This Toronto photographer takes stunning bird’s-eye shots of the world’s best beaches
As a child, Joshua Jensen-Nagle vacationed at his grandfather’s beach house on the scenic shores of the Atlantic in New Jersey. After falling in love with photography in high school and studying it at Ryerson, the Toronto-based photographer was drawn back to the water—only now he he flies high above the shores in a helicopter, capturing mesmerizing shades of blue. Those shots are on display at Bau-Xi Gallery until the end of August. We asked Jensen-Nagle what it’s like to take photos from on high.
First of all, why beaches?
I started shooting beaches around 2000. I have joyful, youthful memories of pure bliss from spending time at beaches. Generally, people go to beaches to get away from crowds and let themselves go. We get so caught up with work that when we actually get in the water or under the sun, it’s such a happy emotion.
Of course, you’re not on vacation when you’re at the beach. How do you feel while you’re working?
Usually, I’m very stressed and focused on getting the work done. I have a lot of anxiety until I know that I have something. There’s only so much research you can do: until you actually get to the location, you don’t know what you’re going to get.
What does that research entail?
It starts with a lot of Internet research: Google Earth, finding out how crowded it gets at what time of year, when’s the best time to visit. I’ve built a list of different places I’m working on. The next trip is to Barcelona, then Portugal, France and maybe Sicily.
Once you’ve settled on a location, what’s the first step?
I use a network of fixers—usually people who work in the film industry who have contacts all over the world—to find out from local authorities what permissions we need. Typically, we need to get permission from them to fly over certain locations at least a couple months ahead of time, and there are altitude restrictions. In some cases, you can just go and do it, but I always check.
Who exactly is flying you around?
I usually get a senior pilot to go out with me. They have to pull some tricky manoeuvres while we’re flying because I take a lot of shots facing directly down. I talk through it with the pilot beforehand, often back and forth with a translator. Some of them get it right away and some don’t. Sometimes, you get hotshot pilots that really crank it and go a bit faster than I’m used to.
I’m assuming you’re not scared of heights?
I actually don’t like flying, so it was very nerve-wracking the first time, and it still is when there’s rough turbulence. But as soon as I get my eye into the viewfinder, I completely forget about all of that. I completely relax.
I assume you’re strapped in.
I’m always harnessed in and sort of…hanging out of the chopper. I shoot while my wife, Jessica Jensen, is in the front seat of the helicopter watching Capture Pilot, which is an app that links my camera to an iPhone or iPad. Since there’s a lot of vibration and pressure from the rotors, it’s hard for me to tell if the shot is in focus. We have headsets on to communicate, and she says things like, “No, do another pass, this one was out of focus,” while I look at the technical aspects: camera settings, the composition of the photo. I also give the pilot a focal point to circle around and tell him, “Out 50 metres, down 10 metres.”
What kind of camera do you use?
I use a Phase One camera. It’s 100 megapixels, and it’s attached to a gyroscope so it’s stabilized while I’m in the air. I have extra batteries and lenses, but that’s it. My copter of choice is called the Robinson 44. It’s a small machine compared to some, but it suits my needs perfectly: it’s stable and affordable—about $1,000 per hour. As you get to bigger and bigger machines, the prices are astronomical. Getting permits and flying across the world can get very expensive, you know? On average, a trip costs about $10,000.
Does weather ever get in your way?
There are a lot of environmental things to worry about—the wind, for example, can push the helicopter sideways—but I’ve been very fortunate with weather. I’ve never had to cancel a shoot because of it. Once, though, when I was in Hawaii, I wanted to shoot a stretch of beaches (above). A strange wind came in from a certain direction, so they had to change the main airport’s flight path to right over my area. We didn’t get cleared to fly until the very last day I was there. For the whole time, I was thinking, “Oh, geez. I came all the way to Hawaii for this!”
Now that you’ve shot so many beaches, do you remember them all individually or do they blend together?
Each piece is different: the water colour is different, the waves are different. For example, I love the waves in Rio de Janeiro (above)—they made the texture of the photo so whimsical.
Some of your photos have a wispiness and a watercolour-like blend of pastels. Are they altered?
They’re slightly altered, which comes from my past shooting with Polaroid film. Polaroid film is extremely soft, and the colour palette is very similar to these images. I tried to duplicate that feel with these shots.
What’s the story behind the shots that you take from the ground?
They actually came first and evolved into the aerial shots. But nowadays, when I’m up there, I’m location scouting: I point out areas that I want to check out on the ground.
While we’re on the ground photos, what’s with the polka dots?
That was just a playful, tongue-in-cheek reference to Damien Hirst’s polka dots. I was intrigued by them, and I wanted to add a graphic element to the work. The dots dance through the image; it just adds a little hint of something otherworldly.
Has taking these photos changed your relationship with beaches?
I still get the same feelings from them. When I’m there, it brings back happy memories and simpler times, and I get to relax. When I make the large prints and see them, it immediately calms me down.
So you’re not bored yet?
I often get asked, “Are you going to continue to shoot beaches?” I don’t know. Time will tell. As long as I’m still inspired by beaches and can find new ways to shoot them, I will.