Summit Alumni Highlight — Aerial Photography With Chris Boyer
At The Summit Workshops, something we pride ourselves in is our expansive body of alumni. We call them The Summit Family, a wonderful group of photographers, editors, models, and collaborators who have either taken or instructed at one of our workshops. Beyond generating a tight knit community across the world, the family offers an expansive network which is perhaps one of the most important tools for an up and coming photographer.
For this month’s installment of our Summit Alumni Highlight, we sat down with workshop alumni and aerial photographer Chris Boyer. Chris is a full time aerial photographer at his company Kestrel Aerial, an associate fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers, and has created an impressive and unique niche shooting images from above the clouds. From working with ranchers, miners, archaeologists, and conservationists, Chris’s work and career offers a great example of how to build a profession off of your own passion. While photography is incredibly diverse and can be followed in just about any direction you want, the path isn’t always obvious. Chris offers an in depth perspective about how to carve a personal niche in photography and build a strong network to help foster a successful career.
Photograph by Ryan Lunde. Chris boyer flies over the Powder River Badlands
All Images Courtesy of Chris Boyer Unless Otherwise Credited
Summit: Can you give us a quick bio about yourself?
Chris Boyer – My creation myth follows a random and accidental path. I grew up Eastern in a family where art and conservation were very important, but in a suburban commuter habitat where landscape and community were largely irrelevant.
During a childhood dude ranch vacation in Wyoming’s upper Gros Ventre, I fell in love with the mythic west of wilderness, cowboys, and adventure. I begged my parents to let me stay on until school started—cleaning cabins and washing dishes for room and board.
Determined to make a life in the west, I transitioned from odd jobs at dude ranches to conventional work on family ranches—cows, irrigation, hay—and became captivated by the west as a working landscape. Specifically, I was drawn to the way in which people and communities were woven together by wilderness and wildlife, climate and nature, animals and crops, history and the economics of agriculture in a challenging region.
In the late 80’s, I began exploring different ways to stay in the Northern Rockies, and fell into a couple of years of grunt labor in the field of trout stream restoration in Montana. Seduced by the idea of fixing nature with science, I left for a Master’s Degree in Fluvial Geomorphology at Oregon State University.
A pilot’s license was practically free through the heavily subsidized OSU flight club, and while I struggled with the complex math of river dynamics in the classroom, the aerial view allowed me to see these dynamics played out across the landscape, and perhaps more importantly, turned those abstract equations into interesting and compelling stories.
Shadows of cows as they wait for breakfast in Central Montana
S: Tell us a bit about transitioning into being a professional, and the kinds of projects you fly for.
CB – It was a slow transition: during my career in landscape restoration, I used aerial photography to diagram watershed function to my clients, and began to recognize the power of imagery to illustrate, contextualize, and communicate complex data. Slowly I realized that I enjoyed communicating important landscape information more than I did fixing up small pieces of degraded landscapes, and earned my commercial pilot’s license, instrument ratings, and found my perfect airplane—a 1957 Cessna. I designed several camera mounts for mapping my own projects, and began to do sideline jobs in aerial photography. In around 2006 I sold my half of my company, and began flying full time as Kestrel Aerial Services, Inc.
My very short attention span attracts me to a very wide variety of missions in documentary photography, aerial survey, and mapping. Projects include damage assessments during floods and oil spills for state and federal agencies; monitoring of shrinking ice patches for archaeology projects; finding and counting trumpeter swan nests and broods; and documentary imagery for regional and national publications. Recent upgrades in technology and software, and a partnership with a gifted GIS analyst have greatly expanded my mapping capabilities in orthophotography, 3D landscape modeling, and hyperspectral and multispectral imaging. These more technical projects are in precision agriculture, range health, landscape restoration, energy and mining.
My favorite flights are for conservation projects in which the imagery provides data and visual information that is not available through other means. The data aspect might involve the airplane’s unique ability to cover huge landscapes, locating and mapping transient phenomena—tracks in the snow, individual animals, habitat types, etc. The visual information is the unique combination of art, map, and narrative that an aerial landscape photograph can provide: strong composition attracts us to an image, regardless of its intent; the map component invites us to explore it; and the narrative is contained in the context—the consequences of gravity, climate, cultures, boundaries, decisions.
Flaring natural gas in the Bakken Oilfield, ND
Aerial view of the Berkeley copper mine in Butte, Montana
S: In doing so many things, how do you typically label yourself? Pilot, aerial photographer, conservation photographer, jack of all trades?
CB – I am all of those things, though I tend to consider myself a pilot with a camera more than a photographer with an airplane because it was my access to the aerial view that inspired me to pick up the camera in the first place. My desire to come home safely to my family keeps me mindful of the fact that being an exceptional pilot is mandatory. Being an exceptional photographer is not.
But my airplane and how I maneuver it is as much a part of my camera kit as a tripod might be. I’ve had the need to hire other pilots to fly for me while I shoot, and the experience is distinctly frustrating—like asking a terrestrial photographer to make photographs while a non-photographer swings their camera around erratically. By contrast, I’ve had the great fortune to fly for some amazing photographers representing National Geographic, NANPA, and the ILCP. This is a much more satisfying task because there is a good synergy between their talents with a camera and my experience aiming the airplane at every conceivable type of subject, angle, context and landscape.
Conservation Photographer and Summit Workshops Instructor Mike Forsberg Flying on a Collaborative Project
S: What kind of airplane do you fly and why? Does it have any special modifications for your work?
