Award winning cinematographer, art director, and fine artist, Beno Saradzic is also a distinguished aerial photographer. Residing in the United Arab Emirates, Saradzic’s portfolio expands to include captivating atmospheric perspectives of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, accessed by rooftop as well as helicopter. An activity not destined for those fearful of heights, read on for useful tips such as how to maintain sharp images in helicopters, acquiring permits to access higher elevations, and an explanation of why digital blending can render better results than HDR.St. Regis Island Resort on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi
How did you first get into aerial photography?
For many years, I worked as a 3D CGI artist in the architectural visualization industry. My job was to create extremely realistic virtual buildings from architectural CAD drawings. Most of these renderings are completely computer generated and for most of my clients, that is enough. Some clients, however, want to see their future properties placed over the photographs of empty, existing lots to see how they would impact its surroundings. Such 3D composite renderings also made very good marketing and sales tools.
Back in 2003, one of my clients, a real estate development company, asked for a series of 3D CGI renderings of their development. Their brief called for photo realistic composites (a mix of computer graphics and photographed real-world elements). Four of these renderings are meant to be aerial views and the only way to get aerial ‘plates’ (term which describes a base shot upon which CG elements are added with compositing process) is to send the photographer to fly around the future construction site in a helicopter. This is how my first aerial photography flight happened and it was a magical experience. I knew that moment that it wouldn’t be my last one.
How do you go about riding in a helicopter and acquiring permits to access buildings?
It’s not cheap to fly in a helicopter. In the United Arab Emirates, this can cost you anything between USD $1,800, up to USD $8,000 per hour, depending on the type of aircraft. Although, it certainly does help if the client pays for the ride.
The UAE has some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. This created a whole new photo mania called ‘rooftopping’ and for some of them, it has become their sole specialty. Roof access is an art form of its own, and a dark art at that. There are the legal ways which rarely work and the not-so legal, creative ways which yield almost all the best photos taken from the rooftops.
The legal way requires that you obtain the filming permit which is issued by the government. This permit is then presented to the management of the tower one wishes to shoot from. Roof access is then granted or not and from my experience, it’s mostly the second case. Property owners want to get paid in return for access and photographers, well, they are sort of broke.
What does work however is pillow-talk, followed by barter deals, such as free photos for roof access. In most extreme cases when everything else fails, rooftoppers resort to sneaking past the security guards and bribing the doorkeepers if required. Whatever works. What matters is -that- shot, from -that- roof. Every roof is a mountain which needs to be conquered. Eyes are always on the ultimate prize.
What is your favorite lens for aerial photography?
I carry a primary body, Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 24-100mm f 4.0L and 24-70mm f2.8L lens. From my experience, it doesn’t make much sense to shoot any wider than 24mm when you’re up there. You’ll end up shooting the rotor, Skid (landing gear) as well as the sides of the helicopter’s door. No client will ever like those in their shots! My second body has a 70-200 or 70-300mm lens on it. I don’t often shoot with a telephoto lens when flying because it’s almost impossible to get sharp shots at that focal length. It’s nice, however, to get cool close-ups of architectural features as well as compressed atmospheric perspective in densely built-up urban spaces.New Hope
I also carry a lens pen, spare batteries, memory cards, and exotic lenses such as a Canon’s fisheye 8-15mm incase I want to capture unusual perspectives of the world below. All in all, I try to pack light and bring only what I need.
What are some good tips for first-time aerial photographers?
First of all, I would tell them respect the gravity, to put safety ahead of everything, as well as to respect the safety rules. The higher you go, the harder you fall and no picture is worth your life. Take precautions, know your roof, or your aircraft. Furthermore, listen to safety briefings, memorize your lessons. Pack light and essential gear only. You won’t be able to haul a lot of it when you’re climbing dozens of staircases.And Then There Was Light
If you’re going to shoot from the aircraft, make sure you’ve got a spare camera body, spare memory cards and batteries. An hour in a helicopter costs too much to mess it up with faulty gear and a battery without juice. Be safe and enjoy the shoot.
How do you maintain tact sharp focus from a helicopter?
When in the air, you’ll want to shoot with a wide lens, 24mm on a full frame camera being the most usual choice of focal length. I usually pre-focus on infinity and turn autofocus off. This way, I don’t have to worry about my camera missing a frame when I’m in a continuous shooting mode.
