Page 1


TECHNIQUES

Above

Looking down

An incredible view from inside the cabin of an AS355 helicopter at 1,100ft over London All images © Jason Hawkes

60

DPH202.feature_3.indd 60

07/06/2018 17:35


THE ART OF AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY

THE ART OF

AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY Jason Hawkes, the UK’s leading aerial photographer, shares his expertise on how to capture stunning images from the vantage point of a helicopter

A

erial photography might seem, rather literally, to be out of your reach, but it’s a fascinating genre that can result in truly stunning images. The accessibility of drones has meant that this field is now far more feasible than ever before, but there is still a strong case for the vantage points provided by a helicopter. When you look down on a scene from above, a certain degree of abstraction occurs and the view takes on a fascinating quality. However, it’s understandably no easy feat to take stunning aerial photos. That’s why we’ve asked Jason Hawkes (jasonhawkes.com) to explore some of the considerations and techniques involved, to give you a clearer idea of what’s possible when you take to the air. Read on to discover his advice.

61

DPH202.feature_3.indd 61

07/06/2018 17:35


TECHNIQUES

Get ready to fly Don’t even think about taking off without bringing these essential pieces of kit along CAMERA: NIKON D850 AND D810 I use the very fastest, highest-resolution cameras that Nikon produces. This means that you can take multiple shots as you bank overhead, and your images can then be blown up as large as your client needs them to be. LENSES: 14MM UP TO 800MM You need a variety of lenses depending on what you want to capture. For example, wide lenses for wide cityscapes, and long telephoto lenses so you can crop in from 2,000ft up.

OVERCOME THE CHALLENGES There’s plenty to take into account if you want to capture stunning aerial images Aerial photography is both a gift and a challenge. You can’t deny the incredible beauty of the world from above, the thrill of capturing the buzz of a city, or the wonder of stumbling upon the kind of secret landscapes that are only visible from the air. It’s often simultaneously gratifying and humbling to focus on the kind of subjects we might take for granted in our everyday life. Nonetheless, with all this inspiration around, achieving the crisp, clear images that your clients are after can be quite testing at times.

After specialising in aerial photography for more than 20 years, you get very used to some of the difficulties. For example, working conditions are cramped and very noisy. The door of the helicopter has to come off, and you have to shout through your headset to direct the pilot. When it is cold on the ground, it is glacial in the sky. In the UK, the weather is a constant challenge. Even on days that are beautifully sunny from the ground, visibility can be compromised up in the air and the landscape

A HARNESS The door to the helicopter has to come off, so you need a climbing harness that does up at the front and has a one-handed clip release mechanism, enabling you to unclip yourself in case of an emergency.

62

DPH202.feature_3.indd 62

07/06/2018 17:35


THE ART OF AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY can look very milky. Unfortunately, this can provoke confused calls from clients who question why you aren’t flying. Over the next few pages, you’ll discover some of the most common pitfalls of aerial photography and how to come out of top, including how to prevent helicopter vibrations from affecting the sharpness of your images. You’ll also discover the kit you need, some helpful skills and techniques, and above all else how to keep yourself safe in the sky. Before we get started, one quick note. Until a few years ago, the only way of getting into the sky was a manned aircraft, but these days many photographers offer a drone service. It’s worth stating that there are as many restrictions to drone use as there are to flying in a helicopter, although some people find them the perfect tool for certain jobs under 400ft. All the work here was shot from helicopters, so that’s the focus throughout.

Left

London at dusk A beautiful sunset over London, looking up the winding River Thames past Wapping to Tower Bridge, the Shard and the city of London. An amazing view featuring key elements and sights of the city

Below top

Up over Clapham train station Before flying, explain in detail to the pilot what you want to do, and listen to their advice about what is and isn’t possible. This is essential to manage expectations, both yours and the clients’, and also to keep you safe

Below middle

Ideal shooting conditions

Always check the weather and be prepared for the conditions. Perfect conditions would be a clear, sunny day with good visibility. Light winds mean you won’t get thrown around the sky too much

Below bottom

Safety first Fully prep the aircraft before flying. Take the door off, take the seat cushions out, check headsets are working, and make sure that the pilot thoroughly does their safety checks. Developing a rapport with the pilot is also key

Important considerations Aerial photography shoots present a unique set of challenges to be aware of THE COST OF HELICOPTERS Helicopter costs aren’t for the fainthearted. The ones Jason uses start at around £1,500 an hour. THE WEATHER Obsessing over the weather and checking forecast updates every 20 minutes for days is par for the course. FINDING A GOOD PILOT When you have a detailed brief from your client, and a small period of time to do it in, having an experienced and responsive pilot makes all the difference. SAFETY No compromises. Fly in a twin engine aircraft, as if one engine stops you have another. Strap yourself in, as you’ll be travelling with the helicopter doors off. AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL Be prepared to orbit for 30 minutes to allow an air ambulance access. Necessary, of course, but this extra time in the air can add around £1,000 to your job. HEIGHT RESTRICTIONS Clients can find it hard to visualise what height is needed to get the shots they want. Be aware that it can be difficult to come down below 750ft in built-up areas. MOTION SICKNESS More common than you might imagine, even for me. If you are circling around or looking through a telephoto lens for a long period of time, you can’t see the horizon and that can cause a little nausea. SHARPNESS OF IMAGES A helicopter causes vibrations, which means when you are buzzing around the quality of images can be compromised. To get round this, only the fastest shutter speeds and latest prime lenses will do. EXPENSIVE KIT When you only have one chance to get the shot you need, you can’t afford to have it ruined by sub-standard kit. LOW-LIGHT SHUTTER SPEEDS It can be quite difficult to work out how to mount a camera in order to get very slow shutter speeds with no vibration, and which kit will work best to enable you to achieve this.

