My Aerial Photography Story

As a child my imagination run wild drawing fantastical landscape vistas of looming mountain ranges fringed by dark forests and framed by running rivers. I think of my passion for photography as an adult incarnation of a childhood obsession.

I first discovered enjoyment for landscape and documentary photography on an expedition to climb Mount Kenya, Africa’s second tallest mountain as a teenager in 2001. However, this newfound love was let buried under a mountain of university and post-graduate studies until I finally purchased my first camera in 2008. I was swiftly and comprehensively seduced by the ability that photography allowed me to express my vision of the natural world and I was left enchanted by the colour-palette of the nature.

I soon submersed himself in all things photographic in my spare time. It was during this time that I discovered a dedicated group of medium format panoramic photographers with their comparatively cumbersome film cameras, understanding of light and technical virtuosity created elegant colour-laden tableaux of nature. I was hooked. I purchased a medium format slide film in late 2010, well after the digital revolution, and dedicated myself to a continual learning process to master the idiosyncrasies of shooting on temperamental slide film. From the first time I saw one of his transparencies on a light table glowing with great luminosity, I have been constantly striving to capture better images.

The discipline of shooting on film taught me the importance of mastering exposure and the art of carefully considered compositions. A number of years later, lured by improving technology and ever-increasing megapixel counts, I let the film camera begin to collect dust and re-joined the digital age. In many respects it was like learning to ride a bike again but the skills I learned shooting on film accelerated the learning curve. Soon there was a growing diversity to my images, including images captured long into the night when other sane photographers would be in the comfort of bed.

In January 2018, during a family holiday in Western Australia, I gave myself the opportunity to charter a flight over Hutt Lagoon, a stunning salt lake well known for its array of pinks, magentas and reds caused by the abundance of beta-carotene (a red-orange pigment found in algae). The minute the texture and colour of the lake was unveiled below me, I was immediately hooked. Even now, I recall the exhilarating feeling of take-off - a mixture of acceleration and weightlessness all at once. Beyond the physical experience of flying, the aerial view was a revelation to me - new vistas were revealed and new perspectives became available. 

Upon arriving back at my home in Sydney, I had an unfortunate external hard drive failure when backing up the images from this once-in-a-lifetime photography shoot. I had lost over 1,500 images of Hutt Lagoon and the Houtman Albrolhos Islands. I was absolutely shattered. But as is often in life with great loss comes great learning, and I promised myself not only to return but I also challenged myself to improve on those original images. Thus, I threw myself into aerial photography with great gusto. 

An image captured on my return trip to Hutt Lagoon in November 2018. 

I didn't need to look far to understand why the aerial photography bug bit me so hard; as some of my earliest memories are of flying in my Grandfather’s Cessna 175 Skylark, a single engine four-seater light aircraft, that he flew from his farm in Queensland’s Western Downs Region. The buzz of the propeller, the vibration of the chassis and the bumpy rural runway were all part of the thrill. However, it was the distinctive viewpoint of the geometric patterns of the fields of grain and ant-like dots of livestock scattered across the paddocks that stayed with me. 

I felt a sense of nostalgia when I first stepped into the cockpit of the Cessna 172 for a photographic charter. As the single engine aircraft’s propeller coughed and spluttered to life, adrenaline surged through my veins and my early childhood memories came rushing back. I was right there - back in the cockpit of my grandfather’s plane.  I have since travelled the width of Australia in following this new photographic pursuit. I have been fortunate enjoy to bear witness to a stunning cloud inversion enveloping Australia’s highest mountain range in Kosciuszko National Park and the savage beauty of the highest tidal range in the southern hemisphere in the Kimberley. 

Aerial Image of tidal flats near Wyndham cause by the ebb and flow of the largest tides in the southern hemisphere.

The experiences are as varied as the landscapes I have photographed - from dangerous winds in remote South Australia to minus fifteen degrees in the Snowy Mountains. Flying over Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre was a terrific experience because I was there during the most significant flooding on the inland lake for over 60 years. I flew along the edge of the lake that was rapidly drying out leaving a patchwork of salt-crusted features that came to life allowing for me to marvel on them from above. From the ground I couldn’t fathom the scale of what was before me, from the air the inland sea unfurled as far as the eye could see. 

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Aerial image of the 2019 Lake Eyre-Kati-Thanda floods

Photographing from the air can be tricky, and not only is rewarding but hugely enjoyable. Working out of an open window of a light aircraft or a doorless helicopter means dealing with some serious wind buffeting, wash from the propeller, high frequency vibrations from the engines and sometimes severe aircraft movements. As I move through the air, I find myself multi-tasking; from grappling with my equipment, dialling in the best technical settings on my camera, working to shoot powerfully composed images and keeping up with the rapidly changing perspective, all while communicating with the pilot to orchestrate the best flight path. 

Most of my aerial photographs were shot of the window or door of various Cessna 172, 206 and 210 aircraft or R44 and Bell JetRanger helicopters I chartered in various locations. I have always been left astounded by the skill demonstrated by the pilots in finding the right line, orbit or elevation for me to photograph the just the right perspective or angle or even land an aircraft on an outback airstrip with gusting 30 knot cross winds. 

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Aerial Image of Francois Peron National Park in Western Australia where the azure waters of the Indian Ocean meet the rusty shores of Shark Bay.

The essence of aerial photography - looking down from up high - is all about offering new insights into landscapes and surroundings, even from familiar scenes. For me, the most appealing aspect of aerial photography is the ability to look past the obvious and find interpretive meanings. It’s the perfect harmony between my love of geography and my love of art.

On my flight over the remote Eastern Kimberley mudflats around Wyndham, the course of the river and result of the rise and fall of king tides leave tree branches left in the sediment - but it’s just dried mud. 

For me, the sense of freedom of being in the air scanning the landscape for shapes, textures and forms is all-consuming. I feel that aerial photography provides me with a unique perspective to explore my passion for photography, as what may seem ordinary from the ground can be extraordinary from above. This is what excites me about aerial photography - it has provided me a new way to see the landscape I have obsessively been photographing for over a decade. My passion for photography coupled with my affinity for exploring the remote parts of Australia in a light aircraft - my aerial photography gallery was inevitable. Mother Nature, after all, has an imagination far greater than that of any human. For me, aerial photography is simply way to explore and interpret it.