Architecture photographer explains how he got that New York magazine cover shot

Shooting in the dark, with a handheld camera, in a vibrating helicopter, 5,000 feet above land sounds like a photographer’s nightmare. But Iwan Baan made it look easy.

The Dutch photographer’s image of a half-illuminated, half-powerless New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy captured the nation’s attention on the cover of New York magazine.

“It was the only way to show that New York was two cities, almost,” Baan said on the phone Sunday evening from Haiti. “One was almost like a third world country where everything was becoming scarce. Everything was complicated. And then another was a completely vibrant, alive New York.”

Baan made the image Wednesday night after the storm, using the new Canon 1D X with the new 24-70mm lens on full open aperture. The camera was set at 25,000 ISO, with a 1/40th of a second shutter speed.

“[It was] the kind of shot which was impossible to take before this camera was there,” Baan said.

It was more difficult to rent a car than a helicopter in New York the day after Sandy, Baan said. And because there was such limited air traffic so soon after the storm, air traffic control allowed Baan and the helicopter to hover very high above the city, a powerful advantage for the photo.

New York Magazine editors explain their cover choice. “Fortunately, Baan was in town, but two of his three different helicopter contacts were unresponsive,” they say.

Shooting from a helicopter doesn’t faze Baan. He does it about once a week, on average, all across the world. But he had never tried it in the middle of the night before.

Imagine crouching inside a vibrating helicopter, clutching a handheld camera and peering down at the devastated landscape of a city just ravaged by a storm that’s claimed more than 100 lives. Now imagine what it feels like to have no door between you and that wide expanse of nothing, just 46-degree air ripping around the sky. And somehow managing, despite the darkness, to capture such a vivid, emotional snapshot.

“With these aerials you shoot a lot, bursts of images, to finally pick one out there which is sharp,” Baan said. “It’s difficult if it’s freezing outside, you don’t have a door, helicopter is moving and vibrating, etc., but you really work towards an idea, visualization of that image which you have in mind.”

Baan knew before the helicopter left the ground what sort of image he wanted to achieve. And once they landed, the process of selecting and submitting to New York magazine editors was easy. The hour suspended above the earth was the hard part.

“In a way, it all worked out perfectly,” Baan said. “You never know when something like this happens. If one thing would have changed, the picture wouldn’t exist.”

The photo captured not only the effects of Sandy, but the reality of New York City on the eve of the 2012 election, he said.

“What really struck me, if you look at the image on the left, you see the Goldman Sachs building and new World Trade Center,” said Baan. “These two buildings are brightly lit. And then the rest of New York looks literally kind of powerless. In a way, it shows also what’s wrong with the country in this moment.”

Within the world of architecture photography, Baan is a rock star, with a slew of awards, including the Golden Lion and the Julius Shulman Photography Award.

He travels from Amsterdam to Miami, Rome to Beijing. Already, he’s moved on from New York and is working on a research project in Haiti. He’s photographed work by some of the world’s most prominent architects, including Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron. Life is in constant movement.

When he’s not capturing iconic post-storm images, the photographer is documenting the world and its people through the buildings they inhabit. Baan, who’s only been doing architecture photography since 2005, said his images are less about buildings and more about people.

“My interest is in showing people, and maybe using the architecture as a background,” Baan said, “and if you go one step further, a city as a background.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=730557440 Ellis Vener

    I agree.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=730557440 Ellis Vener

    I agree.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=730557440 Ellis Vener

    Thanks Mike!

  • KodaChrome25

    There’s a little Archie Bunker error: “homophobic” should be “homophonic.” Can you fix this guy too Ms. Moos?

  • http://twitter.com/WeddingPhots Andrew Miller

    bloody great shot whatever the technical aspects. Just hope the cost outlay was worth it!

  • Anonymous

    Wow, very cool that this was shot at such high ISO. Gives me more faith in cranking up the ISO to reduce shake. I suppose that it’s a strategy that works best when the subject admits noise reduction without too much trouble. It seems like shooting with a fast prime would have been a good option too, but hey, why bother when you can get something like this at crazy high ISO?

  • 800mm f/2.8 DX VR

    “Vivid emotional snapshot”; a tautology don’t you think?

  • 800mm f/2.8 DX VR

    How is that homophobic??

