Archive for April, 2010

The Stuff of an Olympian

Monday, April 12th, 2010

[by Fritz] I remember watching this vibrant Australian blonde win gold in aerial ski jumping during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. She made it look so easy, and the Aussies went mad when she won. Four years later this same feisty girl took bronze at Turin. In a TV interview she talked about overcoming a string of injuries and broken bones and multiple concussions to do it. I remember wondering what motivated her to compete in such a crazy sport.

A few months ago I got a last-minute call from the Canadian Tourism Commission to shoot one of the 2010 torchbearers in the Yukon. Australian sports superstar and double-medallist Alisa Camplin was coming to run through the streets of Dawson City. I read that Sports Illustrated once listed her as one of the world’s ten sexiest Olympians. Only after reading about the shocking physical challenges she’d faced – she’d broken this and broken that and re-tore ligaments just four months before Turin – did I remember seeing her on TV.

It was a dark morning in Dawson, and Alisa’s torch run was short with disappointing backdrops. That was one shoot I could have really used my new high ISO camera (Canon 1D Mark IV). She was being covered by a pack of media, but in those few minutes she was really gracious and worked hard to give us good shots. She seemed to appreciate the attention in a genuine way.

Later, in the empty bar at the Downtown Hotel, I spent a couple of hours with Alisa and her boyfriend while they played pool and I was uploading files. They were really nice people, and I got to ask Alisa my questions about how she did it.

When she was about four years old she remembers deciding that some day she was going to win the Olympics, only she didn’t know yet which sport. She tried some typical Australian sports, and somehow ended up a skiing aerialist in a country with little snow.  She said she had lots of momentum to win the gold medal, but she had to work much harder and is way more proud of her bronze medal four years later. The physical and mental challenges sounded huge the second time around.

In Dawson she talked about wanting a family, and that her new dream was to be a doctor of sports medicine. But she also seemed doubtful and thought it was probably too late, so instead maybe she’d become a nurse or physical therapist. It was amazing to hear these crazy stories of how hard she pushed herself as an athlete, and you’d think someone with her willpower and courage would have it all figured out. But like lots of us she’s also grappling with unfulfilled dreams and lack of confidence.

I really enjoyed meeting Alisa, and I appreciated her openness about her personal triumphs and challenges. I hope she finds success with her new dreams.

Aerial Photography

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

[by Fritz] Some stories can only be told by getting into the air. A good example is the Alberta tar sands. If you only work with what you see from the ground, you’d guess there’s not much going on. It’s only when you get up high that you realize the vast scale and impact of all of the open pit mining.

I like the fresh perspective from up high. You get the big picture, and often it’s an uncommon view of something that’s commonplace. Aerials can be really helpful telling stories about complex systems. You can describe concepts like connectivity, habitat fragmentation or urban sprawl better with photographs.

Aircraft are expensive to charter, they move fast and often you only get one chance to get a specific shot. For a helicopter, you’re paying around $1,500 per hour, so to justify that kind of money you need a clear idea of what you want to get from the flight. Here are some aerial photography tips:

  • Thorough research and planning. I try to pre-visualize my images. I used to pore over topographical maps, and now Google Earth is an amazing tool to help with this. You can even frame your photographs in advance and get 3D coordinates to plot your flight path. I save a flight path and imagine images from perspectives that I think are interesting. Then I share those ideas with the pilots, and I work closely with them to plan the route. I want to make sure they’re comfortable with what I’m asking for.
  • Getting the right conditions. I spend a lot of time watching the weather, and thinking about light and air quality. Dusty or grubby air can have an interesting effect, but it also makes images look soft. Air turbulence is also a concern – often the air is calmer in the morning.
  • Preparing my equipment and the aircraft. I try to visit the aircraft the day before to check things over. Having my gear well organized reduces surprises during the shoot and results in better images. I make sure I have access to a large slider window or can have the door removed from the aircraft for a wide unobstructed view. You can’t shoot through Plexiglas.
  • I also spend a lot of time planning my safety gear. If you’re leaning out of the aircraft with the door off, you need to have a harness in addition to your seatbelt. I tape the lenses at focus infinity, so I have one less variable to think about in the air.
  • Getting sharp images. Shooting with the new digital cameras has revolutionized aerial photography. You no longer have to change film constantly, and you can get very clean images at high ISO settings that even just a few years ago were science fiction. I set the ISO as high as possible, but not so high that noise degrades image quality. During the flight I attach the camera to an external gyroscope to reduce vibrations. I handhold the camera, and I’m very careful not to lean any part of my upper body against the aircraft. Good pilots also work with you to minimize aircraft vibration for short periods when you have an important shot coming up.