It's not an easy feat trying to fly 8kg of fabric and string, direct another pilot and take photos, but Olivier Laugero and Vitek Ludvik are two photographers whose images have managed to capture the beauty and danger of paragliding.
The duo have been behind the majority of images taken during the previous two editions of the Red Bull X-Alps, an 818km adventure race where participants combine paragliding and hiking to travel from Salzburg, Austria to Monaco across the Alps in the quickest time possible.
While shooting from a helicopter has its advantages, to get really close to a paraglider and get the right angles, the best option is to photograph from another glider.
Chamonix-based Olivier is an accomplished pilot in his own right, having completed numerous paragliding expeditions across Africa and the Himalayas. He usually flies a solo glider and photograph at the same time. Vitek (Czech Republic) is a qualified pilot but prefers to shoot air to air images from a tandem glider with an experience pilot at the controls.
What basic photographic equipment do you need to shoot from the air?
OL: You could shoot with a ultra-compact digital camera, but the release can be very slow, and usually the zoom doesn't have a good wide angle. The best are reflex digital cameras with a wide angle. They are fast and the wide angle can get you great panoramique images.
VL: I use a good quality camera, and have with me a wide lens and long lens, usually 17-40 mm and 70-200 mm. Plus an extra charged battery is essential.
How difficult is it to co-ordinate a shoot with an athlete and tandem pilot while in the air?
OL: If the tandem pilot and the athlete are not used to working on photo shoots, it can be hard. They have to understand what you do, I mean if you work with a wide angle or a long lens, the position of the glider will be totally different. Having radio contact is useful. And a good briefing with the pilot is vital.
How do you communicate between you and the athlete while flying?
OL: If you fly close you can shout, but having a radio contact is easier.
VL: It definitely depends on the people involved in the shooting. With some pilots you don't even need a radio. With some the radio doesn't help!
Have you ever dropped your equipment?
OL: I've never dropped my equipment, but I have to be very concentrated when I change lenses in the air. You have to be really careful of turbulence, especially if your hands are changing equipment and not on the controls. It's better to secure your camera with a rope and switch lenses in your camera bag. The bag should be attached to the paragliding harness and placed on your knees during the flght.
VL: Never. But I once broke some stuff after a bad landing.
Olivier, you fly and shoot at the same time - how do you do this?
OL: Shooting in the air can be easy if the flight conditions are smooth. When you can soar along the ocean, over a cliff, or when you fly early in the morning or late in the evening when there are no strong thermals, you can leave your brakes (control handles), and focus on the composition of your picture. In all cases you should be aware of what the other pilots are doing. You can shift your body to turn without turning the glider. It's another game when you shoot in thermal conditions (rising pockets of warm air), or with a high-performance glider. In this case you have to be a very experienced pilot to be able to put your glider on 'automatic pilot' and shoot in the same time. You need to be fast like Lucky Luke, to get your hands back on the controls if the glider gets into trouble.
Is it ever dangerous? Shouldn't you be concentrating on flying and not pointing your camera?
OL: If you don't have your brakes in your hand during a massive collapse (when the fabric canopy folds and crumples), you can lose control of the glider. It can take a long time to steady your wing, or in the worst situation, you will have to use your rescue parachute.
If you can't fly a paraglider yourself, what do you need to do if you want to try paragliding photography?
OL: You can be a passenger on a tandem paraglider. It's very comfortable to shoot and you can really focus on your pictures. But stay cool and don't stress, it's safe... Sometimes, you can shoot other paragliders from a cliff or the summit of a mountain.
VL: During the Red Bull X-Alps, I flew tandem with Felix Woelk. He is an amazing pilot and I trust him in the wildest turbulent air. This trust is really important if you want to concentrate on getting good photos. But you need to have a good eye for the sport and understand the spirit of it. If you have no idea about flying you won't make a good picture.
What's your most memorable air to air shooting?
OL: I had many incredible great photo sessions in the air, one of them was in the Ténéré desert. We were looking for sand dunes with the right orientation for the wind. It was late, and the wind direction was coming across the dunes which made it hard to soar. I was driving a 4x4 for many hours but one hour before sunset, we found the perfect spot. Ten minutes later we were flying like butterflies over an ocean of sand, dotted with blue marble! Sublime!
VL: Flying above the Marmolada, Italy with Felix, shooting Olivier and Ralf Reiter during the 2007 Red Bull X-Alps. The weather, scenery and flying were just amazing and I got some of the best shots from the event.
Any other tips or good stories?
OL: In 2005, I was flying in Pakistan, in the Karakorum mountains with John Silvester. This guy is a legend for flying in Himalayan mountains. We were flying around the Nanga Parbat (8125meters). Our altitude was 5000 meters and we were gliding along the face of the mountain when a massive avalanche fell. I shot John next to the avalanche, he was like a mosquito in the middle of nowhere!
VL: Leave your fears at home and find a pilot you can trust 100%.