San Francisco from 1500 feet over the SF Bay
About a month and a half ago, I had the opportunity to go flying with my good friend Eric. We had been talking about getting out and flying the friendly skies for a while and everything seemed to be aligned for that to happen. We booked a fairly new 2008 Cessna 172 single engined aircraft. I had just taken delivery of the Canon 7D Mark II and thought it would be the perfect camera to explore aerial photography. This was meant to be as much an exercise in private aviation as a study in aerial photography and the challenges it poses. I hoped to learn enough about it to develop my techniques and understand what questions to ask as well as the requisites to successful photography of ground subjects.
The short version is this: Arial photography is a completely different beast that simply cannot be tamed. Below are what I feel are the requisites. Understanding these does not guarantee a successful capture of your subject but it will increase the odds of success.
Before your excursion, you need to understand the weather around your subject. In this case there was a cloud blanket over the pacific, to the right, up to the SF Bay and coast line. This meant we couldn’t fly VFR along the coast and exercise the creative flexibility needed to get a good capture of the city. Given where the sun was in the sky, this was the ideal vantage point to capture the city.
- Flight Plan
Consider the flight plan, what angles and perspectives on your subject it will offer. Is there restricted airspace around your subject that prevents certain key routes? We had to fly close to restricted airspace which added yet more complexity to the exercise. Also consider the time of day and where the sun will be relative to your subject and flight path. As you can see, from the photos, the best position for that time would have been flying along the coast and not circling the bay. However a few hours later, the best route would have been the circling the bay waters again at magic hour as the city starts to light up. The sun was still too high up and the vast bodies of water caused too much glare. Even with a circular polarizer.
- Aircraft windows
Most light/private aircraft windows are not made of glass but of some kind of polycarbonate plastic. This is especially aggravating as it further cuts out saturation, reduces contrast and diffuses light. As a result it will soften (to put it mildly) and blur your shots. It also vibrates a lot and causes distortions in the image. I used the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM and was unable to get a sharp shot of the city. The more the ambient light, the more pronounced the problem. Magic hour may yield slightly better results. I have been able to photograph the city at a similar angle and distance from twin peaks and been able to resolve people walking down the sidewalk with the same lens on the 7D. Opening the window was not an option this time and on this aircraft unfortunately.
- No composite shots
Any type of composite shots are very pretty much impossible. Be it HDR or panoramas, you will have a very hard time overcoming extreme parallax. The aircraft is moving much faster than it feels this combined with the extreme perspective means you will not be able to stitch any two shots together. As for HDR you will need a very fast shutter speed. There was no point using the 5D Mark III for aerial stills (I used it mainly for ultra wide angle video) as it is just too slow. The 7D Mark II’s 10fps enabled only a few somewhat successful HDR composite shots but only after cranking up my ISO in broad daylight to keep my shutter speed in the thousandths or a second. Still the results were painful due to the plexiglass windows. I spent a good deal of air time attempting composite shots that went nowhere.
Overall this excursion was a success. I learned a great deal. I’m planning another aerial photography excursion sometime this year. I’m also considering a helicopter instead of an airplane and will also consult with private aviation authorities on what other options are available to me. It was a fun exercise flying the friendly skies, checking in with ATC (Air Traffic Control) and seeing who’s up there doing what.
We took off from Sacramento Executive airport, flew over Travis AFB and onto the SF Bay via Sausalito. ATC folks were a very nice and friendly bunch and took interest in our photography outing. It is humbling to know that they are there 24/7, all over the country, keeping the skies safe. Cheers to them!
Below are some highlights. The shots are straight out of the 7D Mark II and have not been processed.
Sacramento Executive Airport
Tripple Niner Hotel Echo
Taking off from Sacramento Executive Airport
SF Bay approach
Golden Gate Bridge
San Quentin correctional facility
Eric doing what he does best
Happy New Year!!!
This year I decided to stop thinking about watching (photographing) the fireworks over the San Francisco Bay and actually get out and do it. One of my good friends and great photographer, Steve was only happy to come along and plan our New Year’s Eve photo excursion. We decided, since we were going to be out in the cold weather we may as well catch the sunset over the city. I had been wanting to revisit my last shoot from the Port of Oakland where I shot my last time lapse of the Bay Bridge lights. This time my focus was to obtain a really good high quality wide panorama shot for large format print and reproduction. I did however capture a time lapse of the sunset and city lights as well. It’s hard not to, as it has become fairly easy for me with my 7D and 17-55mm f/2.8 lens. I’ve shot so many time lapses with that combo, it only takes a few minutes to setup.
Magic hour over the city only lasts for a few minutes, and I found it very challenging to capture a full panoramic set of the city with a long enough exposure at a narrow enough aperture (f/8 or smaller). This was due primarily to the amount of the disturbance on the water from boats, ferries and large cargo ships. While you might see a few minutes of calm, they are punctuated by wakes, shadows of moving vessels and light streaks. My frustrations were only compounded by the fact that I decided to use my EF 2x Extender III on the 70-200mm f/2.8. I chose the wrong time to experiment. Under anything other than perfect lighting conditions you will find it exceedingly difficult to use any lens with the 2X extender III. As a result, I missed easily half of my photo opportunities. Below are some panoramic shots I managed to salvage. The detail is pretty impressive – you can see inside offices and hallways in all those buildings you see. The full res compressed JPEG is just under 200MB and the master GIMP file is 1GB (1000MB).
