Air-to-ground photography is exactly what is sounds like: an airborne photographer makes images of the earth below. However, many considerations determine the way photographers will use this infinitely variable perspective to their photographic advantage.
There are generally two distinct options when shooting air-to-ground: should the shot be a straight-down angle, known as a bombsight view, or should the image be captured from an oblique angle? Here lies the conundrum, artistically speaking; should the image be of the visually striking, but inherently abstract, or should it be more literal to the viewer? There is no hard and fast rule, but air-to-ground photographer Jim Wark most often prefers to share his perspective from his vast serendipitous aerial adventures in the oblique-angle variety.
The other big question for an air-to-ground photographer is, "What will the subject matter be?" Agriculture, urban sprawl, the natural world, industry, humankind's impact, cities, mining, national parks... the options seem endless, but for Jim Wark, the answer is: all of the above. As a stock air-to-ground photographer, Wark has a collection of more than 150,000 aerial photographs, of which a mere yet staggering 10% are available for viewing on his website.
Jim Wark is one of those prolific photographers whose work is everywhere—it's in the supermarket; it's flying overhead in a cargo jet as you read this; it's hanging on walls; it's been carried all over this country and hand delivered to you; it may even be in your desk right now. You may have seen it dozens of times, but you may not have realized the great journey this image has traveled to reach you.
Wark's interesting perspective and attached adventures found their way onto five of the 15 United States Postal Service Earthscapes stamp series, which was released on October 1, 2012. These transformative images pull our feet from the ground, thousands of feet into the air, through the viewfinder and into the cockpit of Wark's trusty companion and his "secret weapon," his Aviat Husky airplane.
Although Wark's collaboration with the USPS took nearly five years to get off the ground, so to speak, and to your mailbox, these five years represent but a fraction of the dedication and adventure contained in each of these thumbnail-sized prints. "That's really what it's all about for me, the adventure," Wark says, as he speaks of his years of solo flight to go camping in Alaska, or of the countless times the "Fates" have, at least momentarily, disagreed with Wark about the direction his trusty Husky airplane should go.
Wark was a full-time aerial photographer until he retired at the beginning of 2013. The previous 22 years were filled with adventures and photographs from around the world, mostly concentrated over North America, but this past year did not mark Wark's first retirement. Even before becoming a full-time, freelance aerial photojournalist, Jim Wark's life was full of adventure.
"My first love has always been flying, above everything else," Wark says, about love that began in the 1950s when he flew for the U.S. Navy. Following his time in the Navy, flying remained a common theme in Wark's life. While working as a mining engineer and mining executive, Wark performed some exploratory geographic survey work, which eventually led to a focus on aeromagnetic surveys.
JIM'S FAVORITE LENS
In its second rendition, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM offers superior performance and quality over its predecessor. One of the most popular and acclaimed telephoto zooms on the market, this version includes two-mode Image Stabilization that corrects for up to four stops of camera shake. Mode 1 can be employed when shooting still images, while Mode 2 corrects for vertical shake when panning, to capture a moving subject. On full-frame cameras, angle of view covers 34º-12º; on cameras with an APS-C sensor, the equivalent focal-length range is 112-320mm.
While this survey work did involve flying, it was not exactly fulfilling Wark's need for adventure. Thus began his amateur career as an aerobatic pilot. Yes, that's right, that kind of aerobatic flying, with loops and corkscrews and formation flying and pulling notable "Gs" in gut-wrenching turns and dives. "We did everything anybody was doing at the time... but I decided it was very dangerous," Wark explains with a chuckle. "So I sold that plane and bought the Husky so I could go camping in Alaska. As soon as I got in that airplane, I realized what a wonderful platform for aerial photography it was."
The addition of the Husky to Wark's life finally combined his two great passions, flying and photography, and the era of Jim Wark as a full-time aerial photographer began. "I was the president of the camera club in college and while the other guys were out partying on Saturday night I was in the basement of the clubhouse developing pictures," Wark chuckles, "but when I retired from mining, and then I got the aerobatic thing out of my system and bought the Husky, I realized this is what I wanted to do."
The Husky is a single-wide, two-seater aircraft, the cockpit is tandem, meaning Wark can shoot out a small window on his left or the open door to his right. The wings are on the top of the plane so they are not in the way when shooting the ground below. Wark prefers to pilot and shoot simultaneously so he can make minor adjustments to his aeronautic setting as well as his photographic settings to ensure he gets the shot he wants. "You don't need to be holding the stick if it's trimmed up; you keep your feet on the rudders and steer with the rudders as necessary." Wark makes it sound simple, but for an ex-Navy, ex-aerobatic pilot who has been awarded the FAA's Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, it probably is pretty simple.
