Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Aerial Photography: Where The Air is Rarified

A very happy Hebberd prepares for another flight in the Sanyo lightship in Seattle, an adventure she always finds exhilarating. A very happy Hebberd prepares for another flight in the Sanyo lightship in Seattle, an adventure she always finds exhilarating.
© Caesar Buenaventura / Sanyo Ground Crew

Outdoor photography can be a demanding business, a constant battle against wind, rain, flying insects and temperature extremes in the search for just the right light and composition. However, some photographers — usually those who pursue their trade with little beneath them but thin air — must add the force of gravity to this list of everyday hardships.

To get their unimpeded bird's-eye views, aerial photographers George Steinmetz, Adriel Heisey and Lindsay Hebberd use some relatively unconventional aircraft: a motorized paraglider, a self-built plane and a blimp, respectively.

"If I fly in rain, I get wet. If I fly into a swarm of insects, I get bugs in my teeth. If I fly through smoke, I get choked up," says the Arizona-based Heisey about shooting from his open-cockpit Kolb Twinstar mini-plane. "This is the exact point of using this kind of airplane: nothing gets in the way. I just sit and aim my camera wherever the picture is. It's like a flying carpet, in terms of the visibility and freedom."

Hebberd, who resides in Scottsdale, Ariz., has worked out an agreement with Sanyo Corp. to ride along with its famous advertising blimp to capture images of various cities during its promotional tours. "These pictures are totally unique, because other aerial photos are taken from helicopters, and it's not the same," she says. "There are no vibrations and you can maneuver the blimp and hover in one place to get a shot, while the (tour) helicopters only take one specific route. You can't get these photos any other way, because they need absolute precision."

Flying over cities and deserts in these sometimes slow and ungainly contraptions can lead to mishaps. In his paraglider, Steinmetz has been caught in desert sandstorms and once suffered a nasty crash in Iran. "I have a couple fingers that will never be the same after that," he says.

While this may seem like a reckless way to make a living, it's just another day's work for the well prepared photographer, Steinmetz says. He compares it to rock climbing, in that one must make sure to check the equipment and the conditions carefully, and make prudent decisions once aloft.

Like Steinmetz, Heisey doesn't consider him-self a daredevil. "Although the flying apparatus is unfamilar to most people, I think of it as simply creative use of appropriate technology," he says."I have no interest in doing this work to generate an adrenaline rush or to impress onlookers. The risk is carefully managed, and is merely an accessory to the ultimate purpose of my flights: to seek out the beauty and mystery of the earth from above."

Go-karts of the sky

George Steinmetz, a regular contributor to National Geographic, Architectural Digest, Condé Nast Traveler and Geo, has been working on a personal project on the world's deserts for six to seven years now, and has a few more to go. "These are really complicated expeditions to organize," he says.

He first realized just how complicated when he was on a trip over the Sahara Desert in Niger. The pilot backed out, and he couldn't find anyone to fly him; there were no charters.

"I discovered it's really unreasonable to pilot an aircraft in those positions," he says. "I had to figure out a way to be self-sufficient."

He heard about using a motorized paraglider, which looks like a parachute but is actually an air-filled wing that can be fully controlled by hand via cords attached to the wing's surface. Dangling below the wing, the operator sits in a chair-like harness with a small motor and propeller strapped behind his back.

"People who hadn't done it said it was crazy, and people who had done it said it was reasonable," Steinmetz says, so he took a chance and started taking lessons. Just six weeks later, he took to the field with a camera and was very pleased with the results. "It opened up new ways to see the desert landscape," he says.

"The critical thing is to make use of early morning, when the winds are calm," he says about using the aircraft. "The disadvantage [of self-piloting] is you're doing two things at once, but the advantage is you have the control over your position in the sky."

Once he's up in the air, he locks the throttle and lets go of the controls to handle his camera. "I can steer a little by crossing my legs," Steinmetz says. He explained that if he wants to take a picture to the right, he will swing his right leg over his left, leaning as he would in a kayak to steer.

Despite his level of comfort with the motorized paraglider, Steinmetz has had some close calls. Once, the motor stopped when he was photogra-phing whales in Mexico, and he landed in the ocean. He was all right, but his equipment was ruined.
"This aircraft is not the most reliable," he admits. It only goes about 25 to 30 miles per hour, "and the wind speed can make you fly backwards sometimes, which can be very dangerous." Still, he considers the motorized paraglider to be "reasonably safe."

Steinmetz, who now lives in Glen Ridge, N.J., and holds a geophysics degree from Stanford University, got his start in photography after college in the late 1970s, when he hitchhiked across Africa for a year and a half and fell in love with taking pictures. He wanted to work for National Geographic after that and, since his first assignment in 1987, he has completed 16 major essays for the magazine, including three covers. (See more at georgesteinmetz.com.)

