​Reaching new heights in aerial photography

One photographer is reaching new heights every time he reaches for his camera. With Lee Cowan, we'll watch him at work:

"This is something you've never seen before."

At first glance his images look like circuit boards -- nerve centers surging with energy.

But while these are hubs of activity, they're not the kind in our computers. These are the world's great cities, photographed the way the heavens see them, sparkling spectacles below.


Photographer Vincent Laforet takes in the view from above, comparing the avenues to arteries -- the blood flow of the city. "You literally perceive the depth, and the three dimensionality of the Earth in a different way, and you see distances in a different manner," he said. "They look much smaller, much more within reach."

Laforet has taken aerial photography to new heights. His images have transformed the spaghetti bowls of L.A.'s freeways, the glittering Strip of Sin City, and made London's Big Ben look more like a big jewel.

"It was almost an out-of-body experience, because it's just beautiful from up there," he said.

They're just a few of his god-like glimpses that he's publishing in a new book, fittingly called "Air."

"Since I was 13 years old, like everyone else I look out the windows of a commercial aircraft, and I'm fascinated by it," he said. "I see every little intersection, the police cars, the stadiums, and you wonder what's going on down there. You see this incredible diorama of activity."

Laforet spends a lot of time in helicopters, but not the way you might expect. He doesn't just hover a few hundred feet above, like most choppers. Vince asks his pilots to take him up 9,000, 10,000, 11,000 feet and higher -- altitudes helicopters rarely fly.

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Vincent Laforet/Instagram

"Some veteran helicopter pilots actually refuse to go up there, they're just not comfortable," Laforet said. "The first time I went up, it was scary, because I've never been that high [with] an open window or door, in a harness leaning out. And you see planes going right underneath you -- your heart skips a beat."

So when he asked Cowan to join him on his recent flight over the city of Miami, well, how could he resist?

Cowan asked, "Are you going through the shots in your head?"

"No. I'm completely relaxed right now. Yeah, it's the moment I take off and I see the first image, that's when the wheels start turning."

We took off just before sunset, and headed East toward Miami Beach, with a brief stop hovering over a couple in a pool. "I'm looking down there and I'm trying to make order out of chaos, looking for patterns, geometry, color, and light," he said.

Laforet leaned out, and let it all unfold below him.

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A view of Miami.
© Vincent Laforet, Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles

Cowan asked, "What's it like when you're literally hanging out over the edge of the chopper?"

"You forget about it after a while -- you're so focused on getting that image."

"Do you ever think about the fall?"

"The only time I ever thought about it was at high altitude over New York," he said. That was when a physicist explained a fall from that high up could last a terrifying 41 seconds. "I was like, 'Thanks for telling me. Now I know' -- that's way too long!"