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Friday, January 4, 2019

FlyNYON Review and Experience

     When the thought of turning 30 or 40 crossed my mind, I always thought I'd do something exciting for the occasion.  Maybe skydiving?  With 30 in the rear view mirror, and 40 quickly approaching, I decided that I was too afraid of dying (that seems to happen as you get older, you see) than to risk my life jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.  So the next best option?  Staying ON a helicopter!  Combined with my love for New York City, taking pictures from a helicopter seemed like the perfect way to get an adrenaline rush, all while taking in the beauty of New York in the fall.  

     After a lot of research, I decided to go with FlyNYON.  Their prices were reasonable, and made even more reasonable when I was able to use a 45% off coupon code during one of their sales.  The building is located in New Jersey, but it was easy enough to take the New Jersey PATH train there from the Oculus in Manhattan.  Once in New Jersey, you have to take a bus, cab, or Uber/Lyft to the actual location.  We opted to take an Uber.  

     Once you get there, they take your information and weigh you with your gear that you plan on shooting with on the helicopter on your body.  I thought this was weird, but it did make sense.  They use this information to determine where you will sit on the helicopter so that the weight distribution is balanced.  Once this was done, we had some down time since we arrived a bit early.  They've got this prop helicopter with some LED panels to simulate being in flight that you can take pictures in.  

     There is also a small gift shop and hot cocoa and drink/snack machines.

     Not to mention some hoodies and t-shirts that I didn't buy. Admittedly, I did want one of their hoodies though!

     Here is the gear I took on the flight with me.  My 6d Mark II with a 24-70mm f2.8L lens and my EOS R with a 135mm f2L lens.
photo taken on my iPhone

     I don't know how popular this is to do, but they even rent out DSLRs and lenses.  The rentals start at around $40.  While that doesn't sound like a ton of money, keep in mind you are only using that lens for the 15 to 30 minutes you're on the helicopter depending on which package you bought!  In comparison, if you rented from Borrow Lenses, you'd get more time with your rental for the price you pay.

     Once it's time to get everyone ready for the flight, they take everyone into a meeting room to view a safety video.  This is where I have my first criticism.  I'm not sure if it's possible - although I don't see why not - but they should've sent a link to our emails to watch this video prior to getting to the location.  Then they need to make us watch the video AGAIN once we are there.  There were some safety precautions on the video that I thought people could easily forget, especially if they're excited about going on their first helicopter ride.  

     Afterwards, we were ushered into another area where they put harnesses on us.  We were instructed to leave all of our personal items in this plastic container that had a padlock on it.  The plastic container is much like what they sell in the gardening area at Home Depot to store gardening supplies.  This gave me very little confidence in the security of our personal belongings being safe.  Not to mention that I saw a bunch of backpacks thrown in there with some girl's Chanel purse.  She seemed hesitant to put her purse in there, and I could see why.  There's no way I'd put a Chanel purse in there, much less my other camera gear that was staying behind in my backpack that I reluctantly left in there as well.  When I went to use the restroom, I saw a whole wall of actual lockers (like the kind you'd see at the gym).  There was no way they had that many employees, so why wouldn't they let patrons use those to lock their own things up in?  They should at least make this option available to people.  Fortunately, nothing happened to our stuff, but it really bothered me that their means of storage was not as secure as it should've been.

     The process of getting everyone into harnesses seemed to take forever.  Understandably, we had to demonstrate that we understood how to free ourselves from the helicopter just in case we had to evacuate.  Then we were shuttled to a nearby hangar where we would board the helicopter.  

     There was a bit more waiting at the hangar.  We got to meet the pilot of our flight, and after all the waiting, we were led outside to our helicopter for our 30 flight, which we upgraded from a 15 minute flight after they noted the locations a 15 minute flight would cover.  Disappointed in this, we opted for the $125 upgrade to a 30 minute flight.  

     When I walked by these people about to board their helicopter, I noticed that one of the openings on this "doors off" flight was much smaller than the opening on the other side.  

     When they assigned us our seats, I was assigned to the crappy seat where the opening was much smaller.  As you can see from this photo below, I had very little room to turn out and take photos and was limited to taking photos of only things a little to the right of this "wall" that was in my way.  I had trouble even getting my camera over the side of the "wall".  This flight was doors off for everyone, except for me.  I voiced this concern to our pilot, and while he seemed sympathetic, his only consolation to me was to offer me to get on another flight, and "hopefully" not be assigned the same seat.  Hopefully?  I was pretty upset and fuming over this.  Understandably, no one wanted to switch seats with me - which only confirms to me that it's a crappy seat that I paid the same price as everyone else for, while not get the full doors off experience.  In all of their Instagram posts, you'll notice the people hanging over the side of the helicopter.  That's because the pictures are from the OTHER side of the helicopter where the opening allows both passengers to swing their legs over and have more range of motion to take photos.  I opted to stay on this flight because I was already too invested in getting to this point.  The pilot did make several passes over the same areas to try to give me an opportunity to get shots I couldn't get because of this obstruction.  
     While I was appreciative of his efforts, it is a lot more difficult to get shots than I thought it was going to be - especially if you've never been on a helicopter before.  The movements were quick and sometimes very abrupt.  It felt sort of like being on a roller coaster.  There were moments you felt your stomach drop because of the quick change in elevation.  