Eight or nine years ago, National Geographic wanted him to do a portfolio of the world for the end of the millennium, and he proposed using aerial photography. "I always loved flying," Steinmetz says. "I reestablished my love of aerial photography then." This cover article was titled "Making Sense of the Millennium" and appeared in January 1998. For it, he used helicopters, ultralights and other aircraft.

He says that the key to getting a good image is a really fast lens coupled with really slow film. He also uses a Kenyon gyrostabilizer, which is a mount that looks "kind of like an egg" and screws into the bottom of the camera. It uses a gyroscope to maintain camera stability, and allows the user to shoot two f-stops slower than normal.

Steinmetz has used simple Nikons with manual lenses his whole career, his favorite being the old Nikon 8008 model. Earlier this year, however, he switched to Canon digital cameras, and now works with the Canon 1DS, which he says has a more dynamic range. He says that it has been a bit of an adjustment to digital, "but it's still about ideas, about seeing things."


Adriel Heisey's love of photography and flying began simultaneously. He started taking flying lessons in tenth grade, and started taking pictures around the same time as a supplement to his interest in painting and drawing.

"Photography was a do-it-yourself beginning for me," Heisey says. Even then, clouds were one of his favorite subjects.
Once he became a professional pilot and a certified flight instructor, Heisey "realized what an incredible opportunity it was to be flying every day." He started carrying a camera with him every time he flew, tucked under his feet. "I never wanted to be unprepared for an unexpected moment of beauty," he explains.

He started flying professionally in the Four Corners region where he lives, and the Colorado plains and the rest of the Southwest were what shifted his ideas and his photographs from "visual notetaking" to "complete and finished works of art," he says. "The air is clear, the land is exposed. Through my profession, I was in the presence of my subject matter all the time."

During the open legs of his private charter flights, when he had no passengers, Heisey would "get serious" for the brief time he had free to photograph more adventurously, and experimented with positioning the plane to get shots. "It would terrify anyone who was riding along, but I needed to adjust the plane to get the shots — which were usually straight down, at 90-degree angles."

After a while, he decided to build his own plane because he "wanted complete access to the sky and [his] subject matter." With his own plane, he possesses the familiarity and the comfort with the machine to be able to really use it to his advantage while shooting.

His Kolb Twinstar custom-built plane took Heisey a year and a half to put together. Fourteen years later, "It's as comfortable as an old pair of jeans," he says. It's a "slow, simple" plane and is certified in the experimental category, so it cannot be used for commercial purposes. He uses the term "ultralight" as shorthand to describe his plane, but, at 450 pounds and with a top speed of about 75 mph, his aircraft is technically a little too heavy and too fast to be classified as a true ultralight.

With the engine located behind him and the wings, Heisey can sit completely outside in the open wind, legs dangling, giving him an unobstructed view. Flying an average speed of around 40 mph, usually at an altitude between 30 and 600 feet, he maneuvers the plane by strapping the control stick to his right knee. By moving his leg around and keeping his feet free to work the rudder pedals, he can control his direction while keeping both hands on his camera. The engine throttle stays where he puts it, maintaining the altitude he chooses and not requiring continuous hands-on control.

When Heisey first started doing aerial photography, the emphasis was on a small and convenient camera with good ease of use, so he used a Canon EOS with 35mm film. Later, the emphasis of his work shifted to image quality, so he used the Pentax 67 for many years, and ultimately compromised with the Pentax 645N to get the convenience of a 35mm camera and the image quality of the others. He carries two camera bodies, five lenses, a digital spot meter, a remote camera battery pack (to keep the camera batteries warm inside his flight suit) and 20 pre-loaded film backs on every flight. Heisey also swears by his Kenyon gyrostabilizer. "It's essential to getting a sharp image. It's almost magic." He bought it before he even finished his plane, and if he gets up in the air and it's not working, he just turns around and goes home.

Heisey uses color transparency film, primarily Kodak E100VS and Fuji Provia 400F (RHP III) and RMS. "I'm watching the digital world evolve with interest, but I don't think it's there yet in terms of image quality," he says. He thinks that he will probably switch to digital in the next couple of years but, right now, film still gives him everything he needs.

"My goal was to produce large prints for galleries and museums," Heisey says, but his photo essays also have appeared in Smithsonian magazine, as well as National Geographic, including a September 1996 cover story on the arid Four Corners region.

He also has three books out, one of which is all aerial work, titled "From Above: Images of a Storied Land." (See more at adrielheisey.com.) It was published by the Albuquerque Museum to accompany Heisey's exhibition of the same name, which features his aerial landscape photography. After a four-month run in Albuquerque, the exhibit began traveling to museums around the country and can be seen in the Phoenix area at the Mesa Southwest Museum from Jan. 30 through April 23, 2006.

