Archive for the ‘Older posts’ Category


_DSC4529_000_MThis was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a pro bono job that one just could not turn down. Regardless of the risk. Matt Silver-Vallance was going to attempt a helium balloon flight (read party balloons, a suspended seat underneath and a pop gun wielded by an idiot with a death wish) from Robben Island to the mainland, Cape Town to raise funds for the Johannesburg Nelson Mandela Children’s Home. And when I say idiot, I actually quote Matt himself!

Now there are several things wrong with this picture. One is that it had never been done. It’s simply not allowed because of the busy heavy metal airspace from 2000 feet above sea level. On top of that, Matt had never flown anything before. He is a medical rep and paramedic. Thirdly, I was going to shoot this from a motorised paraglider, crossing the 10km of cold water with pilot Keith Pickersgill. This too had never been done. And for good reason – it’s lethally stupid to do without support. And with that, I mean a really big boat to land on should one have an engine out. Which, it turned out, was a very real possibility.

All this should have discouraged even the most dimwitted of photographers. To begin with, my images were to be handed over after the event, to be distributed worldwide, free of charge. That would be my contribution to the charity. Yet even the prospect of just being allowed to SLEEP on the world heritage site that is Robben Island was enough to convince me when Keith, a local paramotor instructor, called me to check my availability at short notice.

Keith is one of the most experienced pilots in the country and has an incident-free record which only comes from prudence and wide safety margins. Being a former paramotor pilot myself, I understood the risks and limitations. My background in imagery made this a natural fit. Which is how we found ourselves on a ferry to Robben Island one late Friday afternoon. The forecast was good, a light NW going West.

Flight nr. 13

The world media interest in this was intense. Not only because of the association with the hallowed names of Mandela and Robben Island. There was a darker reason. Only 12 such balloon flights had been attempted before, two pilots had died doing so and others had gone missing. This would be flight nr. 13. Get the picture?

So I was understandably upset when I discovered, on the ferry, that the one and only lens I could take on the flight, my 24-70mm f2.8 fitted to a Nikon D4, had somehow got bent and as a result, I could only zoom from 24-50mm. There was no turning back – we were committed, tents, food and sleeping bags packed for the night, since the balloon inflation was due to start the next morning at 4am. There would have been no time to dash back and get another lens, as we would have to launch as soon as conditions allowed. I had packed a little compact as a backup, a small Canon IX30S, but did not relish the idea of shooting with that on such a job. But at least I had another option. No pressure, noooo!

On arrival, we were bussed to the Robben Island runway – a largely overgrown, unused airstrip – which would be our camping spot for the night. Yes, tarmac. No mattress, hard ground, mist setting in, wet equipment … It sounded like it was going to be a fun evening. _DSC4533_001_M

While the inflation crew set about putting out the 25m lines at each of the four helium inflation stations, making knots in the lines every few metres where the balloons would be attached, Keith, myself and our support guy and fellow pilot John Lazarus set up tent and tried getting as comfortable as possible. A flask of whiskey provided some creature comfort.

We woke the next morning at sparrows’ to an unworldly scene – trucks idling away on the runway, their headlights illuminating four groups of people inflating multi-coloured balloons in a thick cloud of mist. I grabbed my D4 and starting shooting away at 6400ISO, trying to capture the backlit scenes literally fuelled by truck exhaust fumes, making for some spectacular shooting opportunities. Matt, stressed to his limit, was dashing between the four stations, prodding, cajoling and encouraging the teams to work faster. Miraculously, the zoom had sorted itself out and I had full but scratchy travel on the lens.

4am portrait. Matt looking worried.

4am portrait. Matt looking worried.

At once stage I managed to corner Matt for long enough to shoot a picture of him against the backdrop of some fumes and balloons, with John Lazarus giving me an edge light with his headlamp to fill in the side of Matt’s face. The shot is not sharp, unfortunately, due to camera shake or Matt moving, but considering that it was pitch dark, it had to do as Matt had to go – yet it somehow perfectly captures that eerie feel of the scene, its unworldliness.  _DSC4541_002_M

The volunteer teams working gave ample opportunities for behind-the-scenes shots, and since the fog was extremely thick and we were increasingly worried of not having a flight window, I shot what I could, not knowing if the opportunity would present itself again.

At dawn the fog was still thick, but the NW had come up and was gradually creating light spots and eventually, some blue sky patches. Around 11am, Keith suggested we launch the paramotor and recce the intended flight path from above the clouds. We radio’d Matt, who by now was strapped in and equalising the helium/weight ratio so that he was just slightly positively buoyant, to warn us before he cut away. It took a determined run in the light wind to get the tandem wing up and flying, but since we both knew what we were in for, Keith and I sprinted like mad. A steady climb up to 100m and we could see the mainland. Keith informed Matt, and before long, he cut away to the delight of the volunteers and hordes of international and national media.

