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.
“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.
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.
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.