Interview with Cameron Davidson

Aerial Photography by Cameron Davidson
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There are certain types of photography work that very few people are ever likely to experience. Aerial photography is one of them. Even though there’s been a recent surge in the popularity of unmanned vehicular photography (drones etc), true aerial photography which involves someone hanging out of a plane or helicopter is out of reach for most people.

It’s easy to think that aerial photography just involves having the opportunity to be up somewhere high with a camera. I thought the same thing! I mean, how hard can it be to shoot a photo of people on a beach from a static helicopter, right?!

However, as with all types of photography, being able to press the shutter button at the right moment is only the tip of the iceberg.

In this interview with former National Geographic photographer Cameron Davidson, we have a glimpse of what goes into becoming a top aerial photographer, and the many complications involved.

As well as this, Cameron goes into depth about his many influences over his 30+ years in the industry. Read on to discover his recommended books from a collection of over 200.

As usual, if you enjoy this interview and would like to support Shotkit, please Like, Tweet, +1 and comment away ;-) Over to you, Cameron…

My name is Cameron Davidson and I am a location and aerial photographer based in the Alexandria,Virginia near Washington, DC.

I started shooting when I was 14 after finding an old Agfa camera in the closet of house my mother was renting in Pennsylvania. At 15, I moved to Michigan to live with my father for two years and that is when I started to shoot with intent. My original plan was to shoot wildlife, birds mostly and landscapes. Like many of us, my goal was the National Geographic. Which I reached and then I chose to head off in another direction. After shooting two bird stories and spending months cooped up in a blind in a tree, I decided I wanted to see the world from the bird’s viewpoint.

Aerial Photography by Cameron Davidson

How did you get in to aerial photography?

Originally, I shot aerials to supplement several photo essays I was working on. In my co-dependent career as a commercial photographer I shot aerials for annual reports and ad campaigns. It’s funny, I don’t think of myself as just an aerial photographer. I shoot a great deal of portraits on location in addition to industrial and natural landscapes. My approach is similar to all of them: I shoot graphic compositions. I always have. I can go back to images created in high school and there is will be a strong diagonal line or negative space to anchor the image. In high school I took drafting classes and the impact of creating clean and precise drawings was the beginning of my approach to images.

My goal with the aerial work is to show an interesting composition that tells my clients story. The first aerial assignment I shot was for a magazine story on herons in Southern Maryland. I shot from a Piper Cub airplane and I was hooked. I decided to make aerials part of my career. It has allowed me to see the world, fly over incredible landscapes and meet unique people.

It’s funny, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a pilot for the Marine Corps. (My family is full of Marines.) Back in the seventies, the Marines would not take you into flight training if you wore glasses. That dream was dashed at an early age. So, I found the next best thing – shooting the world from a low and slow viewpoint – the back seat of a turbine helicopter.

Aerial Photography by Cameron Davidson

Who/what inspires you?

I think I have to break this into two answers.

In my early days I was influenced and inspired by six photographers and their work. Yoshikazu Shirakawa and Ernst Haas were the two biggest influences. Yoshikazu Shirakawa shot an incredible book on the Himalaya Mountains using Pentax 6×7 equipment. The book, Himalayas, was published by Abrams in 1976. The stories behind the images inspired me to shoot landscapes and look for unique points of view. Ernst Haas has influenced many. His book, The Creation, is the gold standard for 35mm color photography. His sense of feel, emotion and composition still impact me.

Arnold Newman inspired me with his placement of a person within the frame to tell the story. My copy of his book, One Mind’s Eye, is dog-eared and ragged out but it is reassuring resource to me.

Other photographers who influenced my work in the early days were Jay Maisel, Eric Meola and William Albert Allard. I know all three of them and they continue to amaze me with how they see and interpret the world. Check out Eric’s Tornado chasing images from the American plains. Truly incredible photographs!

To go into what inspires me now.

A little bit of new and some recently discovered old.

My friend Julian Calverley is British and he shoots a great deal of landscapes in Scotland. His recently published book, #iphoneonly is a testament to how it does not matter what you shoot with. The book is all a love letter to the iPhone and shooting simply. I had seen many of the images before the were published and it was a delight to see them as a collection.

Jules inspired me to start shooting with the Alpa camera and to slow down my process. He believes, as I do, that shooting with the Alpa forces you to see, to slow down and to interpret the scene so you can make a stronger image.

Aerial Photography by Cameron Davidson

I enjoy the lonely landscapes of Josef Hoflehner. He shoots with a simple system and creates haunting photographs that I find compelling.

My friend David Burnett is always on the go and creating images with old Kodak Ektar Aero lenses. David always comes up with something different that entices the viewer. David turned me on to this incredible Peruvian photographer, Martin Chambi. His book, Martin Chambi, Photographs 1920-1950, was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1993. Martin Chambi was a photographer who photographed the people and village of his life. The images, especially the portraits are a testament to a singular vision.