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Kenny/100002482228103 Michael Kenny

    And people say it’s the photographer and not the camera. Depends on the situation clearly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sergesemenovcom Sergey Semenov

    Yeah! Cool shot! We were flying there several times shooting 360degree panoramas at dusk and at night but it was “shining” brightly with the lights )))
    http://www.airpano.com/360Degree-VirtualTour.php?3D=Manhattan-New-York-USA-Night

  • http://www.facebook.com/flat.steve.986 Flat Steve

    amazing shot, great composition, must have been spectacular… congrats. it unintentionally shows the dramatic effects on light pollution (and waste of energy and tax money). regarding high iso….well the game changing Nikon D3s did the same since many moons, D4 of course even better, and using faster 1.8 glass would probably have made more sense, instead of poking a sports lens around? but what really makes me wonder, except the shake of the helicopter, I would suspect that such a ultra high iso was really necessary?

    because: see what todays DSLRs are really capable of when it comes to darkness (and NY was not dark for the most of the city or,sky) with these two true low light artists burning amps on their DSLR chips – may I point to an amazing shortfilm that could be suggested for an oscar: http://vimeo.com/36972668

  • http://www.facebook.com/flat.steve.986 Flat Steve

    amazing shot, great composition, must have been spectacular… congrats. it unintentionally shows the dramatic effects on light pollution (and waste of energy and tax money). regarding high iso….well the game changing Nikon D3s did the same since many moons, D4 of course even better, and using faster 1.8 glass would probably have made more sense, instead of poking a sports lens around? but what really makes me wonder, except the shake of the helicopter, I would suspect that such a ultra high iso was really necessary?

    because: see what todays DSLRs are really capable of when it comes to darkness (and NY was not dark for the most of the city or,sky) with these two true low light artists burning amps on their DSLR chips – may I point to an amazing shortfilm that could be suggested for an oscar: http://vimeo.com/36972668

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1665295216 John McClelland

    The Poynter article seems generally good to me, but it omits two useful facts.

    One, the “full open aperture” of the lens. It is easily deduced as f:2.8 by the cognoscenti. Other people need help. Was he driving a car “full-open-throttle” with a 2-L 4-banger engine, a 3-L V-6, or a 6-L turbo V-8? (V-6).

    Using a fast non-zoom lens, such as a 24, 35 or 50 mm f:1.4, might get the same result at a lesser combination of ISO and shutter speed. So with ISO 6,400 (available for years now on lesser cameras), 1/40 at f:1.4.

    Two, at what focal length was the lens set? Digital SLR’s record this in every image’s data file. Vibration is more serious at longer settings.

    Knowing the focal length helps assess the perspective as well. For my first aerial published full-page in 1973, I had only fixed 35, 50 and 90 mm lenses, We calculated location and altitude under the O’Hare control zone to show 20 miles of sprawl from suburb to skyline. Obviously Baan had done similar planning well.

    Regardless of the tech stuff, a remarkable photo.

    –John McClelland, emeritus faculty, Roosevelt University, Chicago

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1665295216 John McClelland

    The Poynter article seems generally good to me, but it omits two useful facts.

    One, the “full open aperture” of the lens. It is easily deduced as f:2.8 by the cognoscenti. Other people need help. Was he driving a car “full-open-throttle” with a 2-L 4-banger engine, a 3-L V-6, or a 6-L turbo V-8? (V-6).

    Using a fast non-zoom lens, such as a 24, 35 or 50 mm f:1.4, might get the same result at a lesser combination of ISO and shutter speed. So with ISO 6,400 (available for years now on lesser cameras), 1/40 at f:1.4.

    Two, at what focal length was the lens set? Digital SLR’s record this in every image’s data file. Vibration is more serious at longer settings.

    Knowing the focal length helps assess the perspective as well. For my first aerial published full-page in 1973, I had only fixed 35, 50 and 90 mm lenses, We calculated location and altitude under the O’Hare control zone to show 20 miles of sprawl from suburb to skyline. Obviously Baan had done similar planning well.

    Regardless of the tech stuff, a remarkable photo.

    –John McClelland, emeritus faculty, Roosevelt University, Chicago

  • http://twitter.com/roxanebay Roxane Bay

    Wonderful capture! Tells the story well. Can I join you in your next adventure please? Roxane Bay

  • http://twitter.com/roxanebay Roxane Bay

    Wonderful capture! Tells the story well. Can I join you in your next adventure please? Roxane Bay

  • Mike

    Ellis, unfortunately the new EF 24-70/2.8L does not have IS. That’s only on the newest 24-70/4 that was announced today.

