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Valley pilot snaps high art from 1,000 feet | Photo Gallery
Gabhan Berry has the kind of view on the Valley most folks never get—out the open window of an airplane.
“I have a different perspective on things,” says the Carnation-based aerial photographer. From the sky, he encounters familiar surroundings, but sees them in a new way.
“It’s a point of view you only get from an airplane,” Berry says.
From a thousand feet up, he witnesses the change in color and shade that the Valley’s seasons bring, and sees how the natural world interconnect with the man-made world of roads and buildings.
Berry, who grew up in Scotland, started flying as a teenager, and became interested in photography in his 20s. About two years ago, he put the two together.
Up in his plane, he decided to experiment a few times, taking photos through a window. But, as he found out, “a quarter-inch of Perspex tints the colors. I was never happy with it.”
He eventually figured out a solution—unhinging the plane’s side window. Berry flies at about 1,000 feet, at a slow speed of 90 miles per hour, shooting with a Canon 5D Mark 3 camera, one-handed, the other on the stick.
With only seconds to snap an image, most of Berry’s photos take multiple attempts to get right.
“Sometimes, I get lucky,” he said. “Some of the others, I can be circling the same area for 10 minutes, trying to get the right angle. It’s not an easy way to get photos, that’s for sure.”
Starting in about three weeks, and until December, is Berry’s favorite time to fly and shoot.
“The colors are amazing,” he said. “In summer, it’s a bit too hazy. The sun is too high in the sky.”
But with the coming of autumn, shadows are stronger and the air is clearer.
In the Valley, he loves shooting farmland and the river.
“From the sky, the Snoqualmie River is amazing!” said Berry. “It’s so curvy and windy, and all these small farms are almost like a jigsaw puzzle. You never see that when you’re driving along the road—it’s a totally different view.
“When you live in the Valley, you don’t realize how close you are to the mountains. When you’re up a couple thousand feet, you realize they’re right there. The Cascades… are really five minutes away by airplane. But because we live in the valley, we don’t regard them as local.”
A pilot for the past 17 years, Berry, who works as a software engineer, has lived in the Valley for seven years. He has flown throughout the Pacific Northwest in his single-engine Cessna in a quest for images of mountains, cities, rivers and farmland, which he turns into fine art.
“By showing people what our region looks like from a small airplane I hope to ignite an interest in nature, science or aviation,” says Berry.
Berry publishes his aerial images under a Creative Commons license. This means that they are free for anyone to download and use in a non-commercial way, for example, in a classroom setting, or on Facebook.
“By doing this, I hope that they will be seen by as many people as possible a
See a Q&A with Berry below.
Farmland along State Route 203 between Carnation and Duvall.
Snoqualmie Ridge, as seem from above.
Homes on Snoqualmie Ridge.
Berry flies over downtown Carnation.
Clouds shadow Mount Si in North Bend.
Misty Lower Valley landscapes.
Gabhan Berry’s recent aerial photography includes this image of Mount Rainier in the distance, Rattlesnake Ridge in the foreground.
An intense sunset in the Snoqualmie Valley is colored by this summer's wildfires in the east.
Q&A: What drew you to aerial photos?
“I have been working on this aerial photography project for a year, but I have been a pilot for 19 years. For me, flying has always been about the view out the window, and as I have gotten older, I have found myself wanting to use my flying and photographic interests to do something meaningful. Aerial photography seemed like a natural choice, although it has taken a lot of practice to be able to do this in a way that produces reliable results.
What’s the best time to shoot?
“Fall is best. At that time of year, the sun’s angle is high and it creates a period of time before sunset lasting 90 minutes or so during which time the light is vibrant and golden and the shadows are not too harsh. They’re just right. In addition, in fall, the foliage is very colorful, which makes it easier to produce an interesting image. Many of my farming shots were taken during the fall of 2013.
Just like ground-based landscape photography, the best time of day is during the last 60 to 90 minutes before sunset. Sometimes this period is called the golden hour. I would say this is true for aerial photography in general, but there are situations where it isn’t true. For example, let’s say we’re taking a photograph of an interesting building but the building faces north-east. Now we have a decision to make. While the golden hour gives us the best light, during that time of day because of its orientation, the building will be in the shade. If our aim is to create a tightly cropped photograph of the building then we would get better results by going up in the morning instead. But if we want to create a photograph showing the building and its surrounding landscape in good light, and we’re fine with the building being somewhat deemphasized, then shooting during the golden hour will work. So, you have to consider this as part of your pre-flight planning.
