Aerial Photography Should Be More Than Just Getting High (Up)

My first experience with helicopter aerial photography was as an assistant working in Washington, DC in the late-1990’s.  Back then, I worked regularly for a great editorial and location photographer named Bill Geiger whom I consider my most influential mentor.  We were on location in Jamestown, VA shooting new archeological digs at James Fort for Preservation magazine.  Towards the end of the last day, I remember Bill being frustrated that he hadn’t been able to get a decent overview shot of the waterfront site.  So he borrowed a phone, made a few calls, then said he was going up in a helicopter — what, just like that?!?

As a licensed private pilot since the age of fifteen (I used to ride my bike to the airport because I was too young to drive when I was preparing for my pilot’s exam . . . go figure), I knew about renting and flying small planes but somehow the idea of photographing from a helicopter just had never occurred to me.  As Bill ran to his car to reach the local grass field airport and return overhead while the sweet light was still hitting the dig, he shouted, “Get the site ready for me!” and drove off.  What, just like that?!?

The aerial images Bill made that day provided both the cover and the inside opening spread of that July, ’98 issue (that’s me in the center of the photo, standing on the bridge and leaning on the railing), and I had my eyes opened to some great image-making possibilities.

It was just two years later, after a move here to Seattle, that I began to think about applying what I’d seen Bill do, and what I knew about flying, to my own image-making for architects, landscape architects, and others who work on large-scale sites.  The obvious reason is being able to see so much more of a larger site like a park, a campus, or a huge building project from higher up.   But even more importantly, shooting from above offers the opportunity for really dramatic, graphic, and intriguing images.

Aerial photo Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park

Aerial photo of Seattle’s award-winning Olympic Sculpture Park; ©Andrew Buchanan/SLP

You see, good aerial photography should be about more than just climbing up on a 500 foot ladder.  Like any photographic tool, a $300/hr. helicopter and a $2000 gyroscope should be more than just expensive toys.  If they don’t help you make better images, then what good are they?  For me, the best reason to photograph from the air is to distill the design of a site or space down to its most basic shapes.  The world is very two-dimensional when looking down from above and so volume and texture are reduced to form and pattern.  That view offers images that can be very geometric and graphic, and often reveals patterns and shapes that would otherwise only ever be seen in a site plan.  Combine those shapes and patterns with some well-timed sunlight (or a brief but auspicious sunbreak), and the results can be intriguing, mysterious, even magical.

aerial photo of a rooftop garden

Abstract aerial photo of a rooftop garden at Everett”s Providence Hospital; ©Andrew Buchanan/SLP

There’s lots of talk these days about drone photography, photo blimps, quadri-copters, octocopters, and all manner of unmanned aerial vehicles with cameras.  But I’ve yet to see any aerial images shot remotely that really make me pause and say . . . oh, wow.  Although drones can offer a different perspective, they’re just another expensive toy if the photographers’ not using them to make better images.