Sunday, March 27, 2016

Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania: Pilot Randy Palmer turns flying into photography business

Randy Palmer once crafted lenses to boost vision, but now he focuses them from the sky to add insight.

A trained optician, Mr. Palmer, of Wilkes-Barre, shoots pictures from planes for a living for businesses, people and other customers who want aerial views of their buildings, homes or whatever.

“I just wanted to learn to fly,” he said.

Mr. Palmer, a native of Windsor, Ontario, started out as an optician after earning a degree in optical science from Ryerson University in Toronto. He spent the 1980s working for LensCrafters, the eyeglass and contact lens retail chain. In the late 1980s, the company sent him to England to set up stores, but the international push failed a few years later.

“They ended up firing all of us in England and I came back to the U.S.,” he said.

After a decade in the corporate world, Mr. Palmer, living in Minnesota, decided to treat himself to something he always wanted: to learn how to fly.

“I just wanted to do something for me,” he said.

As he piled up flight lessons, then air time as a pilot, he kept consulting for others who wanted to quickly produce eyeglasses and contacts like LensCrafters. After five years, he moved to Atlanta to run a flooring business for his brother, but kept upgrading his pilot’s license.

On a visit to his sister in Taylor, he realized he liked the area, moved here and started teaching flying at the Wyoming Valley Airport in Forty Fort while also flying local charter planes.

This was about 20 years ago. Eventually, his new profession grew mundane, too, as much as watching a student pilot solo had its rewards.

“People used to come and say to me, ‘Can you take pictures for me?’” Mr. Palmer said. “More often, I had photographers show up and hire me as their pilot to fly them somewhere to some location to take pictures. And after a while, I thought why don’t I do this? I have the optical background. I’ve always been a photographer.”

Picture-taking ran in the family. His father shot for the Buffalo News newspaper in the 1930s and 1940s, he said.

“So I thought, I’m a photographer. I’m a commercial pilot. I have all this experience and I’m having photographers come to me and (have) me fly them, and they make all this money taking pictures when I can do it,” he said.

His idea turned into NEPA Aerial Photography, an almost entirely word-of-mouth business that attracts more work than he can handle. About 90 percent comes from commercial customers. Real-estate companies like Mericle Development, one of his best customers, use him a lot. So do manufacturers who want to track the construction of a new plant, warehouse or office building for corporate board meetings, homeowners and other organizations. Scranton Preparatory School hired him to shoot its athletic field.

Mr. Palmer actually considers himself semi-retired and only flies about twice a month. He lines up multiple jobs and locations and rents a plane because it’s cheaper than owning one. He favors Cessna 172s, single-engine planes with high wings so the wings don’t block shots.

Once he’s in the air, he searches out his target, then usually sets up the plane to circle at a 45-degree angle.

“It takes a good pilot to really know how to set an airplane up and keep it stable,” he said.

Mr. Palmer removes a window to get a clear focus without needing to reach outside with his camera, points his high-resolution Nikon D810 groundward and fires away. Two circles and three minutes later, he’s done and off to the next target. His airtime usually adds up to three or four hours and trips can stretch 500 miles, a reason he’s unworried about competition from drone operators who can’t fly above 400 feet or get to as many locations as quickly as he does.

He’s picky. He only goes up if he’s sure he’ll have plenty of light. If clouds float in, he cancels until another day.

“So to get that picture of your house, it could be a month or more,” he said. “I’m so fussy, I don’t just go take pictures. It’s kind of like the weather is my studio and I have to look at weather and the conditions and visibility and sunlight and things like a studio with studio lights. So I want everything perfect before I take pictures.”

He charges $300 for eight shots of a target, but with multiple customers each trip, “I can make a good income by working just a couple days a month,” he said.

Jim Cummings, vice president of marketing for Mericle Development, said he learned about Mr. Palmer from the retired aerial photographer the company once used.

“Randy does an excellent job for us,” Mr. Cummings said. “We find the clients, they want to see their sites from all angles.”

Mr. Palmer, 63, isn’t planning to fully retire himself any time soon. Pilots must regularly get recertified by doctors as able to fly. So far, he keeps passing the tests and feels fine.

“As long as I can get that medical every year, there’s no reason I can’t do this until I’m 90,” he said.

Original article can be found here:  http://thetimes-tribune.com

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