Victorian Tom Putt explains how he goes about shooting his abstract aerial landscapes, including the application of disciplines he learnt as a sports photographer.
(Tom Putt was interviewed by Steve Packer for Photo Review Magazine Sep-Nov 2020 issue.)
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your photography and business?
I have two sources of income as a professional landscape photographer. One is teaching the workshops I’ve been doing since 2005. They were suspended, of course, but I’m back doing them now [in June].
The second is my gallery at Mornington [on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula]. When COVID-19 happened, it closed for six weeks, and reopening it with the ‘four square metres per person’ rule wasn’t a problem because it covers 60-odd square metres, with not many people in it at any one time.
Due to the state borders being closed and home isolation precautions, I haven’t been able to travel to shoot more of the abstract aerial landscapes I’ve been concentrating on for about five years.
How has business been since the gallery reopened?
We’ve actually had quite strong sales. People have been wanting to get out and about, and photographers haven’t been able to do any photographing, so they’ve been coming in to get their fix. Also, people have been sitting around at home or renovating, so they’ve had a lot of time to think about putting photography on the walls. In some cases, specifically my photography, because they already have some of it on their walls.
Why did you decide to concentrate on abstract aerial photography?
I find it far more artistic than anything I can shoot on the ground. I was a panoramic landscape photographer for about 15 years, inspired by the likes of Ken Duncan and Peter Lik. I’ve been shooting from the air on occasion since 1996, but nothing as concentrated and intense as what I’m doing now.
In the last four or five years, that’s been over Lake Eyre in South Australia, Shark Bay in Western Australia, and I’ve been to Iceland, and Namibia several times. I’ve done a fair bit of work in Karijini National Park, the Kimberley, around Broome and Kununurra [all in WA]. Also Tasmania in years gone by.
Why do you prefer shooting from planes and helicopters as opposed to using a drone?
It’s higher, of course, and far more exciting in a plane or helicopter. You can cover much more ground, so it’s more productive. If I do my homework and get the right area at the right time, I can come away with half a dozen absolutely beautiful images worthy of hanging in the gallery. You can spend all day on the ground with a drone and not get a decent shot.
What do you mean by ‘homework’?
Researching online with Instagram, Facebook, Google Earth, satellite maps, etc. While I don’t want to get up there and waste my time, I don’t like to research to the nth degree. I like the element of surprise. I might ask the pilot if they’ve seen anything cool lately, or show them some examples on my phone. Or we just head to a generally good area and look for the unexpected.
The choice of shots in Australia must be vast.
For sure. Just take Lake Eyre. I’ve flown over it in a light plane for more than 60 hours, for up to four hours at a time, and I rarely get to kick back and relax. The variety of abstract landscapes is incredible and I’ll never feel I’ve seen everything. It’s always changing in terms of the water conditions and aridity, the weather, the colours and light. We’ll do several orbits of an area before moving off to scan for something else.
I assume you’re harnessed in beside the pilot, communicating through headphones.
That’s right. With the door off. Flying at around 1,500 to 2,000 feet is a sweet spot for me. That’s with a Pentax 645Z [medium format DSLR] with a 75mm lens [about 50mm on a standard DSLR]. Due to the wind and vibrations through the plane, I generally use at least 1/1,000th of a second at around f8 for sharpness.
Do you tend to fly in the early morning and late afternoon for the angled light?
It depends what I’m shooting. At Shark Bay, if I’m shooting into the water and over sandbanks, it’s usually between 12pm and 2pm because I want the light overhead. But for other parts of Shark Bay, such as the harvested salt flats at Useless Loop, the beautiful textures come out later in the day. Lake Eyre is good in the first couple and last couple of hours of the day. I want the soft light of those golden hours, with a little bit of texture in the landscape.
Do you have a totally open mind to what you’re looking for, or do you have a deliberate style you try to develop?
Good question… It’s a combination of both. My aerials do tend to have a lot of diagonal lines, which may be instinctively what I see. At other times, I’m looking for beautiful contrast in light versus dark, or bright, vibrant colours, or an interesting pattern. But nothing’s certain or totally predictable. It’s like unwrapping Christmas presents in that you never know what you’re going to get. Or if you’re going to get anything at all.
Is the finished product always as it was shot full-frame?
Almost always it’s absolutely full-frame. The full 50 megapixels.
My first job as a professional photographer was with a sports agency in Melbourne in the early 1990s. We were shooting transparency film, which was very unforgiving in terms of exposure. Clients would come to the stock library to look at the images in slide mounts and sleeves on a lightbox. Photoshop was still a dirty word, and my boss drilled it into me that every shot had to be tightly, perfectly cropped in-camera and perfectly exposed or it wouldn’t sell. If it didn’t sell, I didn’t have a job.
I carried that into landscape photography. I’m a perfectionist and my eye is always running around the edge of the frame to make sure everything I want, and nothing else, is in the shot. I might ask the pilot to descend 500 feet, and I might take five or six frames to get that perfect shot, and it’s generally the one in the middle.
Do you do any manipulating in the digital darkroom?
I might spend a few minutes tidying things up. A little bit of de-haze, a little contrast and colour saturation adjustment, but that’s about it. My job as a visual artist is to bring the beauty of the natural landscape to people. And also some man-made landscapes – such as tidal salt works, which I could happily photograph all over the world.
I’m not trying to cheat people by showing them something that’s not real. ‘The sunset didn’t go off last night, so I’ll drop one in.’ It’s just not my style. I’m working with a synergy between the landscape and the artist.
See Tom Putt’s website for more of his work and find out more about his workshops.
Article by Steve Packer
Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 85