Jason Hawkes never photographs while standing on the ground. At least not professionally. For more than 20 years, he’s plied his trade from the sky, dangling out of helicopters while creating breathtaking images from perspectives few people ever experience themselves.
Based near London and known globally for his aerial photography, Hawkes has traveled from New York to Norway, Miami to Morocco, capturing scenes of people, places, and progress for a wide range of commercial and editorial clients. Along the way, he’s published about 50 books of aerial images that few people could even imagine before the days of ubiquitous satellite imagery.
Hawkes now hovers in the midst of a field facing massive upheaval. Like many commercial photographers, he’s seen his specialty altered nearly beyond recognition by an influx of inexpensive stock photography and the changing buying habits of ad agencies. Yet the need for aerial photography persists, and higher-altitude professional imagery like Hawkes’ is as-of-yet unaffected by drone photography. So where does that leave an aerial specialist like Hawkes who’s working at the top of his game, both literally and figuratively?
Hawkes got into aerial photography a couple decades ago while assisting at a London photography studio. One day, he went flying in a small aircraft and was instantly hooked on the experience. So he bought a microlight aircraft and started flying around England taking pictures of anything and everything. After about six months, he switched to more serious work from helicopters, where he would photograph while a pilot did the flying. Hawkes’ early work landed him some published images in magazines, which led to a book with Random House and a growing portfolio of commercial projects.
Hawkes works almost exclusively in Eurocopter AS355 helicopters. For most shoots, he strips down the twin jet engine copters’ interiors to remove the six seats and anything that might slide out during maneuvers. Hawkes straps all his gear to the helicopter and wears a harness so he can hang out of an open side door during flight. He wears a helmet with a radio for communication with the pilot about how to approach their location and to hear air traffic controller instructions regarding their positioning. When they’re over the target location, the pilot banks the aircraft on its side to allow Hawkes to hang directly over his subject and photograph straight down. Working this way, Hawkes may have only a couple of seconds to capture an image before the pilot needs to bank around for another pass. So he has to be ready to go with equipment set to the proper calibration and a clear vision for what he’s photographing.
“You’re suspended in your harness above the open door with nothing between you and the ground,” says Hawkes. “But that’s not what you’re thinking about. It’s so busy you can’t imagine. You’re constantly moving, adjusting. All you’re thinking about is the next shot.”
Working this way is extremely expensive, costing around $3,700 dollars for a couple of hours of flying during the morning or evening. All-day flights may run closer to $15,000. And that’s not all photography time. He may need a two-hour flight just to get from the launch point to the photo location. Fortunately, however, you can cover a lot in a helicopter. Unlike drones, with shooting limited by battery life and distance from the controller, helicopters can cover hundreds of miles in a day. “You can shoot all of New York City in a day if you plan it out well,” says Hawkes.
Aside from range, helicopters have another advantage over drones in terms of allowable altitude. In many areas, drones have a legal flight ceiling. In the United Kingdom, for example, drones can legally fly up to 400 feet. Hawkes does all of his photography above that ceiling, working primarily between 1,000 and 5,000 feet, sometimes ascending as high as 10,000 feet for special shoots.
While in the air, Hawkes carries three Nikon D850 camera bodies and five or six lenses ranging from 14mm to 400mm. For night shooting, he uses a stabilizing mount that attaches to the camera and stabilizes it with a series of spinning gyros. Holding the mount, he can trigger the shutter with a cable release to photograph down to about 1/30 second for better ISOs.
The most important element, and the trickiest, is visibility. Weather conditions can make or break a session, so Hawkes has to make a definitive determination before takeoff—because once they’re airborne, it’s $3,700 whether he can shoot or not. Even once he’s in the air, he may miss his ideal photography window because air traffic control puts his helicopter into a holding pattern. That’s why he can’t guarantee a shoot on a particular day or time, which can make capturing time-sensitive events difficult. “From the ground it may look good, but once you get flying it could be a milky haze of clouds,” explains Hawkes. “On these jobs, you’re often looking across long distances, so it has to be clear for 20 miles or more.” To determine the viability of a flight, Hawkes uses a combination of weather forecasts, atmospheric pressure readings, web cameras, and good old-fashioned gazing into the distance.
Once you’re in flight and the conditions are good, the experience can be exhilarating. Hawkes’ favorite subject to photograph is cities. “There is just so much to see,” he says. “The patterns are always interesting, and from a flying perspective it’s much more fun because you’re often flying below tall buildings.”
Hawkes is the aerial photographer for London, with an unrivaled catalog of images of England’s capital. However, his most memorable city shoot occurred at night in New York City. The height of New York buildings dictates that helicopters fly at a higher altitude than many cities. For example, a typical flight over London might be at 1,000 feet, whereas New York is closer to 5,000.
On this particular shoot it was 10:30 at night, and as the lights of Manhattan spread out before him, Hawkes forced himself to pause and reflect. “It was the only time I’ve ever put my camera down and thought, I need to spend a minute just taking this whole thing in, because it’s so amazing,” he says. “And then the light started changing so fast that I had to get moving. But for that brief moment, it was incredible to just watch.”
Hawkes is contemplative about the future of aerial photography. So much has changed, from the market for images to how the public consumes them. And the technology has changed as well, with inexpensive digital photography everywhere and new options pushing the limits of what people can do with their cameras. Some of these changes have already squeezed budgets and altered the clientele for high-altitude aerial photographers.
The bigger question may be less about photography or market forces and more about how people fly. Drones aren’t currently competition for Hawkes, but someday they might be as their functionality and the regulations surrounding their use change.
“When I was a kid, I read about Bill Gates saying that one day every house in the world will have a computer,” recalls Hawkes. “And I thought, This guy is a complete idiot. Well, apparently not. It was hard to imagine back then that the computing technology would one day be so affordable and widespread. Perhaps that’s what will happen to flying. At some point in the future, will we all be flying around in automated drones?”
Maybe. Maybe one day we’ll all be able to sit in an automated drone, flying around at will, and we won’t need high-altitude piloted flights to capture stunning images of the world below. But that day isn’t today. And until then, Hawkes will remain master of the skies.
RELATED: A photo gallery of Hawkes' work
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.