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