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• Aerial photography with Anthony Allen

How long have you been a photographer?
Ever since I could walk, my dad gave me a camera and got me shooting at sporting events - my favourite event was (and still is) airshows.

When did you start taking pics from the air?
In 1990, on my second day of paragliding - on the 1st day I did 22 training flights on the sand dunes at Betty's Bay, our local training site, then I did my 23rd flight later that day off Lion's Head to La Med - the next day I felt it imperative to photograph the flight to assist me in explaining to those who don't fly what it's like up there - and so it began...

When did you realise the commercial potential?
When I first flew a motorised paraglider in 1993. I was excited by the fact that you could hold (low level) altitude without having to look for lift as you would on a paraglider without power. I'd also been approached by various contacts to shoot images of property and scenery from the air for brochures etc which got me thinking along the lines of growing the opportunity. After the first few "friendly commissions" I decided to make a business out of it. It evolved slowly, but I had plenty of time and I allowed it to develop by word of mouth. It helped having 6 years in the civil engineering industry to my name, since most aerial clients were all old clients of mine from the bitumen game.

What is your preferred platform?
The flexibility of the motorised paraglider as a shooting platform is fantastic because it can fly low and slow without the prohibitive expenses that a helicopter has. Also motorised paragliders are not as noisy and don't cause as much disruption as a helicopter would. So without doubt, for the low level stuff (up to 1500 feet) I prefer the powered paraglider and its fun too. There can be "challenging moments" like when you need to change a lens or memory card and in the old days I did lose the occasional exposed film overboard and have to re-shoot, but that's all part of learning.

How high can you shoot from on a powered paraglider?
How long is a piece of string? How much time do you have and how much fuel will you need? These are all things which I take into account when planning a job, although nowadays because of my time management I obviously like to complete work sooner than later so for the higher altitude work I now use either a fixed wing light aeroplane or helicopter. To answer the question though, powered paragliders can get to 12 000 feet (if you have to), but that takes time. the highest I've shot from on one is 6000 feet (which took long enough to get to). Now I'd rather use plane for that sort of job.

How do you fly and take pictures?
Just like somebody can light a cigarette or talk on a cell phone while driving EXCEPT I have to be lot more aware and need to concentrate on various factors, settings and composition (of the image). Depending on what I'm flying, I control with one hand and shoot with the other.

What, you fly and shoot at the SAME TIME?
Yes. Its quite easy really. I guess it takes a lot of time in the air to reach a comfort level to do it, but in all with a bit of practice it becomes second nature. It also has advantages being the pilot and photographer rolled into one, since you know the shot you want and you get to fly into the composition. I did my PPL because I was getting frustrated having to hire pilots and aeroplanes and then having to explain to every new pilot I worked with the angles I wanted to achieve. Now I really do enjoy the freedom of the skies with either a paraglider or aeroplane (which helps on those really strong wind days). Besides which, its probably safer aloft since there are no taxis up there!

What equipment do you shoot with?
I've shot Ari 16mm and video for spec jobs, but my passion is stills. I started out on 35mm, but on occasion had to shoot medium format and I bought a Pentax 6x7 for that. Digital came along and after being initially sceptical (as are most celluloid fundis) I have to admit that the digital results I've seen recently now significantly out-perform film and I have to confess to being a digital convert now. All of my work is now digital. I sold my Pentax and my trusty 35mm bodies are gathering dust.

What's your preferred system of choice?
I started out with Canon and I've stuck with them. They might be a little more expensive, but there is just nothing like a the quality of the system from shoot to final product. Their after sales support here in SA is EXCELLENT and I wouldn't change for anything. That said, I do use a second system now - the Hasselblad and Phase One digital back for the higher spec jobs where possible (not on a powered paraglider for example, because of all the gear required) and at 22 million pixels there is nothing that comes close. The Canon EOS 1 Ds, my preferred "weapon of choice" has more than enough flexibility for the job and at 11 million pixels it still leaves 99% of the competition standing.

What was your most challenging job to date?
Not really a job as such, just recreational flight that went wrong on my competition paraglider and I crashed with pretty bad injuries. Anyway now I'm OK again and a little more focussed on my work - yep, I guess that was challenging, getting back into the air again. But as far as actual work goes, I'd say the video I shot of a shopping centre where I had to fly BELOW the height of the street lamps, over a canal with meters either side of my wing tips. One of the most rewarding stills jobs was doing an air to air shoot of helicopter aerobatics at 120 knots (had to keep the speed with the aerobatic subject) and the wind played havoc with my stability since I was hanging out the side. Thanks to Canon for an incredible lens though which enabled me to catch the near-impossible.

Most amusing?
Getting cleared to 5000 feet in the CTR on my powered paraglider (which took forever to get to and seconds to descend from once cleared after completion) - I spiralled down at close to 20 m/s (which translates to roughly 4000 ft/minute). Tower called me in the spiral to ask if I was OK (they had visual of me during the whole flight). I called them once levelled out to land and they asked me to do it again for their mates who didn't see it!

What advice for aspiring aerial photographers?
Fly, fly, fly. Once you're comfortable in the air, start shooting for the shot - not a momentary snap, but think about what you want to capture, look at all the angles (we are so often limited by pre-conceived composition from terrestrial perspective that we can easily miss a completely refreshing angle on a possibly old and boring subject) and keep lighting in mind too. If the horizon is in the composition, make sure its level (unless you want to exaggerate effect by purposefully tilting it).

What else?
ENJOY YOUR WORK! And brush up on your business acumen - stay sharp, never miss an opportunity. NEVER undersell yourself - what you offer is unique, specialised and potentially dangerous. Always take it into account when costing a job.

One other thing - if shooting over a sensitive area (noise or other reasons), plan the shoot like a military mission and spend the minimum required time overhead to achieve what you need to. It's quite rewarding achieving the desired result and then later (not) hearing from your critics that you were seen/heard at X - it always puts a smile on my face when I complete a job with a bit of a James Bond kick to it.

Where to from here?
Many, many more images. Mostly to portray the beauty and splendour of our environment and share with folks the planet as few of us get to see it. And to grow the business while enjoying a very unique lifestyle and occupation. Perhaps one day to complement the works of Herman Potgieter...