Has anything surprised you about seeing our region from above?
One thing you notice is that a lot of the bigger towns all merge into one. For example, from the air, it is impossible to locate where Seattle ends and Tacoma begins or where Renton stops and Bellevue starts. It all just seems like one large area of buildings squeezed along the Puget Sound broken only by natural features such as lakes and mountains. In that sense, it can seem silly to draw lines of division.
Out in the Valley, I have noticed how much the landscape’s color changes from season to season. In the summer, everything is green and blue and fall brings reds and the beginning of browns. But, in the winter, the farmland lies empty and partially flooded and a lot of the trees have shed their leaves, casting a distinctly brown hue over the landscape. The range of change is quite incredible.
Have you learned anything about nature or human development?
I have learned how inter-related the human world and the natural world are. From the air, it is much easier to see how everything we build is built upon and depends upon the natural landscape. Whether that be something as large as the location of a city or something smaller, such as where rail tracks are built. I think that when your view of the world is restricted to the local roads, buildings and sights of your daily life, it is difficult to really believe the importance of this. In fact, this is one of the messages I want to communicate with my aerial artwork: It is in human beings’ own long-term interests to believe that everything we do, build and create is dependent on the natural world around us.
Does this craft require bravery? Have you endured any danger or extreme conditions?
It’s true that flying in small airplanes carries a certain level of risk. This level isn’t as high as people may think. For the most part, general aviation is safe. But it is certainly more risky than, say, driving a car. There are things you can do to mitigate the risk, such as always being prepared for an emergency situation and choosing your route of flight accordingly. For example, flying low over a large expanse of water doesn’t leave you with many options if you encounter an engine failure. I find the best way to mitigate risk is to fully understand what can happen and why it could happen and then come up with a plan for what you’re going to do when it does happen.
Throughout my flying career I have encountered many in-flight problems. Probably the worst of them were having my landing gear fail to deploy, the electrical system failing and asymmetric flap deployment. The asymmetric flap deployment (where the flaps do not extend in equal amounts, causing the airplane to inadvertently roll) happened while I was flying in clouds at night and was a situation I hadn’t prepared for. It just wasn’t something I thought would happen and I found myself having to figure out what to do in the heat of the moment. Each time I experience something like that, I sit down afterwards and ask myself “What could I do in the future to reduce the probability of that happening again?”
In aviation, the better prepared you are and the more deeply you plan for when things don’t go right, the safer you will be. This is one of the reasons airliners are so incredibly safe. In saying this, I don’t want to give the impression that small airplanes are mechanically inadequate. They’re not. Most accidents are caused by pilot error—not mechanical failure. But I think a responsible pilot is one who cognitively accepts that things do go wrong sometimes and has a plan for what he will do when they do go wrong.
Aerial photography does add its own safety considerations. Typically, when photographing the landscape, I am flying lower and slower than normal. Being lower means my glide distance is significantly shorter than if I were higher up. So, I need to plan for that in the event I encounter engine problems. Flying slower also warrants additional thought because the airplane is flying closer to its aerodynamic stall than it would be in normal flight conditions and also, at slow speeds, the airplane’s controls are less effective. With training and practice these things are not issues at all. But they are things that a pilot must be prepared for when doing this type of flying.
What do you think goes into capturing a strong aerial photo?
“I think there are two main types of aerial photograph. One is a tightly cropped image of something, say a building or a ship. The other type is, what I call, the sweeping landscape type.
For both types, I think a good aerial image should offer the same concepts (though they will manifest themselves differently in each type). A good aerial needs to immediately grab the attention of the viewer and draw them in. At this point, the image needs to follow up with details. I like to make my images complex, containing many shapes and details. Enough to keep the viewer interested beyond the initial “wow” moment. I also try to compose images that have a strong frame of reference. By this I mean it should have a focal point to where the eye is constantly drawn and from where the image can be further explored. This doesn’t mean the image cannot be busy—just that it needs to be ordered.
How does it feel when you’re up there? What keeps you going back?
“I have been addicted to aviation all of my adult life. I love both the visceral sensation of flying and understanding the physics that make flying possible. But I have always found the view out the window to be very rewarding. I always come back to the most fundamental type of flying: low and slow in a simple aircraft. I think that’s all you need in order to get the biggest benefit general aviation offers: a change in perspective. There is no feeling like flying a small aircraft over beautiful scenery in the early evening sunlight. It can be a spiritual experience.