Monday, March 13, 2006

Aerial photography commissions and stock

Imagine being 3000ft above Manhattan, on a freezing cold Autumn day. You are strapped into a harness that is tightly bolted to the underseating of a LongRanger helicopter. The door ,about twice the size you would find on the average car, has been taken off, and you are leaning out far enough to get the shot but not so far as to be crazy. A brief word with the pilot, through your headphones, and you start your descent directly overhead the Chrysler Building. Keeping as much speed as possible for safety, you rapidly lose height in a tight spiral turn. At about 60 ft above the spire of the building the pilot quickly turns right out onto the Hudson River. This is the lowest he will allow, as at this height the river is the only safe place to land in the unlikely event of engine failure. You stay over the river for the next few minutes to re-load the film backs and get ready for another similar approach. With the rubber eye cup pushed hard around your eye to try and stop it watering too much , and your freezing cold hands trying to work the tiny buttons on your camera you circle the location, the external battery pack is stuffed down your pants ( the warmest if most uncomfortable, place for it ) with the battery cord plugged into your camera, you try to concentrate on the photography and get some great shots. This brief description is the high point of the job of an aerial photographer. I started about ten years ago after three years study at college and six months assisting a range of fashion, still life and room set photographers at a studio in Covent Garden. I had hoped to go into still life myself , having spent many months at college, shooting in a studio on 5x4 and relishing in the time I could spend setting up each shot. On a windy day, in a Kent field, my career took a sudden and irreversible change for the better. This was to be my first experience of flying in a microlight aircraft . If you consider a helicopter to be the Porsche of the aviation world, then a microlight would be compared to a scooter. They are relatively cheap, quite slow, cold and noisy, but such an amazing buzz that together with a couple of friends I took out a bank loan and bought one of my own within the month. It took the next year to make up an interesting portfolio of abstract images taken from the micolight, and after having eight pages of photographs appear in the now defunct magazine Photography , went on to shoot my first book commissioned by Random House, London From the Air. Things didn=B9t really go quite that smoothly. As I now remember , whilst I knew how to take a decent photograph, I had no concept of how to market myself as a photographer. Advertising and design agencies, publishers and stock libraries and even AFAEP as it was then known, had no part in my thinking, and after assuming that clients would just come knocking at my door, it took a few years before I could honestly say that I was a full time photographer. In retrospect I wish I had spent a couple of years assisting , if only to gain some kind of knowledge of the day to day workings of a photographer, but then again there is nothing that concentrates the mind so an overdraft and calls from your bank manager asking for it to be repaid. Whilst I started off the first year shooting from a microlight , I was soon to learn of its limitations, both in speed and weather conditions, flight is limited to around 60 mph and only comfortable in light winds, and so moved on to light aircraft and then helicopters. Aerial photography by its very essence is an expensive medium to work with. In the UK piston helicopters start at around 300 pounds per hour for a very small 2 seater, raising to 820 upwards per hour for a twin engined jet turbine 5 seater. The rules governing flying in the UK are strict. Flying through London for instance , can be done in a single engined machine via very strictly enforced heli-routes, however in order to have any freedom in the skies over our capital necessitates the need for a twin engined machine, with tight height restrictions and limitations imposed. Flights are usually limited to around 800ft at the lowest, although you can fly a lot lower down the river, rising to 1500ft at the highest because of traffic flying into Heathrow and City airport. A photographer who works from an aircraft doing air to ground work is essentially a landscape photographer, whether shooting a coffee table book of a specific country or perhaps a cruise ship many miles out to sea. There are a few technical problems that must be overcome. The most important of these is camera shake which is fairly easy to eliminate by using a shutter speed of 1000th sec or above. Alternately it is possible to use a gyroscopic stabiliser which will smooth out any problems you might have. This egg shaped instrument attaches to the tripod mount on your camera, two gyroscopes rotate at right angles to one another at speeds of 20,000rpm steadying the camera against pitch and yaw motions. This is useful if you are having to shoot with a lower shutter speed because of lack of light, low film speed or length of lens you are using. Having a very limited time frame in which to get the shots needed, purely because of the expense of the machine you are in together with a fuel range of no more than 3-3.5 hours , calls for some strict organisation from the photographer, and many frustrating hours sitting at heliports before you make a go / no go call, on the flying for the day. Photographers use an amazing array of cameras in aerial photography, from the huge computerised mapping cameras to the specialist Linhof Aero Technica and 70mm Agfilite that will record latitude, longitude and aircraft headings, to all the medium format cameras, particularly the Pentax 6x7 and Hasslebalds, down to any make of 35mm. Photographers that work in this niche industry include people who will mainly shoot building progress work for large construction companies, as well as specialist mapping organisations working for the Government and large multi-nationals on a world wide basis. There are also people who just shoot aerial photography books or those who specialise in cruise liners or air to air photography. Pilots building hours towards their commercial licence will often be employed by companies to photograph private homes, flying and photographing at the same time with a wing mounted camera.. Photographers will use a whole variety of platforms, either for cost effectiveness or occasionally height restrictions - from hydraulic poles that can reach up to 150ft, to blimps ( un-manned balloons ) that might reach up to 500ft, light high winged aircraft, helicopters that can work from ground level to several thousand feet, up to Turbo-prop and even jet engined aircraft for high altitude work. Personally my work is divided into shooting books of specific cities, countries or regions, (I have published twelve to date with another two almost completed ), advertising commissions and stock for my library. Publishing can be a very long winded process , but the end results are extremely worthwhile. Sorting out a contract can take months, but the freedom given thereafter is more than worth the wait . I try always to do the research for the book myself and come up with a detailed shoot list of locations. I then sit down with a pilot and and work through a comprehensive group of flight plans for all the routes. These are often changed at the last minute or even in flight because of the weather conditions, and we will completely change