Brad in Chopper

Brad gets strapped into the back seat. Notice how I get the much safer looking seat up front. This is as it should be.

There’s something about being a photographer at St. Thomas that feels just a bit like cheating. You work at an institution that is comprised entirely of beautiful architecture surrounding what is essentially an arboretum.

And every few years the place rents you a helicopter.

The last time was in 2006 and since then the campus has changed just a bit. With all the construction completed, it was time to go up again. Which is why, on a still-black September Sunday morning, videographer Brad Jacobsen and I found ourselves at Fleming Field in South St. Paul. Brad, toting a ridiculously heavy gyro-stabilized mount for his camera, had to get to the field 20 minutes before me to let the gyros in the stabilizer spin up. So when I stepped into the hangar, Brad was already getting strapped into the back of the chopper.

When I say “strapped,” I really mean it. When we do aerial photos we do so with the doors off of the helicopter. Since my gear is smaller I sit up front, wear a four-point harness, and simply twist at the waist to look out the open side. Brad, on the other hand, sits in the back with his feet on the skid of the helicopter and wears a full-body harness that attaches inside the helicopter.

Reasonably secure inside the chopper, our pilot, the incredibly calm and competent Jimmy Young, ran through his checklists, fired up the engines, and we lifted, doorless, into the morning air.

Ten minutes later we were circling the St. Paul campus in some amazing light.


See how Jimmy is looking out the window and not at me horsing around? That’s the sign of a good pilot. Actually, this seems to happen a lot to me.


Reports of a small stuffed animal making its way into the cabin for purposes of social media tomfoolery have only recently been confirmed.

Shooting from a helicopter is a bit of a mental balancing act. Thanks to the success of our 2006 shoot there were plenty of people who knew what they wanted from this flight, so in addition to directing the pilot, changing exposure settings to match the light (it changes from sun to shade as you circle the campus), and playing “Operation” with the frame of the chopper (if you take a picture with any part of your hands, head, or camera touching the side of the helicopter, you’ll get a blurry photo thanks to all the vibration), I had a mental checklist of all the requests I’d received.

We spent 45 minutes circling St. Paul before heading down the river toward Minneapolis. I’m a sucker for tall buildings, so passing by the skyline as close as we did left me with an experience that still makes me smile.

You can only fly around two sides of the Minneapolis campus thanks to all the skyscrapers, so 20 minutes of work downtown and we headed back to Fleming Field to put the doors on the helicopter and fly to the Gainey Center in Owatonna. We stopped off at the Owatonna airport where Jimmy landed, pulled the doors off, and dropped them in a field next to the taxiway.

After that it was 20 minutes of work over Gainey (being careful not to fly too low and spook the horses), back to the Owatonna airport to put the doors on, and then back to Fleming Field.

Aerial photography is one of the coolest things I get to do as a photographer, but until you get some images into the camera it’s also one of the more nerve-wracking. Circling the campus with the muted thump of the rotors breaking through the barrier of your headset, the occasional chatter of air traffic control, and the near constant slap of the camera shutter, you are being given any number of gifts – the light, the place, the opportunity. If you fail, the blame can only be laid at your feet – an indictment of your skill and of the care with which you received those gifts.

And to succeed means more than simply returning with a properly exposed image containing all the buildings people have asked you to shoot. It means showing people something they’ve never seen before or, perhaps even better, showing them something they’ve seen a thousand times in a way they’ve never seen it. That’s knowledge, and it’s why St. Thomas is here.

I’m grateful it’s a place photography can call home.

Read more from Depth of Field. 

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14 Responses

  1. Joshua Yetman

    Hey Mike, followed the link from the UPAA blog. I’m a MN native working for St. George’s University in Grenada. Thanks for this great post! I sure miss home this time of the year.

  2. Lisa B.

    You do have a cool job, And these are fabulous. Thanks, Mike, for making our jobs easier by being so good at yours. Being able to show rather than tell that we are an urban university with a downtown campus as well as a lovely residential campus on the Mississippi River will be much more effectively done with some of these photos.

  3. Carol Bruess

    Stunning, Mike. Absolutely stunning. And because of the beauty you captured on that recent morning, all of my neighbor friends and I will forgive you for our early-awakening-flurry-of-curisoity-and-concern calls to each other (“Is there a prisoner loose?” “Has a child gone missing?” “Is there a fire somewhere?” “Could the Pope be coming to campus?!”)

    Seeing what you have produced, it was clearly worth us getting up early to join in the speculation. Great job, Mike, Brad, Jimmy the pilot … all!

    One final thought: maybe next time you can drop the neighborhood some coffee and mugs so we can sip and ponder while peering at your flying above us? It would give new meaning to “it’s on the house!”

  4. Donna B

    Awesome photos, and an enjoyable story. These pics really make me appreciate the beauty of the campuses. I’d like to share this with my friends and brag, ‘This is where I work!’

  5. Tim Fischer

    I don’t think anyone could deny the fact that the St. Thomas campuses, our campuses, are in and of themselves, nothing short of spectacular.

    But, we cannot deny another fact… they would be just mere buildings without the people, like Mike, Brad and the countless others at St. Thomas who bring them to life!
    GREAT job guys… Thank you for all your fantastic work and sharing it with all of us! Simply AWESOME!!

  6. Dan Gjelten

    Mike, those shots are truly amazingly beautiful. I forgive you for waking us up that Sunday morning by flying slowly over our house several times.