PP October/Day in the Life
Day in the Life: Jason Hawkes
As one of the country’s select band of full time aerial photographers, Jason Hawkes faces some very specific challenges as he endeavours to produce images for books and commercial projects
WORDS AND PICTURES: JASON HAWKES
In many ways there is no such thing as an ‘average’ day when you are an aerial photographer. The weather sees to that, and you very much have to react to the conditions that you encounter. If you are working on personal projects such as books, as opposed to commercial shoots, then you will also need to develop a natural eye for pictures that will work from an aerial perspective and be able to think on your feet and work with the light, so that you can plan your shooting schedule hour by hour as the day unfolds.
Having said all that, this is how a typical day might conceivably pan out, and it’s the very unpredictability that surrounds aerial photography that is so appealing, and which makes this area of photography so constantly challenging and exciting.
6am I like to make an early start, and by getting up at this time it gives me the opportunity to prepare myself and to have a light breakfast before the shoot gets underway. If I am working on location I will try to book a hotel that either has a helipad or an area of grass close by where a helicopter can set down, and this means that the pilot and myself will have the convenience of everything being close by in the morning.
In terms of preparation, most of this will have been done the night before. I use Pentax 6x7cm cameras, and I’ll check these over to make sure everything is in order: if I need to change batteries or film it’s perfectly feasible to do this while in flight, and so I just need to clean the equipment and to make sure that everything appears to be working properly.
The pilot will spend around fifteen minutes preparing the helicopter, and then we’re ready to go.
7am We will aim to be in the air by this time, and I’ll be getting ready to take my first pictures. I always use helicopters these days, because they are so manoeuvrable compared to light aeroplanes, will hover in one place if required and can fly as low as you need and be landed virtually anywhere. When I first started out I used a two man microlite, which was a very cheap way of getting into the air, and in terms of being responsive it’s almost as good as using a helicopter. However, the range was very limited – around fifty miles at the most – and they are not practical to use on a full time professional basis.
7.30am By now I’ll be aiming to be in a position to start taking my first pictures. If I’m shooting pictures for a book project it could be that we’ll have nothing specific that we’re aiming to cover, and things will be played by ear. Once you get high enough you can see for around 20-30 miles, and I’ll communicate with the pilot and we’ll go and look at anything that we feel will be interesting pictorially. In terms of where we fly, out in the countryside we’re not really restricted at all. There are places that we aren’t allowed to fly over, such as prisons and nuclear power stations, but generally it’s pretty relaxed. Over London, however, we would have to tell air traffic control exactly where we were going, and they might make you hover for ten minutes every now and then before allowing you to proceed.
If I’m doing a commercial job, things will be planned in much greater detail. There will probably be an art director with us, and I will be working to a very tight brief. We’ll have a location that we know we have to cover, and we’ll go straight there and will stay at the location until we know we have what we need. I’ve built up a relationship with a number of pilots over the past ten years, and it’s good to work with someone who knows you on the more demanding jobs. Most pilots are very good, however, and will understand what a photographer requires from them, and so I never usually get any problems.
The way that I work is very simple. I’ll be secured in the helicopter by a harness, and I’ll usually have the door removed and will sit in this space – which is quite large, probably as large as the area taken up by a car door – with my feet resting on the helicopter skids. I have a Kenyon Gyro Stabiliser, which is attached to the bottom of my Pentax via the tripod bush, and this takes away much of the vibration that a helicopter would naturally create, allowing me to hand hold from 1/100sec upwards. The device is battery operated and has around three and a half hours of life, which is perfectly adequate, and it also comes with a lead, enabling it to be plugged directly into the helicopter’s power supply if required.
8.30am I should have quite a few of the pictures that I need in the bag by now. As I’ve mentioned, I’m still a film user, and I work with medium format cameras, which might surprise a few people. I’ve had the same camera for ten years now, and have three bodies and work with a combination of 35mm, 45mm and 90mm lenses, shooting everything on 220 Velvia. As you can tell, I’m not really into cameras, and yet I know that I’ve got to look seriously at what digital can offer me in the next year or so, and I’m sure I will be changing my gear in the not too distant future.
For the moment it doesn’t worry me particularly that I have to take film in for processing before I can see my results. Sometimes if I’m working on a book, I will have huge bags of film waiting to be processed – perhaps up to 200 rolls – while if I’m on a commercial job we might need to see things quickly, and we have on occasions had to land and drop film off to be processed.
10.30am Because of the need to refuel around every three and a half hours, we’ll need to have put down somewhere by now. Over more populated areas there is always an airfield somewhere fairly close that we can go, but things can be trickier if I’m taking pictures somewhere like Scotland where places that offer refuelling are less easy to find. In situations such as this, we’ll have to be very aware of our fuel levels and will need to make sure that we plan our course accordingly.
There are also situations where the weather might close in very quickly and create problems, and in cases such as this we might have to make a decision to land at the nearest suitable site and wait for things to clear. In the past this has even involved landing at such places as the top of Scottish mountains, but that is very rare, and we would never normally be there longer than a couple of hours.
Once in a while though the weather really has set in, and on occasions (though not from the top of a mountain I must say) I have had to get a lift to the nearest station and make my way home by train!
12 noon We could be back up in the air by now if the idea is to carry out a full day’s shooting. The longest day I would have taking pictures would be around 7 to 8 hours, but that is fairly unusual.
5pm Even if it’s been a full day’s shooting, I should be back on the ground by now, perhaps at another hotel if we’re planning to go out again in the evening or at home if it’s a one day shoot. In the helicopter I will have made notes of the various locations we have visited to make sure that there is never any confusion about where they might be, and I have a GPS unit with me and will mark down the longitude and latitude of each place. This allows me subsequently to double check with the map, and to make sure that everything is accurate, particularly important if I am photographing a fairly obscure site. .
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