Sky-high pho­tog­ra­phy

How far would you go to take a unique shot of a land­mark? Ian Cook – and his Nikon cam­era – take to the skies

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I am a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher based in Northum­ber­land. I have been us­ing Nikon since 1976 (my first SLR cam­era was a Nikon F) and I have never wanted to change to another brand. I like the cam­eras and their lay­out. The only changes I’ve made to my kit have been to switch from man­ual to aut­o­fo­cus lenses, and from to­tally man­ual film cam­eras to auto film cam­eras (a Nikon F5), and then on to dig­i­tal cam­eras.

The surge of peo­ple tak­ing up pho­tog­ra­phy has made it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to ob­tain orig­i­nal im­ages of well-known lo­ca­tions. In or­der to put a new per­spec­tive on my land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy, I de­cided to see how fea­si­ble it was to pho­to­graph the land­scape from the air. I con­cluded that from my lo­cal air­port (New­cas­tle In­ter­na­tional), my only real op­tion was to use a he­li­copter. The ma­jor­ity of fixed-wing air­craft are low- or mid-wing air­craft, and there is lim­ited ground vis­i­bil­ity from these.

I fly with Northum­bria He­li­copters. The com­pany of­fers pack­ages that can be cus­tomised to in­di­vid­ual re­quire­ments. Pric­ing is based upon time in the air and the num­ber of pas­sen­gers. This is some­thing that other he­li­copter op­er­a­tors of­fer through­out the coun­try.

Once I’ve booked my he­li­copter, I re­quire a flight plan. The most ef­fi­cient way to for­mu­late one is to mark on

a map the lo­ca­tions that you would like to see, to­gether with the di­rec­tion of the sun for your pro­posed time of day. Early morn­ing is the best time for aerial pho­tog­ra­phy, when the air is clear and of­fers the best vis­i­bil­ity. The sun is lower in the sky, caus­ing it to cast longer shad­ows than at mid­day. I find that hav­ing the he­li­copter po­si­tioned so that you are not shoot­ing straight into the sun is best, which is why you need to mark this on your flight plan.

On the day of the flight, a pre-flight brief­ing with the pi­lot will iron out any prob­lems with the flight plan. You can’t fly into cer­tain ar­eas, so de­tours have to be fac­tored in. The pi­lot will have the best idea of what is fea­si­ble in terms of time and dis­tance, and might sug­gest things that you’ve over­looked.

A he­li­copter can cover vast dis­tances in one hour. For ex­am­ple, it’s pos­si­ble to take off from New­cas­tle and fly to Lind­is­farne [3] via the Northum­ber­land coast within one hour. My favourite route is to the north of New­cas­tle and along the coast to the borders.

As space is lim­ited in the he­li­copter, a Nikon D7000 fit­ted with a Nikon AF-S f/3.5-5.6G 18-200mm VR II zoom lens is all I take on board. I set the fo­cal length of the lens to roughly 40mm, set the cam­era to aper­ture-pri­or­ity mode with a set­ting of f/4, ISO in the range of 200-400, with a shut­ter speed of at least 1/1000 sec. I turn Vi­bra­tion Re­duc­tion on and set it to Ac­tive mode; this re­duces, if not elim­i­nates, vi­bra­tion caused by the he­li­copter.

You can­not open a win­dow; this means shoot­ing through the glass canopy or side win­dows. Prior to take-off, I en­sure that the glass is as clean as pos­si­ble in­side and out. I po­si­tion the cam­era lens close to the glass (with­out touch­ing it) and use a wide aper­ture to re­duce the risk of re­flec­tions. The ac­tual process of tak­ing pho­to­graphs is rel­a­tively straight­for­ward and sim­i­lar to be­ing on the ground.

If you go up in a he­li­copter, it’s im­por­tant to take plenty of pho­to­graphs – you only get one ex­pen­sive chance. Keep your eyes open and be ready for that un­ex­pected view you had not planned for! With a lit­tle care­ful plan­ning, and per­haps shar­ing with friends if fi­nances are tight, you can easily come away with some mag­nif­i­cent im­ages of well-known lo­ca­tions, plus the sheer thrill of fly­ing never fails to im­press.

The down­side of all this, I find, is that you can’t stop at one flight. Each flight re­sults in more ideas and sub­jects for the next. Hav­ing pho­tographed the city of New­cas­tle and the Northum­ber­land coast and cas­tles al­ready, Hadrian’s Wall and Kielder Wa­ter will make welcome sub­jects for my next flight.

Early morn­ing is the best time for aerial pho­tog­ra­phy… The sun is lower in the sky, caus­ing it to cast longer shad­ows than at mid­day

01 northumb er­lan dia Nikon D7000, Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II, 1/800 sec, f/5.6, ISO320

03 th e holy is­lan d of lind­isfa rne Nikon D7000, Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II, 1/800 sec, f/5.6, ISO320


02 02 Bambu rgh Ca stl e Nikon D7000, Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II, 1/640 sec, f/5.6, ISO320

04 04 Fi­nal app roa ch Nikon D7000, Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II, 1/800 sec, f/5.6, ISO320

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