     Here's my photo of my feet "dangling" over the helicopter.  Go ahead and compare them to what you see on FlyNYON's Instagram account, and tell me if you think this is the same experience.  After our flight was done, I was able to find the manager and tell him about my experience.  He was quite nice about it, and even offered me a free sunset flight (which usually costs more) for later that evening.  I was leaving the next day, and already had plans for the rest of the evening, so I declined his offer.  While it was my choice to decline the offer (trust me, it was tempting), I still felt a little cheated in this experience.   One of the employees reiterated that seat assignment is not guaranteed.  Okay, I get that.  I get the balancing of the weight.  If that was the case, why did our pilot even try to get everyone to switch seats with me?  How is someone ever guaranteed the experience they paid for if you market this as a "doors off" flight, and you're the person who gets stuck with the crappy seat assignment?  I didn't think of it at the time, but they need to disclose this information when people book their flights and offer this particular seat at a discounted rate.  I'm sure there are people out there who want the doors off experience, but maybe don't want the wind in their face (which by the way, was the only positive of sitting in that seat).  This, to me, would seem the only fair way to offer everyone a fair experience.  In the end, the manager gave me his card and offered me a discount on a future flight.  It's a nice gesture, but still doesn't solve the actual problem.  This is something they need to address, because knowing what I know now, I wouldn't do this again if I were to pay the same amount as everyone else and get that crappy seat again.

     That was a bit of a rant, but if you're doing this for photos, I feel it's important to know ahead of time.  Here are some other things to keep in mind if you're considering a FlyNYON (or comparable helicopter experience)!

1)  Time of day is very important.  Our flight was at 3pm, and the lighting was not the best.  The sunset flights are pricier, but you'll get the better light.  It was very easy to see photos like the ones below in their hallway and think you're going to come out of this experience with similar photos.  Keep in mind those were taken by photographers who were probably on longer flights and were given special flight accommodations to be able to get shots like these to be used for marketing purposes.  They were taken during the best time to take photos, and the photos reflect that.  The weather and clouds also make a big difference.  We had a pretty boring sky that day.  Had there been an upcoming rainfall, the clouds might've looked different and yielded better photos.  Basically, keep your expectations reasonable. 

 photo taken with my iPhone

2)  Look at photos that you'd like to capture ahead of time and determine which lenses would be best to get those shots.  I was too lazy to travel with my 70-200mm lens, and regretted not using a longer lens for some of the shots I wanted.  I did the best I could amidst being frustrated about my seat assignment and getting used to the motions of being in a helicopter.  Unless it's the only thing you have, I wouldn't recommend taking a prime lens on the flight because it would severely limit your compositions.

3)  Know that you could get the crappy seat.  This may not be important to everyone, but as a photographer that was more interested in taking the photos as opposed to the experience of just being on a helicopter, I found my seat assignment severely limiting.  Despite the pilot trying to do what he could, I still feel robbed of having the same experience as everyone else while still paying the same price.  This is unfair, and maybe if more people inquired about the seat assignment, the company will fix this issue by offering that seat up at a discounted rate.  

     Some of my friends have discussed doing a helicopter ride over Los Angeles.  We'll see.😬  Thanks for reading, and hopefully this gave you a glimpse into the helicopter experience!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Mission Inn Festival of Lights

     The Mission Inn Festival of Lights is an annual tradition where you can feel all the warm festivities of the holiday season in the heart of Riverside.  The Mission Inn Hotel is dressed up in 5 million dazzling lights, and the street directly in front of the hotel is shut down for pedestrians.  I was looking for something to shoot at blue hour and remembered that this was still an active event.  Knowing that it would be crazy traffic, I had the sense to get there early to get some street metered parking for $1.50 an hour.  I highly recommend getting there early if you can.  A few years back, I recall it being a little bit crazy as the evening progressed.

