Cameron Davidson/Cameron Davidson/Corbis View on Corbis
145/Cameron Davidson/Ocean/Corbis View on Corbis
Cameron Davidson is one of the best in the biz when it comes to aerial photography. His multiple awards in 2014 are evidence of that. We talked to Cameron about his career and how best to shoot from a moving helicopter.
How did you get started in photography?
When I was fifteen and living with my mother near Philadelphia, I found a ancient Agfa camera in the closet. It used a film that was no longer available. A family friend was a professional photographer and he got me set-up with a Nikon and a few rolls of Kodak Tri-X film. He graciously critiqued the film and gave me some solid pointers. Later that year, I moved to Michigan to live with my father for the last two years of high school. I discovered AGFA CT-18, a color film that was similar to Kodachrome with a distinct color palette. I shot landscapes and birds while in high school plus of course, all the standard yearbook assignments – football and basketball with a Mamiya TLR and a potato masher flash gun, track and baseball with the Nikon plus portraits of teachers and students. I’ve always been drawn to how water flows through the landscape and graphic patterns – a lot of my high school landscapes and images for the yearbook were shots of creeks and patterns. I can look at my images from high school and see the beginnings of my graphic approach.
How did you start focusing on aerial photography?
I was working on a story about Great Blue Herons in Southern Maryland for National Geographic. I thought I wanted to be a wildlife photographer who specialized in photographing birds. My life changed when I saw a yellow Piper Cub at a farm near the rookery that I was photographing. I spoke to the owner of the Piper and asked if he would take me up so I could shoot aerials of the rookery and surrounding marsh. He did and charged me all of fifteen dollars for expenses. I was hooked. I was able to now channel my desire to create abstract graphic patterns and also tell a story. After my picture editor looked at the material he asked me to go back and shoot more aerials. The Director of Photography at the time, Mr. Robert Gilka graciously allowed me to spend $600 of the Geographics money (this was 1980) to charter a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter and fly to the rookery and photograph the birds and nestlings. Shooting from a turbine helicopter made all the difference in the world to me – I could slow down, repeat a circle and not feel like I was chasing the image – which I often feel if I am shooting from an airplane.
What challenges does aerial photography present?
Quite a few actually – it is a specialized niche within the advertising and landscape world.
First off – safety always comes first. Finding and working with a pilot you trust and knows how to fly for the camera is crucial. It helps to have a background or in-depth understanding of aviation and weather. Being able to previsualize a shot while moving and directing the pilot is important along with understanding the fluid dynamics of flying in controlled air-spaces.
Paraphrasing a Jay Maisel quote from long ago: “A helicopter is a thousand pieces of metal trying to shake itself apart.” Its true, vibration can kill an image. I shoot with Kenyon Gyroscopes for still work and either; Arnie, Tyler or nose mounted video cameras for motion imagery.
Permission to fly in air-spaces can sometimes be difficult and takes time and preparation to have all your material and permits together.
Tell me more about the images that won the 2014 Luerzer’s Award
Its funny, I submitted about ten and the four that were selected, by coincidence happened to have been shot on projects for Corbis or were accepted into the collections. Three of them are aerials and one is a landscape from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The coal trains were shot in Virginia after a commercial assignment and on the return flight to the heliport. The road in Arizona was shot specifically for Corbis. I was attending a workshop in Tucson with Mary Virginia Swanson and decided to shoot a few landscapes and aerials while in Arizona. The road is south of Phoenix and runs between to ridges. The Golden Road in the Scottish Hebrides was shot on a shooting vacation with a couple of photographer friends: Paul Freeman and Julian Calverley. Paul, Jules and I would all fan out from our hotel and shoot at different locations throughout Harris and Lewis – it is a small place but we made an effort to not trip over each other or to shoot the same location. The Chicago image is from a project that I’ve been working on for a couple of years that involves shooting night-time aerials of cities. So far I’ve shot New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Miami and Rio de Janerio. What has helped a great deal is to have a great working relationship with my Corbis photo editor/producer Peter Schnaitman. Peter has guided this project and his insight has been helpful.
Tell me more about Fusevisual and how you use social media to promote your images
FuseVisual is an experiment. Actually, it does not promote my work at all. Leo Kahng and I created FuseVisual in order to showcase interesting photographers work from around the world in a common interview format with five images, five questions and a bonus question for young photographers. The web site is: http://www.fusevisual.org
I’ve had an off and on relationship with social media. I’ve finally decided to embrace it along with a new website. I’m primarily using Twitter and Tumblr. Still trying to wrap my head around Instagram but I am getting there. I’ve restarted my blog and am shaping it to reflect my expertise and adventures.
See more of Cameron’s work on Corbis.