CB – The plane is a 1957 Cessna taildragger which I chose specifically for this purpose. It is a light, stable, nimble plane with a slightly oversized engine. It has power to spare, yet runs very economically on about 8 gallons per hour. It can practically hover at speeds as low as 45 mph, flies beautifully with either door removed, and the tailwheel configuration puts the landing gear in line with the wing strut providing a huge, unobstructed view for wide angle shooting.
For the mapping work, my camera mount sits over a 5” hole behind the co-pilot seat I can trigger the camera manually with a cable release, or hook it up to the GPS for automated shooting over specific waypoints.
Many nights are spent camping under the wing of Red Plane at small airstrips throughout the Northern Rockies and Northern Great Plains.
S: Many of us know about drones, but are there any advantages to shooting while piloting an aircraft versus a smaller remote controlled unit?
CB – Many assume that there is some kind of a conflict in the relationship between drones and aircraft, but they are simply different tools that operate at different scales and speeds. While there is a little overlap in their operational spheres, there is also a point of diminishing returns as each strays into the other’s territory.
Drones are amazing tools for low altitude views and mapping small landscapes at extremely high resolution, while the airplane is adapted for mapping or photographing larger landscape issues or subjects. A typical photo flight for me—whether it’s ice patches, coal mines, flood dynamics—will often cover hundreds of miles and it may be necessary to shoot from as low as 80’ above ground level to as high as 10,000’ AGL in order to capture the larger context of the site. The ability to commute at 120 miles per hour, and photograph at 70 mph, allows me to accomplish projects several hundred miles away and still be home for dinner. For mapping I can shoot 4” resolution orthophotography of a 2,000 acre site in under 30 minutes, and can operate in winds that would keep most drones on the ground.
Aerial view looking east up the Red Rock River from above the Lima Reservoir which had not filled to full pool for the summer.
The town of Two Dot, Montana, isolated by the floodwaters of 2011
S: You also do a lot of photography collaborations with scientists. What are these projects like, what do they entail?
CB – Much of my collaborative work with different types of research relies on the ability of a photo-based aerial survey to provide both narrative and quantitative data. For instance, I’ve been doing annual Trumpeter Swan counts in southwest Montana for several years. A camera-based survey has several distinct capabilities for this type of work. In the first place, I can fly the survey alone with out the added weight, risk, and scheduling issues of having an additional observer in the plane. I can record the birds simply by pointing and shooting with a single pass. The actual counting goes on in the safety of my office, and the imagery records precise GPS coordinates of every bird, distinguishes young and adults, shows collars of the released birds, and provides a description of the habitat selection and vegetation community. On nest surveys, I can count the tiny chicks in a magnified photograph far more reliably than I could if I were zipping past at 70 miles per hour at 400 feet. There is no circling required, less harassment of the birds, and, again, less risk of having a second person on board.
I also fly high elevation ice patch surveys for archaeological research because, as the ice patches melt, they are exposing important cultural artifacts. With 300 potentially artifact bearing ice patches in Southwest Montana and Northeast Wyoming, many of them in wilderness areas, researchers would have to visit them on foot to determine the melt rates and seasonal changes. However, in just a few hours, I can provide photographs of all of the patches that can be compared to previous imagery to prioritize which sites need to be investigated on the ground. A fringe benefit of the photo survey is that it captures the context of each site, and provides stunning imagery to help tell the important story of research in the ice patches.
Ice Patch Archaeological Site in the High Mountains
S: It sounds like a lot of your science and aerial work relies upon collaborations and utilizing a network. Do you have any thoughts on the importance of building a network as a photographer? Any advice for those who are just getting started?
CB – I can’t stress enough the importance of building a strong network. Nearly all of my best projects have resulted from meeting interesting people engaged in interesting research, and the resulting word of mouth. My engagement with the archaeology work started as a conversation with another parent at a nursery school field trip. Building a network is much more important than almost any conventional promotional efforts—The Yellow Pages doesn’t have a category for “Aerial Photographers Who Blend Narrative and Quantitative Information With Compelling Imagery.”
Tailings pond at the Golden Sunlight Mine, which still uses the Cyanide Leaching process to extract gold.
S: In this era of Google Earth, satellite imagery, remote sensing, and sophisticated GIS landscape analysis tools, is the work of the aerial photographer going to become obsolete?
CB – I like to think of my work as being a response to the fact that the science of remote sensing has become so remote that we’ve started to forget what the landscape actually looks like. This has made near-earth imaging, and oblique perspective based photographs more important rather than less. While it is necessary to abstract, quantify, symbolize and summarize data in order to understand and adapt to changing landscapes, I am always mindful that we do not perceive landscape as a collection of orderly data. Our experience comes from a blend of stories and facts that are taught, experiences, and intuitively understood.
I also think that the relative intimacy of near-earth landscape photography is critical in conservation because there is an inherent objectivity to the aerial view that prevents carefully selective framing, capturing instead the context of a subject and reminding us of the exchange of influences between natural or managed processes and their adjacent landscapes. At a time when language about how we integrate our cultural and ecological systems is marked by shrill exaggeration, I feel that photographs present important quantitative and ethical principles with quiet, irrefutable dignity.
Hundreds of Pronghorn were killed by passing trains as they tried to escape the deep snow on Montana’s Highline.
S: When you are not taking photos, where can you be found? What do you like to do outside of photography?
CB – When I’m not flying, I’m still working as a farm hand for room and board with my wife and 11 year old son. We maintain a herd of about 100 goats on small farm just east of Bozeman, and provide meat to local restaurants, butchers, and grocery stores. Farming at our scale is a great contrast from the sometimes stressful and demanding duties in the plane, and participating in our local food web is just another way of supporting both community and landscape.
For more of Chris’s work, check out: