Britain from the Sky - the aerial photographer and the N8

All of the pictures you see on this page were taken with a mobile phone; not bad considering it’s something that aerial photographer Jason Hawkes is used to doing with an SLR since he started over 20 years ago. Throughout March 2011 though, the 41-year old traded his Nikon D3X for something a tenth of the size for this latest round of bird’s eye shooting - the Nokia N8 and its 12-megapixel camera.

Jason and the Nokia team took five days over the course of the month to fly the length and breadth of the UK in search of a collection of top notch aerial artwork that could show off just what the hardware on this smartphone is capable of. Pocket-lint caught up with Hawkes to find out how it went.

“The first task was to come up with some locations that were really big. It’s ok to shoot from 1000ft with a 300mm lens on a big DSLR where you can zoom in on some really interesting abstract patterns but the N8 has a fixed, wide lens, so you can’t move in and out at all. Effectively, the helicopter becomes your zoom and the lowest you can legally go is around 800ft which is about the height of Canary Wharf.”

On top of the physical restrictions, Hawkes also had to ensure a few slight modifications to the N8’s camera to be certain of getting usable results. It can be hard enough holding a camera steady while on firm ground but, with the constant movement of a helicopter as your platform, the danger of blurred pictures becomes very high indeed.

“Getting the shutter speed fast enough is always the key when you’re up in the air. So, I had to get the Nokia bods to get into the phone and specially adjust the settings to get it down to 1/250th of a second. We also kept the ISO down to 100 for the sake of detail and noise.”

With a quick shutter speed, having enough light to get properly exposed pictures becomes the most important factor and that means waiting for a clear, sunny day - something that’s not particular to using the Nokia N8.

“I never go up when conditions aren’t good enough,” said Hawkes. “There’s just no point. If it’s hazy or dark, it’s just not worth it. The results are never as good.”

At £1,100 per hour for a flight in a twin-engine helicopter, it’s of little surprise that Hawkes is unwilling to waste time, even with Nokia picking up the tab this time around. While he normally would only fly for three hours or so in each trip, this particular commission, with its more specific location type, demanded some longer days to get between each site.

The first day, for example, saw the team take off from Denham airfield just to the west of London, head down to Portsmouth for the Spinnaker Tower and all the way along the south coast to the off shore lighthouse at Land’s End picking up places such as the Needles of the Isle of Wight, Chesil Beach and the china clay mines of St. Austell, Cornwall, along the way. All in all, it was a collection of 7-hour days, including stops to refuel. So, after five full sessions working with the N8, what did Hawkes make of the experience?

“Well, I can’t say I would use one for aerial photography again but I was definitely impressed. When Nokia first asked me to do it, I thought the idea was ridiculous but on the way to the meeting I saw one of the N8’s 96-sheet billboard posters of a shot taken with one of the phones and I was blown away. I went over to Flickr, found the original final and downloaded it to check that no one had messed around with it and sure enough it was the real deal.”

While the resolution, lens quality and the ability to change settings like a dedicated imaging device were all very much on Hawkes’s side, however, there were a few other natural obstacles of shooting with a smartphone that the photographer still needed to overcome.

“One trouble was with the viewfinder. Because it’s a piece of glass, I felt like I spent a lot of time looking at a reflection of myself on the screen which made it tricky to shoot. It’s also only possible to take one picture per second. Normally, I’d be taking 10 or 20 shots in that time, so it was rather like going back to film in that respect.”

On the plus side, Nokia has addressed the former issue with the launch of the E7 that comes with a Black Screen setting to maximise brightness and reduce reflections when trying to take photos; a feature we can expect to see spread through the Finnish mobile maker’s top end smartphones in the future.

While the N8 might have been a step back for Hawkes, it was still a huge leap on from when he first started out snapping from altitude. With a degree in photography under his belt, Hawkes was becoming frustrated as an assistant not learning so much about how to take shots as the commercial side of the business. It was only when he and a friend picked up an outdoor pursuits magazine for ideas of something to do at the weekend that he chanced upon his niche.

