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Go Inside: Photographing Belize
Tony Rath’s day begins with a motion sickness pill and a good breakfast because even the hardiest stomach can churn when banked 45 degrees while peering through a viewfinder a thousand feet above Belize’s reefs.
* Originally posted to National Geographic NewsWatch
Over the last 20 years, Tony Rath and LightHawk have teamed up to photograph the jungles, coastline, and reefs of Belize from the air countless times. Tony shares what he’s learned over the years about making aerial images with LightHawk.
My flight day begins with a motion sickness pill and a good breakfast. Even the hardiest stomach can churn when banked 45 degrees while peering through a viewfinder. A peek into my gear bag reveals two camera bodies, two wide angle and a couple telephoto lenses, extra batteries and CF cards. If we will be shooting over water, then a polarizer filter is a must. A flash (for in plane photos), batteries, lens cleaning equipment, and notebook and pen round out my kit. I slip on long pants, t-shirt and a long sleeve shirt, as it can get cold at altitude. A pair of hiking boots rounds out this photographer’s ensemble – a holdover from my military days.
LightHawk volunteer pilots excel at pre-flight planning. Maps are unfolded, routes drawn, and our mission discussed until we are all on the same page. Weather is carefully studied, forms are signed, last minute instructions given and then we board the plane. The whole process is professional and exhilarating.
There are two things you should know about these flights. First, they are photographer friendly. They have to be. LightHawk collaborates with photographers not only to capture unique perspectives of our environment, but to assist conservation efforts across North and Central America.
Second, understand that these are great pilots. They know where the sun is and to keep it at my back (unless requested otherwise). They know how to circle so the subjects stays within my view, not theirs. They know when to ease up, climb high, avoid bad weather and follow a pre-arranged flight. All this means that I can concentrate on collecting visual data or unique perspectives.
The LightHawk pilots also put safety as their top priority. My wife likes knowing that I’m secured by a harness with multiple points of attachment, in addition to the regular seatbelt, when we fly with the rear door removed. Voice-activated headsets allow direct communication with the pilot, and other passengers on board, including the mission leader who guides the flight.
There is no more efficient way of spotting a jabiru stork or harpy eagle nest than gliding above the jungle canopy. Climb 1,000 feet above the sea and manatees, dolphins and whales suddenly appear. Steep banking at the first call of “manatee” allows me to locate, focus and document the creature in its nature habitat. Biologists on board make note of the precise location, numbers and species of the mammals.
In dozens of flights with LightHawk volunteer pilots, I’ve learned that seeing the world from above lends a perspective that changes hearts, minds and often policy. The curve of the earth, and the immensity and complexity of our environment reveals a hidden beauty, hidden no longer due to the symbiosis of the LightHawk pilot and the photographer.
Tony Rath has worked as a diver and underwater photographer for the Smithsonian Institution; diving on oilrigs off California; and captaining a sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean and through the Mediterranean and North Seas. He first visited Belize in 1979, and moved there permanently in 1988. Since then he has explored and photographed most of Belize by land, sea and air.