     Christmas tree inside the Mission Inn 

     They've gotten a lot stricter about access to the rotunda.  This was mainly why I wanted to go.  I don't know if it was always this way, but they only allow hotel guests to access the rotunda area now.  If there was one thing I learned on this day, it is that persistence really does pay off.  I approached several hotel staff, each telling me that I couldn't go to the rotunda just to take a picture.  Some of them wanted to tell me but couldn't, and some hinted at other ways I could get into this area.  One particular person told me that if I went to the Italian restaurant adjacent to the hotel, there is a door that directly leads into the small courtyard where the fountain is on the ground floor.  The hostess there told me that if I could find the manager, she might be able to let me in.  After one more failed attempt asking a hotel employee, I decided to try the restaurant.  I found the manager and she let me in to take my pictures!  I felt like I had won a contest!  I had to shoot really fast, so once she let me in, I walked nonstop to the top floor (and yes, I am sore from doing that still).  It wasn't a clean shot, as there were many events going on at the hotel that day, and on top of this, I also didn't have my widest lens with me.  Nevertheless, I was still ecstatic I was granted access to this area.

      Once the lights come on, there are TONS of people waking in front of the hotel.  My aspirations to do a long exposure were dwindling.   I decided to do it anyway since I had gone through so much trouble of getting to the rotunda.

     Even a 25 second exposure couldn't get rid of the people taking photos and walking by continuously in front of the hotel. 

     This side of the hotel was completely calm.  It's not as picturesque as the front, but you definitely can get some people-free shots on this side.

     There are a bunch of food vendors, and a lot of photo ops here.  The event is busy, yet not overly crowded.  If you want to do a walk through of the Mission Inn decorations, there is a line that forms in front of the hotel, and they let people do a walk through of the hotel decorations.  I'm pretty sure they do it this way to prevent random people from just wandering the hotel.  
     I liked the purple light in this alley.  I wish the guy smoking on the right would've stayed in the frame more.  I think he thought he was doing me a favor by getting out of the photo, but I think it would've been cool to have him smoking in the frame a little more.

     The almonds and cashews from this stand are pretty good. 😋

     There is this place called the Hideaway Cafe where you can get hot cocoa for $1.  It's located underground, below this huge antique shop (that you could peruse for hours by the way).  There are a bunch of signs advertising this $1 hot cocoa.  Be careful though.  When you walk down the stairs that lead to this, it's very dark and I almost faceplanted with my camera. 😬

     If you're looking for a place to get into the Christmas spirit, the Festival of Lights will definitely get you there.  The Festival continues until the first week of January, so there's still time to check it out.  It's very family friendly, and plenty of parking is available in nearby structures.  Merry Christmas, everyone! 😊

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Photographing New York City in the Fall

     One of my bucket list items has always been to see New York City in the fall.  With all the bloggers, instagrammers, and vloggers that I follow, it just seems to be the perfect time to be there.  The weather is cool, but not freezing, and the leaves turn perfect shades of red, orange, brown, and yellow.  I had been researching when the optimal time to visit would be in 2018, and everything I read pointed to early November.  I could only get away for the long Veteran's Day weekend, which meant I would have to cram a lot into a little bit of time.  My new Canon EOS R arrived a few days before takeoff and I was excited to shoot with this camera.  Even though I've been to New York City many times, I've never felt I made taking photos a priority, so I had three must do items I wanted to check off on this trip:  1) shoot fall colors in Central Park  2)  take a helicopter ride around Manhattan (in another post!) and 3)  Do more general photo walking 

*All photos in this post were taken with my Canon EOS R

     First up - the obligatory picture from the plane.

     I had some trouble getting into the city from JFK.  They were doing some work on the AirTrain, so I had to take a bus to another station, and get into the city that way.  It was easy enough to do, but put me about an hour behind schedule.  That's right, I had a schedule.  

     The last time I actually walked through Central Park was during the winter in 2016.  It was covered in snow and beautiful.  Walking through it this time, it occurred to me that I've never seen this mosaic in Strawberry Fields *cue John Lennon song*.

     There weren't fluffy white clouds in the sky like I'd hoped for, but the fall colors didn't disappoint.  There is such a peacefulness in the park during this time of year - no wonder everyone loves it so much! 

     If you're a dog lover, then Central Park is where it's at.  Look at this cutie!

     Another thing to check off my list is the Loeb Boathouse.  By the way, I just looked up the spelling of the boathouse to make sure it was correct, and discovered that the average cost of a wedding here is $45,000!!! 😲😲😲

     Lots of these little critters all over the park.  They make for good subjects though, don't they?

     After some photo walking, it was time for tea at the Plaza Hotel.  Then we made our way to Manhattan Bridge to get a shot of Jane's Carousel against the backdrop of the New York City skyline.

