The Art of Paragliding Photography

I recently spent 8 days in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to shoot images for Niviuk, one of the leading paragliding manufacturers. I’m often asked as an adventure sports photographer how I shoot photos from a paraglider. There’s no easy answer to this, but if I could put it down to a few things it would be having a good group of people and pilots to work with, good weather conditions and then…a lot of practice.

Capturing Morocco's beautiful landscape

When shooting paragliding the logistics is definitely the hardest thing. A lot has to come together- not just light, background and all the things that usually go into making a good photo- but I have to be in the air, my subject has to be in the air, the weather has to be right, at the right time of day… I have done quite a bit of shooting flying solo, but the percentage of good shots while also piloting your wing goes way down. I try to shoot on tandem if the opportunity is there- in other words, having another pilot fly me so my hands are free and I can concentrate on just the shooting and not crashing into the side of a mountain. Light, light, light- this is of course the key, and for paragliding as well as shooting just about anything, this means early and late in the day.

Creating a "sense of place" and having all the elements come together - light, pilot positioning and good flying conditions. Mozambique.

Equipment is of course very important. An investment in the right gear and then learning how to use it is the first major hurdle. I usually shoot with the Canon 5D Mark II while I’m flying because its size and weight are ideal compared to Canon’s other professional bodies such as the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. I sacrifice on my frames per second but not having something bulky and heavy is more important. The lenses I use need to be fast and are primarily wide angle such as the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L or the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. Wide angle is ideal because you want to get a good sense of the location you are flying in. With paragliding it’s always the place or location that makes the images spectacular…not just the paraglider. It is important to capture the “sense of place.” The perfect bag to hold this gear while I’m flying is LowePro’s Toploader Pro 70 AW and the Topload Chest Harness. Having the right bag is critical as you need something that has really quick access and a good resting place for your camera when you are flying or in turbulent air and for general protection in case of a bad landing. Radios used to communicate with your subject are very important and a briefing with the pilot is vital. I communicate with the pilot using Thermal Trackers “Push to Talk” system which is very helpful as it allows hand-free communication and prevents the other pilot from having to take his hands off the brakes.  This is safer and saves time- which often means the difference between being in the right place at the right time and missing the shot.

The ideal bag for paragliding photography - Lowepro's Toploader Pro 70 AW with chest harness.

When you imagine the immersion that is required to shoot well when you’re on land, the challenges significantly increasee when you’re in the air. Lens caps, changing expensive lenses, changing CF cards, changing batteries- one quick slip and your gear is gone, forever. When I shoot in the Himalayas we can often get up to altitudes near 20,000 feet, with temperatures well below zero. Try working all that gear with frozen hands or using big gloves or mittens or your gear freezing!

Flying in the Himalayas - the challenges of shooting at high altitudes include frozen gear and frozen fingers.

For these reasons I rarely fly with more than two lenses. If the air is turbulent it’s just too easy to drop a lens while switching. You’ve got to strike the right balance of warmth, gear, bags, and first and foremost- be well prepared before you ever leave the ground.


 Shooting from a paraglider in the air can be relatively easy if you have good smooth flying conditions. If you can fly in coastal, laminar ocean air or in the early morning or late afternoon it will be the most stable. This will allow you to take your hands of the brakes and focus on the taking images while at the same time being aware of what other pilots are doing. I will often shift my body weight to turn the glider instead of adding input through the brake. This allows me to stay focused on shooting but allowing me to make slight changes without losing the frame I‘m shooting. It is altogether different when there are thermals (rising hot air). In this case you need a lot of experience, knowledge and skill to know when to photograph and when not to. If you don’t have your hands on your brakes during a collapse you can lose control of the glider. This is something you want to avoid so that you don’t have to end up pulling your reserve parachute.

Paragliding and shooting in smooth air in Tonga

For this photo shoot in the Atlas we needed a number of things to come together. First, it had to be flyable at sunset. On some of the days it was flyable, but it was too cloudy. A lot of work but not a single photo. On other days it was too strong, or the light was bad, or by the time we all got coordinated in the air it was too late…like I said, a lot has to come together. Our friend Toby Colombe, the owner of Passion Paragliding offered to fly me tandem so I could shoot a pilot flying the new Niviuk Artik 3, which just came out. On three nights we got nothing, the conditions just didn’t work. But on three other nights there were brief moments that briefly came together. It was always a case of wait, wait, wait…NOW GO! Hurry, hurry, hurry. It’s hard to coordinate between the pilot flying me, the pilot I’m shooting, and somehow getting it all to click into a perfect moment.

At one of the sites we flew there is a small ancient village perched on a cliff that just screamed for a photo with a paraglider over the dilapidated crumbling mud walls. I scouted the site by foot in the middle of the day, when it was neither flyable (too strong) or photographable as the light was too harsh. I took shots of various angles that I thought would work and showed the pilot where I wanted him on the LCD screen of the camera. We worked out a plan. I’d get into place after 4 pm, just as the light started getting decent and he would launch if the conditions were safe. Three times we attempted to get some shots here, but it wasn’t til the 4th attempt, on the last day that it came together. The wind was just right for the pilot to be able to soar above the castle and I could move around and take a few shots from different places. It wasn’t an ideal spot to paraglide so without a willing subject it would be a hard photo to get.

Planning out a shot over some ancient Moroccan ruins. I scouted this shot midday and then went back when conditions and lighting were ideal.

There were quite a few other pilots around this week who got to see the whole production of what we went through to get some of the shots you see here. I think they were all surprised with how much work goes into photography. It’s one thing to grab a point and shoot and snap off some images and go “hey- pretty nice!” It’s another thing all together to really take thoughtful photographs, but this is of course subjective. I love going on these shoots because it just stirs the imagination and you start imaging getting all kinds of different angles and stories through imagery. If you have any questions about the gear I use or other questions about how I shot these images, please leave a comment!

Check out more paragliding images from my photo shoot in Morocco here.


Paragliding Morocco – Images by Jody MacDonald

 

10 Responses to “The Art of Paragliding Photography”

  1. smitrov says:

    Great write up Jody! Good timing also since Ive been checking out more photography opportunities. Keep up the great work. From snowy Leavenworth, WA
    S

  2. Kristjan says:

    Beautiful, inspiring work Jody! Thanks for the heads up on the right camera bag… I’ve been searching for the right one for a while now.

    Do you fly with instruments? If so, does the bag kinda get in the way? I’ve been thinking of developing a top-loading bag with velcro on top for a vario or something…

  3. Hi Kristjan,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I do fly with instruments when I’m flying XC but don’t when I’m doing a photo shoot. If I need a vario I will strap it to my leg. I’m usually in flying mode or photography mode. I find it difficult to be focused on both..so my setup changes depending on what my focus is.

    A top-loading bag with velcro on top would be a good idea but to be honest, most of the time when I’m shooting I have the top of the bag flipped open so I can access the camera quickly…so it might not be ideal if you also have a GPS that you need to look at. If you didn’t want to strap your vario to your leg, you could always put it in your pocket for the flights where you are focused on photography.

    Hope this helps!

    Jody

  4. Great Article, and fantastic photos!

    Keep up the great work!

    Brian

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