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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Get Airborne

With some advance planning, the striking results of aerial photography are within your reach

The day before the flight, Shane and I met to look at a map and plan our route and photo objectives. Shane had piloted photographers all around Tasmania so he knew how to position the plane to get just what I wanted. We decided that my best shooting position in the plane would place me in the pilot’s seat—the front left seat! Shane was able to accommodate this request since he often sits in the right seat when teaching students. This is the kind of pilot you want to work with!

Tasmania’s weather, given its location in the Roaring 40s, changes quickly. Although our takeoff the next morning was into a perfect sunrise, the clear skies weren’t to last. We flew north, climbing to 2,000 feet, flying above the Tasman Sea and the eastern coastline. Within minutes after leaving Hobart airspace, we were flying right toward a cloud bank. I was afraid we would have to abort the flight without seeing Maria Island.

Shane informed me that the cloud ceiling was at 1,500 feet, which meant he could fly the plane under the clouds and still stay above the 500-foot flight minimum. But flying under the clouds meant no sunlight for the island shots. The photo I wanted was of the land bridge linking Maria’s north and south islands. I had seen this potential photo on Google Earth when researching the island flight, and as I visualized it, this photo needed sunlight on the water, otherwise the sea would look dark and lifeless. I had to make the call; we were five minutes from the island, and if we turned back now I would have nothing to show for the time and money invested so far. I gave Shane the thumbs up to continue. I was holding out that the changing weather might offer its own kind of beautiful light.

We lost a thousand feet of elevation and the sun faded as we slipped under the dark clouds. In the gloomy light, I wondered if I had made a bad call. In moments the small island came into view, but before we reached the edge of the island, rain began falling. With visibility getting worse and the cloud ceiling dropping fast, Shane had to turn the plane back toward home. Just after we completed our turn, I sighted beautiful golden light sweeping under the storm clouds, illuminating the water at the same location I had originally planned to photograph. I asked Shane to slow the plane so I could open the window. I had half a minute to frame and shoot photos as the storm light played over the island coastline.

The unplanned for clouds and rain only accentuate the nature of this primordial landscape, and I love the mysterious layering effect in this photo. By flying 500 feet above the Tasman Sea in that bit of airspace, for that exact moment, I got my shot. The total cost for the flight was $236—not too bad for a priceless experience.

Bill Hatcher travels the world in search of adventure and good stories. A regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside, his images have appeared on the cover of 40 magazines. Visit his website at www.billhatcher.com.

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