Taking Photography to New Heights

In 1858, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, also known as Nadar, rose 80 meters above the small French village of Petit-Becetre in a hot air balloon and captured the earliest recorded aerial photograph. Two years later James Wallace Black repeated the feat on the other side of the world, taking photographs of Boston from Samuel King’s hot air balloon the “Queen of the Air.” Other early aerial-photography pioneers experimented with kites and carrier pigeons to carry their cameras up in the air using a timer to take a shot over which they had no control.

With the outbreak of World War I, the development of aerial photography intensified as the images provided useful intelligence gathering opportunities and by the end of the war purpose-built cameras could be placed in the floor of military aircraft to capture multiple shot beyond enemy lines.

Though early aerial photography was often done for topographic or military purposes, it was elevated to an art form in the 1950s by American photographer William Garnett who created abstract works from views of forests and sand dunes, highlighting geometric patterns or organic shapes that were invisible from the ground.

The advent of drone technology in the past five years has opened a new chapter in the history of aerial photography and lowered the entry bar for amateur photographers. “To put costs into perspective, the cost of about 2 hours of plane hire, or one hour of chopper hire, will buy you a drone with a built-in camera that can shoot high quality images.” explains photographer Todd Kennedy, adding “Aside from cost, drones hover almost perfectly still and are very precise to position. Combined with the live streaming of the camera's view, you have a perfect tool for shooting photos, and that includes being able to position the camera anywhere in three dimensions.”

Timo Lieber: An environmental perspective

From the melt ponds on Greenland’s ice sheet to the lunar-like landscape of the mineral rich Atacama Desert, Chile, Timo Lieber is travelling to remote and extreme climatic locations to document the impact of human activity on our planet. His colourful aerial fine art photography of unique landscapes warns about the ecological impact of global warming but also highlights possible solutions, as in the case of his latest series on the lithium mine fields of Atacama.

“We are seeing a very strong push for electricity powered engines [which use lithium in their battery], but the jury is still out on whether it really is the solution we are after or whether we are replacing one issue with another. I have been following the story of lithium for a while now and wanted to photograph the Chilean evaporation pools that form part of South America’s so-called lithium triangle - home to more than half the known global reserves of the mineral. As with my other images, I wanted to create beautiful and arresting photos, which would puzzle the viewer and invite them to step closer and explore," the London-based German photographer explains.

While his earlier works show the abstract beauty of vast landscapes, his most recent series have explored human interaction with nature and the complexity of the impact: "I am personally attracted to images that are not just visually appealing but also convey a message I can relate to. My photograph “THAW #1” (of a deep blue lake on the ice cap of Greenland is a great example in that regard. It looks to me like an eye, almost as if global warming is looking right back at us."

Lieber got hooked on aerial photography after a spur of the moment flight in a tiny single-engine plane in Iceland. “Before we even landed, I knew I wanted to be in the air with my camera as often as I could. Of course, I made a number of mistakes on those first flights – quite a few to be honest – but the most important outcome was that I discovered a way that allows me to express my artistic vision,” he recalls.

Now Lieber’s shoots are often planned months in advance as flying in remote parts of the world requires meticulous planning and lengthy negotiations to enter what is often restricted airspace.

For his award winning THAW series, that draws attention to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the photographer teamed up with several leading glaciologists from the University of Cambridge and Aberystwyth University, spending time with them to study their research and familiarising himself with how best to approach a complex mission on the ice.

Photographing from an open helicopter in freezing conditions isn’t always fun and preparation is “absolutely key” as you can’t leave technicalities to chance: “I don’t have a lot of equipment with me on a shoot but it is all triple checked. As a wise man once put it, ‘a chopper is a thousand pieces of metal trying to shake themselves apart’ so, I’d better not forget my camera stabiliser. In the end, I am trusting my life to a harness and a few ropes to hold me in the helicopter.”

Lieber has only used drones once as a forced measure in the Atacama Desert, where it was too complicated to photograph from an unpressurised aircraft due to lower levels of oxygen at very high altitude. “But I much prefer to be up there myself," he adds. His dream location: photographing Antarctica. “It would be a natural extension to the work I did in Greenland. If only the penguins there had some helicopters to rent."

Antoine Rose’s Ants World

While many aerial photographers focus on revealing the beauty of natural or main-made landscapes when viewed from above, Antoine Rose prefers to focus on observing crowds of people.