Canon 5D Mark III + EF 2x Extender + EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II
Canon 5D Mark III + EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II
We shot through the sunset till about 9pm then we packed up and headed out to treasure island to scout for a good angle on the action. I have never seen this many photographers and enthusiasts in one place. The whole island was crawling with people like me. Even in the seemingly remote bushes along back roads. We finally settled on the waterfront as the best vantage point. Fireworks are a challenge to shoot! This was my first time shooting fireworks and nothing could have prepared me for it. Below is a collection of some of the highlights. Overall I think it was a success. There are a few things I would’ve done differently now. Your feedback would be highly appreciated.
I was also able to capture a time lapse of the fireworks. The entire show lasted about 13minutes. It was a spectacular affair. If you missed it, the time lapse compilation below should help you enjoy the experience in a matter of seconds. My new years gift to you. I wish you a Happy and Prosperous New Year!
Finally got all the TL frames processed – all 7500 of them LOL. The frames were shot over two photo excursions to the San Francisco Bay. I posted earlier about these two trips here:
It took me a while to find a soundtrack that channeled (or at least came close) the energy of the experience for me. The music is composed by Ben Beiny. The Bay Lights are a wonderful art-meets-technology showpiece. If you haven’t visited San Francisco since it’s installation, I highly recommend a trip to the city. If you are too far or cannot visit, then hopefully this video will give you a decent idea of it’s scale. You can also find out more about The Bay Lights and the artist behind them – Leo Villareal – at the following link:
Thanks for stopping by and sharing. Be sure to view it in Full HD – 1080p for the most detail.
Yesterday was another lovely day chasing sunsets and the Bay Bridge lights. I decided to seize the opportunity presented by ideal photography weather conditions in the Bay Area. Most ideal was the low (sometimes none) wind speed. This means very calm bay waters, relatively speaking, which in turn means an opportunity for a dramatic light show through sunset and through the night.
The Port of Oakland
My strategy started out with the port of Oakland. From a google maps survey of the area, most of it looked restricted so I looked for a backup vantage point and settled on Potrero Hill which may warrant my next photo excursion to SF. I was unsure about how much access I would have to a coveted view of the bay. I definitely wanted to at elast have some shots from the Oakland side of the bay, especially during sunset. I arrived at the port by mid afternoon and began to scout the area. Portview Park was my ideal view but it was slightly obstructed by the restricted docks area – I wish I had a way of gaining access to the port docks. That in and of itself would make for not only an ideal perspective but may prove to be a treasure trove of industrial and gritty photography goodness. I moved on to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park where I found an outcrop nature preserve with trail access. The view was a bit too distant and less than ideal but then again if I’ve learned anything, it’s that nothing ever is.
With my location sorted out I proceeded to wolf down a Subway sandwich while waiting for the sunset. I parked next to a really nice, clean Nissan 300ZX. Being a car enthusiast myself I began to talk cars with Allan the owner. I drove down in my roadster so it was all around cartalk. Allan was very laid back, easygoing and ended up just handing out through the sunset into the evening. Very nice guy. While I was setting up and shooting another great gentleman showed up. He was a port customs agent who just happened to carry his Digital Rebel everywhere he went. He had just got off work and decided to come take in the view as well so we all hung out and talked everything from cars to logistics to photography while shooting the sunset. It made for a great evening and great new friends.
I took a 2 hour time lapse of this scene with the 7D + 17-55mm f/2.8 while shooting stills such as the one above with the 5D Mark III + 24-105mm f/4. It will take a while to process all the time lapse frames and will present that compilation in a separate post. Unfortunately the Bay Bridge lights were not visible from this vantage point. It turns out the lights are angled slightly towards the city of San Francisco. I later found out this was for the simple reason to avoid interfering with drivers’ view coming into the city.
The Bay Bridge Lights
Finally after dark we all packed up and left. I headed over into SF to do another time lapse from the peer 14 perspective. There I met more interesting folks. First was a cool guy named Brian visiting from Chicago. He’s into photography and cars/hotrods as well, so you can pretty much guess what we ended up talking about all night out there on the peers. I took two time lapses of that view as well while shooting stills, HDR shots, panoramic shots and several 1080p video takes of the bay lights to capture the more subtle action that would otherwise be missed in the time lapse. I ended up shooting late and into the early morning when yet another pretty cool laid back guy by the name of James stopped by for a chit-chat. I got a lot of good tips on accessing some vantage points I’ve been wanting to shoot for a while now. Very nice guy. In all it was a great SF excursion, with lots of great people and a really relaxing time in a great city.
I did time lapses of both scenes above and below as well. Will post those once I’m done processing all the frames.
Going back through my archives and posting about some of my photo outings has been a very insightful process thus far. This photo marks the beginning of my love affair with the city of San Francisco. I never really bothered with it until I started looking at it through the lens and the eye of a photographer. It is indeed a treasure trove of beautiful sights and scenes – enough to keep anyone busy for years to come. Since this shot, I have visited the city countless times and logged thousands of miles and hundreds of hours just exploring the entire SF Bay Area. It is here that I truly began to appreciate the journey I began years ago when I started taking photography serious.
This shot was taken with my 7D and EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens with a circular polariser. Some folks like to say you can’t do landscapes with an APS-C (crop) body. I think they’re just using using the wrong lens for the job. This lens is amazing, a perfect match for the 7D and second only to the best of Canon’s L-lenses in optical performance and image stabilization.