Another inspiration from the early day continuing to today, is, Irving Penn. Mr. Penn’s book – Small Trades, is to me, the most compelling book of honest portraits ever compiled. They are beautiful, simple and visually perfect. A few years ago, a group of photographers I know were in a studio in New York City during the yearly photo show at the Jacob Javits Center. One of the photographers there used to work for Mr. Penn and he showed us an incredible print shot showing the Grateful Dead along with Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Company.

To do this day, I have never seen such technical perfection in an image. It was inspiring and the days of incredible B&W prints with blacks so deep you could fall into the, are sadly, long behind us.

I find the work of Ragnar Axelsson to be the perfect mixture of portrait and landscape. I keep his book, Andlit Nordursins, near my desk and refer to it often. Maybe it’s because my family heritage being Scottish and Scandanavian, but I am drawn to his images of Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland.

Two photographers from the British Isles have recently attracted my attention. Paul Gaffney walked Ireland and shot an amazing little book titled, We Make the Path by Walking. The book is full of quiet images. Iain Sarjeant, from Scotland is shooting some amazing landscapes that will surprise most viewers. His newest book The Pool is all about a pond that is only 2 meters across. The pictures are simple and elegant.

Aerial Photography by Cameron Davidson

Why did you choose Nikon as your main system?

Nikon is the girl you always come home to. I shot Leica for a while and then Hasselblad and a bunch of other systems. In 2003, I sold all my Nikon kit and jumped into Canon – primarily because of the the full-frame advantage.

In 2009, with the release of the Nikon D3, I switched back. Nikons just feel right. The ergonomics are perfect. For me, it is the best 35mm DSLR system available – but I sure wish they would come out with a 17mm Tilt/shift lens.

Aerial Photography by Cameron Davidson

I love the Nikon D4. It feels right, it is an incredible low-light camera. I use it for dusk aerials. The Nikon D4s is appealing however, I think I will stick with the D4. My only wish for a new Nikon D4 body would be to hit 24 megapixels. But, I’ll take the 16 MP and keep the superb high ISO performance.

Shooting up to ISO 6400 is incredible and the RAW conversion software I use, Capture One, does a great job with managing what little noise there is.

I have also purchased the Nikon D810 and it is everything I had hoped it would be.

Aerial Photography by Cameron Davidson

What will be your next photography related purchase?

The one piece of gear I would love to own is the new Leaf Credo 50 digital back.  It uses new technology for the medium format world, a CMOS chip that offers exceptional high ISO capabilities.  I tested it in Virginia and New York City for MamiyaLeaf.  It is expensive, but I would love to own one.  To be able to shoot ISO 6400 with medium format is pretty incredible.  It opens up a lot of possibilities.

I’m actually thinking I might sell my Hassy gear and shoot my aerial work with the Nikon D4 / Nikon D810 combo along with my Alpa TC for grand overview shots – it is so bloody sharp with my Credo 60 back on it… mind boggling how good it is. I’ll continue shooting the landscapes with my Alpa and Leaf Credo 60.

Aerial Photography by Cameron Davidson

Can you share any tips for aspiring photographers wanting to head into the aerial photography industry?

The industry is going through some changes. The UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) – Quadcopter/Hex and Octocopter have added new possibilities and competition. In the states, the legal quagmire surrounding flying them for commercial assignments has yet to be settled. I have only used UAV’s for personal work and to learn. They are useful and I think any photographer entering the world of aerial should know about them and use them. However, the most important item on the check list would be to get your pilot’s license, even if you never intend to fly.

By understanding airspace, navigation and aviation in general, it will make you a better aerial photographer.

It’s funny, I was never inspired by other aerial photographers. Although I do have a William Garnett print in my office.

About twenty years ago, I met him and his wife at their home in California. He knew my work and I had long admired his. I think any photographer considering aerials should study his work – he is truly the grandfather of American aerial photography.

Another photographer’s work I think aerial photographers in general should be aware of is Bradford Washburn. His B&W aerials of Alaska Mountains shot with a large format aero camera from a small airplane are stunning. His book, Mountain Photography, was published in 1999 by The Mountaineers Books. It’s funny, I never knew about his work. Brian Skerry, a photographer friend who shoots amazing underwater stories, told me about Mr. Washburn and his aerial photography of unmapped mountain ranges in Alaska.

Who would you most like to see on Shotkit?

I would love to see work and interviews with photographers who have worked on long term projects.

Aerial Photography by Cameron Davidson

As always, if you enjoyed this interview and would like to hear more from other photographers, be sure to Like, Tweet, +1 and Share to show your support!

www.camerondavidson.com

Inside Cameron’s camera bag:

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  • Cameron Davidson is an excellent photographer. I like his work very much. And this interview wasn’t what I was expected it to be about, yet it was wonderful.

    However, there are three things I wish someone asked Mr. Davidson about.

    It is all about planning.

    First, I’m intrigued by the time of day he goes to take his pictures. If I read correctly, he prefers the first and last hour of sunlight. Is this condition that strict – just the first hour or maybe beyond that (or the last and little before it)? Does it have to do with the angle of the Sun above the horizon?

    Second, the weather. I believe he talked about flying on the second day of high-pressure circulation. How does he know, from the weather data and forecasts, that it will be a favourable day to fly and what happens when you’ve already booked a job far in advance and you can’t really know what the weather will be like?