When you’re high up, the distance from your subject is most likely to be at infinity, unless you’re doing crazy maneuvers which take the aircraft really close to the building. I wouldn’t worry about that because most pilots won’t allow it anyway. Most.Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Aerial photography presents a much bigger problem than focusing: vibrations. The helicopter creates many different types of vibrations. You’ve got engine vibration, the rotor vibrations, and the blast of air coming at you through the open door. You and your camera will be both shaken and stirred. The only way to ensure that you’re shooting consistently sharp photos is to maintain a high shutter speed. I keep my camera in shutter priority mode and the exposure time is kept at 1/1000s or faster.
Such high shutter speeds may prove a challenge to maintain when you’re shooting sunrises or sunsets when light levels are considerably lower than in the middle of the day. I shoot at ISO 400, sometimes ISO 800. Optical Image Stabilization gives you another 2 extra stops of (virtual) light, so if your lens has it, keep it turned on at all times.
Do you ever get vertigo or perhaps fearful of heights?
Actually, I enjoy heights, I really do. When I’m up there, I feel a sense of freedom and a rush of adrenaline which are hard to describe. There’s a much more intimate angle to aerial and rooftop photography in particular. Roofs are my sanctuary, a place where I can be one with myself.While You Were Sleeping
At night, one thousand feet from the ground, I’m an invisible observer. No one can see me, but I see everything and everyone. The madness of the city, that wild jungle appears muted. There are no queues, no traffic, no people, no stress; just flickering lights and fresh breeze, framed in my camera’s viewfinder. From a rooftop in the middle of the city, I’m surrounded by an infinite vastness of nothing but rooftops. They expand all around me like vast concrete plains, hovering above the city a few hundred feet below.
Do you have a favorite time of day for lighting?
For architecture and cityscapes, my favorite time of the day is definitely the ‘blue hour’, which starts approximately twenty minutes after the sunset, ending just minutes before the sky turns completely black. During that time, there’s a magical contrast between various colors of the city’s artificial lighting and the indigo blue sky. Cities photographed during the ‘blue hour’ look particularly inviting. Deep blues, mixed with splashes of incandescent, fluorescent, in addition to LED lighting give architectural details a three-dimensional quality that’s irresistible to the eye.Warp, 3 different times of the day blended into a single photograph
Blue Hour was invented for Digital Blending and HDR photography…and vice versa. Blue Hour photography involves shooting with long exposures from 1 second up to 2 minutes, so you’re forced to used a tripod. That works when you’re standing on the firm ground, or a rooftop, but it doesn’t work when you’re shooting from the moving aircraft.
This is where sunsets and sunrises come to rescue. They are my absolute favorite time for heli-photography. I love shooting directly into the sun, which is barely above the horizon. The long, dramatic shadows cast by the skyscrapers and trees. I love how the textures pop, the vibrance of colors, as well as the sun’s reflections in the skyscrapers. To me, aerial urban scenes are deeply moving and poetic.
Tell us about photographing Burj Khalifa.
Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure on Earth is also one of the most stunning sights anywhere. It’s the ultimate statement of human ingenuity, intelligence, and determination. I see it almost every day and I still find it hard to believe that the tiny, frail humans managed to build something so colossal and majestic. Its height defies logic and gravity. It’s an overwhelming experience when you stand beside it, looking up, as the tip of its spire cuts through the clouds like hot knife through cotton candy.Burj Khalifa, Dubai
From the cityscape and aerial photographer’s perspective, Burj Khalifa is your prize. It’s the tower to photograph. No matter how many photos you take of Burj Khalifa, it never gets old or repetitive. It’s truly fascinating. Find your point of view, your altitude, and your time of the day and Burj Khalifa will always manage to surprise you. It’s a tower with a thousand faces.Spire on Fire
Which is your favorite image you’ve taken of Burj Khalifa?