63

DPH202.feature_3.indd 63

07/06/2018 17:35


TECHNIQUES

64

DPH202.feature_3.indd 64

07/06/2018 17:35


THE ART OF AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Night aerial view, Gatwick hub One of the fascinating things about aerial photography is the way in which it presents a miniaturised version of even the biggest subjects and scenes

65

DPH202.feature_3.indd 65

07/06/2018 17:35


TECHNIQUES

MASTER AERIAL SKILLS Taking images from a helicopter requires some careful consideration, although the hardest part of aerial photography probably isn’t what you imagine When I trained as a photographer, the traditional route was studying and then assisting for a minimum of two years in a studio. I lasted a couple of months before taking the plunge to full-time aerial photography. In my opinion, no amount of mastering skills can make up for real experience on the job! The vast majority of techniques I use are really no different to a landscape or editorial photographer. You need a good sense of composition, an eye for framing, an awareness of good light, and knowledge about exposure and shutter speed. You also need to know about your camera and make sure using it feels like second nature, so it doesn’t distract you in the moment. When it comes to techniques specific to shooting from a helicopter, the most useful one is building up the best rapport you can with the pilots you use. When you’re spending £25 per minute on the aircraft, every second counts. It’s essential that your pilot fully understands what the brief entails and what you need to achieve before you take off. For example, recently I was shooting a site next to Centre Point in London. I needed to be looking directly down at night, which meant tipping the helicopter right on its side and banking over in a very fast manoeuvre. Consequently, I had literally two seconds of shooting time on each orbit, and it would have been impossible to achieve that without the full co-operation and expertise of my pilot. Interestingly, the real difficulty with aerial photography isn’t the technical side, it’s the business. For every day’s flying you do, there are probably two days organising the job and two days editing and developing the RAW files, before delivering the final set of images. You need to work out where your clients are going to come from, profit and loss cash flows, your VAT, accounts and how to promote yourself. Again, these are the kinds of things you can only learn on the job.

66

DPH202.feature_3.indd 66

07/06/2018 17:35


THE ART OF AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Left above

Aerial view of Chrysler Building Don’t underestimate how much difference choosing the right time of day makes. Try dawn for long shadows, mid-afternoon for short shadows, and sunset for the beautiful golden hour

Left below

Above

Sorting my Nikon kit prior to a flight. Once up in the sky, you’ll have a limited amount of time to get the shots that you and your client need, so any preparation you do before taking flight will be highly beneficial

The Shamu SeaWorld show is world famous and features a majestic performance by the park’s huge killer whales. Shows like this are perfect subjects to capture from a high vantage point!

Get prepared

Whale performance

Below

Over New York An aerial view of Battery Park and the Financial District, New York. Try to visualise the shot you want beforehand, and make sure that you are aware of your client’s visions for the image too, as well as its purpose

67

DPH202.feature_3.indd 67

07/06/2018 17:35


TECHNIQUES

CONSIDER THE PERSPECTIVE

You get a very different view of the world from above, so how can you be sure that your compositions are creative?

Shooting from above guarantees that you will never run out of inspiration, and I really enjoy shooting the more random, just-happen-to-bethere moments. When you are flying, you are privy to the most unexpected and beautiful configurations that can result from the most ordinary of subjects – hotel balconies, rundown housing estates, car parks, rubbish tips. Patterns and shapes that are invisible from the ground just appear out of nowhere. The natural world is also a rich source of creativity from above. There are the shots you can’t plan – the boats that lazily float, the tractor halfway through ploughing a field, or the way light plays off mud flats, creating weird, deflated balloon textures. On other occasions, I might research a particular site, such as just outside San Francisco, where I knew I could find extraordinary salt lakes full of vibrantly contrasted colours. Despite flying all over the world, the city I know the best is London. Over 20 years, it’s amazing how things keep changing, with innovative new architecture altering the

skyline time and time again. Conversely, I’ve also photographed places like Libya, where I had no idea what to expect. The helicopter, the size of a double decker bus, was an extraordinary platform to shoot from – even more so when I found out that the pilots couldn’t speak English. However, coming across ruins of Roman settlements in this wartorn zone, set against the alluring backdrop of the azure Mediterranean Sea, made for some captivating images. One of the things that often surprises people is what you can and can’t see from 1,200ft. Even packed cities can look empty, as if everyone has left and gone elsewhere, and it’s only when a few hundred people gather in one location that you become aware that they are there. One of my favourite recent shots was a concert I just happened to fly over. I had no idea who was singing until I got back to the office, zoomed in and saw Justin Bieber. What I love most is that you can see all these fans filming him on their phones rather than simply living in the moment.

