Howard Kingsnorth is an Aerial Photographer based in London, who has learnt his photography skills so impeccably that his work will leave you breathless. He presents skylines with a sense of immense drama that capture the pure essence of the city. Howard was kind enough to tell us about how his career started, the pre-production behind his images and the difficulties he faces in such unique shooting situations.
“The most exciting story behind one of my recent images centers around my recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. When commissions fall away, it is easy to blame external sources, and I certainly did that during this period. However, I know from long experience that the only way out is to start over and re-invent yourself with some new images. Previously when faced with this dilemma, I would take myself off to a ‘new and exciting’ location; New York, Iceland, anywhere really to get a new perspective and inspiration. However, this time I could not do that, firstly I could not afford to, and secondly, that ‘format’ did not inspire me anymore, and I was doubtful that I would return with anything other than a set of ‘pretty pictures’.
I was sitting in my office looking out at a new grey concrete wall that separated me from my previous view of the city. All I could see was the top of a new city skyscraper, after a little research I could see that it would have a unique view over the city of London, with the newly constructed Shard in the center. It took me 18 months to achieve that, and another 6 to get the shot that changed my career.
Once I had the permissions which involved security checks, loads of admin, and importantly, 48 hour notice at least prior to access, it was down to the weather. I went back several times but knew that the weather would be the making of that shot. What I wanted to achieve was an image of the city that summed up the gloom and drama of financial meltdown, with maybe a glimmer of hope…Finally, on a bitter January day, I achieved the image I had in my imagination. I didn’t know that it would change the course of my recent career.
This was published worldwide as an editorial image after The Guardian picked it up here in London. A few months later I received an email from Mcgarry Bowen in New York, asking if I could shoot a campaign for United Airlines using this style of photography. We went on to shoot that in the USA and followed up by shooting several more cities worldwide.
The technical challenges facing you when trying to capture images from a high viewpoint are many and varied. Essentially, you shoot from a high vantage point, i.e a building or hilltop, or you rent a helicopter.
Some countries have severe restrictions on flying over cities, and this particular campaign (UA) required an altitude of around 800 ft. The essence of this style is to use a wide angle lens and get in close, otherwise you lose the drama of the image. If you use a building to shoot from, then ideally you try and access the roof, this is extremely hard these days due to security issues, sometimes you end up shooting through 2 layers of glass.
Helicopters give you freedom especially in the USA, where they seem to have very little regulation. But in London for example you are restricted to a minimum of 800ft over the river, and you may have to wait hovering for half an hour or so over your spot before you get permission to descend to that altitude. In Frankfurt and Tokyo they will not fly below 1500 ft, this makes the shots less dramatic and subject to UV dullness.
Shooting from a helicopter is pretty straight forward, you need to fully brief the pilot beforehand, as communication once airborne is not that great usually, especially when using a translator. I use a pair of Nikon D810s, I have an assistant usually that can help me swap cameras and sort kit in a hurry if needs be. Everything is tethered so that there is no risk of objects flying out, lens caps, iPads etc. I have a harness attached to me in case I fall out, but its not likely really as I don’t need to lean out that far. I also use a cam ranger so that I can have a mini network in the cockpit to send images to the iPad for the creative’s on board and also for the pilot to show where I need to be. When shooting these images of London in May last year, we were looking for an early sunrise shot.
So it’s about predicting the time taken to scramble the aircraft to getting on target, hopefully at the precise time for the sun to be in the right position. Pilots are very good at this stuff. So basically, we were waiting around in an old hut in an Essex field from about 4 am…we were aiming to maximise shoot time as it costs over £ 1500 per hour, and sometimes double that if you need a bigger craft. We could get to the center of London in 10 minutes from take off, shoot for 10 minutes, and return all in 30mins. Then you still have another 30 minutes to play with and half an hour later when the sun has risen some more. Once over the target, you slow down to a hover if possible, open the doors and start shooting. When the door is open its pretty hard to communicate with anyone. On return to the airfield I will select from the images with the AD and plan the next sortie.”
Thrilling stuff and I’d like to say a big thank you to Howard Kingsnorth for sharing such detailed shooting information with us, and I’m sure our readers will be glued to the post and inspired to shoot their own aerial photography.
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