Laura’s London: Interview With Jason Hawkes – UK’s Best Aerial Photographer

Jason Hawkes is the most successful aerial photographer in the UK and one of the world’s most respected photographers. He has specialised in aerial photography for over 20 years and has produced more than 40 books.

Trafalgar Square in the foreground, plus the London Eye and River Thames.
© Jason Hawkes

Fortunately for me, a chance ‘meeting’ on twitter led to the opportunity to chat to Jason about his work as he wasn’t flying for a few days and was instead at his studio editing. As he often flies 4 or 5 times a week and shoots 4-5,000 images a month there is a lot of post production time needed.

The Gherkin in the City of London
© Jason Hawkes

He only ever flies on commission because of the high costs involved. An average shoot is 2-3 hours costing £1,200 per hour for the helicopter. But once he has got the images for the job he can use others for his stock image library and sell separately.

The Shard during the last year of construction
© Jason Hawkes

Nice Equipment

I asked if he needed good equipment for post production work and he confirmed he had recently upgraded the studio computers. He uses Nikon camera equipment and I read a fascinating fact that the Nikon’s D3S’s low noise is what has made his night photography possible. Previously he would have taken daytime shots and edited them to look like night.

Oxford Circus
© Jason Hawkes

How did he get started?

I asked if other members of his family have creative backgrounds but while his brothers now both work in film industries his father was a banker. Jason reckons his father had recognised he wasn’t going into the same line of work so was willing to encourage him by giving him a camera and a book called “Design & Art Courses in Britain” when he was around 15 years old.

Somerset House Ice Rink
© Jason Hawkes

Jason did a photography degree in London and then got a job as a photographer’s assistant in Covent Garden after graduating as he intended to become a studio photographer.

The London Eye and the Houses of Parliament
© Jason Hawkes

When he was 21, on a last minute decision he went flying with friends in a microlight which is like a motorbike with a hand-glider wing. He immediately knew he wanted to do aerial photography from then on and handed in his notice at his job the very next day. He also decided immediately to buy a microlight and, with a couple of friends, he got a bank loan and bought one for £20-30,000. “It was easier to get a bank loan in those days,” Jason explained.

Somerset House
© Jason Hawkes

A microlight flies at around 500ft which is pretty low and it goes very slowly which gave Jason an opportunity to build a portfolio. He explained it packed down small and could be stored in a garage and then all you needed was an accommodating farmer to let you use their land for takeoff and landing.

Pan Peninsula buildings on the Isle of Dogs. © Jason Hawkes

 

Jason approached Photographer magazine and was given an 8-page feature so his career started to take off. Then a trip with the Capital Radio “eye-in-the-sky” traffic helicopter got him a book commission a week later.

He shot his first book, London from the Air, for Random House aged just 23 which went on to sell over 160,000 copies. Once the commissions started coming in he switched to helicopters and has used them ever since.

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square
© Jason Hawkes

Where has he been recently?

When I spoke to Jason his last flight had been over London at night but he had also recently been to Malta, Prague and Budapest. He was planning a trip to Tripoli which was proving complex as the visa hadn’t come through and he would need to use a military helicopter.

All Souls Church and BBC Broadcasting House on Regent Street
© Jason Hawkes

As he is based in Berkshire, just outside of London, he knows most of the helicopter pilots in the capital and can book a helicopter here as easily as booking a taxi. Only sometimes is there a problem, for example when the pilot doesn’t know London well which makes explaining the required route more difficult. As he shoots on commission he plans the route and altitude in advance and has not come up against many issues with getting clearance to fly and photograph over the UK except over military no-fly zones and directly over Buckingham Palace.

Jason working.
© Jason Hawkes

Jason always sits behind the pilot so they have the same view and they communicate via a 2-way radio. He works with the helicopter door removed and has a safety harness so he can literally hang out the side to get the shots he wants.

Watching Wimbledon Tennis Championships 2011
© Jason Hawkes

London 2012 Olympics

He was incredibly busy during the preparations for the London 2012 Olympic Games but has been photographing the Olympic Park since the work started. (He has a couple of great contrast photos taken in 2007 and 2012.)

I was in the Olympics Opening Ceremony and once rehearsals started at the Olympic Stadium there were always plenty of helicopters overhead trying to spoil the big surprise. Jason photographed the rehearsals regularly and after constant harassment from a press agency gave them some photos which ended up on the Daily Mail website within hours. As there was such secrecy about the Opening Ceremony this caused a temporary no-fly zone over the Stadium and he hadn’t realised the problems this had created until he tried to book a helicopter for a job and was told that no-one was allowed over the area because of him!

