On the fly: mastering aerial photography

27 June 2014 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer

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In the latest of our Masterclass blog series, documentary photographer and WPY 2013 World in Our Hands runner-up, Garth Lenz, reveals what it's like to be an aerial photographer, the power such images can have, and how to document environmental stories from the skies.

I trained as a classical pianist, but I loved photography as much as I loved music, and thought that photography would give me more opportunity for personal expression. My chance came when a journalist who was doing a story about clearcut logging needed a photographer. The next thing I knew, I was up in a small plane taking photographs. It was my first assignment, my first time in a small plane, and of course my first time doing aerial photography. The story was widely published and had a great impact, much to the chagrin of the logging industry that had operated with impunity for so long. From that point, aerial photography became an increasingly important part of my work.

Aerial photography can convey a sense of the scale of activities such as industrial logging, coal mining, shale gas production in a way that no other photography can. It can also reveal activities and impacts that are normally out of sight (and therefore out of mind). One of my earliest images is of a mountain peninsula jutting out into the ocean. From sea level, it looks like thick forest. From above, the deception is clear. The scenic fringe has been deliberately left standing to conceal the massive devastation of clear cutting behind.



"Aerial photography can reveal impacts normally out of sight," says Garth


People sometimes think it's a glamorous job, but the truth is it can be extremely challenging, physically and emotionally. The nature photographer Freeman Paterson said "the camera points both ways - in expressing your subject, you express yourself", and while there's always an element of personal bias, mood and so on that goes into each image, there's more to it than that because aerial photography like this creates a bizarre relationship with the subject matter.

While I'm in the air, I'm busy focusing on my work, and I'm experiencing the elation of getting really powerful images, mixed with adrenalin and satisfaction. I lose myself in the work and the flight is over before I know it. It used to be the same when I gave piano recitals: I would start to play, and before I knew it, two hours had passed and the concert was over. I'm looking down at widespread environmental devastation, but I don't absorb the implication of what I am seeing; it's as though I've put my emotions on hold.

Afterwards, though, when I'm going through the images, the full impact can hit me. Then I can feel completely wrung out, and that can be intense. You can't spend so much time looking at the wreckage caused by humanity and not be affected by it, and I often know the individual families whose lives are directly affected, often in terrible ways. So there's a personal cost, emotionally. Once, several months after photographing tar sands mines in northern Alberta, I had to fly back over the same area in a commercial passenger jet. From that higher altitude I could see just how widespread the destruction was, and I just sat there looking out of the little window, tears streaming down my face. After my WPY award, I gave many talks and interviews about the Alberta Tar Sands, so at least the emotional cost is balanced by the fact that I am helping raise awareness about some hugely important environmental issues.



Garth has given talks and interviews on the Alberta Tar Sands since winning WPY


I remember the first time I heard Beethoven's last piano sonata; I didn't know music like this existed. It's the same with photography. Some of the very best photographers can have the same kind of emotional impact on me - people like Ernst Hass, Brett Weston, Fay Godwin, Mary Ellen Mark, Irving Penn, Sebastiao Salgado, Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams, James Nachtwey, Alexandra Boulat, Hiroshi Hamaya... the list goes on. Photography can educate, change things, makes things happen.

Garth Lenz's aerial photography tips

There's a lot of hard work involved in preparing and completing a shoot, so expect to push yourself to the fullest, work incredibly long hours and be able to get by without much sleep. The biggest challenge is time. Chartering a plane is expensive, and the flight rarely lasts long. Every minute counts, and so above all else, you need to be meticulously organised.

Before the flight

1. Choose your story. I look for topics that have not been photographed much, or for subjects where I think I might be able to do something different. If you can create a niche for yourself, you will stand much more chance of getting unique images.

2. Do your research. If you don't know the story of your subject beforehand, there's little hope you'll be able to tell it in pictures. For stories like this, visually stunning images are not enough - you need them to be editorially significant, too.

3. Familiarise yourself with the topography. I pore over Google maps to find out what an area might look like from different elevations, angles, and distances. The plane, in a sense, is my tripod, so I have to know beforehand where it will need to be.

