For the last couple of years Paul Seibert has been taking aerial shots of the city as the Director of Digital Content for the helicopter sightseeing service FlyNYON, and some of this work has gone viral recently, wowing audiences around the world. On Christmas Eve, the 42-year-old photographer, who lives in Closter, New Jersey, posted an edited bird’s eye view of Manhattan on his Instagram page, with the left side taken in the winter and the right side in summer.
Seibert talked about the hit photo, as well as his career behind the lens, with amNewYork. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.
How did the edited photo come about?
It was coming at the end of the year and I was thinking on Christmas Eve of all of the things that we had done through the year. I wanted to have an all-encompassing shot. I wanted to combine a little bit from all of the material from different flights. So I started out [with] basically a split screen of the images. But it seemed too cut-and-dried and artificial. I see the split screen image and I decide this side is winter and this side is summer.
That was the idea, to start to slowly but surely make it blend enough to make it look like winter was creeping and where summer was pushing back.
It took about three hours to complete. The hardest part was perspective, and making sure everything was correct. Some flights were about 1,000 feet higher than the others, so the angles were different.
At that height the things that stand out the most can be the most simplistic things like the avenues going into Central Park. I spent a lot of time so that the lines were where they needed to be, and everything lined up.
How did you get into photography?
The journey started 10 years ago. I took a trip out to Mexico with my wife and had a little point-and-shoot camera. I had taken photography classes when I was in high school and I really liked it, but I was focused more on music during that time in my life. So, in this new environment, the pictures really brought back some memories of how much I enjoyed taking pictures.
Eventually I decided there was something to these images, so I brought them to a friend of mine who is a photographer and asked if there was any value in these and should I explore becoming a photographer. She was very kind and gave some constructive criticism and technical advice.
She said, “Absolutely, go out and buy a full-frame camera and learn as much as you can.” And that’s basically what I did. Slowly but surely. it’s been building over these years.
Did you have to take more classes?
No. It was a lot of developments and reading. I’m a little bit older than the current generation watching from YouTube videos.
I learned from my friend out in the field. I would watch what he was doing, we would have conversations, and I would pick up a different skill set when I was out in the field with him.
I’m also a wedding photographer. My first was my sister-in-law’s wedding, and shooting weddings is a trial by fire. You have to learn quickly and you have to adapt, and that helped with my development.
That’s how I learned, it was through immersion.
How did you get involved with aerial photography?
I had a friend of mine, a mutual photographer friend, who called me and said I’m doing a photo shoot with two helicopters flying next to each other for an aviation magazine, and I was wondering if you could cover me creating the images for the article? Once I took that first flight, I was hooked. On Instragram, being the place where you can tag anyone, I would tag FlyNYON and a few months after that they asked me to be a contributing photographer for them.
This would have been July 2015. I had that relationship with them for just about 3 years and last year I came on as a part-time brand ambassador and in-house photographer, and shortly after that, about 6 months, I became their director of digital content.
What are the most important photo techniques for aerial photography?
I think the technique that is most important is being able to understand the light that you’re dealt with that day . . . and knowing what settings are going to work on that flight.
The most important thing is being able to shoot with a fast shutter speed so that your images are sharp and clean. Secondly, I think it’s important to know what it is you’re taking a picture of and the framing. You need to be prepared. As it’s coming into your frame of view, there’s not a lot of stopping so you have about 2 or 3 seconds to get this image properly and sharp and clean. There’s a lot that goes into it.
What makes New York interesting to photograph?
I think New York is a target-rich city, . . . Whether whether it’s the bridge or Central Park or features in Central Park or the Flatiron Building. From the ground, it looks large, but if you’re not paying attention in the air, you can fly right by it and miss it. What New York offers is a plethora of targets that you can focus on. Most of our flights focus on the island of Manhattan, but you can imagine, after shooting a 13-mile island time and time again, you get deeper and deeper into the details of what you are trying to portray.
Did last year’s helicopter crash (operated by Liberty Helicopters) in the East River affect your job, or give you more concerns about photographing in the air?
I think first and foremost FlyNYON has focused on safety. It’s never been something that has been in question. I have not seen any [increased concern] since the unfortunate accident last March. If anything, our degree of safety and educating the passengers who are coming in, there’s even higher standards.
I know the safety. There is a time period where everyone is quiet and sits down and watches a video that discusses the safety of their flight.
Are there plans for similar edited aerial photos of the city?
I just put one up [Tuesday], a similar type of feel. It was from Stuyvesant Town. It has this symmetrical flow to it. I have another one in the works, I want it to bleed from night into day.
What are your thoughts on seeing the final project and the reactions online?
I very rarely work on things to share without being emotionally invested in it in some way or form. When I shared it with some of my co-workers at FlyNYON, the reaction was great. For me, I’m not thinking this was going to be viral, I just thought this was a good idea.