The View From Above San Francisco

Posted On: February 26, 2014
By: ffdadmin

All Photos copyright Bob Ecker Photography. Click any image for a larger version.

If you haven’t noticed, we love pictures of San Francisco. And after our helicopter ride last fall, we really have a thing for San Francisco aerial photos. Our love for great aerial shots of San Francisco led us to a chance meeting of Bob Ecker, who happens to be a photographer that does exactly that. Bob Ecker was kind enough to sit down with us and talk a little bit about how he ended up becoming a San Francisco photographer.

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San Francisco from above, photo credit: Bob Ecker

How it All Began:

Bob was a still shooter for his whole life. His career brought him to owning a video production company in Berkeley and an existing client sent him over a request for bid for a project involving aerial photography – specific mission: photograph an aircraft carrier in Alameda for the Navy as it was leaving the naval base. His bid was just a shot in the dark, as he had never rented a helicopter and its pilot before, registered a flight plan, or even witnessed a professional aerial photo shoot.

Bob was awarded the bid, but he had no idea how to actually proceed having never been in a helicopter. He outlined what he knew and didn’t know. He had no idea of the physical logistics of shooting. He could research the  temperature  changes at likely altitudes. But had no concept about  the variations in how his equipment would perform at these heights. He was unsure of requirements for safety and photography from a helicopter. He would need to identify what security and clearance permission documents would be required. There was much to consider; he would learn as he went.

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Another View from Above. Photo courtesy of Bob Ecker

The First Shoot:

He went the first time having muddled through procuring of aircraft and pilot, and submitting a flight plan – when they reached the desired altitude, he flung the door open and the freezing cold rain began stinging his skin and his camera. The cold drizzle gained momentum and the grey sky engulfed the aircraft as only San Francisco clouds can. As Bob perched at the edge of the opening, straining to see the port and shuffling thoughts about angles and lack of light, Bob’s camera shutter had frozen closed. No pictures would be taken today, but Bob is “sort of a lucky guyâ€? you might say, and due to the inclement weather the Navy had radioed that the shoot would be rescheduled for three weeks later when the ship returned to port.

This ship he was photographing had been repaired in the SF dry dock, which is the deepest dry dock in North & South America, and remains part of SF Pier 70. The rescheduled ship shoot went off without a hitch later than month. A thoroughly prepared photographer armed with back-up equipment, safety gear, and a clear plan made it all work. He captured and delivered spectacular shots, which ensured that he secured more aerial work. That shoot was more than a decade ago and he has come to be known for his talents on the ground and in the air, recording the best sides of many, many ships for the Navy and cruise lines.

What makes a successful shoot:

Making the most of every air moment. As aerial photography ship jobs continued Bob began to shoot things things beyond the ship – the beginning of another photographic niche. Shooting San Francisco, the buildings parks, bridges, ball parks, towers, ports, infrastructure soon became just as interesting.

Tips from Bob:

Know as much about the area as possible and:

  • Keep in constant communication with the pilot & never assume that they see the bird, balloon or building
  • Prepare, plan & organize the shoot, air time is expensive in time & resources
  • Look around, take it all in and capture what you can


Working With Pilots:

They’re “low blood pressure people,â€? which translates to calm, cool, collected people, who don’t get excited too quickly. Bob’s shoots are ‘fun’ for the pilots and Bob has established a wonderful relationship with a handful who he frequently partners with. Bob says a key to safety and success is to always communicating with them about what they see and what is going to happen next. Verifying a building’s antenna, a single balloon coming near the aircraft or a plane in the vicinity is safest.