It’s hard to pick my favorite shot of Burj Khalifa but if I had to pick one, it would be the one which I photographed from the helicopter on a foggy morning. I was surrounded by fog in every direction and city below didn’t even exist. There it was, Burj Khalifa soaring above the clouds like some kind of alien beacon, right out of the Sci-Fi movie. It was a sight that nearly made me forget to take the shot.Into the Heavens and Beyond
Another shot of Burj Khalifa I’m very proud of happened with the sun rising directly behind it. The whole city while it was submerged in a low lying, rolling fog, only Burj was there to dominate the entire skyline. The scene was completely surreal and the timing of all elements in the picture was simply perfect. A Hollywood concept artist couldn’t have imagined it better.
Much of your photography is influenced by noir and sci-fi elements. What draws you into this thematic style?
I’ve always had a soft spot for Sci-fi, ever since I was little. I still remember the first time I saw the film, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Being so enthralled after walking out of the cinema, I couldn’t sleep for a week! Like a dry sponge, I absorbed every celluloid work of fiction that ever hit the silver screen. I couldn’t get enough of it then and this hasn’t changed today. I’m irresistibly drawn to fictional, fantastic, futuristic worlds, envisioned by the minds of brilliant filmmakers.ABU DHABI 2014, inspired by the look of L.A. in Blade Runner
Cities likes Abu Dhabi and Dubai don’t look much different than the LA, featured in Ridley Scott’s seminal Sci-fi classic “Blade Runner”, or the futuristic New York in Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element”. I’m pretty certain that most of the architects owe some of their design ideas to concepts derived from the Sci-fi films. They may not even be aware of it. I don’t mean it in plagiaristic way, but as a form of flattery and a source of genuine inspiration.
You don’t even have to squint to see the resemblance between Dubai’s skyline along the Sheikh Zayed Road and Coruscant, a city-planet, featured in the fictional Star Wars universe.Dubai Galactic
As an aerial and cityscape photographer, I don’t have the luxury of creating fictional worlds from scratch using just my camera. I can however frame and edit my subjects in a way which allure to my visual aesthetics. I live treating my photos with stylized, cinematic, poetic, and otherworldly looks. I’m not interested in conveying the journalistic integrity of my subjects. There are many other guys who do that already and do it well.
How did you piece together Dune?
Dune (1984) was an epic Sci-fi movie with a stellar cast. It was also a giant box office flop. Regardless of that fact, I really loved the visuals in it. I find the desert scene particularly captivating and my photo-composite was an homage to my childhood memories of this film.Dune, post-apocalyptic vision of Abu Dhabi, inspired by the movie ‘Dune’ (1984)
Success or failure of a photo-based matte painting depends a lot on the quality of the building blocks which make the final image. I have a vast library of aerial photographs, which I’ve assembled over the past five years. My aim was to create a stylized, yet realistic matte painting, featuring highly recognizable Abu Dhabi architectural landmarks, set in a fictional universe of ‘Dune’. The trick was in finding images which were taken from a similar altitude. The direction of the sun was extremely important – in all photographs used in the matte painting, the sun had to shine from the same direction, intensity and angle because there was no other way to match the shadows on the dunes and on the buildings.
The most difficult part was mixing various layers of sand and having them intersect with the buildings in a very natural way. There was a lot of hand painted layer masking, painted shadows, shadow occlusions, and colour variations. I reckon it took me about six hours to finish the project all together.
What is digital blending and how does it differ from HDR?
The simplest and shortest way of describing Digital Blending would be ‘manual HDR’.
In a conventional HDR workflow, the photographer uses a specialized tone-mapping application like Photomatix or Oloneo HDR. These sophisticated programs automatically take the ‘thinking part’ away from the photographer. They fuse bracketed exposures into images with a much wider dynamic range than any single digital exposure could exhibit, given the limitations of the current imaging sensors. Such images are known simply as HDR images. In theory, the HDR image should be able to reproduce the tonal range which mimics that of a human eye. I would say that this is highly debatable.Time Decay, Time blend of Abu Dhabi captured at 3 different times: 5:30PM, 6PM and 6:45PM
Some of these applications come pre-loaded with a variety of ‘creative’ presets, as a result allow photographers to quickly achieve a certain ‘look’. There are also dozens of input parameters which make it possible to further refine the way the HDR tones are calculated, as a result there is a fairly good control over the technical side of this process. This is also the biggest weakness of automatized HDR image fusion; incorrect settings combined with robotic HDR algorithms are the main culprit for surreal, unnatural, two-dimensional images, full of artifacts and oddities. You’ve all seen an overcooked HDR photograph, so you know what I’m talking about. Needless to say, there is a huge difference between various HDR applications and the way they output these images.City of Lights, Dubai Marina, Processed as 5-stop HDR, Digital Blending and some “extra trickery”
What is Digital Blending?
