Claes Axstål Challenges the Sun

Written by Ron Egatz on . Posted in Hot Photography

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AFP SWCG 1868 by CAX Claes Axstål Challenges the Sun

©Claes Axstål

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.

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.

AFP YachtPhotography for Penske 04 by CAX Claes Axstål Challenges the Sun

©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.

AFP for TheSwedishCoastGuard by CAX Claes Axstål Challenges the Sun

©Claes Axstål

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.

AFP for HeliAirSweden 2645 by CAX Claes Axstål Challenges the Sun

©Claes Axstål

AFP for HeliAirSweden 2511c by CAX Claes Axstål Challenges the Sun

©Claes Axstål

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.

 

Claes Axstål’s website

Claes Axstål on Facebook

Airborne Flash Photography on Facebook

Written by Ron Egatz

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Comments (28)

  • John H. Maw

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    Very impressive photos. It’s really nice to see this work.

    Reply

    • Claes Axstål

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      Thank you, very nice to hear!
      Cheers from Sweden!

      Reply

  • Alex

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    Amazing stuff! Wish I had these kinds of resources! Come light up the Golden Gate Bridge! That would be awesome, too!

    Reply

  • Allen Johnson

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    Very impressed!! amazing work!! Never thought of using flash for aerial photography

    Reply

  • Paul

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    The boat looks amazing – Where can I get some 2500w lights????

    Reply

  • cormel

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    Am I the only one not impressed with these shots? They’re not great. At least throw some cto’s on the lights. Good concept, but the shots just look like a kid learning flash on strobist.

    Reply

  • Jeff

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    @Cormel – I’m with you – the logistics are impressive, but the results simply look very amateur. The stuff on his website is a little better – but it’s all just stuff with a whole lotta light. I’d love to see more thought with color.

    Reply

  • Matthew Wagg

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    I agree with cormel, they aren’t that special.

    Reply

  • Ty

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    Comel
    I think the flash is closer to the axis of the lens than “strobist” are used to dealing with. It’d be a whole bigger step to try and coordinate a third aircraft to get the flash further off the camera.

    Still cool to see something so different to what most people shot day to day.

    Reply

  • Garth Wunsch

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    There are two kinds of people in this world, those who do, and those who don’t. Axstal does!. Considering the magnitude of the work, these are very well executed Commercial images. Well done!

    Reply

    • Claes Axstål

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      Thank you! Happy New Year!

      Reply

  • CB

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    Flash too close to camera. How about putting some heads in a steerable extendable boom like from a refueling plane? Yeah, I’m a d-bag.

    Reply

  • ttttt0049

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    so cool…
    I never see that before…

    Reply

  • John

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    Great shots and great subjects. Always the best. Cheers, John

    Reply

  • Rod Warren

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    Wow I really like that, now I need to convince my daughter that she needs to get into aircraft photography to complement her maternity / family studio. Regards Rod

    Reply

  • Dennis R

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    I just love these aerial photos – overflashed a little maybe but stunning without doubt and photography is about images that are outstanding – these are definitely up there. (Quite literally)
    Dennis

    Reply

  • Joe Fernandez

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    I cannot believe there are people here who think his shots are not good. These are very unique. As photographers, we do remote night lighting aviation photos from buildings and on the ground all the time which usually requires smaller lights placed all around interesting points and behind the plane, but to get two stadium lights up there with a ton of batteries, is hard to do and it is not cheap either. By the way, these are not flashes or else the prop action would freeze on the shots. As you can see, it needs a crew to work with and at times, he has several people hired to hold the lights. He may or may not be the best aviation photographer out there – (there are many veterans before him that have done exceptional air to airs as well) but certainly he is in a class all its own. If there is anything (and I mean very tiny thing) that I wish to see in his helicopter photos is a little more blur the helicopter rotors because two lights create a shadow, but again it is very difficult from a moving plane unlike shooting from the ground. Nevertheless, they are very top notch interesting and sharp commercial photos and I think people should commend his work and most of all the “effort” (the key word) made to do these.

    Reply

  • JP Lehne

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    Great stuff Claes, keep it up. The effort you put into this is fantastic and you deserve credit for being the one up there who is doing something special. Great shots, well done!

    Reply

  • Joe Fernandez

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    As a photographer myself and a harsh critique, I have to say that his method is one of a kind and very unique. I have used remote lighting many times in the past from the ground and from buildings but never anything like this. I have never seen anyone use stadium lights to do air to air shots. His work is very unique and very professional and since he uses large format for the most part, he must make impressive posters out of these. As you can see, it also takes a ton of preparation to run these systems and usually requires a helper to hold the lights. They are VERY HEAVY! Nevertheless, the outcome is golden! A+++

    Reply

  • JeffRL

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    I disagree with the other Jeff that the photos “look very amateur” [sic]. Perhaps he can share his professional results with us?

    I am curious about the effect on the vision of the pilots? How do they retain their night vision when the strobes go off? Just closing their eyes won’t block it all out. However you deal with that, keep up the good work.

    Reply

  • Claes Axstål

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    This is a flash photo from the year 2000 and from then on we knew that the pilots have no problem with the strobe light, due to its short flash duration and long distance: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=539494832756838
    It can be scary though to watch such big helicopter pass so close close to an air traffic tower, where we was shooting from, like in the movie “Top Gun”….

    Reply

  • Ivan Midwing

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    Suck it up guy’s
    He’s simply amazing!
    You can’t bear that he was first and a Swede on top of that. ..
    Genuinely made in Sweden ;-)
    It’s like he’s a bit of a poet and You didn’t Now it ;-)
    Tuff to swallow ehh…
    I just love the quality work on his pics.
    Simply the best!

    Reply

  • Duke

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    Logistics is part of creating the photograph. Of course, if this was about lighting a model airplane on a studio, then you have a lot of lighting options. However, considering the magnitude of the task and the huge number of variables (equipment limitations, manpower, weather, safety, etc. ) but still get these shots, I say it is awesome work. The pyramids of Giza are just ordinary shapes but its magnitude, and the enormous amount of work to make it possible, makes them great.

    Reply

  • Ron

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    Sure, the photos may be unique. But to my opinion the flash photography doesn’t work so well for the yachts. They are simply too large, resulting in partially illuminated objects: bright in the foreground and dark in the background. And that’s exactly what you’d like to avoid when using a flash.
    On the other hand: using the high dynamic range of modern cameras in post-processing, I think a non-flash photo at the right time during dusk will produce an even greater result. Did anyone try this technique?

    Reply

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