Behind the Picture: Fly Through Clouds and Fog in San Francisco

Discover the story behind this 2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year entry.

National Geographic Travel: Tell us about your photo entered to the contest and how you made this photo. You titled the image "Above the Foggy Lineup." Did you have this exact composition and weather in mind?

Toby Harriman: This particular morning was a few months in the making. I was on an assignment shooting downtown San Francisco and fog was our target—which is always fine with me, as I love chasing fog and weather rather than blue skies! In between getting those other shots, we had to do a pass above the Golden Gate. This was always a shot I had dreamed of and the opportunity presented itself perfectly. Getting the lines of this shot perfect took a bit of clever time management and coordination with my pilot, but [the pilot] was able to get more than enough angles and lighting situations while I was up.

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On a morning when the elements aligned perfectly, photographer Toby Harriman made this photo of clouds enveloping the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. 

N.G.T.: Drones are very popular currently, but you photographed this image from a helicopter? 

T.H.: This photo was taken from a helicopter. This particular location is within Golden Gate National [Recreation Area], making it illegal to fly drones here. I probably would have gone for the helicopter for this particular shoot regardless of the law restrictions though, because being in a helicopter allows me to fly longer and farther so I can get more scenes in a flight than I could with a drone. I can also use a higher-quality camera than is typically available on drones.


N.G.T.: Your portfolio features many aerial images made around San Francisco. Tell us about your regular access to be able to photograph high above the city and landscape. How did you get into aerial photography? What are the challenges of photographing from the sky?

T.H.: I always had a plan to eventually get up above the city. After shooting pretty much every angle I felt I could get from ground level, I knew I would have to get creative. So a few years ago a buddy and I decided to split costs and charter a helicopter. I have been hooked ever since. I decided to invest some of my savings into a few more flights so I could build up a better portfolio. After that, it kind of took off. I got some consistent jobs and have started focusing on building up a collection from wherever I travel to now.

Pull Quote
I was in awe the entire time.


N.G.T.: How did you feel when you made this picture? Did you know immediately you had captured the photo you wanted?

T.H.: To me, the picture doesn’t do justice to the experience I had that day. I have lived in San Francisco for close to seven years now and have been running all over chasing the fog and the more dramatic shots showcasing our beautiful city. For this situation, we planned for months and waited, and waited, and waited for the perfect weather. Then one day I had that feeling that it was going to be the day. So late at night I got in touch with my pilot and said, “We are a go,” and asked if he was available. This is one of those situations where you have your fingers crossed, because there is a low chance of everything being able to happen. The pilot could not be available, the weather could turn—so much was up in the air. But the second we got over the city, I knew we nailed it. It was absolutely a dream come true. I was in awe the entire time.


N.G.T.: Your images are very graphic in composition, with careful lighting choices. Tell us about your photography style and passion for making photos.

T.H.: For me, I feel lighting is one of the things I focus on the most. As I don’t do too much post-production, minus the basic adjustments, I try to get the best weather situations possible. I will go shoot a scene over and over until I get the weather and light I have in my vision. I can be really meticulous about this, and that means that I have to be very selective and incredibly patient. Sometimes I don’t get what I envision out of a particular location, and those places are still on my bucket list to go back and nail.

N.G.T.: You seem to have a love affair with San Francisco. What makes you passionate about photographing and filming the city and areas around it?

T.H.: San Francisco is where it all started. I came out here for college and studied web design, but the city is what made me stay and set down roots. I started to teach myself photography and took pictures everywhere I could. I practiced long exposures, night photography, time-lapse, etc. After a while, I decided to get out early from school, taking an associate of arts degree instead of pursuing my BFA. I have been full-time photo/video ever since.

In my opinion, this city is a photographer’s paradise. The skyline is beautiful: It has a ton of great viewpoints, tons of nature, beautiful coastline, two incredibly photogenic bridges, and national parks within driving distances. There is so much to shoot here and within three hours in basically every direction.

N.G.T: How do you decide what sections of San Francisco to photograph? What factors play into the time of day you work? 

T.H.: When I first started, I wanted to focus on the more popular attractions and find a way to capture them differently than the typical angles we see so much. But as I have flown more and more here, I am looking for many things aside from just the perfect weather—looking for patterns and getting the lighting and shadows on buildings or venturing outside the city.

To get a lot of the shots I envision, it’s required a lot of communication with the pilot, Marc. Luckily, we have flown close to 20 times together, so he understands my signals or language, making it easier to work with and get the shots I am after. That kind of a relationship takes time and investment, but is totally worth it.

N.G.T.: How do you decide between photographing stills and video?

T.H.: This is my biggest issue, when it comes to aerial at least. When I have two feet on the ground, I can multitask a bit easier. I can set up a tripod or motion time-lapse rail and can have those shooting video or time-lapse, while I can also shoot stills on another camera next to it. However, when I am in a helicopter, things get trickier. I am strapped into a seat belt and have very little room to move around, and very little space to have equipment. I usually will have two to three cameras around my neck or on the floor by my feet. One camera I have set for stills with a wide lens, one for stills with zoom lens, and the third camera will be one focused on video and will have a wide lens and also be attached to a gyro stabilizer. With all this, I only have two hands, so can only focus on one or the other at a single time. This is where my mind goes crazy! I wish I could do it all, so I tend to switch around a lot and also do multiple passes on a scene so I can capture video and then focus on stills as well. Luckily, with video getting so high quality, it will be easier someday to just grab a still frame from the video. But to me, at least right now, that just isn’t the same.

See more of Toby Harriman's work at tobyharriman.com.

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