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PRO STORY: TOMMY CLARKE

Why shoot ordinary landscapes when you can
hang out of a helicopter 1000ft up to capture
mind-blowing aerials? Good job Tommy Clarke
doesn’t suffer from vertigo…

Tommy Clarke is a professional aerial fine-art photographer who, when not travelling the world, is based out of his studio in London. Born and raised in Dorset, Tommy’s spectacular aerial imagery has seen the creative shooter capture aerial scenes in locations including Sydney, San Francisco, Mexico, Canary Islands and Utah. Along with offering limited edition prints from his studio, Tommy’s imagery has also been used by major commercial brands, including Vodafone and exhibited around the world, including location in Hong Kong, Antigua, New York and in London with the Lumas Gallery. Tommy is also writing his first movie, which is expected to go into production in 2020.  

Perspective everything when it comes to photography. A dynamic composition can transform a good photo into a great image and it’s down to the photographer to seek out and frame exciting viewpoints. One man who’s taken creative compositions to (quite literally) new heights is Tommy Clarke. The 32-year-old – who describes his photography as ‘straddling the worlds of travel as well as fine-art, mixing escapism with abstract landscapes’ – has a studio based in London, but grew up on the south coast of England. Close to the cool breeze that blows in from the sea and often to be found on the beaches of Dorset – the sea, sand and landscapes played a big part in Tommy’s eventual photographic destinations, but his entry into the profession was anything but ordinary. “I broke my back as a teenager during which time I was rowing for England and going down a very different path in life.

The injury meant I had four months to kill while I couldn’t play any sport so I picked up a camera,” explains Tommy. “It was just as the digital age of photography was starting. I could take as many photos as I wanted, so through trial and error I started to improve.” Aerial photography is a lot more common now than it was seven years ago when Tommy started out, and making such a move to concentrate on a niche sub-genre of landscape photography was indeed bold, so what drew Tommy to want to show people the view from above? Tommy says it was simply a desire to create images that impress people. “I started before the days of drones, so the view from above was a lot rarer and the very vertical view down that I wanted was pretty much unseen.” Tommy set out to create images that would make him stand out from the crowd and, as he was living in Australia at the time, he chose a location he truly loved – the iconic blue and gold hues of Sydney’s Bondi Beach, which proved to be a fruitful ground to capture, develop and refine his aerial picture-taking. 

Of course, aerial photography has its own unique challenges that you simply wouldn’t need to consider if you had set up a tripod at sea-level. Tommy says cost is one of the biggest factors as he does things ‘the old- fashioned way’, this means hiring aircraft to hang out of and planning every second to the last detail to make the most of any outlay. Helicopter hire can be up to an eye-watering £3,000 an hour, let alone the associated logistics and paperwork. Imagine pulling up to a car park in the Lake District and needing to shell out three grand before even taking off a lens cap. Tommy’s commitment to his art encapsulates the saying ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ and along with the financial challenges, once up in the air he also has to consider fundamentals including framing, texture, composition and human interaction – all of which elevate Tommy’s imagery from photos to fine-art. His approach to planning and capturing an image is a lesson in successful strategy and logistics, which usually starts around six months before a shutter button is fired.

“Either a client has a location to shoot, or my team and I decide on where next to travel to. Then we have to find an aircraft suitable for what I need, and this means one where the doors can be taken off with a pilot who’s happy to fly with me hanging out the side. As soon as those bits are sorted and we know we have a budget for it, we look at the weather variables: will the tide be out, leaving a clean band of wet sand?; is it a time of year when the sun will be low casting long shadows?” explains Tommy, who admits that every detail is planned to perfection.

This planning extends to using the right photo gear and Tommy is currently using a Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which he pairs with a telephoto zoom to allow him to compose scenes to perfection.

“The Olympus is a new camera system for me that I first got to test while shooting in the Galápagos and I found I really enjoyed the experience.” Tommy is especially appreciative of the five-axis IBIS (In-Body Image Stabilisation) system: “I can take a handheld four-second exposure and it will be sharp. For shooting in the dark cloud forests of Ecuador that feature came in very handy,” he explains. Although the OM-D E-M1 Mark II can capture huge Raw files that can be intensively edited, Tommy takes a more organic approach: “With my work I steer away from much processing, other than colour correction. I’m not saying I’m a documentary photographer, but I have found such incredible natural beauty in the world and I don’t think photoshopping them or chucking over-the-top Lightroom presets at them will improve the overall image.” 

The aerial perspective of Tommy’s images turn landscapes into fine-art to give the ground we walk on an other-worldly feel, and his sought-after prints sell widely through his London-based studio and around the world. With such an exciting genre, it’s no surprise Tommy is busy with plans for the next 12 months: “I’m going to put on some new pop-up exhibitions in London and potentially further afield as well as extend a series I’ve started shooting over ski resorts.” Well, wherever Tommy heads to next, we’re sure his success in photography will continue to take flight.

Article featured in Digital SLR Magazine June 2019