Take flight over Australia: Aerial photos by Scott McCook
Originally a tailing pond image, I have created a fictional piece of work to convey a story about Australia riding the mining boom, Boddington Western Australia
Scott McCook is a native Australian and an award winning landscape photographer with a serious passion for aerial photography. All of the images that you see in this article were shot from the skies high above remote areas of Australia and New Zealand. His goals are to not only highlight the beauty in areas that are remote and far removed from the public eye, but also to illustrate the impacts that industry can have on the world around us.
What inspired you to begin your aerial work?
Big Lagoon Shark Bay, an isolated birrida, these birridas are gypsum clay pans that used to be saline lakes
I have two main sources of inspiration, the first of which is my drive to photograph what hides in plain sight. This started many years ago with astrophotography, which was something I pursued in my earlier days of landscape photography. The idea of something so beautiful hiding above cities and street lights every night with many people never even seeing the Milky Way with their own eyes drove me to the dark spots of Western Australia (of which there are many) to capture the incredible beauty of the Milky Way and show people here in Western Australia what’s in their backyard every night.
This concept of showing people, via my imagery, what hides just below the surface (or above your head) is what fanned my obsession for aerial photography. It’s the very same principals, the idea that these beautiful and sometimes abstract landscapes that we see every day from the ground can explode into life from the air.
My second source of inspiration is to show people the impact of mankind on nature, as in the case of my mining aerial imagery. It’s showing people areas that they would never normally be able to see on that scale. It has the possibility to empower people to make their own opinion on these landscapes and how far man will go to chase our precious resources.
I should also mention that there are a number of truly amazing landscape photographers based out of Australia that inspire me on a daily basis. The collective of landscape photographers from ND5 put life back into the aerial genre here in the last 10 or so years and their work sparked my interest in what our beautiful country has to offer from the air. Photographers like Tony Hewitt, Christian Fletcher and Peter Eastway have not only supplied inspiration over the years but have been great mentors for myself and many other budding landscape photographers here in Australia.
What’s your favorite aspect of aerial photography?
Shark Bay Western Australia, coastal floodplain
It really comes down to two questions: Is it the unique photography? Or the thrill of being in a plane or chopper?
I think it’s the pure thrill and enjoyment of flying that keeps bringing me back and then it’s the excitement of having no idea what incredibly unique moment or landscape you’ll capture from the air. Often with aerial photography, it feels like you’re an early explorer, going over uncharted territory, the feeling is quite amazing because often we are lucky enough to be the first people shooting a location from the air.
This is often the case because you can travel to very remote locations in a short amount of time. You can really feel the excitement come over you when you know you’re shooting something completely new. So let’s go with 50% the thrill, 50% the photography, how’s that for a safe answer?
What lenses and equipment do you normally shoot with?
Perth, Western Australia. Alcoa Tailing Ponds
Everything!!! Would be my short answer, but the slightly extended answer is as follows:
My Full-frame Go to Kit:
- Nikon D810
- Nikon 24-70 F2.8
- Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 VR2
- Sigma 35mm F1.4 Art
My Medium Format combo:
- Phase XF + IQ150
- 80mm blue ring Shnieder
- Mamiya 35mm
When it comes to aerial photography I have found shooting large sensor MF images really helps with not only print but the editing process, but the extra data can make all the difference to your creative vision and post processing.
How do you go about composing a shot from that high up in the sky?
Useless Loop salt farm, the different colors coming from varying stages of the process and product, Western Australia
You often have a very small window space to shoot from and you’re traveling 160km an hour at around 1500 ft, so the ground is going fast, very fast! This means you need to be on your game, with the camera settings tuned into something you would possibly find in sports photography: high shutter speeds, high ISO and looking for that sweet spot aperture.
Research using Google Maps is the key to this scenario – often I will know what is coming up, so I’m preparing myself physically (putting my arms in positions thought not humanly possible) and mentally as well, thinking ‘What orientation do I want this area in?’ Then in a matter of seconds your shooting window comes and before you know it, it’s gone. You can ask the pilot to lock into a loop pattern over the area, but time is money and I find if you can nail it first go, you can be onto the next location and maximize your shooting time and minimize your wallet taking a beating.
How much planning goes into a single aerial photography trip?
Southern Alps, New Zealand, this is an image of the ice that feeds the Fox Glacier in the South Island
Weeks or months. I did two very different aerial expeditions last year which I’ll touch on because of the difference in planning. The first was to Shark Bay Western Australia, a World Heritage Listed area and a location that is totally mind-blowing from the air. I spent around four weeks using Google Maps (My Maps) to scan areas of Shark Bay to shoot. Once I found a potential location I would run a screen grabbed image through Lightroom and the de-haze filter, along with some minor color balance adjustments – this helps me envision what I will be shooting when I arrive to the location.