direction and pick up on another planned route. Many of the images in the book conversely, are not planned before hand at all, as the only way you can see patterns in the landscape, be they manmade or natural, is once you are 1500ft above them, and it is these I enjoy finding and photographing the most. One might never guess that the curve of a footbridge across a motorway or the wake of a pleasure boat on Loch Ness might make such surreal images when seen from above. Once back in the office with the film devd, I will then start the process of editing and captioning the shots, often spending many hours poring through guide books and maps in order to pinpoint particular locations I have shot. Advertising work is very different both in subject matter and timing as opposed to publishing work. By the time an art order for the shoot comes through there may only be a week or so to complete the work before it goes to press. Beforehand it is a must to have worked out what platform to work from and discussed with a pilot who has local knowledge about any problems that might occur. It is always advisable to gain any height clearances, be they higher or lower than is usual, well in advance, as these can sometimes take a while to sort out and indeed on occasion be impossible to obtain. If all the clearances are obtained and the correct type of helicopter booked up well in advance it will then simply be a case of waiting for the weather. The weather really is the most important thing as far as air to ground photography goes and at times gets extremely frustrating, with thoughts of going back into a studio , and being able to light the whole thing however one wishes. The light must in most cases be fairly low to help pick up and define the landscape, as land looks very flat when viewed from 1000ft. On most shoots the visibility has to be extremely good at the same time, as you are shooting through a 1000ft or so of atmospheric haze before you get to your subject matter. Wind , whilst not such a problem in a helicopter can still make things quite exciting. Being buffeted by a strong gusting wind running off the side of a large hill or mountain can get quite hair raising. Like most people that fly Ive encountered a few scary moments, such as near misses, flying into extreme weather and even being locked up in a police cell for the night on suspicion of stealing a helicopter. Having landed on a rugby pitch that unknown to myself and the pilot was owned by the military, we proceeded a long drawn out night of convincing the local police of our perfectly normal intentions, they went on to talk to the military , and after two hours with them ended up being interviewed late into the night by CID, after which they impounded our helicopter and then went on to develop all my film for free. ( Not a bad service actually , they even biked it round to me ) However it is not quite true that Hawkes flirts with fear as a journalist once wrote when reviewing a book of mine. After all at the end of the day Im just a passenger. It is important however, for the photographer to help the pilot by keeping a sharp eye out for other air traffic in the immediate area. Other pilots , particularly those flying fixed wing aircraft have no where near the same visibility you can get from a helicopter, and even with the separation from other aircraft you can get from air traffic controllers the odd near miss can happen, so its always good to have an extra pair of eyes. Working with art directors who come flying often has its own rewards. Most are slightly wary of the flight but soon relax. Some love it from the first minute and would rather be hanging out on a harness than sitting inside the helicopter. Others become very quiet the moment of take off , white knuckles gripping at the sides of their seats and say very little until back on terrafirma. On the whole I find it is a very positive experience , as it always a good feeling, both for the photographer and the art director, knowing youhave shot exactly what is needed Like, I hope, at least some of the photographers that are reading this, I have had the odd one or two shoots that have gone badly pear shaped . The look of despair on one particular art directors face many years ago after handing him an extremely hazy set of transparencies of the island of Jersey, is one I will never forget. ( when I say hazy I mean hardly visible ) Taken from 18,500 ft , the door off , oxygen masks on and my teeth chattering in the amazing low temperature of the air at that height, the shoot did not exactly run to plan. Visibility on the ground had been fantastic, but even using all the filters I had available, I could not cut through the atmospheric haze that you can see from that height. Needless to say I learnt many things from that and since then have always taken up a thicker jacket ! Times in this job that have been particularly memorable include having a first book published and seeing it in the shops, and most recently getting three images in the Association awards. This has been the fifth year I have submitted work and it was definitely worth the agonising over in the previous years rejections. All though as James Barham wrote recently in this magazine, Im not sure why. Easily my most incredible flying moment happened just the other day in Corsica. Flying in a five seater single engined A Star helicopter . After completing a shoot for Rolex, the pilot decided to take me, my assistant Adele and Corine, the account handler from JWT , on a slight detour on route back to the heliport. We were flying at about 100mph roughly 10ft above the sea, ahead of us were towering 1000ft cliffs and I was beginning to wonder why the pilot had not started to make his climb when he mentioned he had something to show us all. As we reached the coast you could see a narrow ravine running inland with 100ft cliffs on either side and a small river running along the bottom. In we flew and it took our breath away. Banking around tight corners with little room for error, we saw the first waterfall. At this, the pilot took us into a hover and lifted us the 50ft or so above the pool onto the next level. This wild ride, a cross between a rollercoaster and a computer game , had us all speechless as we flew down each rocky valley, until several minutes later we reached the last waterfall and the top of the mountain. It was Corines first helicopter flight , Adele had a few hours under her belt, I on the other hand had completed at least a thousand or so hours, yet we all knew that it would be a long time before another such incredible experience might happen. If all this sounds like amazing fun , then it probably is. But for every fantastic flight , where you see amazing things and the shoot turns out well, there are other times when exactly the opposite can happen. I can remember many scary flights when all I really wanted was to be back on Mother Earth. Many moments when I realise I=B9ve just blown an awful lot of money and not come back with the right shots, and even one or two when I=B9m just amazed to be still alive. The more hours I fly in diverse locations around Europe or the States, the more confident I become that I can achieve, with the help of a skilled pilot, what I set out to photograph . I try to always remember though, that flying can be an unpredictable business , and there are always days you would be better off just staying on the ground. Today however, is definitely not one of them, Im off flying. Aerial photography commissions & library. email: Tel : +44 (0) 118 9242946 Fax : +44 (0) 118 9242943