Jessica Miller joins fine art aerial photographer Donn Delson on an open-door helicopter ride over London and takes a deeper look at his work and process.

What better way to spend a Thursday morning, than hanging out of an open-door helicopter over London? A couple of weeks ago I joined 75 years young American aerial photographer, Donn Delson for a flight over the city for what was, a truly inspirational and exhilarating experience.

Prior to photography, Donn built and sold the 4th largest entertainment merchandise business in the world, BandMerch. Donn represented worldwide merchandising (tour, e-commerce, licensing, and retail) for artists like Rihanna, Billy Joel, Alanis Morissette, Outkast, and Linkin Park. Having had multiple careers throughout his life, Donn retired in 2010 and pursued his passion for photography, starting with landscape photography and experimenting with long exposures and industrial laser beams.

Jessica Miller and Donn Delson prior to their helicopter trip over London
Jessica Miller and Donn Delson prior to their helicopter trip over London

It was my first ever experience in a helicopter, but for Donn, being strapped in and leaning out of a rotorcraft at approx 580m/1900ft (and sometimes even higher!) has become a regular occurrence since his first taste in New Zealand in 2015. On a casual helicopter trip with his wife, filming a glacier, the pilot offered Donn the chance to shoot with the doors off. ‘I said, “That sounds awesome!”, and so they buckled me in with a harness and they pulled the door open. And that was it for me. I was just in love.’

Cascade © Donn Delson
Cascade © Donn Delson

Finding a niche

Like most of us, up until that point Donn had never experienced taking photographs from above unless in an airplane looking through the tiny windows. ‘The gift of getting a bird’s eye view of the beauty of the world below. The freedom of looking out and down with no windows or reflections to distort the image, the sheer joy and appreciation of what I was getting to do and be able to share with others, I knew I’d found my niche.’

The return to LA and subsequent research and exploration has led Donn to several destinations across the US as well as London, Amsterdam, Kyoto, the Dead Sea, parts of Italy and many more.

‘My goal is to look for the artistic vision that the landscape reveals, the patterns, the symmetry, the colour combinations, and my vision of trompe l’oeil in the literal sense, in that it tricks the eye.’ His clear fascination with patterns and symmetry pays homage to abstract Bauhaus artists like Paul Klee, Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian.

Broadway Boogie Woogie, Times Square, Points of Light Collection aerial photography
Broadway Boogie Woogie, Times Square © Donn Delson

‘I’m obsessed with perception and how looking at things from a different perspective or angle often yields an entirely different impression. You know, appearance versus reality. What’s commonplace and known to us on the ground, takes on a completely different appearance when looking straight down from above.’

On his first helicopter trip over New York, he was determined to create his own version of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie over Times Square with its chock-a-block colours and shapes. As a result of Donn’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, which is part of the Points of Light Collection, people then started to gravitate to his images.

Aerial photography: a matter of planning and chance

Sitting next to Donn in the helicopter I watched him at work, unfazed by the wind, jolts and swings of the helicopter. On our 20-minute trip we went from Battersea Power Station, via the British Museum, the Gherkin, Tower Bridge, and the Shard to the O2, and back again via St Paul’s Cathedral, Piccadilly Circus and Regents Street. Enjoying all the main landmarks of the city, without the crowds. traffic and joys of the underground.

aerial photography birds eye view of the roof of the british museum
The Crown Jewel, The British Museum © Donn Delson

In a short space of time, I could see that Donn was methodical and careful about which images he took. Prior to any flight, he might have some shots in mind (like The Crown Jewel a direct birds-eye view of the British Museum roof). A simple “Yes, got it.” Came from beside me as a signal to the pilot to move on. But most of Donn’s images fall to chance and serendipity, he has many stories about times like these but one about visiting Japan is particularly special.

‘I went to Japan this past November to shoot fall colours, as they are always so magnificent. Except this year, because I guess my timing was a bit off. We’re flying over the mountains west of Tokyo and the colours are just not vibrant… so I was disappointed. I looked off to the left and saw Mount Fuji. The pilot looked at me and he said “It’s usually covered in clouds. Look today, you are so lucky. This is so unusual.” There was cloud cover, but the peak of Mount Fuji was crystal clear and gorgeous. This little floating area of clouds come over from the right and blended a bit to the left of Fuji and balanced the image perfectly… I got the most incredible picture and made the whole trip a success.’

aerial view of mount fuji in japan
Mt Fuji © Donn Delson

Another example is in Xylophones, where Donn captured rows of shipping containers at a port in Los Angeles. To him, the containers look like the musical bars on a xylophone, but he often gets the question of “why have you photographed a bookshelf?”; before they look closer and notice shipping containers with a large white lorry passing through. ‘It’s those surprise elements that come along that really make the difference too. It would’ve been a beautiful picture without the white truck. But the white truck was just like a gift.’

