Why I Spent My Money To Rent a Helicopter on 9/11

Exactly one week ago we marked the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. As they do every anniversary, The Municipal Art Society of New York created two vertical columns of light ("Tribute In Light") right next to the World Trade Center in remembrance of the Twin Towers using 88 powerful searchlights pointing up to the sky. Every year I photograph the Tribute In Light from a different spot, and this year, for the second time, I decided to photograph it from above. From a helicopter. Here is how and why I did it.

Each one of us can remember what they did on September 11, 2001, no matter where or what you did that day. I remember I was 17 back then, watching the news in a random store right outside of my school in Jerusalem. This is a day I will never forget. This is why when I moved to New York in 2006 I started documenting WTC and every year on 9/11 I photographed the the Tribute In Light to show anyone outside of NYC the progress and how the attacks are remembered in the city. Two years ago, for the 10th anniversary, I decided to do something that was never done before: photograph the columns of lights from above. It was never done before because the sky over the city are 'closed' on that day. I managed to get all the approvals for my mission, and the results were beyond my expectations and one of the photos was chosen for LIFE Magazine Photos Of The Year 2011.


Why I Did It Again

Back in 2011, I had no way to really sell my images to newspapers and magazines. It was a private project and I had no internet connection for about 2 days after I shot it. It was just something I wanted to create for myself and for my fans to 'enjoy'. This year I started working (contributing) with Getty Images and I thought, I can do this again, but this time I would make it available for licensing. Not only would I make my personal project known by my family and friends, but it would also be seen internationally.


Shooting at Night From a Moving Object

The biggest challenge with that type of shoot (other than getting the permit to fly over the city that night) is shooting night shots from a moving helicopter. Even when it's 'standing still' in one place, it's moving and shaking. There is no way to stable the camera and the best tool you can use is your steady hands. Most of the shots were taken at 1/25 or 1/30. This is a hard thing to do while on the ground - so from the helicopter it's even harder. Way harder. Another thing I had to face is the wind. I was able to take off the door and shoot freely without reflections from the glass while also having a 180° view. Even with the benefits of not having the door on, I still have a hard time dealing with the strong winds coming in. Maybe it's the army training, maybe it's just genes, but i'm happy I was able to keep my hands steady and compensate for the movements of the helicopter.


The Equipment I Used

For this mission I knew I wanted to have 2 bodies with 2 different lenses. I went for my favorite camera on the market; a Nikon D800. The first body was my own camera with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8. I rented the second camera from Adorama along with Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. I knew I wanted to get a view of the lights but also show the whole city behind it, and to get it I had to use a very wide lens - and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 was the perfect choice; sharp, fast and super wide. I needed as much light as possible, I shot at f/2.8 with both lenses.


Knowing How the Media Works

Within five minutes of landing, I submitted the photos. My experience with the media has taught me what works and what doesn't and I knew that if I want the photos to be sold, I had to submit them as soon as I got off the helicopter. I made sure my laptop is waiting for me right next to the landing dock, and I made quick edits right after landing. The images were picked up immediately and by some of the biggest publications in the world.



Why It's Important to Give Yourself Assignments

This is something we hear all the time, "give yourself assignments, do stuff you want to do, not just stuff you get asked/paid to do, do something you believe in and want to create". Two years ago, I had this crazy idea to photograph the lights from above - something that no one else had done before. By giving myself the assignment/challenge, I created something unique that not only made me proud, but became something that people will remember for ever. Push yourself do to something new, even if it looks impossible - or in this case, hard and very expensive.


To see some of the images I captured that night or to license them - click here.
If you have questions leave them in the comment section below and i'll do my best to answer them.

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Previous comments
Noam Galai's picture

Thank you so much! glad you liked it...

I cruised the wire like normal and saw this and was petty surprised to see it. Cool work. Reminds me a lot of the New York Mag cover by Iwan Baan that got so much attention after Sandy.

Side note: Interesting to blur the tail number but only to the extent that you can still actually read it. haha

Noam Galai's picture

yeah didnt really need to blur and didnt even pay attention to it too much ;) just in case...

And thanks! Fun fact: I almost did the same sandy shot earlier that night. I got stuck in the city with no power or way to leave the city... :)

Night time aerials are fun...and tricky...I wish we had a static light to work with. Here's our version for the MLS All-Star came - we didn't do this as a spec project.

PS Most of the technical parts of this article are off...why not rent a helicopter with a gyro if stability really mattered. I don't get the choice of shutter speed at that aperture unless you're using a body with really poor high-iso capabilities...but you rented a helicopter, why not rent a decent body too?

Well they can´t be too off if it´s on the cover of look. you might "not get the choice of shutter speed at that aperture" but it worked for him.

Honestly - I've shot in the same conditions and you can get a faster shutter speed. We go high-iso and get 1/1000 second at f/4. As shown in that one sample. The facts seemed off for the shoot.

Noam Galai's picture

what kind of high ISO? I went really high but didnt want to go crazy and get a photo of just noise

Jared Monkman's picture

it might be just me, but your shot looks way darker then his. That's probably why he chose those specific settings

I wonder if you could use some sort of stabilizing rig to get longer exposures? Something like they use for video (name has left me sorry)

Noam Galai's picture

The video I posted here is not stabilized - it's a gopro connected to the side of the helicopter - so it moves with the helicopter, which gives you the feeling of something stable.

I dont have anything that can help stabilize my camera, but Mike Kelly told me I should try this next time: http://www.lensrentals.com/rent/support/stabilizers/kenyon-ks-4x4-gyro

awesome shot

Dynamite shot!

What did you have to crank the ISO up to? I've tried something similar on a D600 with a 50mm 1.8 and am not too impressed with the results.