Cameron Davidson Aerials of the Danakil Depression

Jacqui Palumbo

Cameron Davidson began shooting aerials in 1979 when he was 23 years old. While photographing Great Blue Herons in Southern Maryland for National Geographic, he noticed a plane on a nearby farm. He approached the farmer to inquire if he would take him up into the air to shoot a different angle of the rookery. The farmer agreed, and charged him fifteen dollars for gas.


This would become the event that shaped Davidson’s career. His prior ambitions had been to simply shoot wildlife for National Geographic, but flying high above the earth he saw new opportunities. “I found a way to incorporate my love of graphic patterns with shooting wildlife and landscapes,” he explains. From there, he went around the world shooting advertising campaigns, annual reports and editorials features from both the sky and ground, for clients like Audubon, Smithsonian, American Express, National Geographic, Dominion, Virginia Tourism and Vanity Fair.


Recently, Davidson was approached by Departures Photo Editor Jessica Dimson to travel to Ethiopia for an aerial shoot along with writer Sophy Roberts. The assignment was to create a photo essay exploring one of the hottest places on earth from the sky, the Danakil Depression. Departures asked Davidson to capture the “stark beauty” of the inhospitable landscape and to document the journey of Ben Simpson, the helicopter pilot who planned and executed the challenging expedition.


The Danakil Depression is a geological depression that sits at the lowest point in Africa, along the Djibouti and Eritrea borders in Northern Ethiopia. It includes the Danakil Desert, Lake Assal, and Dallol, a settlement that reaches average temperatures of 118 degrees Fahrenheit during the dry season. The vast landscape is constructed of arid lowland plains, active volcanoes, sulfur lakes and salt flats, and is home to the Afars, a nomadic group of people. To understand the location and prepare for the shoot, Davidson watched a BBC documentary and read The Danakil Diary by Sir Wilfred Thesiger, British explorer and writer, who was the first European to venture into the area in the 1930s.



Despite the difficult location, the shoot itself went smoothly, thanks to a well-planned preproduction. Davidson used a Nikon D3x, a D3s for low light, Nikkor 18 mm, 24-70 mm and 70-200 mm VRII lenses and a Ken-Lab KS-6 gyroscope. Concerned that the gyroscope battery would not make it from dawn to dusk, he obtained an inverter and cable that powered the gyroscope through the power supply of the AStar helicopter.


The final images were edited for color correction, highlights and shadows, but Davidson prefers not to alter his photographs a great deal. “The world is a pretty amazing place from the air and the Danakil is truly an incredible landscape.  I don’t feel the need to change the aerial viewpoint by altering the reality of the landscape.  It is spectacular enough as it is,” he explains. His images aim to show the raw textures and patterns of the earth’s surface, and he is inspired by the interaction of humankind, water and landscapes.




The digital age has left few secrets in the world, but Davidson’s work manages to share unique landscapes that many will never witness firsthand. At minimum, he wants his viewers to experience a different perspective of the world, but he also hopes that his work encourages a dialogue. Davidson stays true to his vision, and he believes the most successful photographers are those who shoot what is truly important to them. “Vision is critical,” he says. “Many of us struggle with too much information flowing into our lives and with that overload comes too many influences. I’ve seen quite a few photographers get diverted by a trend.”


Davidson plans to continue to explore unusual regions of the world from the air and will also shoot two ground-based projects within the year. He just completed a long-term book project called Chesapeake, which explores the Chesapeake Bay from the air, and will be distributed by University of Virginia press in the Fall of 2011.


To see more of Cameron Davidson’s work, visit his Web site.


© Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
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