[Article] Axstål's Airborn Flash Photography Challenges The Sun

Ron Edatz: "Claes Axstål regularly does something most photographers haven’t thought of, let alone tried. Axstål and his team can typically be found in the air, manning a ton of gear, and—quite literally—lighting and photographing another plane or helicopter as it flies near the one they’re working in.

What makes Axstål different from any other photographer taking air-to-air shots of other aircraft? It’s the fact Axstål and crew are using artificial light to overpower the sun, just as most off-camera flash shooters do at a wedding or on a beach-at-sunset fashion shoot. Yes, that’s right. Flash photography at several thousand feet in altitude while traveling several hundred miles per hour. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the objects Axstål photographs are often a few hundred feet long, from airliners to luxury yachts, the latter of which he also photographs from planes.

The signature look Axstål achieves in many of his photos is using the sun as an unwilling accomplice. It’s one thing to shoot another plane as it flies by in daylight hours. It’s something entirely different to shoot it in low light, at sunset, and provide your own illumination while using the sun as a dramatic backdrop.

The Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine has stated on 28 March 2001 Axstål was the first aerial photographer to illuminate aircraft in flight this way. Using his Airborne Flash Photography system, this photographer has defined a vertical market he and his team own by themselves.

Ron Edatz: "In the 1990s, Axstål shot the Mamiya M7 and the Mamiya 6 cameras. By 2001, he was shooting the Mamiya RZ to get images such as the below, for Roger Penske."

Claes Axstål: “I use Profoto Pro-7b generators, but for my Airborne Flash Photography I have my own custom-built gear,” the photographic pioneer says. “The only recognizable Profoto units are the Magnum Reflectors. The 7b’s deliver the amount of flashes promised, which another brand didn’t do. I purchased my Profoto generators in 2000 and I have only bought new batteries. With the new Profoto gear, you also get a shorter flash duration and this is much better for daylight flash work. You can even use a shorter flash sync than 1/500 of a second with the Leaf backs on the Mamiya 645DF. You can sync as short as 1/1600 sec and then the flash will reach much farther.”
“My flash gear is shielded against electromagnetic pulse, so I can operate it from inside aircraft,” Axstål explains. Only with proper shielding was he able to get approval by the Defense Administration. Axstål and his team use Sekonic meters when establishing their shots. PocketWizard radio triggers are employed to fire all lighting rigs.

Ron Edatz: "Axstål is also able to shoot aircraft (both in flight and on in a landed position) from ground locations using unshielded Profoto gear, if he chooses to. See the next two photos."

Ron Edatz: "Covered in a variety of publications, Axstål has done what few living photographers have achieved. He has created a way to capture images no one has done before. Even if his air-to-air images were not so compelling, this fact alone makes him a photographer worth following."
via [Prophoto]
From Kenn:
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Taking "gear porn" to a whole new level .... oooooh yeah! :)

Lee Morris's picture

I think this is a perfect example of someone getting so excited about the gear that they forget about the image. These look like terrible on-camera flash style pictures in my opinion. It's cool that he did it technically but the images look like something out of the 80s. 

I couldn't agree more. I think the yacht photo is the best example of "forgetting about the image." There should be a lot more lighting on the front of the boat to make the image work in my opinion. You nailed it on the head when you said they look like terrible on-camera flash style pictures.

The best picture of the bunch is the one of the helicopter on the ground.

Kenn Tam's picture

It's funny you should say that, cause I said almost the exact same thing to Patrick.

His air photos aren't so compelling... but I should be impressed anyway? I don't think so Ron.

I've been having a similar idea for a while but wasn't sure how to go about it. This has certainly helped.

can you imagine the size of softbox one would need to light a plane, and the wind resistance such a contraption would cause?!

Ingenuity to get the setup working is great. Looks like something as simple as gelling the lights would make a huge improvement just to balance those shots more. Don't see much point in getting the shots in their environment if it still looks artificial and staged.

...long time reader now and first post so also wanted to give a much deserved thanks to Lee, Patrick, and the rest of the crew that have made this site such a great resource.

Photo with our Airborne Flash Photography (that has design tech input from Profoto) published in Canadian Skies Magazine article and as wallpaper:http://skiesmag.com/images/wallpaper/2013/jan_feb/08_wide.jpg

Learn more about the story behind my #AirborneFlashPhotography at www.axstalphoto.com/LightFantastique.pdf