Xylophones by Donn Delson
Xylophones © Donn Delson

Kit for aerial photography

In terms of kit, Donn’s current cameras of choice are the Fujifilm GFX100 and Nikon D850. He said, ‘I love both these bodies and use them extensively. To give the viewer the best possible experience, to allow them to almost literally step into the picture and be with me in the helicopter. I make all my images large scale, the smallest being about 81 cm x 122 cm.’ The 102 megapixels of the Fuji GFX100 allows Donn the option of capturing insane amounts of detail and printing larger. The Nikon however, is Donn’s go-to for twilight and low light photography. When it comes to lenses, ‘With the Fuji, I tend to carry a mix of the 110mm F2, 32-64mm F4 and sometimes the 100-200mm F5.6. With the Nikon, the Nikkor 24-70 F2.8E FL ED VR.’

He also shoots in raw for the maximum amount of information. ‘Raw requires that I do some work in post-production, in Lightroom and Photoshop, but primarily to remove haze, increase contrast, or color saturation, basically to try to make the image as close as possible to what I actually saw.’

Turntables © Donn Delson
Turntables © Donn Delson

What about drones?

Despite some of the challenges that come with aerial photography – turbulence, unexpected weather, angles, the sun and the vibration from wind and propellers – to name a few. Donn hasn’t been tempted by drone photography. ‘I have the utmost respect for some of the amazing photography that I’ve seen lately that has been produced using drones.’ But it’s the connection and the emotion between Donn in the helicopter and looking down at the subject himself that is needed for the work. ‘I also fly to heights upward of 4,000 meters (12,000ft) as necessary to accomplish a shot. Drones are, I think, more limited, particularly over populated areas, as to what heights they are permitted to fly.’

Fiammata © Donn Delson
Fiammata © Donn Delson

Presentation is everything

Being unrestricted is an idea that resonates throughout Donn’s work and how it is presented too. He told me, ‘I don’t frame from pieces traditionally either. I mount them under acrylic with no frame… The idea being that without the frame you don’t have the encumbrance of the border. You have the freedom to, just like when you looked out the helicopter with no door, you had the perfect ability to just feel like a bird… I try to communicate that in my photography as well.’

The whimsical titles given to each piece reflect what they may resemble from high above, asking the audience to rethink their inherent assumptions about what they are seeing.

Donn Delson captured an image of a double complete rainbow in Molokai. A video shared on social media of him taking that photo went viral and was watched about 5 million times
Donn Delson captured an image of a double complete rainbow in Molokai. A video shared on social media of him taking that photo went viral and was watched about 5 million times

Advice for starting out in aerial photography

Aerial photography has taken Donn all over the world, so you might think he must have a favourite place he’s photographed… ‘The world from above is pretty spectacular, and although I’ve been fortunate to have travelled extensively, there’s still so much I hope to see and be able to shoot. If I include an image in my collection, it’s only because I love it. There’ve been so many…  sensational stories of things that I’ve experienced and had the opportunity to see that I can’t really pick a favourite… I’d love to go to India. I haven’t been.’

Having been up in the helicopter with Donn, I have a real appreciation for his process and the images he makes. I’ve always been an advocate for “looking up” to challenge your perspective – but now, I say “look down” when you get the chance to as well. Abstracting the mundanities of everyday life through this distance in such an artistic matter is what makes Donn’s work so special. In our interview, Donn shared with me a quote by Annie Albers, a weaving and textile artist from the Bauhaus School in the early 1900’s. She said, ‘You know it’s great art, if it makes you breathe differently.’ And Donn’s work certainly takes my breath away.

If you’ve ever thought about creating this type of work, Donn has one piece of advice for you:

‘My advice would be, do it. After 75 years of living, my advice would be if you have a passion for something, if there’s something that intrigues you, [or] something that piques your interest, never let anybody tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t… Every time I’ve stepped outside my comfort zone, I’ve experienced growth.’

birds eye view aerial photography of waves on  the beach, one single person at the top of the image in view
Impressions © Donn Delson

Donn Delson’s top tips for fine art aerial photography

  1. Shoot a high shutter speed 1/1600-1/2000 to help eliminate the vibration
  2. Shoot in burst mode. The first and last few of the burst may or may not be in focus, but the middle should be.
  3. Only take images that evoke an emotional reaction of some sort in you.
  4. Take images that you believe will tell a story, evoke confusion, curiosity, joy, calm, etc. as every viewer sees something different in an image.
  5. With respect to helicopter photography, it can also be quite expensive, so it helps if people want to collect your work to enjoy for themselves.

Donn Delson’s next solo show is scheduled for January 2025 at Axiom Contemporary in Scottsdale, AZ.

See more of Donn’s work on his website and Instagram.

Further reading:

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