Production Paradise Interview
Between overwhelming beauty and high risks – an extract from aerial photographer Cameron Davidson
By Verena Hagenbusch
Like a bird he is able to look down on the beauty of the earth – aerial photographer Cameron Davidson discovered his passion for the overlooking-view during his work as a National Geographic photographer. Clients have sent him around the globe for shooting the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in South Florida or flying over an active volcano in Ethiopia at the hottest inhabitable spot on earth. He imitated Phileas Fogg by a 15 day circumnavigation of the world shooting some of the remotest areas on earth.
Cameron took the time to chat with us about the battle between the breath taking aesthetics and the shadow side of aerials and being confronted with life threatening risks. Here’s what he had to say…
Production Paradise: Cameron, what initiated your love for the bird´s eye perspective? Can you tell us something about the main progress in your career as an aerial photographer?
Cameron Davidson: My early photography was centered on photographing wildlife, primarily birds. I was shooting a story on Great Blue Herons in Southern Maryland and while driving to my blind overlooking the heronry, I noticed a Piper Cub airplane outside of a barn. I stopped at the farm and asked if the owner would fly me over the heronry to shoot a few pictures. He did and charged me $15.00 for expenses. That 20 minute flight really opened my eyes up to showing the world from a fairly unique perspective and it combined my desire to create graphic images plus photograph the interaction of mankind with water.
I have been incredibly lucky in my career. Clients have sent me around the world to shoot aerials. It is a long list and I am grateful for those experiences.
Production Paradise: UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles like drones are the latest must-have-gadgets for commercial use. Regarding this new technological prospect, how do you see the future of aerial photography? In which sector would you insert drones – are they threat for your profession or safety gadget?
Cameron Davidson: Drones are an incredible tool that will only get better as time goes by. I recently received my FAA 333 exemption, which allows me to fly my quadcopter for commercial shoots. I prefer using my quadcopter in remote areas when it is too expensive to charge a helicopter, plus it is a safer approach for the low-and-slow work, which is between 20 to 120 meters (60 to 400 feet). I don´t feel that drones are a threat, just another tool.
Production Paradise: The sky is your office – your work takes place under extreme conditions. Weather, speed, heights, unknown hazards, dependence to the technology and your team – there´s more than just one danger in aerial photography. How do you cope with that and what thrills you? Actually, does it happen sometimes: ignoring the safety to get a better shot?
Cameron Davidson: Safety first is my mindset – No shot is worth dying for. I only fly with exceptional pilots who primarily aviate for the film industry and are able to fly FOR the camera. I love shooting at the edge of light and discovering “targets of opportunity” while flying. In all my years of flying, I´ve never had a close call (knock on wood). However, I always say a little prayer before a flight asking for a safe return to the ground. I trust in my team and my pilots.
“Don´t be a show-off. Never be too proud to turn back. There are old pilots and bold pilots. But no old, bold pilots.” – E. Hamilton Lee, 1949
Preplanning is everything. I am a licensed pilot by myself. Thanks to that I can understand the turbulent and unsteady weather better than an average Joe. We study maps and we always have an escape route and an emergency landing spot. This is necessary in cases like flying over an open lava lake like in Ethiopia.
volcano in Ethiopia
Production Paradise: Nighttime aerials are breathtaking and adorable. They combine beauty, magic and fascination. How challenging is it to get this type of picture and is it worth it from the photographer´s view?
Cameron Davidson: I’ve been shooting nighttime aerials for almost ten years now. You run up against the limits of technology and lenses and against the darkness of the night. In the past two years, there has been a big jump in low-light capabilities of cameras and that has been helpful. At night, you have to be super cautious around buildings and plan your flights above any possible obstruction that you may not see. You simply need a world-class team around you for this.
Last year, I shot part of an automotive campaign that called for me to shoot aerials of Manhattan from 9500 feet on a bitterly cold night. It was –8º Celsius (16º F) on the ground and we were confronted with -61º Celsius (-79º F) at the altitude with an airspeed of forty knots. NO amount of heating or bundled clothing is going to keep you warm. The pilot and I worked out a way to open and close the door quickly in the twin-engine helicopter. We kept everything simple and were given special permissions (arranged before hand) to overfly the city at much higher than normal helicopter altitudes.
Manhattan by night
Production Paradise: Cameron, your job requires traveling most of the time. You have seen some of the most outlying spots in the world – like the uninhabited Wrangel island in the Russian Arctic – which one was the most stunning inspiration and which the most extraordinary spot?