68

DPH202.feature_3.indd 68

07/06/2018 17:35


THE ART OF AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Top

Wind power Lines of off-shore wind turbines, photographed very low level whilst wearing dry suits in an AS355 helicopter

Middle

Microorganisms

These amazing bright lakes of pink, green and yellows are caused by the organisms or microalgae living within them

Above

Patterns

An aerial perspective makes it possible to capture the patterns created by modern farming

Left

Island near Lismore, Scotland

Remember to dress appropriately for shooting above ground, and bring along gloves, waterproofs and warm clothing

69

DPH202.feature_3.indd 69

07/06/2018 17:35


TECHNIQUES

EDIT YOUR WORK How to enhance and protect your best captures Back in the office, the first thing I do is make sure I have multiple copies of all my images. Personally, I don’t feel happy until I have at least four copies in four different locations, including Raid, Dropbox and external drives. The next step is to download everything into Lightroom. Typically, I take around 1,800 images over the course of a shoot but only provide the client with 100. I also use Lightroom for all my editing and cataloguing. I tend not to do very much beyond colour-correcting or sharpening the image a little – usually it’s just a matter of

bringing down highlights and bringing up shadows. For more advanced developing, I might quickly do a graduated filter on the sky or use the luminosity feature in HSL mode to bring up the clarity of bodies of water. Lightroom also lets me track exactly where each image was taken and from what height. This becomes even more important after a couple of years when you are trying to find a particular shot. To keep track of exactly where my images were taken, I tether a GPS module to my camera and also run a background GPS app on my phone as a backup.

70

DPH202.feature_3.indd 70

07/06/2018 17:35


THE ART OF AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY

“To keep track of exactly where my images were taken, I tether a GPS module to my camera and also run a background GPS app on my phone” Left

Above left

Above right

Sky Garden

Los Angeles

These are 30-metre-high horsehead sculptures in Scotland, with the inclusion of pedestrians beneath adding a sense of scale that increases the drama and impact of the aerial perspective. Flying at the specific heights required to capture certain images is a key challenge

With the expensive price of using a helicopter, loss of images such as this aerial view of London needs to be avoided at all costs. To protect against corruption, online problems and even fire, it is advisable to create backups on a variety of platforms, from external drives to Dropbox

20 Fenchurch Street, also known as The Walkie-Talkie, is the 12th tallest building in London at 525ft tall. It was designed by architect Rafael Viñoly and cost over £200 million. A large viewing deck 155 metres up, the spectacular Sky Garden offers view across the capital and far beyond

When it comes to editing, it helps enormously if you have initially taken photographs in good light with very clear air. Even if you’re amazingly proficient with imaging apps, editing is going to be much easier and less timeconsuming if you are working with great raw material

The Kelpies

Piccadilly Circus

Below

71

DPH202.feature_3.indd 71

07/06/2018 17:36


TECHNIQUES

Advanced aerial photography

Your essential checklist to make sure everything goes smoothly in the air

Plan every detail You only have a limited period in the air and time is money, so make sure every detail is planned and prepared for. Wrap up In the middle of winter, layer up as if you are skiing, including a balaclava and fingerless gloves. It can be cool up in the air even in summer, so wear a wind-proof top. Make a brief Take a paper copy of the brief with you as well as an electronic version on your iPad, and know it inside out. Set the ground rules Spend at least ten minutes briefing the pilot before take-off, showing him any visuals you have for the job. Try and sit behind him in the helicopter so you both have the same view. Height restrictions Check that the correct permissions are in place for you to reach the minimum and maximum height you need. Make time Get into the helicopter at least 20 minutes before take-off to make sure you and all your equipment are optimally laid out. Power of three Make sure you have at least three of everything – camera bodies, lenses, batteries, cards. Safety, safety, safety Check, doublecheck and triple-check your harness. Your safety is non-negotiable. Into the horizon If you are shooting landscapes on a wide lens, make sure your horizons are level, especially when making sharp manoeuvres. This will save on postproduction time. Lean out further It’s very easy to end up with the tips of the helicopter blades and/or the helicopter skids in shot if you are shooting on a lens wider than 24mm. You may have to lean out a little further than initially feels comfortable.

Top

Symmetry

Airport

Middle

Bottom

An aerial view of a road junction catches the eye

Banking over a British Airways jet at City Airport

Aerial view of people ice skating in Hyde Park

Ice rink

72

DPH202.feature_3.indd 72

07/06/2018 17:36

Digital Photographer magazine interview with aerial photographer Jason Hawkes  

Digital Photographer magazine interview with aerial photographer Jason Hawkes

Digital Photographer magazine interview with aerial photographer Jason Hawkes  

Digital Photographer magazine interview with aerial photographer Jason Hawkes

Advertisement