It is now 2007, most of us who were in the early stages of researching
Crop Circles (1987-1993) know that Crop Circle formations are man-made.
There are many who still like to take pictures of the great art work that fills some of the fields of grain. The laws in the UK/England have changed quite a bit now concerning aerial photography and the who and why are some people are allowed to hire a flying machine to shoot imagery. This is an archived paper from Circular Times c. 1996. However it contains pertinent information about the "how to" of aerial photography and is quite informative about specific airplanes, cameras, lenses and other variables.
Julia - Courtesy of Steve Alexander
Aerial Photography & Crop Circles
By Steve Patterson © 1996
The purpose of this article is to inform and assist all those who have the intention of taking quality aerial photographs and in particular, aerial views of crop circles. Sophisticated and expensive camera equipment is not necessary. An appreciation of the unique photographic difficulties encountered by the aerial photographer, will result in a successful technique and impressive images.
The Aerial Environment
In a perfect world we would be taking our aerial photographs from a stationary platform such as a helicopter or hot air balloon at about 200 feet above the formation. The reality is quite different, as the minimum height any ‘flying machine’ may practically operate, is at least 500 feet above the ground. Hot air balloons have a habit of going where the wind wants them to go and not where the photographer would choose! Some helicopters make superb camera platforms, i.e., the Bell 206 Jet Ranger combines safety with carrying capacity (up to 4 passengers), plus the advantage of shooting through an open door - if the door has been removed prior to flight!
The big disadvantage of helicopters, is the cost involved - helicopters are very expensive. Commercially operated one passenger seat Robinson R22’s are at the bottom of the rotary wing cost table, while the Jet Ranger is quite high. Typical rental cost for Southern England are quoted below.
Consequently, most of the regular crop circle photographers choose light aircraft, with the high wing Cessna being the preferred type. Photographs can be taken through the plexi-glass window, but the ideal is an open window. You should try to avoid low wing aircraft, such as the Piper Cherokee/Warriors, Grummans* and French built Rallye* and Robin aircraft. (*Although it is possible to photograph through a small opening in the canopy front with these types.) The average speed across the ground during photography in these light aircraft is around 70-90 m.p.h. range, with cruise speed (to and from target sites) typically around 125 m.p.h. Avoid Micro-lites and ‘permit to fly’ types (experimental category in the USA), as these are totally unsuited and of questionable legality and reliability.
The Legal Position and Liability Insurance
As a visitor to England with no contacts or pilot friends, it may be difficult for you to arrange an introduction to a suitable pilot with knowledge of the crop circle locations. If you are able to arrange this, the basis of your flight will be on the ‘cost share’ understanding. Your pilot is not permitted to profit from his flying and must contribute at least an equal amount to the costs. Consequently, you will probably find that your pilot will be an enthusiastic 'Croppie' and may wish to take photographs for themselves.
There is no legal requirement for any U.K. registered aircraft to carry insurance at all. Provided that the regulations concerning commercial operation and cost sharing are obeyed, you will probably find that your pilot is fully insured in the unlikely event of a mishap. The other source of aircraft is from the commercial sector and there are a number of operations employing commercial pilots and operating under the umbrella of a CAA Air Operating Charter. Whether these operations will know about the latest formations and their locations is another matter.....
What Does It Cost?
A) Non-Commercial: Typical cost for renting a 4 seat fixed wing aircraft will vary from around $125 - $165 US per flying hour. A 2 seat helicopter would probably cost around $250 per hour; a 5 seat helicopter around $600 per hour. These aircraft will be operated under the CAA Public Transport Category and the pilot will have to pay at least an equal share of the costs.
B) Commercial: Fixed-wing aircraft; 4 seats, around $150 per hour / 6 seats, $300 per hour. Helicopter; 2 seats, $280 per hour / 5 seats, $650 US per hour.
Photographic Technique and Equipment
Because of the flying speeds involved and the vibration factor, all aerial photography requires a high shutter speed of at least 1/500th. second. Longer telephoto lenses may require 1/1000th. second, or faster speeds. Disappointing aerial photographs are often the result of too slow a shutter speed and ‘camera shake’. In view of this speed requirement, it is best to avoid Zoom lenses. Their poor maximum apertures often make shutter speeds difficult without using faster and grainier film types. The use of a 35mm. SLR camera, a 135mm. or 200mm. lens is just about perfect for most of the crop circle formations you will encounter. Film speed of 100 or 200 ASA. should ensure quality results on 35mm. film. However the high quality of a medium format camera, such as a Hasselblad or Pentax 6x7 / 6x4.5 , is what the real professional requires. If your camera is an ‘auto focus’ type you should switch it to manual focus and leave it set on ‘infinity’.
Your Safety and Comfort
If you are likely to suffer from air sickness, don’t even consider a small airplane for photography. The turning and banking necessary to properly photograph a formation, will almost certainly make you ‘toss your cookies’. A helicopter may be more suitable for those prone to motion sickness.
Both light aircraft and small helicopters have good safety records with general aviation statistically amongst the safest form of transport. Your pilot, whether commercial or private, should give you a thorough safety briefing and discuss the various emergency procedures.
Most of the aerial photographs you will have seen of crop circles, have been taken by amateur or at best, ‘semi-professional’ photographers. The equipment used is generally 35mm. and the camera not necessarily expensive or sophisticated. The majority of the crop circle flying is done by a select band of dedicated private pilots who are enthusiastic about both their flying and the crop circles. The increased number of crop circle visitors has placed a considerable strain on this assortment of dedicated aviators. The welcome establishment of a new Commercial operation at Thruxton airport in Southern England, may result in many fewer private flights undertaken on the ‘cost share’ basis.
As we look forward to the new season, we must hope that the beauty and mystery of the crop circle enigma continues. Those of us fortunate enough to enjoy an aerial viewpoint, can look forward to the ‘Circle Makers’ art, and to the appreciation of the latest photographs. Happy landings. Steve Patterson
About the Author
A native of England, Steve has been a professional photographer for the past 18 years. After leaving Salisbury College of Art, he relocated to Winchester, Southern England, close to the heart of crop circle activity. In 1987 Steve purchased a Cessna 172 and became involved in the crop circle surveillance scene collaborating with various researchers such as Colin Andrews, Colette Dowell, Busty Taylor and Pat Delgado. He achieved International recognition for his crop circle photography and was held as a key exhibitor at the Malmo Konstall in Sweden. He has since established ‘HOCUS FOCUS’ in partnership with Bonnie Blackstock. Together they produce spectacular post cards and notecards depicting crop circles and other related subjects. Steve’s lectures and slide shows of his work have been enjoyed by many audiences.
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