Bird's Eye Photographer Shoots from His Cessna Aerial photographer Michael Collier captures radiant landscape images of the Earth from a single-engine airplane, all the while steering the aircraft with his feet.
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Bird's Eye Photographer Shoots from His Cessna

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Bird's Eye Photographer Shoots from His Cessna

Bird's Eye Photographer Shoots from His Cessna

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Flying with the pilot Michael Collier requires a pharmaceutical patch behind your ear to fight nausea. That's what NPR's Howard Berkes discovered on a recent white-knuckle flight, because Collier is also a geologist and a photographer and family physician. He heals the sick on the ground but sickened our reporter in the air, dipping and swerving his plane. That's how Mr. Collier produces stunning aerial images of geologic formations.

And a recovered Howard Berkes has his story.

HOWARD BERKES: I don't actually get sick in this story, thanks to that air sickness patch, but there's plenty of nervousness and nausea, because aerial photographer Michael Collier can't get decent images without steep dips and hairpin turns.

Dr. MICHAEL COLLIER (Aerial Photographer): The plane is one of the world's more finicky tripods, expensive tripods. And I use it to position myself in three dimensions.

BERKES: That comes at the end of our day, hours after leaving Salt Lake City and its incessant radio traffic. We hear that and each other on a choppy intercom as we cruise south in a Cessna 180 with a single engine.

Dr. COLLIER: Maybe 30 seconds will go by between my thinking about where am I going to put this down if the motor blows up - not to be paranoid, but just to be alive.

BERKES: The motor blows up?

Dr. COLLIER: Yeah. It's undesirable. In 4,000 hours in this plane, it's happened once.

BERKES: That's comforting, but both Collier and his Cessna are in their 50s, and they've been at this three decades. Collier seems confident, with his aviator shades and a reddened and ruddy face framed by wavy brown hair and a thick mustache.

Dr. COLLIER: What I'm primarily looking for is the light. Right now it's the middle of the day, and I ain't taking no pictures. We're really spending the entire day positioning ourselves for the last two hours of the afternoon and the first two hours of the morning. We're going out to some amazing red rock country, so I'm just - I'm en route.

BERKES: We're headed for dramatic landscapes in southeastern Utah. Other journeys took the photographer and the plane from Maine to Mexico and Honduras to Alaska. Capturing coastlines, canyons, glaciers, rivers, deserts and mountains, they produced 13 books together on geologic themes on how the Earth evolves.

The latest book is called is called "Over the Mountains," and it's the first in a new series featuring Collier's aerial images.

(Soundbite of plane landing)

BERKES: It's still hours to sunset, so we land on a sandy and grassy airstrip along the Green River outside Canyon Lands National Park. We sit on the bank, tossing sticks into the muddy water and talking about an early evening race for perfect light.

Dr. COLLIER: Sunlight's going through more atmosphere, and it takes on a fullness, almost a creaminess. The reds start coming out, and that's the golden hour. You can squander it, makes you desperate, makes you crazy, to want to be everywhere at that last moment. And you're scurrying from here to there to get as much in as you can at the last five minutes, three minutes, two minutes of light. And then it starts to fade, and you look around and you realize, oh, we got to land.

BERKES: It's such a frantic time that Collier can't trust anyone else at the controls while he's trying to frame images with his handheld Pentax 645.

Dr. COLLIER: I'm doing it perfectly instinctually. I can't tell you fast enough to turn left 40 degrees and drop 300 feet and give me a left wing up and put in a 40-degree bank. It has to be something that I'm doing.

(Soundbite of plane taking off)

BERKES: We're close to sunset, so we get back in the air, banking and climbing steeply to avoid the 80-story canyon wall at the end of the runway. It's hard not be nervous and nauseous despite the airsick patch, because this is where Collier steers with foot pedals, his head and camera out the window, the plane tilting and dipping.

Dr. COLLIER: Look at this. Look at this. This is erosion in action. You see these monuments left standing. They're exquisitely lit. This is the perfect time of day to be here, where the light's sliding in around them.

BERKES: The red rock monuments stand in formation like soldiers.

Dr. COLLIER: They're - I'm guessing 500 feet high. Oh, how wonderful. Now, there's a cliff over there. I'll try not to fly into the cliffs. That's considered bad form. Oh my. Wonderful. I think people will enjoy those.

BERKES: We have only 20 minutes of perfect light, so the flying and photography are frenzied, stomach-churning. The viewfinder frames islands of lush green grass and a sea of sandstone and cliffs and sky that glow red.

Dr. COLLIER: This is beautiful light, exquisite light. Wow. The images that I'm just taking now in this soft Rembrandt light, as I call it, are so warm that if I can engage people who are looking at the pictures to say that landscape is glowing from within, I think I like this landscape - they might want to learn about it a little bit more.

BERKES: Then they'll be willing to do something to protect it, perhaps?

Dr. COLLIER: If they choose to. But no, I'm not polemic in these pictures. I figure the landscape ought to be given a chance to speak for itself, and the pictures showing this glowing from within help it to do that.

BERKES: We lose the good light, so we set down on a remote airstrip and crawl into sleeping bags for six hours. Before dawn there's another liftoff and a frenzied attempt to harness morning light. And when that light's lost, we land at a paved airstrip to refuel and take stock.

How many rolls have you shot since we started yesterday?

Dr. COLLIER: I think I'm up to 13 rolls, which is a reasonable number. Of the 13 rolls, if I come away with five pictures on the strip that stand the test of time, I'll be delighted.

BERKES: That's four good hours of light and five exceptional images from almost 400 photographs and 14 hours in the air, at a cost of $130 an hour.

Dr. COLLIER: It's absurd, but it's the way that you do it. It's a ridiculously inefficient way to get images, but it's what it takes. It's why there aren't a lot of similar people stupid enough to be doing what I'm doing.

BERKES: This made more sense to me a week later, feet firmly planted in a southern Utah canyon, where a white flower grew from a thin sandstone crack. The annual bloom on that desert evening primrose lasted less than a day, and it wasn't visible from the air.

Michael Collier's distant view reveals centuries of violence, of rock convulsing and folding. But that's what leads to delicate moments when fleeting blossoms rise from cracked stone. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can take a virtual flight with Michael Collier - all the great views, none of the nausea - just by going to

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