As he was incredibly busy before the Olympics when the Games started he took a break with his family. Jason has 3 children aged between 6 and 10 years old and they ask constantly to go up in the air with him.

Jason’s job may be unusual but it actually gives him more time with the family as his studio is near home and he may only be out for 2 or 3 shoots in a week so has more time with the children that many other working fathers.

Hyde Park. The orange glow is the Royal Albert Hall.
© Jason Hawkes

The Weather

The biggest problem for aerial photography in the UK is the weather. As he flies with the helicopter door off he can be really cold but he explained when it’s windy it’s really no fun at all. He doesn’t get booked as much in the winter and he doesn’t mind.

London’s Tall Attractions

Interestingly, and this may be hard to believe, Jason doesn’t like heights and explained it is possible to get a feeling of vertigo even on the ground.

When the London Eye opened in 2000, he was commissioned to take photographs from the height of the top of the Eye for a Harper Collins books and he had no problems completing the work. But on the book launch night he knew there would be a trip on the London Eye involved so he purposely arrived late to miss it.

Jason has no plans to go up View From The Shard but has photographed the building many times. He has hovered close to the workmen dangling on the sides of The Shard during construction and thought about how dangerous that looked yet the inherent dangers of his job do not worry him.

The Shard – look closely and you can see a workman on the side
© Jason Hawkes

Favourite Locations

As most of Jason’s work is in the UK I asked him where he really enjoys photographing in the London area and he chose around City Airport in the east of London as he loves the weird abstract patterns that urban and semi-industrial areas can offer. He was also enthusiast about the Essex coastline and seeing it from the air had made him interested in seeing it at ground level.

City of London
© Jason Hawkes

Digital Technology

Only the night before our interview, Jason had been discussing with another photographer how accessible photography is to all now and how technology can allow someone with less photography skills to create a fantastic image. He had no strong opinion on whether that is good or bad but he enjoys trying out the latest equipment.

Camera Phones

This got us talking about the photo effects from apps such as Instagram and Jason told me about a job he had for Nokia testing the capabilities of a camera phone. His brief was to go wherever he liked and take photos, which was great, but he found as the shoots needed to be on sunny days as he took the photos all he could see was his reflection in the phone screen because of the glare.

Trafalgar Square and the London Eye
© Jason Hawkes

Incredibly Generous

Jason is simply a really nice chap. He offered the photographs for this article and willingly gave his time for an interview. He earns his living from his photography but if someone says they were at a location when he took a photograph he often sends them a copy of the image. Even though his images are so unique some people do still steal them and he often finds them appearing on other websites with no credit which is frustrating but he clearly doesn’t let it get him down as he was a pleasure to talk to and still has immense enthusiasm for his art. You can see more images and find out more about Jason Hawkes at www.jasonhawkes.com.

Full Size Gallery – Click for Full Size Images

Jason’s Books


Comments

  1. avatar says

    Laura thanks a lot for such a nice and beautiful posting. All the photographs by Jason are quite awesome.Aerial photography is not a easy affair for all photographers. The aerial photography needs concentration, high power cameras, a professional pilot of a helicopter who can fly the helicopter to catch or a glimpse of the beautiful pictures.

  2. avatarAnonymous says

    I was looking at pictures of London last summer and noticed a couple of pictures that really stood out from the rest. I’ve found out the name of the photographer after reading this article. I decided to give him my compliments.

    My message:

    > Comments: Hello. I’ve just found out the name of the person who took some of my favourite recent pictures of London… Jason Hawkes. Your aerial photographs have been gracing my computer screen lately as desktop wallpapers. :D
    >
    > I’m an aspiring journalist – I would like photojournalism to be a part of my career. I take pictures as a hobby, for which I’m currently using an old broken 4.1 mega pixel compact camera. If it’s not too much of a hassle, I would love to tag along with you one day as you do your work – I could provide some assistance if you want.
    >
    > Contact me soon and keep taking those wonderful world class photographs.
    >
    > PS: I think I was at Tower Bridge during your London at Night photo shoot. …I saw a helicopter hovering above.

    His reply:

    >Are you taking the piss?

    Can someone tell me what I said wrong? He didn’t reply to my response. I suppose not all nice photographs are taken by nice photographers.

    • avatar says

      I think it’s understandable that he couldn’t possibly take someone in one of the rented helicopters he goes up in (which he pays tens of thousands of Pounds for) for various reasons and the fact you use a broken camera that’s clearly very old. So, I think he found your response a little ridiculous. He probably gets thousands of emails a day so don’t take it personally.

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