Digital and Dynamic Blending; this is where the photographer can’t rely on the computer to think for him or her. The photographer is required to manually blend bracketed exposures using layers and masks to isolate and mix the highlights, mid-tones and shadows. With this process the photographer remains in control every step of the way and is required to have a good knowledge of an advanced editor such as Photoshop. A well executed, digitally blended image will look far more natural and spontaneous to the eye as compared to the HDR image which is often ‘cooked’ by the computer. On the negative side, Digital Blending can be a very tedious, laborious process and that doesn’t work well in the world of commercial photography where a large number of images need to be quickly turned around.
Dynamic Blending takes the challenge one step further; the photographer not only blends the layers of bracketed exposures in order to expand the dynamic range of the tones within the image, but controls also the timing and placement of the moving element in the photograph, like a choreographer working with dancers. This process is very creative and it requires a great deal of planning and forethought at the shooting stage, not only in the studio, but in front of the computer.
Tell us about your workflow.
My workflow is divided into three distinct stages: pre-processing, post-processing and finishing stage.
First, the pre-processing is done in Lightroom. This is where all of the RAW files are imported and flagged for type and quality. I apply a lens profile correction (if available), remove any vignetting, adjust shadows, recover highlights, reduce noise and add a touch of sharpness. Once I’m done, I export my digital negatives as 16-bit TIFF files. I like to work with rich information that Canon’s brilliant sensor outputs.
Next, images are then imported into Photoshop CC and this is where the bulk of real post-processing work takes place. Anything from simple adjustments to serious surgery is done here. Photoshop CC is an indispensable, mighty power tool in proper hands.
The last step of my workflow is the finishing stage. A sort of make-up room for photographs, where a certain mood and look are applied on the image. It’s that glossy coated, wax treatment a car would get in a showroom.
My finished images are then saved four times: as low resolution watermarked JPEGs for social media and websites, a 16-bit TIFF masters, a native layered Photoshop files (PSD), and lastly high-resolution JPEGs. I keep several copies of each files on different drives, as well as on the cloud backup. CARBONITE is my Cloud service of choice. All you can dump, no limit service. What’s not to like? Better be safe than sorry.
What Topaz programs have found their way into your workflow?
I use many different Photoshop and standalone plug-ins to do my post-processing and finishing work. It all depends on what I’m doing and client’s brief. I was only recently introduced to Topaz products and it was an instant love.
My personal favorite would have to Topaz ReStyle, which is a truly awesome Swiss knife of instant moods and looks with almost infinite tweaking ability. I love how easy it is to preview the effect and the intuitive interface, which was designed with photographers in mind. Good job guys.
I do a lot of complex masking too, especially in fine art, black and white architecture photography, where individual elements must be separated and extracted before color correction process can begin. This is where Topaz ReMask works extremely well. It’s incredibly fast, precise and it works even with transparent elements which is extremely rare.
The last application I would like to mention is Topaz Lens Effects. I own several Tilt Shift lens from Canon and own a complete set of Lens Baby lenses. They are great for achieving various artistic and miniature effects. What I don’t like about shooting with such lens however is that the effect on the image is permanent. After shooting it, the effect can’t be altered, increased or decreased. This is a problem if you’re shooting for a client. Consequently, I’ve had cases where the client was asking to get rid of the tilt-shift effect…and I couldn’t.Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (T-S)
Topaz Lens Effects allows me to apply convincing lens simulations on conventionally shot images without the penalty of destructive, in-camera lens effects. That’s how it should be. Every ‘do’ must have an ‘undo’.
What advice can you provide for aspiring aerial photographers?