_DSC4602_007_MUp and up he went – much faster than intended, and soon his voice came over the radio saying that he was climbing at 10 meters per second. Which would put him into controlled airspace in a matter of minutes! Keith suggested he start popping balloons fast, which he did, with a poke stick, taking out the control balloons at the bottom of the pile. But still he was going up like a cork, us chasing at full power and not getting anywhere near his climb rate. Out came Matt’s BB gun, but it was underpowered, the pellets just bouncing off the higher balloons. Eventually he resorted to pulling down the individual lines and popping the bottom balloons by stick.

Then the descent rate started – in earnest. Matt lost his positive buoyancy and plummeted down. Bailing out his ballast to stop the dreaded oscillation that occurs due to the delayed effect of adding or dumping helium, Matt sank to right on the water line, enough for us to warn the follow boats that we had a splashdown. Fortunately, as soon as Matt’s water ballast bags hit the surface, their combined weight was neutralised and they thereafter acted like sea anchors, keeping the pilot about 2m above the water line.

In the mean time, Keith and I descended as we were flying in cloud with very little visibility and lots of moisture. My D4 was soaked, my flight suit and shoes were soaked, and behind me, Keith had water running down the toggle lines into his flight suit, causing wet ballast underneath his elbows which he had to let out at times. I got concerned – a wet wing means flying closer and closer to deep stall, and any collapse would mean very little chance of recovery as the glider material was too wet to separate in a re-inflation. On top of which we were forced to fly lower and lower due to the cloud base dropping. Which meant our glide to safety decreased at the same time.

We estimated that we would have 90 seconds from 600ft to release harness buckles and get ready for a wet landing, but we were flying far below that height. The boat we were supposed to land in during an emergency was a rescue rubber duck, and would be easy to miss. _DSC4661_018_MOur only chance would have been to land on the Navy minesweeper that accompanied the flotilla of boats, but we had no authorisation for this. “F*** authorisation!” I said to Keith. “If we go down, head for the big grey boat!”.

_DSC4649_015_MMatt was drifting at a slower than expected speed, which meant our fuel reserves (just under 2 hrs) were getting low. We’d been in the air for over an hour, and still had 3.5km to go, and the mist was closing in again. Then we spotted a huge anchored fuel tanker directly in Matt’s flight path, too high for him to go over. We quickly radio’d the follow crew, who could not see the boat in the mist.

At this point, I suggested to Keith that with a wet wing, very little visibility to shoot in or to fly by, and very little fuel left, it might be a good idea to look for somewhere more dry. He did not argue the point.

Below us, the follow crew grabbed Matt’s throwrope and tried tugging him away to the side so that he would miss the tanker, but the force from the balloons was too big and eventually, a few hundred meters from the shore, Matt cut away, dropped into a boat and was brought ashore in the rubber duck to a massive worldwide contingent of media. Keith and I requested a boat to follow us to dry land through the mist, and landed on the beach with 200ml of fuel left! We got picked up and taken to the media centre, where I had to quickly process some images and footage, and hand over to the media.

I was amazed at the D4 – it was soaked and had to be wiped all the time to clear the front lens element, yet it did not malfunction or act up at all. The picture below shows just how wet the lens got – and stayed.

In the week that followed, the images and footage went viral. It made BBC, ABC, SABC, Top Billing and was featured in hordes of international magazines and papers. We’ve even had a request from Ripley’s Believe it or Not for images. I was disappointed in the conditions, hoping for a clear shot to Table Mountain and being able to show the whole of Robben Island, but we had no chance with all the cloud around. Nor could we fly close to Matt while he was at sea level for closer aerial footage without serious consequences to us in case of an engine failure. But that’s the nature of the beast – you do what you can. As Matt said in the post-op debriefing: Nelson Mandela took much bigger risks. This was nothing in comparison. If you’d like to donate to this cause, SMS “balloon” to 40301 (R20 per sms).

Safe at last. Note the wet camera.

Safe at last. Note the wet camera.

A short video clip on the flight:

This behind the scenes post is courtesy of Wordsource Productions.


Glen Dell. Cool, calm and collected

So there we were, 5000 ft above the Atlantic Seaboard, the door of the aircraft open, a fresh breeze cooling us down. And right next to us, a mere 10 ft away, was another aircraft. Upside down. Something’s wrong with this picture.