    Third, how does he find pilots? If you type into Google “helicopter charter” and the name of the city you’re going to, there will be many results, but how does one find the right person for the job? Are there any tips he could share with his fans?

    Thank you!

    • J.

      Yes, it is all about planning. The planning comes from 30 years experience.

      30 years experience of shooting aerials early and late in the day. (Plus, the light is so beautiful in the wee hours of the morning.)

      30 years experience in shooting in all sorts of weather – good and bad. I take notes and I know from past shoots what works best for weather. Its really about understanding patterns.

      The experience of getting your pilots license is critical for aerial photography – because you begin to understand pilots, aviation, communications and yes, weather.

      So the best advice I can give – is – study for your pilots license. Even if it is online and non-credit.

      I would never google to find a pilot. I am not about to trust my life and a shoot to someone who has high SEO ratings on Google. It’s about networks of people from years of shooting around the world. There are no shortcuts when it comes to aerial work. It is risky and you have to know what you are doing.

      Best of luck to you.

  • Thank you! Thank you for the advice and the nice wishes.

    This really is the best advice you could give me – there are no shortcuts and nothing replaces experience. Practice makes perfect.

    I didn’t know you could get a non-credit online pilot’s licence – another thing I found out!

    I do have one other question, if you have the time and will to reply to. You mentioned Leica above – I’m interested to know have you seen this latest version of Leica S, Leica’s medium-format camera? It seems to have been a let-down for many, but I wanted to know your thoughts about it and whether it had any advantages in aerial photography, apart from its design? Have you maybe seen it in person?

    • Just saw your note.

      I’ve never used or even seen the Leica medium -format camera. I used Leica for years (M cameras) and a couple of friends have purchased the “Q” – but honestly, I don’t know a thing about the “S” camera.

  • Cameron,

    Have you passed onto Nikon D5 and Nikon D810?

    I was wondering do you always use your trusty fast zoom lenses, the Nikon 70–200 mm f/2.8 & the Nikon 24–70 mm f/2.8? Have you, like your friend Vincent Laforet, ever experimented with the Nikon 200–400 mm?

    At one time you shot aerials with Canon cameras, and you used prime lenses.

    Which prime lenses would you recommend, both with a wide angle of view and a narrow one?

    I hope you will see this question even though the interview is from some time ago.

    Thank you.

  • Karl,

    Thank you for your note.

    The D810 is exceptional. I expect the D5 will be a wonderful addition to the tool kit. I believe the release date is sometime this spring.

    I primarily use Zeiss prime lenses now. 21, 28, 50, 100 and 135. There may be a 28 OTUS in my future.

    I do not know Vincent very well. I had a meal with him and another photographer way back in 2004. I spoken with him once or twice since then. As an aside, I don’t want to be influenced by what other photographers shoot, so, I have no idea what lenses or equipment he uses.

    I recently tried out the Nikon 200-500 lens, and is it an exceptional piece of glass.

    I did shoot Canon for a couple of years. I sitched back to Nikon when the D3x was announced.

    For me, primes are critical: I prefer them over zooms. There are three Nikon zoom lenses that are stellar and I have used. The 14-24mm, 70-200 VRII and the new 200-500.

    Nikkor primes that I have used include the 24 and 35mm f/1.4 lenses along with the fantastic 85mm f/1.8 and 105 Macro lens.

    I am keen on the Zeiss Zf.2, Milvus and Otus lenses. They are manual focus and in my opinion, worth the effort to master. The four Zeiss primes I would suggest are in the Milvus line: the 21, 35 f/2, 85 f/1.4 and 100mm F/2. The 135 ZF.2 is an unbelievable lens.

    If money is no object, buy the OTUS lenses.

    Hope this helps and thank you for your note.

    Cameron

    • Thank you so much, Cameron. I read somewhere some time ago that you were a “real sport”, and you really are: you answered quickly and in detail.

      Could you just tell me are the 200–500 mm and the 200–400 too heavy and unmanageable to bring into a helicopter? What kind of gyro would work for those and the camera? I’m afraid that I wouldn’t be able to hold that much weight, but then I saw Vincent holding the Canon 200–400 in one of the backstage photos.

      You were really helpful. I shall listen to your expert advice.

  • Karl,

    I plan to use the 200-500 Nikkor for an upcoming shoot. The lens weighs 81 ounces. So, it is heavy. I plan to use a KS-8 on the lens and maybe a KS-4×4 on the body – plus a lot of weightlifting before hand.

    A KS-8 or any of the KS double series should work for you.

    Since I don’t use Canon, I have no idea about the lens you are referring to. I assume from your comments, that Laforet uses Canon.

    Why not rent the lens and try it out – on the ground – and see how you feel about hand holding it.

    If you do use one, remember to turn off the Vibration Reduction if you are using the lens with a gyroscope. Looking through the viewfinder with the gyro and VR turned on – can and most likely will induce vertigo. I’ve done it once – never again – don’t suggest it to anyone.

    What system are you using?