“On a whim we took a flight on a microlight. I didn’t have my camera with me but I knew straight away that I had to get back up there and take some shots with all those amazing patterns down there to catch. I gave up my job immediately, we went down to the bank and got a £20,000 loan to buy a microlight - you could do that back in the early 90s - my friend learnt to fly it and we just started shooting pictures.”

Beyond the transport and the camera, there was no need for any special equipment although, at the time, Hawkes did have to shoot with film which meant more than just the issue of not knowing whether or not he’d managed to capture each shot.

“The longest film we could use was 31 images and there was no GPS, so it was all about taking notes, changing reels and having a map flapping around on your lap which was next to impossible when you’re up there in a microlight or a helicopter with the door wide open.

“There was no post production back then either. Now we seem to spend hours in the lightroom. Most of that’s capturing and editing the ones we like of the 2,000 shots we might take but sometimes I might adjust the white balance here and there as well.”

All the same, Hawkes managed to get good enough results to send them off to a now defunct magazine by the name of simply “Photography”.

“It was a wonderful magazine and they printed eight pages of my shots and paid me for them as well which was massive for me at the time. I bought 100 copies and sent them out to people and then someone agreed to publish a book of them.”

What resulted was “London From the Air”, Hawkes’s first and most successful book to date, selling 190,000 copies. He quickly switched to a helicopter, given that it’s technically illegal to make money using a microlight, and has since made a name for himself as one of the top aerial photographers in the field, receiving e-mails every week from his peers asking him how he manages to capture his famous night shoot work.

“I help them, but only so much,” he said keeping it guarded. “It’s something that’s taken me a lot of thinking and working out to get just right. It’s got to do with using mounts but that’s as much as I’m prepared to say.”

Fortunately, he does have plenty of advice for anyone looking to take a few good aerial shots themselves.

“Having a fast shutter is the most important factor. I use a 1/1000 minimum for DSLRs and I shoot either a Nikon D3X or D3S - depending if I want video as well - with anything between a 14mm and 300mm lens.”

Flights in a microlight for 20 minutes or so will cost around £150 and, according to Hawkes, the one to go for is the flex-wing variety which is essentially a hang-glider like wings that allows you to lean right over the side and take the view below without any obstruction, but you don’t have to splash the cash if you’d rather not. It’s perfectly possible to get some mileage out of shooting from a passenger plane - if you can bag the window seat, of course.

“If you’re on a plane, then show that you’re shooting in a plane. It’s not going to be clear because of the glass anyway, so you may as well incorporate that into your composition.”

As far as subject matter goes, Hawkes has been lucky enough to shoot just about everywhere but there are still plenty of places that elude him for one reason or another.

“I haven’t shot in in India or Dubia, where it’s practically impossible no permission. You need permission from everyone in the shot in Dubai as well of that of the people who own the property which is just not doable in aerial photography.

“Iceland is the one I’d love to shoot, though, with all the volcanoes and craters of all sorts of different colours but, basically, no one’s paid for me to do that yet and it’s a seriously expensive place to shoot if you’re going on your own budget.”

Fortunately, for his wallet, one of his favourite haunts is a little closer to home.

“The area in East London between the Olympic Park and Tilbury docks is great. It’s a really weird landscape with all sorts of strange and dodgy looking things going on. There’s a place with a car park full off ship containers will all sorts of lorries balanced on top and you just wonder what the hell it’s all doing there. They can all make really great patterns for photographs.”

With over 35 books under his belt there’s no sign of Hawkes falling out of love with his craft. He’s currently working on his latest collection of photos under the title of “A Year Over Britain” - a changing look at the country over the seasons - and to meet him, it’s clear that despite the hours he’s already clocked up inside a helicopter, it’s something he’ll stick with forever.