The satellite images provided by Google are pretty good but with a little tweaking you can really get some detail from them and this helps me know what I’ll be coming across when we’re in the air. I would then save these screen grabs along with the location drawn onto a map, these will then be loaded onto my iPad and used when I’m discussing the flight plan with the pilot. This is extremely helpful because it allows our pilot to see exactly what we want to shoot and where it is, allowing him/her to be more precise.
The other shoot I did was in the Southern Alps of New Zealand in May last year. This was from a Hughes 500 Helicopter with all the doors off. Now, this shoot was different because using Google Maps to do reconnaissance is very limited. Why? Well because it’s a mountainous region it’s a lot harder to use the aerial perspective for a gauge on what you’re going to see. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the snow in such areas is highly reflective, meaning large areas of Google Maps data can be blown out.
Being in a chopper allows us to hover and hold locations, so there’s no need to try and capture that one moment in a split second. We can now spot an amazing location and tell our awesome pilot (thanks Michael from Mountain Helicopters Fox Glacier, complete legend!) to head on over and bank the chopper in just the right spot. This type of aerial expedition feels far more like exploring on foot, just with the added bonus of a multi million dollar piece of machinery giving us the gift of flight wherever we want.
Okay, so slightly different than traveling by foot but I have to admit it’s an incredibly beautiful experience when you fly with all the doors off in such a location.
How do you think drones will impact aerial photography?
Shark Bay, Western Australia
How do I think drones will impact aerial photography? EVERYWHERE! That happened fast didn’t it? I’m still waiting on drone delivery of alcohol in bars, so I feel they haven’t quite achieved their full potential yet.
On a more serious note it’s impacting photography right now, the whole aerial genre has exploded in the last few years. The effect I think is largely positive, if anything it’s sparking the passion of photography in more and more people. I notice many drone operators will start off just wanting to fly drones as their primary objective and in time they develop a love for photographing the world from above, and proceed to learn the photography side of things properly.
On the not-so-positive side I’ve seen it very rapidly develop a bad name in some areas due to pilots breaking the rules and flying dangerously. This puts a bad spin on aerial photography, and in most cases the actions of very few are ruining the potential for some amazing shots for many people. But in general, I think drones are having a positive impact. Do I fly drones? Not yet, I still need my buzz! Looking at the world fly past via an iPad or iPhone just doesn’t quite do it for me yet, I like to be up there experiencing it.
What’s your favorite aerial image to date and how did you go about getting the shot?
Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia. Coastal Sand Dunes, spot the Kangaroo tracks coming in from top of frame
It’s really hard to pick just one image, but I’m going to have to go with an image I captured near Dirk Hartog Island Western Australia. It was around 7:30am in the morning on our 5th and last day of shooting the an area called Shark Bay. Paul Hoelen and I had decided that we would burn some fuel and head over to a remote strip of sand dunes. This particular area wasn’t shot often because you had to spend a fair bit of time and money to just get there so we were pretty excited about finding some untouched landscape.
Upon our arrival we found what we were after, beautiful clean dunes, we shot the location and both nodded to each other in appreciation of our gamble paying off. We then spoke to our pilot Ryan and said lets head south then home, as we made our way down the coast something happened, Paul can barely contain himself, he’s just waving his arm and pointing down “Scott, Scott, Scott!!! Down, look down!”, I look over and this gorgeous half moon shaped sand dune just appears from nowhere. It was so out of place in relation to the rest of the landscape, like mother nature had just created the most stunning sand dune possible then placed it hidden away for Paul and I to find.
I haven’t got to the really cool bit yet, so after shooting this mind blowing sand dune, we get back to our motel that night and load up the images, I go straight to the sequence of this stunning half moon dune and start looking at the images, I zoom in 50% and suddenly spot tracks, it’s kangaroo tracks! This perfect set of Kangaroo tracks is cutting into my composition and up the spine of the sand dune. I couldn’t believe it, the chances of all those things lining up were incredibly rare and it’s why I love photography so much. Yes it’s skill and creativity, but it has equal doses of luck.
How do you keep yourself inspired?
The Salt Farms of Useless Loop Shark Bay, Western Australia
I get much of my inspiration from the amazing, kind-hearted and adventurous landscape photographers I’ve made friends with along the way. It’s so cool in this amazing field we’re in, the community is a place you can draw many things from and inspiration is available everywhere. Beyond that I gain much inspiration from the people who have come before me, I read a lot and attempt to piece together the past as it helps pave the road to my future in this craft.
What are your aerial photography goals for 2017?
Arteries of coastal floodplains pump across the land, Carnarvon, Western Australia
Push the aerial genre to new heights, pardon the pun! I love aerial photography, I am well and truly hooked. I look at 2017 as my chance to challenge myself within this genre, I enjoy story telling via my aerial imagery and look forward to sharing that this year.
Behind the Scenes
This is the Hughes 500 Helicopter with all the doors taken off that was used for the flight over the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Huge thanks to Michael from Mountain Helicopters Fox Glacier!
The below video was shot when I snagged my favorite image to date. It gives you a great idea of the feverish pace at which you are taking images while shooting aerials in a plane.