Photographer Toby Harriman never planned on becoming an aerial photographer, but everything changed after his first doors-off helicopter flight in 2012. One of his personal projects over the past few years has been exploring the unique designs of different airports, and his slowly expanding Airport Aerials project is offering truly unique perspectives on these massive spaces.
New Atlas spoke to Toby Harriman to learn more about how this unique project started, and how challenging it can be to photograph these busy airspaces.
N/A: How did this airport photography project begin?
TH: To be honest. It wasn’t exactly on my radar at first. I originally came from the landscape/cityscape photography side of the industry. But in 2012 I took my first doors-off helicopter flight over San Francisco. I became instantly hooked and ever since I fly as much as I can. Fast forward a few years, aerial photography and cinematography took over my life and now I do that full-time working with various clients. As time went on, I was always flying over airports, considering we take off and land from them as well. I just kept shooting various airports as a fun side project, just documenting them over time. More and more, it become a passion and now I try to direct our flights over specific airports to see what kind of permission we can gain flying over or hovering to get unique angles.
What was the first airport you photographed?
San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
How many airports have you photographed so far?
Not as many as I’d like too. Four to five bigger international airports and a few smaller local airports.
I’d imagine there is some red tape to cut through in getting permissions, how do you go about taking these photos?
Yes and no. We tend to fly from an airport, as I mentioned above, and a lot of my projects involve shooting properties around airports, so it just takes some time coordinating with my pilot and the Airport Control Tower. Sometimes we get lucky and sometimes its busy and they don’t really want to deal with us. We have had specific projects where we had to get pre authorization with FAA and ATC (Air Traffic Control), especially when we do drone work, which usually has much more red tape than the helicopter side.
What was the hardest airport to photograph in terms of getting approvals, or dealing with logistics?
I am sure this situation is different for everyone and very project dependent. But for me personally, the most logistical has been Chicago O’Hare. I was working for client shooting properties on literally every side of the airport. So we were crossing back and forth. We were even put on hold over 15 minutes at one point. On another pass over the middle, they held us right over the ATC tower to wait for a minute. That was the best part in my opinion, it allowed me to get some very unique shots of the airport from a hard to get position.
What was your favorite airport you have photographed so far?
This would also be Chicago O’Hare. Just listening to the Air Traffic Controllers here was fascinating. You realize how difficult their jobs are, not that I was making it any easier being there for a photo flight. But they are amazing. Chicago is the busiest airport in the world, so you can imagine how many planes they are dealing with at the same time. We also spent up to four total hours (morning and afternoon) flying around O’Hare, so I was able to get a lot of different shots. It was definitely a unique experience.
What airport is next on the list? Do you have a dream airport?
I’d like to say all of them. But to give myself little targets, I’d love to just start capturing everything in the US first then expand to some bigger international hubs. At this point, I haven’t shot enough to really narrow down my next locations. Only time will tell!
Take a look through our gallery at more of Toby’s impressive Airport Aerials.
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