His first aerial shoot in 2002 came from an opportunity to fly over the densely populated beaches of Copacabana in Brazil to shoot the Kiteboarding World Cup from an innovative angle, and people continue to be at the centre of his projects, whether on a beach in the United States or on a ski slope in Switzerland.

“Besides the aesthetic dimension, there is an anthropological and sociological layer: people sharing common behaviours and exposing themselves like hedonistic herds. Given the distance, the stills of people swimming or just sitting down on their beach pads suggests an insectarium. People seem insignificant dots in the infinite space of the universe,” he explains.

Rose’s photographs of various beaches can be seen as a sociological study and a reflection of habits depending on where they are around the world. Miami Beach has every hotel competing for the neatest arrangement of chairs and umbrellas, while on Jones beach, a popular Long Island summer destination for New Yorkers, it’s more about having space with a very large setup and XXL towels for the whole family and friends. Even from far above, views of Italian beaches can betray the country’s stylish sensibilities, the photographer remarks.

Rose says he loves the fully vertical perspective because it allows him to render figurative scenes as abstracts. “From a distance, it looks like an abstract painting. It is only when you start coming closer that thousands of coloured flecks come to life. The pieces of the puzzle come together and the details of a multitude of everyday situations are exposed to curious and eager eyes. When looking at these peoples in the pictures you can let your imagination go.”

Because he prefer densely populate areas, the self-taught photographer who gave up a marketing job at a Belgian telecom company to focus on his art, is uninterested in using drones. “The web is flooded with nice drone photography that are becoming popular. But attaching a 50,000 euro camera on a drone that could potentially crash and kill someone on the ground, is not for me. I’m also producing large-sized artworks up to 150x420cm in one piece; you need for that very specific and heavy equipment,” he explains.

Rose describes himself as a “neurotic perfectionist” who will work on a shot again and again until he is fully satisfied: “that’s the only way to stand out of the crowd.” For his “Jeux d’Hiver” series on the slopes of Saint Moritz, it took four years to get the six photographs he wanted to show. “All my shoots involve a lot of preparation, sometimes years in advance, and I never know how the result will look like until I’m looking at the photos in post-production. I prefer not to release an average photo and do another shooting attempt instead.”

Such perfectionism can be a heavy financial investment, but Rose says it does pay off. LVMH acquired four large-scale works from his “Jeux d’Hiver” series for their luxurious resort in Courchevel, France, and also commissioned a special artwork.

Rose says he’s hoping to continue his beach life study with shoots in China where he notes, “not everyone can swim and usually, you’ll find lots of adults wearing very colourful buoys for security. It’s really amazing and it would be a great contrast to the regularity of very clean hotel beaches from Miami.”

Tugo Cheng: Seeking Lines and Patterns

A professional architect by day, photographer Tugo Cheng hasn’t fail to notice the similarities between his two passions that keep on feeding from each other. “Architecture and photography are both pursuing beauty and they share a lot of common elements such as scale and proportion, light and shadow, colour and texture, lines and geometries,” says the award-winning Hong Kong-based photographer.

“Architectural training did not only train my brain eyes, but also my brain as a photographer. We always want to explore new ideas and perspective and photography is not just about your eyes but also the imagination and creativity inside. Only when you have good eyes and a creative brain can you produce good pictures,” he notes.

The exploration of architecture and how blueprint lines of a building can become more apparent from the sky was the starting point of Cheng’s 2016 ’City Patterns’ series that revealed hidden and forgotten geometries in the density-rich urban landscape of his native city. Highlighting familiar places from an unfamiliar angle, the photographer revealed the hidden beauty of some designs or the limitation of others. “Some beautiful places proved boring from above, whereas some less attractive places, such as industrial and infrastructural developments or even cemetery, were very interesting and different from what I had expected,” he says.

For example, the picture “Six Feet Under” captured rows of gravestones lined up in the cemetery with pockets of green in between. “It reminds me of the Garden City movement in urban planning. The residential planning for the living people is actually very similar to cemetery layout when viewing from above, compared to another picture “Six Feet Above” which captures the a big housing estate and the urban boundary in Hong Kong suburb,” Cheng says.

