From His Epic Helicopters Perch, Photographer Matt Hawthorne’s Showing Off A New Side of Dallas
When it comes to Instagram, we thought we’d seen just about all there was to see of Dallas — and then some.
But lately, our feeds have started to show off some skyline photos from a perspective hardly ever captured before — shots taken from above the city. This is the doing of Epic Helicopters and the small group of photographers they’re employing to show us Dallas in a different light and remind us just how awesome this city is.
For the past year or so, this copter charter service has been regularly taking area photographers on board to document and share the insane aerial views of Dallas that us city dwellers are missing out on.
And when we say insane, we mean it: Epic’s feed really does live up to its name.
While it’s impossible to rank any one photo as more epic than the next, the contributions of one photographer in particular really stood out to us — the works of Fort Worth native Matt Hawthorne.
In addition to working with Epic, Hawthorne has also taken off with Nike Helicopters and NYonAir ), a similar copter charter service based in New York City, to get his unique bird’s-eye view of the world. And, lucky us, Hawthorne was willing to indulge our curiosities when we caught up with him during a recent moment of downtime.
Just to start us off, can you tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a professional photographer?
I was a Radio, TV and Film major in school and also a sponsored skateboarder. My sponsors were always asking me for images of myself skating for promotional purposes. Eventually, I asked my dad to show me how to use his old Olympus manual 35mm camera. I would set up the composition on a tripod and have a buddy snap the shot when I was in the air. Eventually, this led to adding a fill flash to illuminate shadows on my face. The next thing I knew, I had four Canon flashes on radio slaves and was changing my major to photography. After finishing school, I started photo assisting Dallas-based fashion shooters and really connected with the studio lighting scenarios. Since I was already shooting with multiple lights for my skateboard photography, that type of lighting made sense to me; working with those guys really helped me push myself with mixing in studio techniques with action photography. In the end, skateboarding is what got me into shooting action sports.
Currently, what are your areas of focus?
I mainly shoot advertising work, and those projects always include shooting people of some sorts. I do a lot of fitness shoots for clients like Life Time Fitness and Gold’s Gym, sports shoots for clients like Gatorade and Nike, and lifestyle fashion shoots for clients like JCPenney, FedEx, American Airlines, Walmart and more.
So how did you one day end up taking photos in a helicopter?
I was approached by a Dallas friend who does marketing about teaming up with Epic Helicopters to trade airtime for images that Epic could promote with on their website and social platforms. I have over 10k followers on Instagram, so even me posting aerials would be a huge way to help Epic promote themselves. I have flown with Epic numerous times now, helping them build a nice library of Dallas images that they can promote with, while also getting the opportunity to build a great portfolio of aerials for myself. It’s been a win-win for everyone.
Is it hard to photograph something from a helicopter?
Yeah, it’s a little difficult. Of course, being in the air, you can get neat photos. But being specific and trying to coordinate certain shots are a little tricky. Technically, it’s not too difficult — but you definitely have to be able to make decisions and adjustments very fast.
Were you ever scared?
I would say I was more anxious about what it would be like. My first time up was doors-off, so I knew it would be a wild experience. It was way different than I expected though — much smoother — and, after about 10 seconds, I wasn’t worried anymore at all. It’s exciting every time I go up.
Do you direct where the pilot goes, or do you just photograph according to the route he takes throughout the flight?
On standard helicopter tours, the pilot always creates a perfect flight pattern and takes the riders on the best experience he can give. When I get to fly with Epic, it’s a little different; we do communicate before the flight and come up with a concept or strategy and how the flight pattern will best help us to capture it. I am able to direct to a certain level in order to line up our chopper to get the best angle. Since we are basically shooting marketing images for Epic, we are able to go off the standard path in order to get unique shots.
What are some of your favorite things about Dallas from above — things that the rest of us are missing out on from down here?
In college, I shot an entire portfolio of freeway mixmasters at night in black and white, using a large format 4-by-5-inch negative. The exposures would range from 30 minutes to an hour for one image, giving extreme detail and tones. I’ve always been attracted to the lines, patterns and grandness that our city’s freeway interchanges have, so seeing those from above is one of my favorite things. They are so interesting because of their complex and strategic design. Flying over them with the doors off is a rush. Buzzing around the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge’s arch and Dallas’ sports venues is really incredible, too. I highly encourage people to contact Epic and take a flight; it is truly an amazing experience to see the roads you drive on and the buildings you see everyday from a helicopter. Such a cool experience.
You’ve also worked with NYonAir. Could you tell us a little bit about working with them?
NyOnAir is a production helicopter company in New York City that shoots video for movies and TV shows, and covers sporting events and more. They are doing some amazing things and have done the same thing by bringing on board their helicopters some very high follower-count Instagram users to shoot and post for them. I have been very fortunate to become one of their team members and have the opportunity to fly with them whenever I’m in New York. They handle their flights the same way as Epic, giving the team members the opportunity to suggest flight patterns or landmarks they want to shoot. Flying over Manhattan with the doors off and looking down on the most iconic buildings in the city was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. It was a little overwhelming, as you can imagine, deciding what to actually focus on and capture because the city is so complex. But I have gotten some incredible shots with them and look forward to doing more with them in the future.
So now that you’ve mastered photographing from a helicopter, what’s the next big thing?
[Laughs.] I definitely wouldn’t say I have mastered the art of shooting aerials. But I have learned a lot, and I’ve had fun doing it. Shooting aerials has really been nice for me, to step away from my normal day to day of shooting advertising jobs and create something different. I hope to keep experimenting with the aerials. But the next big thing for me is to continue pushing my fitness and sports advertising work and gaining new clients. You can check out my commercial work on my website.
Have you ever considered just using a drone instead?
I actually have a drone! Drones are very cool and can get you some great footage, but why use a drone when you can be in a real helicopter? I also think that, in order to capture high-resolution aerial stills, you would need a very high-end and expensive drone, which most people don’t have the opportunity to use. The drone has advantages of getting close to things, where the helicopter has limitations on distance. The advantage to a helicopter is much higher and grander views, while having the flexibility to make hands-on decisions using any camera you want. Not to mention that it’s way more fun to be in a helicopter.