As for his range of sub-jects, Heisey prefers to stick close to his home in Window Rock, Ariz., rather than seek out projects in other areas of the world. For 12 years, he worked with the Navajo tribal government to photograph their community and land. Using his plane, he was able to shoot remote places that few have ever seen.

"I have an enormous personal attachment to this area," he says. "This region is so complex: ecologically, historically [and] geologically."

Lighter than air

Unlike Steinmetz and Heisey, photographer Lindsay Hebberd was introduced to aerial photography through more of a twist of fate than a lifelong calling. The place was a hotel roof in Las Vegas, and the time was Halloween night, 2003.

The Sanyo blimp was rising, pierced by the Luxor laser beam, and she captured it straight on from her rooftop position. Hebberd not only sold Sanyo the photograph, but also negotiated a deal to meet the airship in cities across the United States and Canada, and go up in it to shoot the cities from above.

Since her first trip aloft in January 2004, Hebberd has met the airship in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas, Toronto, Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and Los Angeles, and plans to hit Chicago and Boston this year. On this past Fourth of July, she went up over New York City, from morning until night, and watched the fireworks from the airship. Her latest scheduled trips were for Monterey and Long Beach, Calif., in September.

Sanyo sponsors events with the Believe in Tomorrow foundation for sick children, and Hebberd's camera has been there to capture the joy on the faces of the kids during free blimp rides. She enjoys helping the company promote the foundation and its charity work. She calls her deal with Sanyo an "ongoing working relationship," and doesn't see it ending any time soon.

Hebberd says the blimp, which Sanyo calls a lightship for the two 1,000-watt metal halide bulbs that light up the interior at night, works much like a submarine of the air, with the pilot maneuvering the ship with four tailfins and two 180-horsepower engines.

The pilot she works with, Allen Judd, "is absolutely fantastic." He's a veteran airship pilot who is adept at hovering in one place, which is how Hebberd got her initial shot. "Synchronizing with the pilot is very important," Hebberd says. "We've become such good friends that I'll tell him what shot I want to get and he'll maneuver [the lightship] to help me get the best shot."

For her aerial excursions, Hebberd uses a Fujica GS 6x17 camera with extremely fast lenses and takes large-format panoramic pictures. In some places, she says, "the panoramic is the only way to shoot because the 35 mm just won't capture it."

Hebberd is finishing up work on her tabletop book, "Las Vegas ~ Imagination to Reality," which is due out next year and will coincide with the city's centennial. (See culturalportraits.com.) She says it will be "a celebration of all the interesting things to do, covering the whole community, from the skateboard parks to the opulent hotels."

As with the Sanyo arrangement, her interest in Vegas as a photography subject was unplanned. "I had just finished a book on India. I believe it's one of the most misrepresented countries in terms of image. I wanted to show the good side of the country," she says. (For more on Hebberd's travels in India, see PhotoMedia, Winter 2003 issue.) She was planning on heading to either Vietnam or Turkey next, "but then 9/11 changed everything."

She decided, instead, to stay closer to her Scottsdale home for a while. "Some friends were raving about a Cirque du Soleil show, so I went with my parents, and I was so taken aback with how different Vegas was from my preconceived notion." She compares the city to India and her other foreign sujects in that "Las Vegas has a strong stereotype attached to it, too. So many people think it's just about gambling, drinking and the girlie shows … but there's so much more to the city … it's a community."

As she started to explore beyond the Strip, she unexpectedly discovered a dynamic, elegant and diverse city. "It's also a magnet for talent, and I like taking pictures of the performing arts," Hebberd says. She decided to move permanently to Las Vegas to capture the "real" Las Vegas, which ultimately led to her opportunity for aerial shots from the Sanyo lightship.

She says she still wants to head to Vietnam for her next long-term overseas project, but she has "several opportunities on the table." For now, Hebberd remains focused on the city of lights. "There's no city like Las Vegas for the dramatic lighting and the interesting-shaped buildings," she says. "I believe it's fate. I was in the right place at the right time for a reason."

With Hebberd's preparing to meet the Sanyo lightship in more cities across the nation, Steinmetz' jetting out of the country only hours after his interview with PhotoMedia, and Heisey's clear passion for both his subjects and his plane, it's evident that none of these high-flying photographers harbor intentions of putting their feet back on the ground anytime soon.

"You tell yourself that you're not going to fly over anything you can't land [safely] on," Steinmetz says of his sometimes addicting profession, "but then you see something and think, ‘Ooh, look over there! Maybe I can just dip in there for a second, get the shot, and get out.'"

Beth Plambeck
Story Author: Beth Plambeck

Beth Plambeck is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.

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