     One of the problems with shooting from Manhattan Bridge is that a train goes by and causes a lot of shaking, making for some blurry photos.  You pretty much have to time it so you're shooting when the train isn't going by.  To top it off, it turns out it IS freezing in New York City in the fall - especially when you're on a bridge and it's windy.  I had no gloves on, and it felt like my fingers were going to fall off. 

     Afterwards, we went to Washington Square Park to take some photos before dinner. 

     Dinner was at this place called Totto Ramen.  OMG, the space is so small.  However, I will say that the broth of the ramen was some of the best I've ever had, so it was worth the wait.  I definitely recommend checking this out if you're a ramen fan. 


     The next morning, I decided to shoot in Times Square for blue hour.  Turns out, it wasn't that blue, and there were actually tons of people there despite it being early.  Most of them were on their way to work, but it definitely wasn't the emptiness I was hoping for. 

     Next up, I wanted to check out the Occulus downtown.  It was nice and empty.  I felt like I had the place all to myself.  It's such a beautiful space and I love what they did with the walls along the platform at this station.

     I met up with one of my friends at Russ & Daughters which I've been wanting to try for a while now.  I didn't know they had a few locations.  The one we went to had such a cute design.

     This isn't mine, but this matzo ball soup looked a lot more appetizing than the one I had at Katz Deli a few years ago.

     So this was my first time having a bagel with cream cheese and lox.  I've had bagels with cream cheese, but this lox business was new to me.  It's more familiar to me as smoked salmon, and honestly, it has never appealed to me.  It always looked slimy and gross.  I was open to trying something new, so I slathered on the cream cheese, threw on some lox, tomatoes, onions, and capers and OMG - so delicious.  I need to find a good place in SoCal to get this.  It was also my first time having capers.  They're like little pellets of salt!


     I loved the wallpaper in the bathroom.

     ... and the free postcard they give you.

     We decided to do some more photo walking before heading to New Jersey for the helicopter ride.

     We planned to take the PATH train to New Jersey, and from there an Uber or Lyft to the FlyNYON hangar.  This gave us some time to chill at the Occulus.  There are some pretty fancy stores at this place!  

     This is the cute stuff I imagine myself wearing when in New York - not the dull clothes, sneakers, and 20 lb. backpack I was actually sporting. 

     After the helicopter ride, I wanted to hit up my favorite pizza place in New York - Prince Street Pizza.  It turns out that this place was featured in some top <fill in with a number> places to eat in New York City lists, and now Prince Street Pizza was everyone else's favorite pizza place, too.  There was a super long line (that we waited in - because it's THAT good).

     Check out those perfect little slices of pepperoni!  They taste like bacon to me - SO GOOD.

     The next morning, I decided to go back to Central Park.  I was not doing very well with the timing of sunrise.  It just seemed that once a certain time hit, it was instantly bright outside.  Nevertheless, I still enjoyed strolling through the park in the early hours of Veteran's Day.  

     I love Bow Bridge!  

     I've always wanted to shoot this, and glad I finally got to!  It was hard for me not to imagine every episode of SVU that "took place" here though LOL.

     I stopped for breakfast, went back to my hotel room to get cleaned up and check out, and then did a little shopping.

     Picking up some birthday gifts. 😃

     I couldn't leave without having my cereal milk soft serve from Momofuku Milkbar.  I didn't care how cold it was - it was still good! 😋

     Henri Bendel is such a gorgeous store on 5th Avenue.  I'm sad that they're closing up shop.  I went to pick up a Christmas ornament and just take it in one last time before the end of an era.

     This photo isn't representative of how beautiful this store is.  There's a grand staircase that takes you up to the second floor. 

     The last time I was in New York, this was just a building.  Now it's a building with a ton of barricades and heavily armed people in front of it.

     I made a last minute decision to head over to Brooklyn and check out the area around DUMBO.  The subway system in NYC is just amazing.  I'll forever be in awe of it.  If you ever get the chance, there's a Transit Museum in Brooklyn that is worth checking out.  It also makes for a great photo op!

     I've walked by this street so many times, and I never thought to take a photo of it.  I'm not sure why people find this view so fascinating.  I guess it just never appealed to me.  I am in the minority though, because there were a TON of people here taking photos.

     The fluffy white clouds I'd hoped for never made an appearance all weekend, but I still love this view of the skyline from Brooklyn.  I could sit here all day!

     I wasn't about to leave New York with my Shake Shack fix.  This one by Brooklyn Bridge Park is my favorite location.

     Are you tired of this post yet?  I was tired by the time I took this photo.  I spent a little less than 72 hours in New York, running around like I was in shape, and let me tell ya, it took me a good week to recover from this.  I think I did more walking and running around in this one weekend than I had in the previous months combined. 😐😐😐  By the end, I was in pain and was ready to go back home.  Still worth it though.  I'll be back for you again, New York! 💗