When I was about ten years old, I fell in love with small planes. A friend of the family’s had her private pilot’s license and would occasionally take my dad, my brother, and me flying in a 4-seat Cessna 172. Four seats meant my mom, who hated flying anyway, had to stay home on the ground, alone, and work in the garden . . . As a parent now, I completely understand.
Anyway, I was so smitten with small planes that I decided to earn my own license to fly. All my summer job money for two summers went to pay for my flying lessons. Although the rules have changed since the early 1980’s, at the time it was possible to earn a private pilot’s license at the age of 14. So I rode my bike to the local airport most weekend days to take my flying lessons because I wasn’t old enough to drive — irony? I loved my parents for encouraging this, but as a parent now, I completely do NOT understand.
I earned my license right around my 15th birthday and flew pretty regularly for another five or more years. I like to think that the flights I took with my older brother as passenger helped launch his 24-year Air Force career, although the F-15’s he flew in were definitely a step up from a Cessna 152-Aerobat. But shortly after, time and financial realities intervened and my license went unused for quite some time.
Then in the mid-90’s, I had the great fortune of assisting Washington DC photographer, Bill Geiger. Bill was a jack-of-all-trades location photographer who taught me to make great, compelling images no matter the scenario. One of the last assignments I worked on with him before I moved here to Seattle was several days documenting some then-new excavations at the Jamestown Historic Site in Williamsburg, VA for Preservation Magazine. By the end of our last day, we’d completed the assigned shot list of portraits of senior archeologists, action shots of graduate assistants mucking in the dirt, still-life artifact shots, and eager visitors crowding the site, but we didn’t have any great overview shots to really put the dig in context. Bill felt he didn’t yet have the hero shot for the story.
Knowing he couldn’t let the sweet spring light go without making more images, Bill disappeared to make a call and came back out saying he was going to the local airport as he’d hired a helicopter. As he jumped in his car and sped off, Bill shouted at me to get the site ready. I had no idea what to do so I lined up some orange cones near the water, told the guy with the wheelbarrow to lean over and look busy, posed myself in the sunlight, and hoped for the best.
Needless to say, Bill’s instincts were right. One of the resulting images was the double-page opener for the story (above) and another of his aerial photos from that afternoon became the cover. The combination of beautiful light, a unique angle, and the ability to put the whole site in context made for the two most important images of the story.
What I learned that day about the value of sticking with the shot until you know you’ve got it, was second only to the eye-opening I got that I might be able to combine my love of flying with my love of photography.
Fast forward just a couple of years, through two moves and one child, and I decided to add aerial photography to my list of offerings here in Seattle. Working with a great local helicopter company, I shot aerial photos for seven clients that first year – mostly landscape architecture firms who had designed golf courses, freeway interchanges, public parks, even a national military cemetery. All the sites were large, difficult to photograph from the ground due to their size or location, and in need of great images that showed off their design and their context to best effect. I quickly realized just how valuable this aerial perspective was to certain types of clients, and I have continued with aerial photographs of roughly 5-15 sites per year for architects, landscape architects, planners, construction companies, and large real estate firms.
But to focus only on the different perspective and incredibly wide field of view that photographing from a helicopter provides, is to ignore just how different the world looks from a few hundred feet above the ground. Because of the perspective of looking down on objects that are generally much taller than we are, the world becomes very 2-dimensional from the air. The height of the urban environment is flattened and the shapes and patterns are emphasized. As an architectural photographer with an eye for geometry, I see the world in very graphic shapes and forms. The world as it appears from 500 feet off the ground really appeals to my graphic way of seeing and I love the opportunity to play with photography compositions from up there.
But most importantly is the fun I continue to treat myself to by shooting aerial photography. I’ve amassed more than 4500 aerial photos of Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, and the Puget Sound region. They’re my favorite shoots of the year. These helicopters are so tiny that my camera bag has to sit underneath my legs – imagine a half a Smart Car with a top rotor. But they’re maneuverable as heck and they’re flown by pilots with thousands of hours of experience. Using my own training as a pilot, we work together to know what is and isn’t possible when trying to put the helicopter in just the right spot for the shot. It’s a challenge I enjoy to get results that I’m proud of and I look forward to it every year.
For more information on my aerial photography offerings, please shoot me an email through my contact page, and also please see more samples on the Aerial Photography Gallery page on my website. Or, for a short behind the scenes video and the chance to briefly fly along, check out this aerial photography video I made a couple of years ago.
In the meantime, I hope you all get to experience the same joy of flying that I do. Happy Flying!