Today I was very pleased to interview Niklas Daniel, a professional skydiving aerial photographer who has spent his career up in the sky. The skills required to capture great shots in the air are very unique and require a great deal of training and practice. Not only do you have to be up to speed on how to take great photos (without using your hands), you have to be an expert flier in freefall, an expert canopy pilot, and you have to manage the additional risk that comes with carrying the camera equipment. Niklas Daniel is widely regarded as one of the best photographers in the industry.
When the green light came on, everybody charged the tiny door. The exit speed was so great that soon as a jumper went through the door, they went flying, literally. Groups got scattered in the air so easily, that the challenge came by trying to stay close to your fellow jumper. Once the first 40 people were gone, the window seats got into the aisle and repeated the process. Since I did not want anybody else in the picture, I planned on jumping out last.
I held onto my subjects chest strap while running down the aisle in order to prevent the massive separation caused by the 150 knot wind speed on exit. As we jumped down the hatch together, i quickly twisted around and let go. The distance you see in the photograph was created in less than a second. It happened so fast that I was worried in free fall if I had gotten a shot at all. When I landed I immediately looked at the camera scrolling through the pictures. The first image was black, the second one was the money shot, the third was blue sky. I think that planning the execution of the shot helped a lot, but every time I look at the shot, it reminds me how much luck can play a factor in this photography thing.
How did you first get into aerial photography?
It all started when I was a tunnel instructor (someone who teaches people to fly their bodies in a free fall simulator). I was approached by a professional skydiving team who asked if I was interested in becoming their videographer. I had no experience at free fall camera work at the time, however, it was something I had considered getting into. The team offered me the opportunity to jump with them for free as long as I filmed them during their training. So I purchased a used camera-helmet and a cheap video camera and started practicing.
I sought the advice from experienced camera flyers who actively filmed teams and were heavily involved in competitions. As my experience grew, I added a still camera to my helmet and started taking pictures – the rest is history.
What camera equipment do you use to capture these shots?
My first still camera that I took into freefall was a 35mm Rebel SLR which was mounted to my helmet. Since then I have made the switch to digital, utilizing Canon EOS XTi, 7D, and 5D.
I prefer to use the XTi because it is smaller and lighter in weight than the other two, making it easier on my neck when my parachute opens. The best place to position cameras in free fall is your head. This allows you to continue flying your body without having to sacrifice your hands. In order to activate the shutter, I blowing into a tube which is connected to a custom made switch which is in turn attached to the camera.
I have found that the most successful images are taken with wide angle lenses (ranging from 6mm – 18mm). However, I have also experimented with taking images set at 55mm and up.
Since most skydiving happens during the day, my most common setting are TV, 1/1250,ISO 400. Taking pictures early in the morning or right at sunset can be tricky, using slower shutter speeds will give you a blurry image. You can combat this using a flash. The only drawback is, the more equipment you take with you, the stronger your neck needs to be.
What skydiving gear do you prefer?
Since I can’t look through the view finder, I have a ring sight mounted in front of my sunglasses to tell me where the camera is pointing. The ring sight has concentric cross hairs and gives me a great deal of information on composition and distance.
When I skydive with the intention of filming or getting a specific shot, I like to have a little extra surface area. I wear a suit that has specially fitted “wings” that I can control with my body to add or take away drag. This is most helpful because I need to be able to change my fall rate quickly in order to stay close to my target. I also prefer to use a very high-performance square parachute because it allows me to have a lot of range in speed so that I can get shots of people under canopy as well.
Where do you get your creative inspiration from?
Skydiving is unique compared to other sports because you have absolute freedom to move around your subject in all dimensions. Combine this with different locations, disciplines, and varying light conditions and there is no end to what you can do.
I very much believe that good pictures tell stories. Most of the time I take pictures of similar subjects, however, the story I am trying to tell is different. For example, if I am trying to create an ad, I think about how to best portray a product. If I am taking pictures for a team, I try to get pictures of faces and other marks that are recognizable.
I find that checking out non skydiving related topics can help a lot in learning how to tell stories through pictures. I like to look sports themed magazines such as surfing or skateboarding. But most of the time I try to experiment with different lenses and angles. I want to capture a persons eye by showing them something, even if they have seen it a thousand times, from a new and different perspective.
What are you looking forward to purchasing next?
For skydiving there are a few different wide angle lenses that I would love to have in my arsenal. I would also like a more powerful flash in order to take better pictures during sunset and at night. On the hobby side, I would like to get a better telephoto lens so that I can take some pictures of birds. There are some really cool raptors in my area.
Did you have any formal training in photography?
So far I have learned one exposure at a time. I like to scan bookstores for info and talking to photographers who’s work I enjoy. I’m thinking about taking some classes at my local college in the near future. But, for the most part, I am self-taught.
Do you post-process your photos?
I like to run my photos through Adobe Photoshop Elements just to take a closer look at them. The less I have to edit, the better.
Sometimes however, I create flyers and ads for the sport – and that is where I like to get a little bit more creative, such as the night shot.
Recently I added Adobe Photoshop CS4 to my Mac, but this program is a little more than I can handle at the moment.
What has been your most exciting photography project?
One of the most exciting projects I have been a part of was when I was hired to take pictures for the leading parachute manufacturer in the world, Performance Designs. I was flown to Palatka, Florida, where over the course of three days, we did as many jumps as possible to take pictures of their entire line of products.
The subject was flying the latest in high performance canopies, which means that it flies very fast. In order to keep up, I too had to fly a very aggressive canopy. The subject, Scott Roberts who is part of Slip Stream Airsports, is a highly accomplished canopy pilot. Combined with the newly developed parachute and his skill, we were able to get some really cool shots.
There was still some sunlight left and we were flying relatively close to each other so I figured as long as I kept my head still I could get away without a flash. Once we took off however, the sun fell pretty fast behind the horizon. We opted to jump out before we reached our intended altitude. Once under parachute, i realized how dark it had gotten, and I felt around my helmet until I found the release button for the built in flash, which I knew would set the camera to 1/200 shutter priority. Even with our close proximity the flash just barely reached Scott.
We averaged about 10 jumps a day out of a cessna 182, and each jump was with a different set of skydiving equipment. We had an entire aircraft to ourselves and a private group of packers. I was allowed to be as creative as I wanted to be and call my own “shots”. I got to meet new people, including other photographers and graphic artists, who I still contact for advice and continue to learn from. From the thousands of images I took, a select few are now being used for ads and other promotional footage. I had a real sense of accomplishment and felt appreciated.
What lies ahead for you?
Lots more jumping and traveling. I would like to start BASE jumping next summer and taking a new approach to my freefall photography. Also, some formal education definitely lies on the horizon somewhere.
What tips or advice do you have for other aspiring aerial photographers?
If someone is interested in becoming a skydiving photographer, I would highly recommend becoming a proficient skydiver before attaching a camera to your helmet. Things can go wrong very quickly and require immediate action. Having a heavy and bulky set-up on your head will slow you down considerably. I would recommend seeking professional advice and getting coaching. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Learn the tricks of the trade, and then apply your own creative juices.
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