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  • Looking back at an endless summer & his journey to success: aerial photography with Tommy Clarke

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    As the grey skies of winter returns, the summer sun has become a distant memory. But if you look at London photographer Tommy Clarke’s photos for long enough, it will seem like summer never came to an end. Ready to take a break from winter? Read on and enjoy.

    Striking colours and contrasts of sea and sand make his aerial photography the ultimate form of escapism. We caught up with Tommy to find out more about his field of work, whether it’s really as glamorous as it seems, and what he looks for in the perfect aerial shot.

     

    Boats moored near St. Tropez Tommy Clarke
    Boats moored near St. Tropez. Nikon D3S + NIKKOR 70-200 mm f/2.8 @ f/4.5 | 70 mm | 1/1000s | ISO 100 © Tommy Clarke

     

    How he got started: from catwalks to the air

    Picture yourself flying at 300 metres in the air, leaning out of the side of a helicopter, strapped in by a harness, with a Nikon D3S in hand. This set-up has become routine for aerial photographer Tommy Clarke as he travels around the globe in search of an endless summer.

    But Tommy didn’t start his career in aerial photography. He explains, “I was working in Sydney as a fashion photographer, living right by the beach. But I found myself more drawn to taking photos of the landscape and beaches than fashion.”

    So he saved up to hire a helicopter to explore new angles for his photography and became hooked on these “bird’s eye view” shots ever since.

     

    Green on Black Sand in Gran Canaria. Tommy Clarke
    Green on Black Sand in Gran Canaria. Nikon D3S + NIKKOR 70-200 mm f/2.8 @ f/5 | 82 mm | 1/1250s | ISO 100 © Tommy Clarke

     

    Ready at the drop of a hat

    Getting to fly over some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world as a job may sound easy. But rest assured, a huge amount of behind-the-scenes work goes into each shoot.

     

    Tommy Clarke Salt ponds near San Francisco
    Salt ponds near San Francisco. Nikon D3S + NIKKOR 70-200 mm f/2.8 @ f/4 | 70 mm | 1/1600s | ISO 100 © Tommy Clarke

     

    “In my line of work, I can’t just turn up and shoot. I’m constantly on weather forecast sites and I have to plan sun angles, tide times, wind directions, vegetation seasons – so much more than you would believe!”, said Tommy.

    Before heading up in the air, Tommy also finds and talks to helicopter pilots who are happy to fly with the doors taken off and himself strapped in to a harness. That way, when he’s up in the air, he can lean out to get the perfect angle from above.

    “What’s more, if everything falls into place, I have to be ready to shoot at a moment’s notice”, Tommy continued.

     

    What to look for: textures and colours

    With a limited time to get the shot, what does Tommy look for when he’s photographing from the helicopter?

    “For me, it’s about creating an image that has an abstract beauty. I love shots that take a while to reveal themselves to the viewer.”

     

    The waters of Shark Bay, Australia, Tommy Clarke
    The waters of Shark Bay, Australia. Nikon D3S + NIKKOR 70-200 mm f/2.8 @ f/4 | 70 mm | 1/1000s | ISO 250 © Tommy Clarke

     

    His background in fashion photography helped him a lot: he explained, “it gave me a real appreciation for colour and shape – both are still relevant in my aerial work. I’m always looking for textures and aesthetics to shoot. The only difference is that now I’m finding them from hundreds of metres in the air.”

    He also keeps his post-production to a minimum; “I really try to make the effort of finding incredible locations, so that I don’t need to edit them afterwards”, he said.

    Exotic locations are all in a day’s work

    From Mexico to Ibiza, Antigua to St. Tropez, Tommy’s shoots take him to some of the most exotic and beautiful locations in the world.

    A favourite of his is Shark Bay in Western Australia, “it’s a landscape like no other I’ve seen. I flew over it many times during my ten-day trip and it was like looking down at another planet!”

     

    Dolphins near Monkey Mia in Shark Bay, Australia Tommy Clarke
    Dolphins near Monkey Mia in Shark Bay, Australia. Nikon D3S + NIKKOR 70-200 mm f/2.8 @ f/4 | 175 mm | 1/1000s | ISO 250 © Tommy Clarke

     

    With some of the world’s most beautiful locations to choose from, where’s next for Tommy? “South America is high on my list. It’s such a vibrant continent that I’d love to spend some time shooting there”, he explained.

     

    Not all glitz & glamour

    But it’s not always glamourous – as you can imagine, hiring a helicopter for every shoot isn’t cheap. When he was starting out, he reached a point at which he couldn’t afford any more trips. “I had to shoot everything from weddings to dog toys to save up for the next aerial trip”, he said.

     

    Antigua Tommy Clarke aerial photography
    Antigua, 2016. Nikon D3S + NIKKOR 70-200 mm f/2.8 @ f/3.5 | 98 mm | 1/640s | ISO 100 © Tommy Clarke

     

    Tommy still funds every element of his work, “if I want to shoot the Western Coast of Australia for ten days, then I have to work extremely hard in the build up to be able to afford to do that”, he told us.

    For those wanting to experiment with aerial photography, he suggests organising a group booking. He says, “Nowadays, you can organise a helicopter ride over London with a few other photographers for a relatively small sum, compared to the bespoke flights I need.”

    …………………………………..

    What is in Tommy’s kit bag?

    Cameras

    Lenses

    • NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 (Tommy has a particularly unusual white NIKKOR lens he purchased from Hong Kong!)

      Shooting at such a height, he also sometimes uses a gyroscopic stabiliser to keep the camera steady.

    ***

    A red sand dune in Australia’s Shark Bay Tommy Clarke
    A red sand dune in Australia’s Shark Bay. Nikon D3S + NIKKOR 70-200 mm f/2.8 @ f/3.5 | 150 mm | 1/800s | ISO 100 © Tommy Clarke

     

    If you’re based in London, Tommy will be holding an exhibition of his work at The Old Truman Brewery from 14 -25 October entitled Up in the Air.

    If you can’t make it, follow Tommy on Instagram, Facebook or his website instead for more photography that’s guaranteed to make you long for the summer to return.