Wednesday, September 7, 2016

City Lights

Last night was my first experience flying over Ottawa during the night.

It was supposed to be the biggest night of the year for me. I anticipated it for a very long time. I've never seen it from the air at night before, save for the odd satellite image I've scavenged off the Internet over the last couple of years. Yet, when I got off the ground, having found a pilot to take me, it was similar to my first solo flight: Largely anticlimactic.

From the circuit - 1,200 feet. Gatineau.

I was expecting bright city lights, obvious road patterns, the ability to see a lot of things I can see during the day. I quickly realized I'd been fooled by those pretty images captured by photographers with truly current, high-end cameras, images that exacerbated the brightness and beauty of city lights from above.

After seeing Ottawa, I don't think we're in danger of really emitting that much light pollution.

5,000 feet. Looking south. Fisher Ave. in the middle, Baseline Road and Huron passing through.

Streets and roads looked amazingly like they actually do from the ground, if not a little dimmer. Lights don't overcrowd each other or mix like paint does in a painting; they coalesce smoothly and subtly. It's dimmer from above no doubt because street lights point at the ground, not at the sky, so you're not under the direct light of a lamp, looking up or out at it; you're above, looking at the surface from which its light is reflected, and not very well. Nearly the entirety of the ground is reflected light.

Prior to going up, I anticipated being (almost) able to capture photos similar to a photographer who has done an online exhibit of some of the world's largest or brightest cities from the air. His images are beautiful, exaggerating the clash of orange sodium vapour with bluish LED lighting, almost over-saturating his sharp, clear images with colour from the ground up. But my camera is not his camera. My camera is five years old, using a sensor that has an ISO rating capability of 12800 - at the cost of absolutely image-destroying noise. I'm pretty sure I had the noise reduction working when I took the pictures, but it couldn't do enough.

Zoomed out, looking at Strandherd Drive in Barrhaven - through a colour-destroying veneer of noise.

Seeing objects and buildings like houses and trees were almost impossible, even to the naked eye. I tried staring down at my street from 5,000 feet and couldn't make it out at all. I live in a neighbourhood that depends more on lawn lighting. The only orange street lights are the ones situated on corners or the entrances to streets. I couldn't even make out the light of my lawn light! If I stared long enough I could just dimly (dimly) make out the reflection of LED light on the sides of the houses in my row, being adjacent to a major arterial that recently got LED lights. The real bright things at night are sports fields, really. 

Barrhaven. Fisheye lens, with a longer exposure time. That made the lights come out more...

The other problem was focus. I alternated between several lenses, the only real sharp one being my fisheye - the focus is manual on that one, so I just keep it at infinity and it's fine. Otherwise images were blurry in certain spots or soft overall. The only truly sharp image is the first one I put at the top of this post. The lens would focus, and the scene would appear focused, only to be soft or entirely blurry or overwhelmed by globes of light; I usually aimed the lens at bright plazas. Ironically, focusing on darker neighbourhoods produced sharper images.

Greenbank and Strandherd. Neighbourhood streets using lawn lights are invisible to the dark...

The bottom line is that my camera's image sensor is a dinosaur compared to today's camera sensors, and can't deal with the required fast exposure times needed for aerial photography at night. The ride is smoother, but you're still moving, and if you have the window open (which you really do need), the air still buffets the lens once you aim it out. An exposure time of at least twice, if not triple, the focal length is needed, which means your sensor won't be able to absorb any light unless it is so powered up, literally hot, that it can make out the city lights and anything else without any camera shake or blur. Can it do that without overheating and being so electrically influenced that you get absolutely nothing but the brightest lights and grain? Mine can't, not really.

The not-as-bright-as-I-expected Merivale Road.

The city isn't that bright. Not brighter than the naked eye sees it on the ground, and not that distinctive either. The patterns are very neat, though, and the differences in light are interesting enough; from the ground I can see every house on my street at night, standing out there. From 5,000 feet, I can barely make out any lawn lights, let alone houses. That's pretty interesting.

Eventually, I will get myself a real high-end camera, a current one that has real night photography capabilities. Then I'll make the city shine. Noise not included.

Before I forget, I shot a video of the whole thing using a suction cup on the back window and my Sony camera. Will be uploading that soon. That camera did a good job showing the lights pretty much as they really are from the naked eye. My pilot also took a few cell phone pictures - his phone appeared to do a better job than my dSLR camera.

Red Cloud
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