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Patterns From Above

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Don't get me wrong. Shooting aerials is great fun, even if I make it sound like hard work. It's a new world when you get up there. Textbook geology (dry as dust in the classroom) leaps to fascinating life. Intricate patterns of human life reveal themselves magically. And the borders and boundaries of our world lay out plainly before our eyes. I never get tired of it. For all of the precautions and caveats of my previous post on shooting aerials, let me make this clear: it's worth it.

Not all the time, not for every situation, and most of all, not without reason. I'm not one for taking pictures just because they look nice. I'm a believer in working pictures.

And in Cornwall, where I shot this picture out on the ancient lands of the Penwith peninsula, I had a job to do. I needed to show two things. First, the ancient patterns of the Celtic fields, laid out with the "hedges" so common in the Cornish landscape. A hedge is a dry stone fence that comes—over the centuries—to be covered with wildflowers. Some of them are 2,000 years old and are protected by British law as part of the national heritage.

Second, I wanted to show how the farms lay close by the sea, bounded by the rugged Cornish coast where high cliffs protect snug little beaches unknown to all but the locals. And in a magazine layout (this was for National Geographic Traveler) I need to do it all in one picture. There's not time or space to spread this little narrative over several pictures as you might do in a slide show. No, it needs to be quick and simple.

This situation was pretty much made for an aerial photograph. I was lucky enough to find a plane down at the Lands End aerodrome and within 15 minutes of popping into the air I saw the picture I needed. I could have spent days looking for the right vantage point (and never have found it). So even on a cost basis, this was a bargain.

And with this picture in hand I could concentrate on other important pictures, like looking for the perfect pub (and the perfect pint).

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