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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.