Clients won’t hire you to shoot from a helicopter unless you have a good aerial photography portfolio. You can’t have a good aerial photography portfolio until you shoot from a helicopter. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
My advice to all aspiring aerial photographers is to start somewhere. Build your semi-aerial portfolio by shooting landscapes, cityscapes, and buildings from an easily accessible and safe roof or nearby hill. Most cities have one.Light Snake, Jounieh Gulf, Lebanon
Learn from the works of masters in this field such as Yann Arthus Bertrand, Alex MacLean and the amazing urban aerials by Vincent LaForet. Share your work, use the power of social media. Have your photos appraised and critiqued by the general audiences and peer photographers. If you stay the course and shoot a lot, you’ll get there sooner than you think. Once you’re ready, and you’ll know when this moment comes, approach your potential clients who are likely to commission aerial photographers.
You’ll nail your first job eventually and once you do, your portfolio will begin to grow exponentially, so will your reputation and your client base. The sky’s the limit; pun intended.
About the Photographer
Beno is a Slovenian born, multiple-award winning visual artist. He is currently living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
PAST EXPERIENCE AND BACKGROUND
For the past 18 years, Beno has trained his eye in the arts of seeing, as well as story-telling through 3D Computer Generated imagery as an animator and a specialist of Architectural Visualisation.
As a veteran of Computer Generated Architectural Visualization field, Beno won numerous awards and accolades, such as ‘Winner of the Tektronix’s 1993 International Design Visualization competition’, Rank of ‘Autodesk Master’ and 3D Studio Max Instructor in 2006.
His 3D Computer Generated Art is published in several international architectural visualization publications and books such as ‘3ds MAX 2008 Foundation’. Beno was a contributing consultant for Michigan State University at Department of Forensic Science and is also a winner of the ‘Special Merit of Excellence’ Award by Kinetix / Autodesk (2005).
In 2007, Beno started exploring new creative avenues, which consequently lead him to discover his profound passion for film making, time lapse, and fine art photography. In less than a year, he had dozens of photographs and time lapse films published and specially featured across local and international media.
Beno’s work is in continuous international limelight for his distinct artistic style of architecture photography and highly evocative aerial vistas of cityscapes and landscapes.
Beno is currently one of the most sought after visual artists in the UAE. He shoots for local, as well as international clients on a regular basis. He is collaborating with prestigious image libraries, such as Getty Images, Alamy and Trevillion Images.
Below is the list of Beno’s most notable awards, merits and appearances in the field of photography and time lapse cinematography:
- Featured guest and time-lapse cinematographer on Discovery Channel’s ‘Passage to Abu Dhabi’
- Time-lapse cinematographer on BBC Natural History’s ‘Wild Arabia’ TV series
- 2nd Place Winner in the architectural photography category of the ‘SPACES OF LIGHT – THIRD SEASON’ (2013) international Photo Contest
- Honorable Mention at the International Photography Awards 2013 (IPA) with 11 nominations
- Gold Medal Winner of the Egypt IPC 2012, photography contest, Architecture Category
- Honorable Mention at the 6th International Contest of Photography NARAVA 2013
- Honorable Mention at Seventh Season PX3 – Prix de la Photographie Paris 2013
- 3rd Place Winner in the architectural photography category of the ‘SPACES OF LIGHT – SECOND SEASON’ (2012) international Photo Contest
- Winner of the 1st prize for the’ EARTH HOUR 2011′ photo contest organized by ADGAS/WWF
- Two-time Finalist of the ‘AL AIN PHOTOGRAFIA AWARD’ in 2011
- Finalist of ‘HIPA’ photography award, First Season (2011-12)
- Two-time Finalist of ‘HIPA’ photography award, Third Season (2013-14)
- Finalist of National Geographic 2012 International Photo Contest
- ‘Abu Dhabi’ time lapse film featured in permanent collection of Encyclopedia Britannica’s ‘Project Time Lapse’ (2013)
- Exclusive feature in Simply Abu Dhabi international publication, March 2013 Edition
- Published architectural photography work in Simone Kosremelli’s book ‘A Lebanese Perspective’ (2012)
- Consulting instructor of photography and time lapse photography at Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai
- Jury member of the ADP / Tempo Planet magazine – Photo Contest 2013
- Special artist’s feature in Tempo Planet Magazine, July 2013 edition
- Full Frame Photography Magazine, magazine cover feature and ‘In Focus’ story on Fine Art Photography, September 2013 edition