Jason Hawkes is one of the leading aerial photographers when it comes to urbanity in the world. He's got a series of successful books, a sponsorship deal with Nikon, and is about as close to famous as someone in his profession can be. We caught up with him to have a chat about just how, and why, he has taken to hanging out of a helicopter with a camera.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - How did you begin the whole photography stunt?
JASON HAWKES - I did a degree in photography and I just literally left university and I was assisting some people in Covent garden, just doing studio photography for a few months, then I went flying in a microlite one day, I was about 21 years old. I just fell in love with it and I just thought this would be a good, I don't even like flying that much! So, I literally started the next week and bought, well a friend of mine went and bought a microlite.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - So you get the microlite. How did you go about doing all that? It must have cost a LOT.
JASON HAWKES - It did cost quite a bit. We got a bank loan, which was ridiculous at that age, we were just children, just kids really so I got a big bank loan, bought a microlite, paid for this other guy to learn to fly it and then just took some pictures from it over a few months then took them to a publisher. And then I realised immediately you can't actually take pictures from a microlite, it's illegal anyway you can't make a living with it, and so after about four months, five months I got a book commissioned. My first book was of London. I got a book commissioned when I was about 22 or 23 and just went on from there.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - And then you moved up to helicopters. How do you actually take photos from one of those? Do you hang out of it?
JASON HAWKES - It's really easy, you just take the door off! The door's about twice as big as a car, two or three bigger than a car door, and you have a harness and you don't have to lean out you just sit right on the very edge of the helicopter, and yeah its easy you just fly around and tell the pilot what to do and take your picture. It's quite simple really.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - It must be expensive to actually have a helicopter and use it how much would it cost for an evenings flight?
JASON HAWKES - It costs about.. Well it's £500 per hour for the helicopter and you might fly, well over London you might fly for two to two and a half hours maybe so I guess its costs £3,000 quid maybe for an evening.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - Ouch! So what sort of gear do you use?
JASON HAWKES - I just use all Nikon stuff, I get sponsored by Nikon I do talks with them, so I use their D3X, D3 and the D3S. Just everything I use is Nikon stuff.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - The gear has come down an enormous amount since you started hasn't it?
JASON HAWKES - It used to cost, certainly the digital stuff when that started, you were looking at £20,000 quid, now you can buy a nice camera, well there still quite expensive for about four to five thousand quid but nothing compared to how they used to be. In fact, I never used to buy stuff I used to rent stuff because every six months it would change and there seemed to be no point in buying it, now at least things have settled down a bit.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - When did you actually go digital?
JASON HAWKES - Right at the very beginning I used to hire the kit off this company in London, literally as soon as it started getting big I started using it. I've only had my own kit though from about four years I suppose.
SKYSCAPERNEWS - We've seen some of the night photos, I assume from how you take them you actually have the helicopter stationary?
JASON HAWKES - You have to have a mount, in fact it vibrates more if you hover so you fly quite slowly and you use a mount which you fit on the floor of the helicopter and its quite big and has these stabilising things on it and then you try and hold the camera as little as possible, you hardly touch the camera at all. So that's the only way of doing it. It's quite difficult and it took quite a long time to work out how to do, but it's all about building the right mounts for the camera.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - It's the night ones that are really superb because they look almost like what the human eye sees.
JASON HAWKES - Yeah they look really good. We used to try and do them on film but the film wasn't very good its only since, do you know a camera called the Nikon D3? It came out about 3 years ago? That was the first camera the night ones started looking really good on, before then it never really looked quite that good but you have to use a big mount to shoot it.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - It must be quite difficult as well because you have problems with the unreliability due to our famous weather.
JASON HAWKES - In the UK it's really hard and especially in the winter, I did a book last year of Las Vegas and it was just amazing because the weather there, every single day was just the most amazing day you could ever imagine. The images were amazing. In England you often have the rain, you go there and it's just crap and you have to come home again. You can't afford to go out and spend three thousand quid and for it to be bad, you have to make sure it's perfect before you go up.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - Have you had much danger at all whilst you're up there?
JASON HAWKES - Is it dangerous? I've had a few near misses because I've been doing this for 20 years. I've had a near miss in America and a couple of times up in Scotland sort of near military checks and stuff. But it's normally the weather that kills people and I normally fly in good weather so that at least is ok but yeah I've had a couple. I had a very near miss in south Carolina a few years ago where we almost hit another aeroplane which wasn't where it was supposed to be and so on, but it was okay as we didn't hit it.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - It sounds kind of scary I don't like planes, and I read that you don't like heights?
JASON HAWKES - No I don't like heights, I don't like heights from tall buildings anyway! I'd much rather, I don't mind being in a helicopter next to a tall building but not go on the actual tall building itself. I get it really bad. I had a job years ago in New York and we ended up having to shoot it from the building and quite honestly I was terrified. I'd be hovering outside the building the day before, we were up about 2,000 feet. I wasn't scared at all but standing on it I was. They say you can only get vertigo when you're in touch with the ground, so in a helicopter I'm completely fine but up a tall building I get quite scared.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - What advice to you have for people thinking of starting the whole aerial photography thing? Apart from having huge wallets!
JASON HAWKES - I think the only way of doing it is shooting from the microlite, because helicopters are so expensive the cheapest helicopter I fly in is about 500 quid an hour whereas microlites although you can only fly in them over the countryside, they are only about £100 an hour. You can go up for a few hours and take some pictures from a microlite. But unless you know someone with a helicopter, I only shoot from helicopters. If you go down your local microlite club and see if you can find a pilot to take you up.
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - And one final question. A lot of people have said to ask this - is Hawkes your real name? It sounds almost like a stage name with you swooping through the clouds.
JASON HAWKES - Yes it is. It's definitely my real name I just happened to start doing this, but yes its my name, had it all my life!
SKYSCRAPERNEWS - Thanks for talking to us :)