Vincent Laforet's Latest High-Altitude Helicopter Shots Overlook the Twinkle of San Francisco

Vincent Laforet's famed "Air" series takes yet another turn from New York and Las Vegas, finally arriving in San Francisco. Fstoppers caught up with Laforet to discuss ever-shifting challenges throughout the project, G-Technology's recent support of the project which will bring it to Europe this summer, and the future of the project as a whole.

The original New York and Las Vegas "Air" projects were quite different from Laforet's recent San Francisco run, especially in one area: noise. In our previous discussion, Laforet mentioned it was only because of the somewhat recent sensor developments that lead to quite clean ISO 6,400 and under images that he was able to shoot this project. Even the increased dynamic range has been so important because of the difference between the still-bright city lights and every unlit nook and cranny in a city's alleys and unlit rooftops. But today's sensors may have met their match 7,200 feet above San Francisco as they were just barely able to squeeze out acceptable images.

"I haven't had time to work on them — that's the most honest answer," Laforet said over the phone before getting on yet another plane, sounding slightly weathered after shooting two commercial jobs in a week. He prefaced that with notes citing the Bay's hazy and somewhat foggy conditions, which will always turn into noise.

However, while noise cancelling can always play an important role in prepping files (as it soon will when Laforet has the time), the truth behind the noise lies in a key difference between San Francisco and the cities shot earlier for the series. Laforet had stumbled upon an irritating fact for anyone shooting a nighttime project and trying to keep a consistent look; Though it may not seem like it, not every city is as bright as the next. "San Francisco is a very dark city. It's at least a stop and a half darker than New York or Vegas," Laforet pointed out. "I went up to 12,800, which is the highest I've ever gone. In New York City, we were between 1,600 and 3,200 — same in Las Vegas," Laforet added, referring to the ISO level he shot at for the duration of the helicopter flight.

It is in shooting at night at which time dynamic range really matters because the biggest issue isn't even how dark the city is, it's the fact that "the city lights are still so bright while your shadow areas are so dark," Laforet lamented. Even armed with both Canon's top-of-the-line 5DS and the dreamy Mamiya Leaf Credo 50, Laforet admitted getting the right balance of settings for both highlight and shadow detail was difficult, needless to say. Shooting between ISO 6,400 and 12,800, Laforet truly pushed the boundaries of what these cameras can do in a fine art application.

While "Air" will certainly come to other U.S. cities, Laforet did make the announcement on (where you can also see the rest of his San Francisco series, including an amazing, aerial, atypical nighttime view of the typical city planning mayhem that Market Street really is) that the project will be coming to select European cities as early as May of this year, thanks to a partnership with G-Technology.

The full set of Laforet's photos of San Francisco can be seen here on Storehouse. You can also sign-up to pre-order a book on Laforet's "Air" series, or sign-up to be notified when "Air" comes to your city.

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Kendra Paige's picture

Loved the video, the shots are remarkable. Thanks for sharing!

Pavel Backa's picture

Hmm, did you notice, that he was holding 5Ds (9th second)? So I am not sure that he was shooting only with 1DX :).

Fetching image ...
Adam Ottke's picture

You know what? I actually did notice that. I think the 1D X was stuck in my had from the previous "Air" pieces I covered. And now I know why it felt funny when I was looking at that...just didn't quite click with me at the time. Thank you for the correction :-)

Karl Taylor's picture

Who gives a crap what he was shooting with, the results are all that matters and it looks like the results are going to be incredible plus it's original. You even see in the video him using a medium format camera too? You pixel peeping 'photographers' are insatiable. FFS just take a step back and appreciate the work, the effort and the result.

N a t's picture

Rude arsehole alert

Karl Taylor's picture

The only person who has said anything sensible here is Kendra Paige.

Johnny Rico's picture

I feel like the helicopter was a very important piece of kit. :-D

Karl Taylor's picture

Why N a t, why is it rude? My point here is that so often on these forums and posts the comments revolve around nit picking about equipment but give no credit for the skill or quality of the work. In this case Vincent has produced something very special and the outcome of that in this arena of comments is 'wasn't he using a 5d or 1dx or was it this or was it that'? I'm just perplexed how any of that commentary can be put forward without any credit given for what an incredible piece of work this is? Yes people have an interest in gear but it often becomes all encompassing and to their own detriment because they lose sight of the vision and the importance of the visual concept and because of that they will never become better photographers. Vincent Laforet could have shot this on a polaroid camera for all I care, what I recognise is the images, that's all that should matter.

Sean Shimmel's picture

The last 2 images remind me of beautifully stylized circuit boards. Intriguing craftsmanship.

Pavel Backa's picture

well, where to start :). I think that everyone here is curious about what he used. And my comment was only about that I noticed that he was using unreleased camera, so I found it interesting. I am little bit unsure why I made you so angry. So sorry for that I made you feel this way.
And one thing to the gear. If you have vision, you need the specific gear to support this vision. If you gear is not right, you have to change your vision. Yes, the result can be great, awesome etc, but it will not be your desired result.
But I dont have to explain this to you. Love your fashion work you did on the Iceland.

Karl Taylor's picture

Hi Pavel, you didn't make me angry. I just find the level of interest in gear in general a bit overwhelming on this site. I think it starts to devour peoples confidence or ability in what is possible with the gear they already have. Everyone craving for the latest gadget or dying to know what lens myself or Vincent might be using as if it will be the miracle save all knowledge for their photography becomes a little bit tiresome. People are asking the wrong questions as if knowing the gear and the settings will be some magic formula that transforms them into the next Rankin or Steve McCurry and this frustrates me immensely because I know better than anyone that it is knowledge that will change things, cameras and optics are just a tool to help you produce higher clarity but not actually create a better image in the visionary sense. I guess today in particular I must have just been frustrated with the amount of times I'd heard similar questions (we receive hundreds each week!) and I know that if these people just stopped obsessing and started doing then they would do a whole lot better, they can worry about gear later. My apologies if I offended you but my comment wasn't directed at you personally it was a general observation on what I see here and through many of the questions and comments we also receive.

Nathan Taylor's picture

Y'know what? I think the most critical piece of gear for this series isn't a camera or a lens, its a friggin' helicopter. Let's be honest, that's 98% of what makes these shots cool.

Karl Taylor's picture

The most critical part of the gear and what makes these shots cool was Vincent's vision to use one at night.

Johnny Rico's picture

Nathan I didn't even see your comment until after I posted mine, but I pretty much said the same thing jokingly.