Cameron Davidson: Traveling is in my blood. My wife knows that I get restless if I´m at home for more than two weeks.
The Wrangel Island assignment was incredible and I loved photographing it. The helicopter, we flew with, was a beast – an ancient Soviet era MI-8 that requires a flight crew of three (pilot, co-pilot and engineer). It shakes and rattles and finally wills itself into the air.
Wrangel Island Assignment, Russia
The most inspiring place to me was to fly alongside Mt. Cook/Aoraki at sunrise on a severe clear day and the most extraordinary one was photographing the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Port au Prince Haiti or maybe the Great Flood on the Mississippi River. Both events reinforced the notion that we are a very small part of this planet and that natural disasters can change everything within minutes.
Production Paradise: Is there a place you have not seen yet but would love to?
Cameron Davidson: Yes, personal photography trips are planned for this year include the Faroes, a drive around Lake Superior (with my quadcopter), plus an upcoming trip to Greenland. I’d love to go back to Brazil and spend time exploring the Amazon. The list is long: several countries in Asia beckon me and also exploring Africa – specifically Kenya by air.
Production Paradise: Your experience extends to portrait and people photography. You even shot natural catastrophes and a charity project about Haiti. Can you tell us about this project and what is the importance for you to tell those stories trough pictures?
Cameron Davidson: The work in Haiti started in 1999. I was on the board of a small NGO (Non-governmental organization) that was primarily medical based. I photographed projects in North and South Haiti. Originally, it was reportage style that evolved into portraits of the people we served. I am returning to Haiti in a few weeks. It will be my 17th trip to the island.
Sometimes it is really emotional, especially in orphanages. Having my camera between me and an emotional situation helps me distance myself so I can shoot compassionately and tell the story. I believe it is important to give back. Photography for me, is the best way for me to use my gifts to help a project or group of people.
Production Paradise: Recently two of your photos won an award for the 2016 Graphis Photo Annual. What does this award means to you as well as the featured winning pictures?
Cameron Davidson: It is an honor to be included in Graphis and other photography annuals (Communication Arts and PDN). The two images selected were from personal projects I shot last year. One was a landscape in Newfoundland and the other was on a personal trip via cargo ship across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Newfoundland picture was shot after a long day of driving and trying to find icebergs along the coast. The weather had turned sullen and I explored the coastline of Hidden Point as the wind and tide were rising. I’ve been exploring shooting in a quieter style with the Alpa cameras. I felt like it was a successful landscape shot and recognition by Graphis encourages me to continue with this approach. This can be transferred to the image of the ship crossing the Atlantic. It was an idea I wanted to try out with a camera stationary camera and the ship moving at dusk.
Production Paradise: What is your strength and what makes you special compared to other aerial photographers?
Cameron Davidson: I´m experienced because I’ve shot aerials for a very long time. I’ve stayed true to my vision and cause of being a pilot, I feel that I have a better understanding of what it takes to get a great shot and tell the client’s story. I am not afraid of heights and respect the dangers inherent in flying. I’ve heard of other photographers bragging about how scared they were while flying. For me, fear should not be in the equation.
“If you are scared, then you should not be there.”
Also, I never-ever allow more people in the helicopter than is absolutely essential. I lost a friend in a helicopter accident because they were overloaded with people and flew in a dangerous situation. People need to understand that more weight in the helicopter means less power is available to the pilot in case of an emergency. The extra power can be the difference between living to fly again and crashing.
Often times, I am overflying people, buildings and cities. I need to make sure that the pilot has an escape route and I am an extra set of eyes for him or her. Keeping the aircraft “sterile” is important. People get chatty and the pilot needs to talk with many different controllers during a photo flight. Too many people onboard can be and is often a distraction. I think filling up a turbine helicopter with extra people just for a joyride or to “document” your adventure is just plain unprofessional and reckless. I don’t do it and this does set me apart from others.
The pilot and I are a team. We talk about our flight envelope and how we handle emergencies and approaches.
Production Paradise: How has being a member of Production Paradise helped you?
Cameron Davidson: Well, last year several assignments came from advertising in Production Paradise. I use it as a source for crew and feel that it is a valuable addition to my promotional efforts for my aerial and ground-based productions.
It was a pleasure for us to talk to Cameron Davidson and we would love to thank him for that. You can see more of his work in Aerial & Architecture Photography Spotlight Magazine and on his website. Find other great aerial photographers on our directory.