As an airplane and as a photography platform, the Husky is unique in many ways. This plane has a cruising speed of about 125 mph, although Wark prefers his “photo cruising” speed of 75 mph, “Sometimes I’ll slow it down to 50 mph,” Wark says. “Most other aerial photographers fly to their site, shoot the site and leave. With the slower speeds I can dedicate more time to capturing stock photography.” Wark divulges, “We consider it our secret weapon.” This slower air speed also lets Wark see and absorb the earth below, allowing him to capture images that many pass over in their rush. This slower speed has the added benefit of allowing Wark to use slower shutter speeds while maintaining sharp images. “Generally, 1/1000-second shutter speed to make sure the image is sharp, but sometimes you can go as low as 1/125 without having to use a gyro.”
The adventurer within Wark leaves plenty of his trip up to the Fates. “When I would leave on a trip, I would have a general destination in mind, like Alaska or the Southwest or New England, and then you go where the weather and the pictures take you,” Wark explains. “That is one of the great advantages of aerial photography; one of the others is serendipity—you just never know what you’re gonna see.”
This ability to embrace the unknown and roll with whatever comes his way allows Wark to enjoy the beautiful shooting days as well as the days that others might call a wash. This patience with the big picture lets Wark track serendipity across the continent, consenting to each twist and turn while letting them guide his journey, a journey that will yield iconic and awe-inspiring images.
“There are days that were just made for aerial photography,” Wark says, “not necessarily the weather but just everything working right and you’re in the right mood and everything goes great. The other days are as much a part of the adventure as the good days. I’ve been grounded for as much as four days in snow and rain in Alaska, and I treasure every one of those memories; it’s part of the adventure. That’s what it’s really all about for me, adventure.”
Photography has always been a part of Wark’s life—you could even say it’s in his blood. “My great-grandfather was a commercial photographer in Ireland in about 1850, and both of his sons who came to the U.S. in the late 1800s each opened up their own photography studios in different parts of the country… My dad was only an amateur photographer, but I carried it on and my son is certainly carrying it on." Wark points out that his son, John Wark, is a better photographer. John, who is a commercial photographer in his own right, is also taking on more of the aerial photography business as Jim is shooting less at age 82.
Wark masterfully manipulates his perch 1,500 feet above our daily lives to capture and document the world we walk through but rarely see from his point of view. He explains yet another advantage of aerial photography: “With the airplane you’ve got an infinite number of perspectives, you can change your altitude, you can change the aircraft position, you can change the position of the sun at will… if you’re on the ground it’s not that easy to do.”
There are many things to contemplate while piloting an airplane and making photographs simultaneously, but Wark is constantly thinking about how his images will be seen, will the image mean anything to the viewer and will they be able to relate to the image? Wark explains, “The oblique shots are easier for people to relate to, vertical shots are not easy for people to relate to, the eye isn’t used to seeing things that way. Clouds and weather, to me, are real essential elements, especially in aerial photography; you can’t get that in the vertical bombsight view.”
So what does a self-described Leica-phile, who prefers to shoot on film, use in this digitally driven age of immediacy? When it comes to assignment work, where the turnaround time is quicker and the ease of digital stitching programs makes short work of his aerial mapping work, Wark chooses to use his digital Canon EOS camera and lens system. Wark keeps his gear bag pretty simple, as he explains: “For assignment work—and we were doing quite a bit of assignment work—I used nothing but digital, two Canon 5Ds, which isn’t the latest stuff but it served my purpose… and the combination of the 24-105mm and the 70-200mm covers anything you’re gonna do from the air.”
Generally speaking, Wark uses the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens for roughly 60% of his shooting needs, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens makes up the other 40% of Wark’s preferred style of oblique-angle shooting. “The 24-105mm was a very good lens for me, between that and the 70-200mm I had everything I needed... It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” Wark describes. “Unless you’re using a gyro, anything longer than that (200mm) just doesn’t work very well.”
Speaking specifically, Wark explains why he prefers to use the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens for the majority of his shots, “Mainly, it’s just plain sharp… sharper than any of the other Canon lenses. I’ve had it for maybe 10 years and it has performed flawlessly, it’s never needed any adjustment or anything, not even a cleaning.” Wark says, “The Canon 70-200mm is a superb lens, it’s the king of the Canon lenses as far as I’m concerned.”
Wark does caution any would be air-to-ground photographers, “Image Stabilization is a huge mistake to use in an airplane. The Image Stabilization is a great feature, very good to have… on the ground, at 1/15 of a second, it is beautiful… but not from a moving platform.”
