Stunning images of Dubai from the sky.
You don’t want to fly with Wouter Kingma. Not unless you can handle aerobatics, dizzying dives, land-hugging fly-bys or sudden sharp, bankings. For about nine years, he’s been jumping in helicopters and planes to photograph places as diverse as Scotland, Sweden, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, from between 300 and 12,000 metres up, taking pictures of everything from iconic structures to regular buildings. The world-famous shot of tennis stars Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing on the Burj Al Arab’s helipad in 2005 was his work.
“People are intrigued by the bird’s eye view of their city,” says Wouter, a self-employed commercial and editorial photographer based in Dubai, whose clients include Nike, Redbull, Ferrari, McLaren and Audi. “Whenever you take a large photograph of an area and you hang it somewhere, people come up and say, ‘Oh, where do I live?’ It’s always a party conversation piece.”
But getting the right photograph involves dangerous shooting methods, although Wouter – who cut his teeth guiding mountaineers across the French Alps as a student – doesn’t think so.
“The only way to shoot from a helicopter is to keep the door open,” says the 39-year-old, who’s originally from The Hague, Holland. “But I wouldn’t say it was dangerous. We all wear harnesses, all the gear is in a harness. Nothing loose there! It’s too dangerous otherwise, too much vibration and airflow to be safe without being tethered.”
But he admits it can be tough. “You are out with the door open, sitting on the floor of the helicopter, the wind and exposure is huge, and at 3,000 feet [914 metres], I was shivering most of the time in spite of wearing a jacket,” he says.
“That’s what makes aerial photography technically so challenging, you’ve got to deal with the temperatures and altitudes, the vibrations; there’s no time to change lenses or ponder over shots and angles. It gets even more challenging shooting in low light as the shutter speed just drops down and you can hardly get any shots in.”
Ironic, if you consider that Wouter’s first choice of profession was much safer – hotel management. He worked first with Hyatt in London, and moved to Dubai in 2001 when the Jumeirah Group, which took over the property, offered him a job at the Burj Al Arab.
He later moved to Land Rover, where as a marketing executive he was also able to indulge in his interest in photography. Four years later he turned professional, selling his house to finance
himself. Nine years and a few books later, he’s is the go-to photographer for a number of international brands.
A erial photography had always interested Wouter – it brought back some of the danger of his mountaineering-adventure sport days as a student – and it also challenged the technician in him, shooting at split-second intervals, under tight schedules and in imperfect weather conditions.
Captain Andy Nettleton of HeliDubai puts things in perspective. “Flying directly over the top of the Burj Khalifa was tricky; Wouter wanted to look straight down to get the flower effect. It becomes difficult as timing is key when you get close to the building and have to keep the helicopter skid – the landing gear – out of the camera shot.”
Shooting from above the Burj Khalifa involved more than just getting permission to fly above 900 metres. “I wanted to get as high up above it as possible to look down, but obviously we couldn’t hold it as the helicopter shakes a lot and the gravity just pulls you in. And to get a head-down shot was difficult,” says Wouter.
“The first day we did about three attempts. You’ve got to fly in a big loop, and at the last moment you’ve got to come in – the aircraft is shaking, the wind is blowing, so you’ve got to time it well, and at the last moment Andy tipped the helicopter sideways so I got
an even better view. We must have been at 3,200 feet [975 metres] at that point, we had to be careful not to get too close to the pinnacle of the building because it could be dangerous and yet get close enough and Andy managed it beautifully.”
Dubai Aerial Tour came about as a result of a previous assignment with Motivate Publishing. The Dubai-based book publisher had liked the pictures Wouter had shot in 2011 of UAE-based British adventurer Adrian Hayes’ retracing of famed British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s travels across the Empty Quarter. As many as 230 of them made into Hayes’ book about the expedition titled Footsteps of Thesiger, which was published the same year.
“Motivate had done a book on Dubai with a few aerial shots seven years ago. Dubai’s changed so much that they said, let’s do one again. I’d always worked with HeliDubai on aerial assignments, so it was a natural to bring them on board as a partner and sponsor.”
Their idea was to do a bird’s eye view of Dubai. “We decided to photograph the usual landmarks everyone would expect to see, of course, and then we added the ones we felt would be interesting from up there like a few cycling tracks, a couple of golf courses, Mamzar Park… the list got longer until there were about 50 locations finally,” says Wouter.
The challenge was to incorporate it into a flight plan. “We printed a big map of Dubai and in a logical order plotted a flight path that included our locations,” says Wouter. “We then looked at the light – for instance, if we were shooting the Dubai Marina, during the morning it is back-lit so we decided to shoot it later in the day when the sun was on the other side. That took some coordination. Then we had to calculate the flight time from, say, the airport to Burj Khalifa, to the Mall of the Emirates through to The Palm, which was one of the loops we did eventually. So the planning was the key element.”
Wouter estimated that they would require 10 hours of flight time to cover all the locations. “And it was to be done in two days – three hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, getting the best of sunrise and sunset,” he says. “I shot around 25,000 pictures over two days, and after editing I handed over 1,000. Around 110 made it into the book.”
How hard is it taking the photos? “With aerial photography, it goes very fast,” says Wouter. “The angle is there and... gone! So you have to get it right.”
He had four cameras ready with lenses fitted as there would be no time to change them while flying. “I had one with a wide lens, one with a zoom lens, another with super zoom lens and a super telephoto to top it off,” he says.
Apart from the equipment you also need an iron belly. “It’s like you’re riding a roller coaster in the dark. Most people can’t do it,” says Wouter. “It can get really rough up there and sometimes it feels like you’re sitting in the face of a thunderstorm.”
O f course, there are challenges. “I’ve shot the Abu Dhabi triathlon for a few years now and keeping an eye out for tiny triathletes and figuring out who is leading is a major challenge,” Wouter says. Sometimes miscommunication with the pilot can lead to tricky situations. “I once worked with a Spanish pilot shooting over the Yas Marina Circuit, and it was not only frustrating but also expensive when he kept mixing up left and right because he didn’t understand English,” he recalls.
What was most epic for Wouter was shooting the Burj Khalifa from above. Dangerous, perhaps, but Wouter is ready to go again. His wife Kiki and sons - Koen, four, and Chris, two, may keep him from doing anything extreme, but Wouter is usually up for most challenges. He participated in the Gobi March, named one of the top 10 endurance races in the world, in 2011. He completed the 250km foot race across the desert in a week.
So, hanging out of helicopters is a piece of cake for Wouter. To people who ask him why he does it, he just grins in reply. “I want to create art with a different perspective,” he says.
“Also, because I can - for the excitement and fun. It is like shooting inside a tumble dryer! I quite enjoy living on the edge!”
Getting a top-down view of Burj Khalifa wasn’t easy
Wouter prepares to take off to shoot Dubai from the sky
PHOTOGRAPHY The colours of Dubai: Jebel Ali port and, below, an area close to Al Lisaili camel race track
A city of contrasts, from Downtown Dubai, to umbrellas along the Marina, and the Deira gold souq area
Wouter and pilot Andy make a great team and are able to capture stunning images like this