What it’s Like Up There:

Everything appears vastly different from the air he says. Neighborhoods look much different; they are a series of patterns, shapes, dimensions and colors that are all interconnected. For example, a view or picture of Mission Bay pre-1999 was f-l-a-t, empty, dilapidated, dim. Then AT&T park came in on April 4, 2000 and the area changed dramatically. The shapes grew and still grow, dimensions and angles continue to expand, colors became diverse and bright, the patterns become complex and amazing. SOMA (South of Market) and Dogpatch have undergone amazing changes in the past decade as well with immense changes in the horizon, shapes and the comparisons are simply stunning, tall, 3 dimensional, alive and beautiful.

What was His Scariest Photo Shoot:

An engineering firm hired him to shoot an aerial of the SF area that require the helicopter be about 6,500 feet (nearly the same height as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon), which is the highest he has flown in shooting position. Shooting position requires that he be half in and half out of the ‘copter, leaning & hanging out to get the shots without the obstruction of the craft in the pictures.  In the early days one pilot had brought a big, fat rope with him, secured it to the base of the seat and asked Bob to tie it around his waist. Since then they have added more adapted seat belting with rock-climbing harness & clips (although some helicopters still use a simple seat belt to hold him in!) to ensure that there is more than centripetal force keeping him from falling out of the helicopter or airplane.

His Favorite Photo Shoot:

In 2012 Bob took his wife up with him on a shoot. The pilot had become a friend over the years and he also invited his wife to accompany them on the flight. It was a beautiful San Francisco afternoon for a shoot ~ warm, clear and calm. It was Bob’s wife’s first time in a helicopter and her first time to see her husband in action as an aerial photographer. When the helicopter neared the target for the shoot, and Bob donned his harness and opened the side door and stepped out to begin working, his wife was taken aback by his balancing on the edge of the aircraft. The shoot went well and everyone enjoyed the flight, but his wife has not yet returned to his workplace.

The most memorable shoot:

On September 6, 2001 Bob was shooting over the bay when looking around he could see the game at Pac Bell Park. The SF Giants vs. Pittsburgh Pirates game.  Bob and the pilot heard Jon Miller, the announcer, speaking over the in-park system make a comment about the “guy hanging out in the helicopter having the best view of Barry Bond’s 60th home run.â€? It was a monumental day for Barry and Bob as it was the last time that private flights were allowed over the stadium due to 9/11.

How do you connect still and aerial photography?

He provides “beauty shotsâ€?/ editorial photos of bridges, ports, ships, skylines, infrastructure. Bob’s expertise and artistic talent makes it pretty; he often says “it isn’t more expensive to make it pretty.â€? Helicopter/aerial photos are shot at very slow speeds, nearly standing still, which allows for the artist to deliver the amazing images.

Who Are Some of Your Clients?

Bob Ecker photography has an esteemed client list of U.S. Military, many government agencies, the City of San Francisco, the County of San Francisco, the Port of San Francisco, the city of San francisco Department of emergency services, various government agencies, private individuals, companies/corporations of all sizes,  travel and tourism companies and organizations. Bob welcomes new clients [and a challenge].

What places are on your bucket-list for an aerial shoot and why?

Paris or New York City. He has traveled to both cities often and enjoys them both, but would love to experience and capture them from the air.

What do you shoot with?

Bob is a Pentaxian because it is extremely weatherproof and that is critical. He shoots 6 x 7 cm photos and then went digital with an adapter to keep his SLR lenses. He’s claims he isn’t a camera geek, because the “most important part of photography is between the earsâ€?. He strives to look for ‘more’ than the clients expect to see.

More about Bob’s shooting business:

Bob continues shooting useful images to tell a story {even if it isn’t always a beautiful one}; once in a lifetime shots. From the land and air, Bob captures people and events, but not weddings. His successful photography and videography business recording  travel, sports, engineering, infrastructure, and industrial subjects for communities, municipalities, tourism, corporations and individuals on the ground and in the air.  At the time of our interview Bob was wrapping a big project capturing Sonoma’s beauty shots.

To reach Bob for any upcoming event, except a wedding, you can email him at  eckerbob AT or his phone is (707) 421-1701.San Francisco HIGH View