So that handles the oblique and angled shots from above, but Wark also spends a good chunk of time doing aerial mapping and grabbing those somewhat abstract, albeit gorgeous bombsight-view shots. So what is his go-to equipment for this type of work? Well, aside from the wing-stabilizer-mounted clamshell vertical camera mount and the airplane to attach it to, Wark keeps it pretty simple, with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens. “It’s a featherweight lens… but it works very well.”
It turns out that the easy-to-disable, manual focusing ring is a major advantage for Wark’s mapping work and bombsight-view shots. Wark elaborates on the challenges of remote-firing a camera attached to the airplane’s wing supports, “Focusing is always a problem. If you let it go totally remote (autofocus) you get a lot of shots that are out of focus, so I tape the focus (ring) to infinity and then they (photos) are always sharp.”
This fixed focal length lens, with its focus locked at infinity, allows Wark to fire the camera remotely from the cockpit without having to wonder if the autofocus acquired the correct distance. Did something fly between the camera and the ground? Is there condensation on the front of the lens? Did the AF system just miss? These are all questions Wark doesn’t have to ask himself while piloting his plane and photographing the earth below.
Years of experience shooting this way allow Wark to understand what his camera is capturing and how he should adjust to maintain a level attitude. This ensures his mapping work will be a breeze in post production and keeps the already abstract bombsight images from being even more mind-bending.
Wark has one more important piece of equipment in his gear bag to ensure his images hold up to his impeccable standards. “I made fairly heavy, extensive use of the circular polarizer… to enhance the sky and to cut the haze.”
Wark would say he’s just being realistic, as he humbly credits the circular polarizer for many of his great shots. “I sometimes wonder if I have even been a success without the circular polarizer… But sometimes it gets you into trouble, it ruins almost as many pictures as it makes, but when it makes a picture, it makes a big difference.”
There are always hazards associated with any type of photography: how will I get back to the car if I twist my ankle hiking to the vista? Is that cute and cuddly looking Yellowstone bison really going to trample me or is he just playing around? Is that baseball really coming right at me? Where did I put that darn lens cap?
But the perils of aerial photography range from slight nausea to frostbite, from sub-zero temperatures to plummeting back to Earth like a rock. Luckily Jim Wark has been flying since the 1950s and, in the past half century, he has learned a thing or two about dealing with the unplanned hiccups of flying.
One of the main characters in so many great airborne fish stories is the sudden movement of the medium through which you are traveling, also known as turbulence. It is turbulence that cost Wark his favorite lens one day over the Rockies. Wark explains, “I just hit a down draft and everything just kinda floated up… I could see that the lens was going out the door and so I grabbed for it but I didn’t get it… it literally just floated out of the airplane.” As Wark watched his $8,000.00 lens float out the open door of his Husky, he thought two things: "I’m over a remote part of the mountains, so at least it won’t hit anybody," and the second was, “that was an $8,000.00 lens.” Thankfully, Wark had a backup lens, but it wasn’t quite as sharp, so the images suffered only a little.
On another occasion Wark found much more than simply a lens, albeit an expensive lens, in peril as he made his way home from the Dirty Devil River in Utah. Wark recounts his morning takeoff from the previous night’s camp site: “There was no wind and the Husky lifted easily into the cool morning air. At about 500’ the engine began shaking, losing power, and seemed ready to quit. The Dirty Devil River lies in a steep walled canyon with nothing but a rocky river bottom to cushion a forced landing. With no place to do anything but crash I instinctively shouted “DON’T QUIT!” To my amazement, the engine immediately returned to full power and the rest of the flight home was uneventful—but dogged with questions.”
Wark often returns from his trips with more than just his great photos—he returns with stories filled with adventure and, he hopes, legacy. Images documenting the history of humankind’s impact on the natural world play heavily in the legacy Wark is working to leave behind. Much of this work is found in multiple books, including nine books for which Wark was the sole or primary photographer.
His images focusing on the influence of the U.S. industrial revolution and its rusty remnants are some of Wark's favorite. These images even have their own section on his website, entitled, Journey’s End. “I passed by old abandoned steel works in Wheeling, West Virginia and similar places, that were just totally abandoned, and yet they weren’t even in anybody’s mind in 1804.” Wark was amazed by the ever continuing change that can be measured in such a relatively small amount of time. “Well, it made a big impression on me; it was just a little bit over two lifetimes, and a lifetime is starting to look pretty short, I just couldn’t get this out of my mind... “it just seemed stunning that this would occur in virtually two lifetimes,” Wark says.
“I feel like I’ve left something of a legacy for the future. Most of the national parks don’t change that much, but other aspects of civilization do and this is pretty well documented for the last half of the 20th Century and the beginning of this century,” Wark says. This massive body of work certainly shows us where we’ve been and alludes to where we are going. This adventure will certainly continue, but Wark’s images will serve as a reminder of where we’ve been.