Behind the Lens: Darrell Wong

Creative exposure and an aerial perspective capture downwind paddling icon Danny Ching

Maui photographer Darrell Wong utilizes creative exposure and an aerial perspective to capture this unique image of downwind paddling icon Danny Ching.

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The shot:
Danny Ching on the Maliko Downwind Run, Maui
Canon 7D with a 70-200mm f/2.8 at 81mm
1/60 sec at f/25 – ISO 200

This image has a great feeling of motion … what technique did you use to capture this moment?  
Darrell Wong: In photography, this is called a “speed blur pan.” It creates the feeling of motion in a subject. To freeze action, you would normally use a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second or shorter. With “speed blurs,” you shoot with a shutter speed of 1/100 or longer. Here I’m shooting at 1/60, to exaggerate the speed of the paddler by adding a blurred effect to the water. And normally with “speed blurs” you are panning along with the subject as you’re taking the photograph. But here, since I am following Danny from the helicopter, traveling at the same speed as him, the helicopter is doing the panning for me.

The angle on this shot, as well as several others in the downwinder feature in C&K Aug ’13, offer the viewer an interesting overhead look—What is it like shooting from a helicopter? 
For one thing, it is a myth that photographers dangle outside the helicopter door from a harness while shooting. The best place to be in a helicopter flying along at 20+ knots is inside the cabin. You cannot hold a camera steady if you’re getting blown around outside a helicopter. The most important factor when shooting from a helicopter is working with the right pilot. I’ve worked with several pilots that know exactly what I need. In the case of Danny’s photo, the pilot put me directly above him, and kept a steady constant speed that allowed me to “pan” the shot. All this while flying backwards with the nose of the aircraft into the wind! Depending upon who or what you are photographing, the biggest benefit of using a helicopter is being able to shoot down on your subject to show your subject clearly. And when doing advertising shoots, a one-hour heli session is very productive in getting the shots of several different products, athletes and scenarios.

What kind of concerns and issues must a photographer deal with when going for the aerial perspective?
My biggest concern is safety. Statistics show helicopters crash more than any other aircraft, even experimental and R&D aircraft. There is always a higher risk involved with helicopters than shooting from a boat, or from land, or even in the surf. By the way, second on my “danger list” is shooting from jet skis, just because of their high rate of mechanical failures. When shooting from a helicopter, you need to have everything organized in a compact space, ready to shoot. A helicopter with its doors off, flying at 20+ knots is very windy, noisy and cold. It is not a cozy environment. There is no changing of lenses in the cabin, so you need at least two bodies with the correct lenses attached. I use a 70-200mm 2.8 and a 24-70mm 2.8 lenses. Preferably, you also want to have the largest CF cards, so you don’t have to change cards too often.

On another note, if you are interested in this type of shooting, a two-seater goes for $650/hr. That’s just you and the pilot. The four-seater runs at $850/hr, which is for shooting stills and video simultaneously.

Do you have any good stories about airborne shooting?  
Fortunately, (knock on wood) I have not had any close calls or mishaps. Maybe it is because I’ve always hired the best helicopter companies with the best pilots.

I have jumped out of the heli a couple of times at Peahi, Hawaii, and the big Maui wave also known as Jaws to continue shooting from a jet ski. It sounds daring, but it was just a short 15-foot jump into the channel at Peahi, where my jet ski picked me up. I had my water housings already packed on the ski ready to shoot. Remember, these pilots have safety first, so they weren’t about to let me off if it wasn’t safe.

What’s next on your list of photographic adventures?
I have a few SUP photo shoots scheduled, and I’m preparing for the winter waves here on Maui. I would like to photograph Laird Hamilton’s new project; The Golf Board http://www.golfboard.com from a helicopter; tracking him whilst he cruises thru a scenic golf course. Now wouldn’t that be interesting?

Click to view more of Wong’s work: http://www.darrellwong.com

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