4. Nurture your creativity. In the air, you need to make your left analytical left brain step aside so that the intuitive right side can take over. There is simply no chance to do otherwise. I spend a lot of time going to galleries, listening to music, anything that engages my creativity. Some of this seeps into my subconscious so that when I am in the air, I can photograph instinctively without having to think too hard about things like colour or composition.

5. Sort out the logistics. You need to plan your time in the field so that you can be as productive and effective as possible. This means organising travel, accommodation and food so that you arrive rested and ready to start. At home, I make and re-make lists, I check and double-check everything, and I do packing dry-runs. I don't leave a single thing to chance.

6. Work around the weather. Over industrial sites, haze, particulate matter and so on can all be big problems. If there is a fire within 500 miles (or even further), the smoke and haze can make it almost impossible to photograph, so check things like wind direction before you fly.

During the flight

There are many things to remember and monitor. You are trying to concentrate in a very noisy, windy, often cold environment, and things will happen very quickly. So keep it simple.

1. Pre-set your cameras. I set my ISO so that I can keep the shutter speed up to 1/1000th sec or higher, and I will try to shoot a stop (or preferably two) down from wide open. Aperture is a priority - use matrix metering with appropriate compensation dialled in. I set matrix auto aperture priority and auto-bracket three frames +2/3 or -2/3 of a stop.

I use:

Cameras: D800E; D3.

Lenses: 14-24mm f2.8; 24-70mm f2.8; 70-200mm f2.8; 300mm f4.

B+W and Nikon polarizing filters.

Don't constantly switch lenses and cameras. I will do a complete pass or circle of a subject with one camera-lens combination and then do another pass with a different camera-lens combination if possible. The one thing you don't have to worry about is depth of field - just stick the camera on infinity.

2. Have the window fully open or the door off if possible. Be prepared to get cold: you can't wear gloves. In the winter and in the north, my hands can get so icy sometimes that I have to look down to make sure I'm still actually holding the camera.

3. Take your lens shade off. It will just catch the wind, and most of the time the wing acts as an effective shade.

4. Minimise vibration. Try to hold your body so that as little of it is touching the plane as possible (this can be tricky as you've also go to resist the G-force). Resist the temptation to lean out, as that will put your camera in the jet stream. Not only will this produce a lot of vibration, but there's a risk the camera will be pulled out of your hands.

5. Think about light. Things can look quite flat from above, so you need to work with the angle of the sun and photograph either early or late in the day. That does involve the risk that some of your subjects (a mountain slope, for example) will be in shadow. Use a polarizer to get better contrast and richer colours. The best images often happen on days when I'm not even sure it's worth going up, if a storm is gathering, because that's when there's the chance of dramatic light breaking through the clouds. With digital photography, you can photograph much earlier and much later in the day than before, and even at night. I couldn't have taken this image of a black moonscape before the technology changed. It gives a whole different atmosphere to the warren of roads, with pinpoints of light from machinery.



"Work with the angle of the sun and photograph either early or late in the day," like this image, taken at night


6. Use juxtaposition. One of my favourite images from the tar sands in Alberta is an abstract of blue skies reflected in the bitumen. You can see rainbows in the petroleum, beauty and horror all in the moment. If there are plumes of gas rising into the sky, use those to add an element of 3D and bring the land and the sky together.



"Use 3D elements to bring the land and sky together," says Garth


7. Communicate. You must have a head-set so you can talk to the pilot. It's up to you to explain where you want the plane or helicopter to be. An experienced pilot will respond well to your requests, but will also know what's not safe. I usually want to fly as low as possible, but I depend on the pilot to say 'no' if necessary.

8. Keep chimping (constantly looking back at your shots) to a minimum! If you are staring at your camera, you are not concentrating on the rapidly changing landscape. When there is a lull in the action and when you have a specific reason for doing so, if the light is changing quickly for example, then have a quick look.





Garth's recent work has largely focused on the world of modern fossil fuel production and its associated impacts on the landscape. Recent projects have addressed mountaintop removal coal mining, shale gas production, and the Alberta Tar Sands. His work has appeared in leading editorial publications including Time, GEO, The New York Times, Canadian Geographic and BBC Wildlife Magazine.

Garth will be speaking at this year's GDT Festival on 25 October, his exhibition, True Cost of Oil, opens at 555 Gallery in Boston on 2 September 2014, for a six week run.




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