Photographer/Pilot

By Maxwell MacKenzie Back to

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My father, a Marine Corps combat fighter pilot flew F-4U Corsairs in the Pacific in World War II. The Corsair had a 13-foot diameter propeller and was the fastest aircraft in the world. Some versions were equipped with over 2,000 horsepower, giving them a top speed of nearly 450 mph. It was a difficult plane to fly and especially tricky to land on a rolling carrier deck. After the war he, wary of the new and often unreliable jets, became a helicopter pilot and instructor.

Dad was very proud of his skill. On my weekends with him he would take me to the downwind edges of airports, critique each pilot’s landing techniques and regale me with tales of his flying exploits.

He had always promised to teach me to fly, but the years went quickly by as they do, and this much-longed-for transfer-of-knowledge never happened. After he died in 1995, it was clear I would have to take to the skies without his help.

After taking one to two hour introductory lessons in half a dozen different varieties of ultra-light air- craft, I found that most either flew too fast, or were too expensive, or both. In 1997 I settled on the oddly named “Six-Chuter Skye-Ryder Aerochute” as the most practical choice for the sort of aerial photography I had in mind. At first glance it is rather comical, resembling a folding beach chair on three little wheels with a huge fan behind it.

Maxwell MacKenzie, aerial photography
Maxwell MacKenzie learning to fly a Cessna 172 at Hanscom Field, Lexington, MA, 1968.

The most important characteristic that sets my craft apart from nearly all other aircraft, and makes it particularly suited for photography, is that I steer this “powered parachute” with my feet, leaving my hands totally free to manipulate my camera. Its 66-horsepower Rotax 582 engine drives a 3-blade propeller through a reduction gearbox, pushing the high-drag, inflatable airfoil at a comfortably slow constant flying speed of only 30 mph. This modest velocity works out perfectly, giving me enough time over any particular landscape to frame my subjects nearly as carefully as I would do on the ground.

Maxwell MacKenzie, aerial photography
Maxwell readying his ultralight plane for a photo session.

As well as being one of the least expensive ways to fly, the PPC also has two additional distinct advantages: it is small and compact enough to be easily trailerable, and it is relatively safe to fly due to the fact that it always has an emergency parachute deployed. In the case of an engine failure, the 500 square foot, 35 foot-wide canopy would bring you down at about ten feet per second! It might bend the landing gear but if you have picked your landing spot well, you should escape without serious injury.

But make no mistake: this can be an extremely hazardous activity. I recall a placard I saw taped onto the instrument panel of a aerobatic biplane: “Airplanes Kill Fools.” Thorough serious and professional training is MANDATORY before attemping any sort of flying. After my week of instruction, I flew for over a year without even taking a camera up with me, to ensure I knew what I was doing before I added the complication of photographing while also piloting.

Maxwell MacKenzie, aerial photography
Star Lake Township, Otter Trail County, Minnesota, 2005
Maxwell MacKenzie, aerial photography
Amor Township, Otter Trail County, Minnesota, 2005
Maxwell MacKenzie, aerial photography
Stoney Brook Township, Grant County, Minnesota, 2004

The photographs you see here are part of an ongoing aerial series, some of which were collected in book form, Markings(2007). This effort is essentially a extension of work begun in 1990 which is my continuing personal exploration of the beauty I have found in the little corner of Minnesota where I was born. The first volume that resulted from this effort was Abandonings (1995), large-format color panoramic photographs of deserted houses, barns and schools in Otter Tail County, MN. Next was American Ruins (1999), black and white panoramas of the same sort of humble structures, but extending the scope from Wisconsin, through Minnesota, the Dakotas and out as far west as Montana & Idaho.

No longer earthbound, I have returned in this aerial series to color, but have started to move away from the buildings to the more abstract patterns I discovered in the surrounding fields, rivers, lakes and trees.

A happy coincidence is that, especially in the summer, I can really only fly my PPC safely and comfortably in no, or low-wind conditions. This means I generally fly for an hour or two at dawn and dusk. This also happens to be the optimum time for obtaining the low, descriptive light I love, as I find the long shadows essential to a successful photograph.

Maxwell MacKenzie, aerial photography
Nidaros Township, Otter Trail County, Minnesota, 2004

Flying at the beautiful but dim ends of the day does present technical challenges. Until recently I was shooting Fuji Velvia 50 film rated at ISO 32, because I was in love with its color. But even push-processed one stop, I quickly learned I had to attach a Kenyon gyro-stabilizer to my Nikon in order to have any chance of obtaining consistent exposures without any tell-tale motion blur.

It was very hard for me to give up my beloved Velvia film with its spectacular seemingly infinite palette of brilliant greens, so suited to my subjects−but last year I finally made the switch to digital. I now attach the gyro to my 24.5 Megapixel Nikon D3X, a phenomenal professional tool, and using either a prime 85mm f/1.4 or the 24-70 f/2.8 zoom lenses, I have been very pleased with the results.

Now for every hour in the air I have to spend a day at the computer-taking my flat bland RAW NEF files using the modern magic in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop to breathe life into them.


About the Author

Maxwell MacKenzie
MMacKenzie
Maxwell MacKenzie is a well- known commercial and fine art photographer who specializes in architecture and design. He has photographed projects all over the US and in16 foreign countries for architects, interior designers, magazines, developers, hotels and restaurants. He is the author of three books containing his personal work: Abandonings, American Ruins, and most recently Markings a collection of color aerial abstracts taken from his self-piloted ultra-light aircraft. maxwellmackenzie.com.