  • Nicholas Ryan

    Agreed with your points. Just a small correction — the new EF 24-70mm f/2.8 does not have image stabilization. We wish it did!

  • Nicholas Ryan

    Agreed with your points. Just a small correction — the new EF 24-70mm f/2.8 does not have image stabilization. We wish it did!

  • sueb

    Yeah Chuck. I shot for 4 1/2 years in that area space, from a fixed wing, and it was hell at 110 knots.

  • sueb

    Yeah Chuck. I shot for 4 1/2 years in that area space, from a fixed wing, and it was hell at 110 knots.

  • Anonymous

    And if they did? Do you think they’d get by security?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=730557440 Ellis Vener

    besides the fact that the Canon EOS 1D X does a phenomenal job at ISO 25,600 (as does the Nikon D4) , and that the new newish version of the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L has Image Stabilization -it works like a Ken Lab gyro but not entirely- it is a very well visualized photo.

    Technology doesn’t make a photo, it just makes it easier to conceive of and then actually execute some photos.

    Well done, Mr. Baan.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=730557440 Ellis Vener

    besides the fact that the Canon EOS 1D X does a phenomenal job at ISO 25,600 (as does the Nikon D4) , and that the new newish version of the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L has Image Stabilization -it works like a Ken Lab gyro but not entirely- it is a very well visualized photo.

    Technology doesn’t make a photo, it just makes it easier to conceive of and then actually execute some photos.

    Well done, Mr. Baan.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    It was the magazine who called Iwan Baan on Wednesday. They describe that here: http://nymag.com/thecut/2012/11/more-images-from-new-yorks-sandy-cover.html –Julie Moos, Poynter Online

  • Mr. G

    So who had the idea for the shoot? Photog or the mag?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561872772 Anonymous

    I have shot in maui from choppers and wind makes it hard ..big time, although I did use to shoot with mostly a 300 2.8. If it was windy and cold that would have made it hard, with a wide angle is much easier though

  • justApoint

    Thats a really amazing shot
    Makes me wish I had a camera and a helicopter.

  • Anonymous

    TO BE FAIR….

    The photog’s little bit of editorializing is just silly. You can’t blame Goldman Sachs for being better prepared than other real estate owners in the city. Not to mention that the building sources its power from BROOKLYN. Did anyone walk over to the building and ask to charge their cellphone?

  • Mike

    Chuck, the logistical challenges of this are considerably higher than a standard aerial. I’ve done several hundred hours of helicopter-based shoots, and some are easier than others. As Mr. Downs says below, the light is the real issue here. 25,600iso/2.8/40th? That’s dark. Sure, he probably used a gyro which helped quite a bit but it’s not simple.

    Also in the area he was shooting, EWR Tower only owns airspace up to 2000′. For higher, NY Approach usually declines those requests. The low amount of air traffic that night due to airport closures worked in his favor. He also wasn’t above land, despite what the article says…unless you count being partly over Governor’s Island or sort of close to Staten Island as over land.

  • http://twitter.com/PatDownsPhotos Patrick Downs

    @Chuck: Vibration is the problem, especially at such slow shutter speeds. Otherwise, I agree.

  • http://twitter.com/PatDownsPhotos Patrick Downs

    re “Shooting from a helicopter doesn’t faze Baan. He does it about once a week, on average, all across the world. But he had never tried it in the middle of the night before.”

    I wonder why he doesn’t use a gyroscope? I have shot with a gyroscope at 1/15th from a helo and got great results, with most frames sharp. I’ll be anxious to see the quality from such a high ISO. Great shot though.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Grant. I fixed it. –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • http://www.facebook.com/oli4b Olivier Bloemendaal

    The forgot to mention this is an advertisement….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=730080987 Grant Barrett

    There’s a little homophonic error: “doesn’t phase Baan” should be “doesn’t faze Baan.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/ChuckLiddy Chuck Liddy

    “Shooting in the dark, with a handheld camera, in a vibrating helicopter,
    5,000 feet above land sounds like a photographer’s nightmare.”
    Geez, can I call bullshit on this? It’s a nice shot. But ANYONE on the planet who has shot aerials KNOWS shooting from a helicopter is a piece of cake. If this had been shot been shot from a fixed wing aircraft I would be impressed. I’m sure Mr. Baan is great with all the awards he has received…….but seriously? Poynter loses more and more respect almost every day when it come to photography.