Stunning Photos of What the World Looks Like From the Cockpit

The Photo Blog
March 27 2014 11:01 AM

What the World Looks Like From the Cockpit

LS_6900_25_Larsen
Bathers in wave pool, Orlando, Fla., 1999

Alex S. MacLean

For most photographers, making a great shot requires a quick, coordinated burst of framing, focusing, and exposing. But for aerial photographer Alex MacLean, that synchronization also includes making sure his airplane is flying steady. “It's a lot easier than trying to take pictures out of a car because you're dealing in 3-D space. The plane will fly itself straight and level. That's even without autopilot,” he said. “I usually set myself up, pick up the camera for five or 10 seconds, and take the picture out an open window.”

The exhibition “Alex MacLean: Aerial Perspectives” at London’s Beetles and Huxley celebrates more than 30 years of MacLean’s work. MacLean’s career in photography began in 1975, when he got his pilot’s license after graduating from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. While flying his Cessna 172, he started taking photos of architectural and landscape design, which he sold to universities for research purposes. Eventually, he formed his own photography company and assembled a roster of municipal, institutional, corporate, and private clients.

Since then, the Massachusetts-based photographer has flown most of the United States and parts of Europe, capturing patterns and trends from above that reflect an eye trained to understand both natural and human-constructed environments. “You see places where things are moving through the landscape making paths. Then you see other things that are holding things in place. Rivers and streams are pathways, for instance, while ponds and lakes are containment. But those categories transcend every land use that you have. That generates patterns right away,” he said. “The other thing I often look for that really highlights these patterns is looking at borders and edges. You usually get contrasts from one side to the other. Color also adds another huge dimension.”

LS_5388_35
B-52 Boneyard, Tucson, Ariz., 1993

Alex S. MacLean

LS_4384_25-2
Tracks of tomatoes in field, north-central Ohio, 1990

Alex S. MacLean

091026-0689
Desert housing block, Las Vegas, 2009

Alex S. MacLean

Advertisement

Naturally, aerial photography has its challenges. MacLean often has to contend with unpredictable weather, changing lighting conditions, and the plane’s vibration—all of which threaten to mess up a crisp, nicely lit photograph. Over the years, though, changes in airplane and camera technology have corrected some of those annoyances. “When I started out, there wasn't even auto focus. When you think of auto exposure, that’s a big thing. Of course, the biggest change was transitioning to digital photography, which had lots of advantages,” he said.

Today, MacLean flies about 250 hours a year in his Flight Design CT. Because of the nature of his business, he said he often leaves the ground with the intention to photograph a particular scene. Still, he said, there are always surprises along the way, including amazing sights that he never could have anticipated or imagined. “When doing this you really have to be receptive to just looking and sort of analyzing what you’re flying over. Otherwise, it's easy to fly by some great things,” he said.

“Alex Maclean: Aerial Perspectives” is on view through Saturday at Beetles and Huxley in London.

LS_5249_13_Larsen
Dinghies clustered around dock, Duxbury, Mass., 1993

Alex S. MacLean

LS_6556_29_Larsen
Surfers behind breaking wave, Oahu, Hawaii, 1998

Alex S. MacLean

091026-0495
Golf oasis in desert hills, Las Vegas, 2009

Alex S. MacLean

110715-0412
Ocean City amusment park, Ocean City, Md., 2011

Alex S. MacLean

080616-0115
Over ramps, Albuquerque, N.M., 2008

Alex S. MacLean

120708-0309
Poolside tanning, East Boston, 2012

Alex S. MacLean

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

The Ludicrous Claims Women Are Pitched at “Egg Freezing Parties”

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Behold
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM Syria’s “Moderate” Rebels Are Realizing That U.S. Airstrikes Help Bashar al-Assad, Not Them
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:43 AM “I Didn’t Want to Build the Next Twitter for Cats” Search funds are the quiet, dependable, risk-averse sibling to the startup. 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 11:59 AM Ask a Homo: A Lesbian PDA FAQ
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 10:44 AM Everyone’s Favorite Bob’s Burgers Character Gets a Remix You Can Dance to
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM Watch a Crowd Go Wild When Steve Jobs Moves a Laptop in This 1999 Demonstration of WiFi
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 12:01 PM Rocky Snow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.