Landscape Icons From Above

The vistas we all seek as nature photographers get a different spin put on them when shot from 500 feet up in the air

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Suwannee River, North-Central Florida

As a nature photographer, you’re always trying to find a way to make images that will capture the attention of editors, clients and your audience. We’ve all shot many of the same subjects over and over, so how do we see the world differently? For me, it all started a number of years ago when I was privileged to teach workshops alongside Art Wolfe, John Shaw, Brian Peterson and Rod Planck. More than once I heard each of them teach how you should vary your angle by getting down low to the ground or taking a higher angle to vary your approach to the subject. Rod Planck even carried a large stepladder on his SUV to get that slightly higher point of view! Then, a few years later, I saw the film Fly Away Home and realized that the landscape from well up in the sky was a unique way to capture those same subjects!

My son Wesley and I produced the book America From 500 Feet, and now Mark Kettenhofen and I have just finished the most recent version, America From 500 Feet II. Using an ultralight aircraft to fly low and slow over the landscape is a great way to see things in a new and fresh way. The current book is based loosely on the Disney/Pixar film Cars; I wanted to go out and rediscover America and its most beautiful, historically significant and interesting places.

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Bill Fortney Near Zion National Park, St. George, Utah
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Shore Of Laurel Lake, Kentucky

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Four-Mile Branch, French Broad River, North Carolina

Anytime you go out and travel this great country of ours, you open yourself up to many wonderful experiences. One of the truly special moments was the morning I flew over the actual field in Kitty Hawk, N.C., where powered flight began. Flying over that field covered by a light ground fog and knowing all of man’s powered flight started here was an incredible experience. Thank you, Orville and Wilbur!

Another wonderful flight came along the coast of Florida at Crystal River. The airport is only about a mile from the head of Crystal River Springs, and just below me was a tour boat and several manatees swimming in the clear waters!

I’ve photographed the slots, both the upper and lower, near Page, Ariz., with photo groups dozens of times, but flying over Lower Antelope Canyon near Lake Powell was a unique way to see the slots from a new angle.


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Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation & Wilderness Area, California

America is a land of many lakes, and one of my favorites is very close to my home in Corbin, Ky. I was fortunate to fly over Laurel Lake and capture the beautiful Kentucky fall color. One unique story featured the Suwannee River that courses through Georgia and Florida on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The Suwannee was made famous when Stephen Foster penned it into his best-known song, “Old Folks At Home.” In the original song, he had used the Pee Dee River in South Carolina, but when he heard of the “Swanee,” he felt it fit better; the most interesting twist is that he never saw the river he made world famous.

As nature shooters, we often photograph forests, but the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky was captured best from above for the book. The image showing a gravel forest road makes for a nice fall color scenic and adds the graphic element of the road.

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Frenchman’s Bay, Acadia National Park, Maine
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Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky
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Lower Antelope Canyon, Near Lake Powell, Page, Arizona

While driving through Southern California on the way to a flight location, I saw what in the distance looked like large sand dunes; I had no idea that Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation & Wilderness Area even existed! Hours later, I took off from a duster strip and made a quick flight over them to capture the beauty of this area. The day of that flight, the temperatures had hit 108º; by sundown it had dropped to 97º, but the thermals had died down and it was a wonderful flight.

The view from the pilot’s seat as Fortney flies over his home airport runway, Williamsburg-Whitley County Airport, near Williamsburg, Kentucky. workshop

When the sun rises each morning, the first place that the light strikes America is Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, Maine. At 1,530 feet, it’s the highest point on the east coast of the United States. To see the sunrise flying over Cadillac Mountain is an amazing experience, and then to fly down the coast and capture some of the little fishing villages just adds to that extraordinary flight.

In the area just west of Zion National Park in St. George, Utah, flying low by some conical rocks gave me a taste of what great adventures were yet to come. I’m always stunned by the beauty of our country, and the experience of flying over these jewels is a treat beyond measure!

To learn more about Bill Fortney’s new book America From 500 Feet II, visit www.billfortney.net.

1 Comment

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