Instead of shooting from a helicopter to get a high angle panorama, Cheng favours the lower angle of a camera on a drone to capture details of life within the city scape. “When you shoot too high in the air it is easy to miss out the interesting details,” he remarks, adding such details add to the overall composition of the work.

The architect picked up aerial photography three years ago at a time from drone technology was less developed, partly to help him out with his work. “At first, the camera could not shoot vertically downwards and it imposed a lot of constraints in the composition. The resolution was also not high enough for large scale output. But thanks to the improvement of drone camera, the output size of drone photos are much bigger these days which are sufficient for exhibition purpose. The introduction of gimbal has also improved the stability of footages and it is much easier to produce professional video and images nowadays with a drone,” he says.

Early on the photographer was essentially interested in architecture photography, but he’s now seeking to find the same elements of order and rhythm in natural landscapes. “The Coastal Geometries series of fishing village, rice terraces, tea farm, mountains and canyons I shot in China are all capturing the unintentional landscape in an architectural approach,” he says.

Cheng believes a good picture should have three key elements: “First it has to surprise you, whether it is a new angle, new lighting or new subject etc., something that brings in new ideas that you did not expect. Then, it should inspire you and make you think beyond what you see. In other words it should be intellectually thought-provoking. And most of all, it should touch your heart and help connect the artist with the audience. And that is exactly where art comes in.”

Photographer Todd Kennedy: Chasing the Vertical Perspective

As a fixed wing acrobatics pilot for over 20 years, Todd Kennedy is used to a bird’s eye view. Yet, even after clocking hundreds of flying hours, he admits that it rarely gives him the opportunity to really look at the ground below, hence his interest in drones.

“The ‘Top Down,’ and I mean really 100% straight down perspective that drones offer is really fascinating, and I feel it's still under explored. These days with cameras on smart phones everywhere, the world has become so saturated with photos it's nice to see something fresh and new,” the Australian photographer remarks.

Chasing that vertical perspective is still very much a hobby for the award-winning photographer who turned seriously to photography only four years ago at about the same time commercial drones started to appear. “I bought a Canon 5Dmk2 DSLR, and shortly after that my wife bought me a Parrot BeBop drone,” he recalls.

Kennedy is particularly interested in revealing the way a landscape transforms even from a modest height revealing patterns and textures that are not apparent from the ground. Using drone photography, Top Down shots of a forest can reveal unexpected geometric pattern and strong lines while a lake can become an abstract painting.

“Drone use is actually quite easy, the real challenge is getting an interesting subject to shoot, and hopefully one that no one else has already done,” Kennedy says.

With a full time job as a fund manager, Kennedy doesn’t have much time to devote to photography, forcing him to plan his shoots and visualize his images well ahead. “I check weather, tide, time of day (which is particularly important for shadows), and scout for locations using tools like Google maps. I use a small group of pre-set manual camera setting to keep the image quality high. Because I'm mainly shooting landscapes, the settings don't vary much so I don’t need to take that many shots of fly for too long,” he explains.

But his award winning shot of a camel caravan casting its early-evening shadow across the sands of Broome’s Cable Beach in Western Australia demonstrates what a well-planned shoot can achieve.

“I had met the camel tour operator to organize the shoot ahead of time. We drove up the beach in our 4WD to get far enough from the Broome airport to allow the drone flight and get away from crowds. From the ground looking towards the camels and into the sun the sky looked quite orange. We sat and waited for the caravan to come our way. When it arrived, I flew the drone out to the ocean side a bit so that I avoided being directly above the caravan and also pointed the lens slightly away from the sun. I only shot about six frames and in retrospect, I wish I took more. The entire flight was only five minutes or so.”

With the sun in his face, Kennedy really didn't know how good the images were until he saw them on his computer.  

For his latest series, “Lit from above,” Kennedy is exploring the versatility of drones using them to “light paint” landscapes in the Australian desert. Having attached LED lights on a drone he shoots long exposures from a DSLR on the ground. The first image taken with this method has already won him the 2017 HeadOn Landscape Prize, a large Australian photo competition.

“My aim with this series is to create a more surreal, alien looking landscape by selectively lighting certain features, and allowing the rest of the scene to fade to black. I aim to achieve this with aerial lighting rather than Photoshop skills so that the subject, while looking unearthly, is simply a new way of looking at a real, physical place. I would consider these images successful if they create a feeling of mystery and intrigue.”