People and Places

How award-winning photographer Emma Willetts captures shots from the sky

Award-winning photographer Emma Willetts captures the breathtaking, and sometimes unrecognisable, patterns of the land from the air

You could be forgiven for thinking Emma Willetts’ photographs are paintings. Abstract shapes and striking colours dominate her work, which is taken from above. From the salt lakes in Hutt Lagoon, Australia, to Farewell Spit in Golden Bay and the snow-capped mountains of Lindis Pass, these incredible landscapes are her playground from on high.

She started her photography journey trialling cameras and lenses while working on superyachts, and when she returned to New Zealand she launched her own wedding photography business. Last year, the Ōamaru-based artist won the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year award in the aerial division.

How did you get into landscape photography?

It happened pretty organically, I worked on a superyacht for nearly 10 years. During that time, I was fortunate enough to travel to about 60 countries and became fascinated with the diversity and beauty of the landscapes we travelled to. I didn’t really know I had

an artistic eye until I bought my first camera and started playing with different lenses and seeing light in a different way. When I came back to New Zealand at the beginning of 2016, I started my wedding photography business and again was travelling a lot. Along the way I couldn’t help but capture some of New Zealand’s stunning landscapes.

And how did that transform into aerial photography?

I organised a flight in the middle of winter to photograph the incredible mountains and pink skies I was seeing every morning from our bedroom window. When we were up in the air above the Waitaki braided river I was absolutely blown away with what I saw from that perspective and from that moment on
I was addicted.

What is it you love about capturing landscapes from above?

Seeing the abstract elements of nature, particularly the fluidity of the rivers and oceans and the interplay of colours and textures with the land – and then translating that into an image. I love connecting the viewer to the elements typically unseen from the ground and not always appreciated.

Talk us through how you would go about getting a shot.

I am lucky to live five minutes from a small airport, and a 30-minute flight to Mount Cook National Park. A local dairy farmer who flies Cessnas, Hayden Williams, typically takes me up. He loves it and is an incredible pilot. It’s his way to de-stress so it’s a win-win for both of us. I have also taken a couple of heli flights with a local company, so there are a lot of options.

I love searching for new places to photograph and am drawn to waterways and abstract forms. Light is, of course, incredibly important with photography, so I try to fly in the morning or later in the afternoon/evening. The light is softer and tells more of a story.

How often do you go up?

Not as often as I would like, probably six times a year.

What challenges come with shooting from above?

I do tend to get a little bit of motion sickness when Hayden banks the plane and changes altitude at a relatively fast pace. The light can also be quite challenging if it’s too bright on the water, so I’m constantly playing with camera settings and adjusting the plane to the light. If I’m shooting with the door off, it can be freezing, especially in winter, so gloves are always essential, but they’re also challenging when adjusting settings.

What has been your favourite place to shoot?

That’s a tough one, but Western Australia’s salt lakes were incredible from the air. Hutt Lagoon is bright pink and bursting with textures and beautiful abstract elements. The colours of the red earth and turquoise waters in Francois Peron National Park are a photographer’s dream. Western Australia is a hub for aerial photographers. In New Zealand, Mount Cook National Park, particularly where the rivers flow into the lakes, is simply stunning.

What has been the most memorable experience in photography?

Sometimes it’s quite overwhelming just how beautiful it all is. I can get pretty emotional just taking it all in.

What did winning the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year aerial category award mean to you?
It was truly an honour and completely unexpected. To be recognised for my style, which can be quite abstract in nature, felt really special.

Where would your ideal shoot location be?

Iceland. Before Covid-19, my fiance Bevan and I were planning a trip there last year. The braided rivers in Iceland are on another level.

What is something people wouldn’t know about being a photographer?

Amid the creativity and freedom, most photographers also battle the daily tasks of running a business – and even loneliness, as most of us work from home.

Text by Bea Taylor. Photography by Rachel Wybrow.

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