through the production process.”

A recent session with Canon’s latest DSLR, the 50.6 Megapixel EOS 5DS has impressed. “It was pretty phenomenal,” Laforet reveals. “I was very pleasantly surprised. Of course, once you get to the very dark part of the night the EOS-1D X is the better choice because its sensor is that much more sensitive. Given that the diodes in the 5DS are that much smaller it’s not going to perform as well over ISO 1600 but anything under that and the colour depth is incredible. I saw colour and rich detail – especially with that 11-24mm lens – that just completely stopped me in my tracks. It felt like a field camera, the quality was so good. It’s better than the Leaf medium-format I used before and it’s definitely going to become part of the kit now. I will use it for the initial sunset period before switching to the 1D X for when it gets really dark.”

Research and project development

Laforet’s AIR project has grown in size as public reaction has gathered momentum. “People have reacted to this in a most visceral and natural way and that’s the most you can ask for as an artist,” he says. “It’s unlike anything else. I get feedback from not just photographers, but dentists, doctors, mothers, and so on. That’s the best feedback you can get. You expect it from your colleagues but when you get it from the outside world that makes it even more special.”

© Dustin Snipes

Vincent Laforet (left) and his technical assistant Mike Isler (right) prepare for another night flight on 'Project AIR'.

“I’ve been waiting since I was 13 years old to photograph scenes like this. Every time you land in a commercial aircraft at night you see these little stories down below in the darkness: the police cars, the football stadiums, people’s homes. You ask yourself what’s going on? What are the dramas? And this was the impetus behind the idea. Of course I took it to the extreme and went to 7,500ft, but I wanted to show the scale and how beautiful it is up there and the energy you see beaming off the city streets.”

He continues: “With the exception of raising funds, this has been the smoothest, most natural and organic thing I’ve ever worked on. This was not part of a marketing strategy or a larger plan; it’s just happened. I could never have predicted its success. For instance, I was supposed to direct my first-ever feature film next year and, well, I guess I am just doing this now instead. Life has a very funny way of showing you the way. And this is exactly what that project is doing for me. The film will have to wait its turn at this point.”

The planning aspect of this whole project takes a lot of time and it’s Laforet’s research that forms the backbone of what he shoots. He looks into each city’s characteristics in microscopic detail, working out what makes them special and then contacts the relevant authorities and airports to seek permission and approval before he even steps foot in the helicopter.

“In the US you need about a week’s advance notice to fly over a city but in Europe it’s quite a bit more complicated. You need a few weeks or even a couple of months to get permissions, and you have to involve the military and the police. Paris, specifically, is the most difficult in terms of approval.”

“I do research each city extensively,” he continues. “I look into the history of the city and do a lot of thinking about what makes each place different from the others. Just like I used to do as a photojournalist with every single assignment I broached. I would ask myself: what makes this story, place or person unique – and how can I best capture that in a single image or a series of images.”

© Dustin Snipes

Vincent Laforet is carefully strapped into the helicopter with a full body harness.

“I don’t want the series to look the same, you see. That said, some places are easier to record than others. Las Vegas was about a hot spot of light in the middle of a dark desert; San Francisco was about the bridges and the rolling hills, New York was all about the skyscrapers, while Los Angeles was just a huge seemingly never-ending expanse with no real downtown area. Just one big incredible grid network.”

So the prospect of shooting in Europe fills Laforet with excitement, because there’s even more variety waiting for him. “Paris I see as an easier city to shoot than London,” he admits. “London is very low with not many tall buildings and the River Thames is an important part of the whole character, so I need to consider that when I compose.”

“But here’s the thing!” he enthuses. “I’m flying with veteran pilots who fly over their own cities every day and even they say they’ve never seen their home from that angle at night. So the truth is that no matter how much research you do, you react to what you see at the time, because it’s never been done before. Prior to me shooting New York, there is no record of anyone else ever shooting from this altitude at night.”

Reconnecting and renewing

Managing a project like this takes a lot of effort and the actual photography is a small slice of a very big pie. “It’s become like filmmaking now,” Laforet laughs. “We are shooting for between one and three hours in the air but when you work out all the organisation involved, from managing all the logistics to all the workflow involved probably less than one percent of the total project is actually shooting material. And I have an exceptional team to thank for making it all happen so efficiently.”

But the photography element is, for Laforet, the real joy. “It’s like when you take off and see the city for the first time. I never tire of that,” he admits. “Photography was almost ripped away from me because of film, because these days I make my living mostly from directing and as a result people stopped calling me to take photographs. So this project, for me, is like a second chance. When I’m in that helicopter I don't have a crew of 50 or 100 around me so it’s a downright meditative process and a genuine sense of discovery comes over me whenever I see a new city at night for the first time.”

“It gives me time to block everything out. It’s like Scuba diving. You’re just focused on shooting. You block out the noise of the helicopter after a while and you’re just focusing on the city. That feeling is special.”

© Dustin Snipes

Experiencing the wonder of iconic cities from the air at night is an experience that will stay with Laforet forever.

And that feeling of wonder is two-fold, because when he touches down and heads to the studio Laforet is equally excited to see his results on screen. “I do get a second sense of discovery when I see the edit for the first time,” he smiles. “That’s an extremely difficult process because you have to assess every single image and that’s a lot of images! But the best part about this whole project is the reaction it gets from everyone who sees it: the connection.”

“People still truly love photography and this project has affirmed that. It takes a big team to do something like this and nothing is easy. But it is the most rewarding and gratifying exercise.”

As the project comes to Europe for the first time, Laforet is keen to reach out even further to connect it to the viewer. “We are offering physical meet-ups in each of the cities. We are using social media to put the word out there and are inviting people to come and meet and discuss with fellow artists,” he explains. “That interaction is very important to me. We are also going to do this with the online image sharing platform Storehouse and it will host a storytelling competition with part of the prize being a chance to fly with me and shoot a city at night.”

A book is in production as well as a series of high-quality lithographs, postcards and limited edition fine art prints – and their role is crucial in the ongoing success of the project. “The book is coming out in late 2015 and that, plus the series of lithographs, postcards and prints, will help raise funds for future flights,” Laforet reveals. “I felt that if I pre-sold the book it would really help to make this a worldwide project and that is my ultimate goal: to reach out across the whole world and connect to as many people as possible. The world is much smaller than we think. Borders are irrelevant and distances have been shortened. Clearly, we are more intimately connected to one another than we may realise, and this project has proved that.”

Biografie: Vincent Laforet

Vincent Laforet

Vincent Laforet, a three-time winner at the prestigious 2010 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, is a director and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who is known for his forward-thinking approach to image-making and storytelling. In addition to having worked for Vanity Fair, The New York Times, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek and LIFE magazines - he is considered a pioneer both for his innovative tilt-shift and aerial photography and in the field of HD DSLRs. His short film ‘Reverie’, the first 1080p video shot with a DSLR, was seen more than two million times on the first week of its release in 2009. American Photo magazine has named Laforet one of the '100 Most Influential People in Photography,' and his work has been recognized in the Communication Arts and PDN annuals and by the World Press Photo Awards, the Pictures of the Year Competition, the Overseas Press Club, the National Headliners Awards and the Pro-Football Hall of Fame, among others.


Los Angeles at dusk. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF50mm f/1.2L USM lens; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/2, ISO 800.