To make matters worse, the photographer and pilot, Anthony Allen, is not steering our aircraft. Guess who’s gone white knuckle around the yoke!

The shoot was an air-to-air job for Red Bull and BP, photographing their new Extra 330 acrobatic planes against the backdrop of Table Mountain and the Atlantic Seaboard. Anthony, an aerial photographer and long-time fellow paraglider, invited me along “to just help him look out for other aircraft” while he was shooting.

Aerial photographer Anthony Allen

I was happy to oblige, because I could drag my video equipment along for hopefully some rare air-to-air footage as well.

Taking off from Cape Town International, the air was really bumpy thanks to a brisk southeaster causing all kinds of mischief downwind of the Table Mountain massif, but fortunately, I was not flying the aircraft through the turbulence. Yet.

Above 5000 ft the air went silky-smooth, though, and allowed us to cosy up to Red Bull race pilot Glen Dell, a master at the helm, who at one stage flew no more than 5 ft away from us! My job was to keep one eye on the skies for other aircraft, and the other on Glen, in case he touched our Cessna 172. I’m still squinty-eyed as a result.

The next afternoon we were back, operating in the same area to shoot the BP aircraft. Again, thanks to some really professional piloting (not mine), the shoot again went off like clockwork with Glen pulling some spectacular aerial moves right next to us, a priviliged grandstand seat.

With 330 HP in a 650kg aircraft, he could literally stall and almost hover the aircraft at full power right next to our much slower plane. I managed to shoot some video with my EX1 running all the time, pointing out the open door behind our seats.

For the record, Anthony shot these images on a Canon EOS1MKIIIs, using an 80-300 IS f3.5 lens, shooting on shutter priority at around 200/f5.6-11 to help freeze the action.


An empty chutney bottle at my home just begged to be put to a new use. And since I had been experimenting with high speed flash all week, it wasn’t long before the bottle got washed, the studio set up and ready for a stock shoot featuring myself as the unfortunate idiot.

I say idiot, because, in my infinite wisdom, I thought I’d mix some dishwashing liquid into the bottle with the food colouring – just to soften the blow on the shirt that no doubt was going to get splashed. Now that may have half saved the shirt, but the soap did what soaps do to your eyes. In case you were wondering, that grimace was not an act. It’s the real thing. It stung like hell.

Splashed - the series

The fun part of this shoot though was experimenting with the lighting – and more specifically, the trigger. I set up everything, checked levels, then switched off all the modelling lights on the Bowens heads, closed the blinds, darkened the room completely, and set a 3 second exposure on my D700. The camera was set to timer release to allow me to get into a pre-focused position. With a Pocket Wizard remote trigger held out of shot, I then waited for the timer release to open the shutter, squirted the bottle, then hit the Pocket Wizard trigger half a second later to pop the lights. This recorded a brief second of exposure, catching the fluid in the air, and in me in the eye.

I had only one shot at it, since I knew the first squirt would cover my shirt. A very gentle first attempt however missed my shirt and face, but made a huge mess of the floor. But because I now had my timing and positioning right, I went for it, and hit a bullseye on the next attempt. Mine.

The aftermath - from Photoshop to mop expert

This was the studio setup – a beauty dish on a boom as key light (f18), flanked by a softbox far right and grid spot corner left. The back lights were one stop hotter than the key light to put some cheekbone definition into the shot, and the black doors in the front were an attempt to keep some of the keylight output falling onto the backdrop, which I wanted to keep a shade of gray.

And the shirt? It made it, thankfully. Dishwasher helps.

Langebaan lifestyle

Posted: November 9, 2010 in Older posts, Shoots in short

This must rank as one of my toughest shoots ever. Small budget, no assistant, no time. And the shotlist was huge – golf landscapes early morning, lifestyle shots with models thereafter, interior design shots by midday, more lifestyle in the afternoon, then golf atmospherics at dusk, closing the day with indoor lifestyle shots with the models at sunset. It’s a tall order. Now throw in inclement weather, a near-drowing and a boomslang on the loose, and you have the makings of an interesting two days.

Johan "Bakkie Man" Winterbach aka the Human Light Pole with models Hanri and Staff

Bakkie Man playing silly buggers. Note the eyewear.

Fortunately the agency’s Johan Winterbach was at hand to help with the equipment and art directing. Always ready with a joke, he’s a mood enhancer on any shoot. Not to mention handy with holding the odd Speedlight and bounce board. Catch him as the Bakkie Man on Supersport’s “Oor die Kole”.

What made this even tougher was the range of work we had to do – interiors, tripod work, to exteriors with flash. I could not use the studio head outdoors as there was no AC power to work from, but had packed my Quantum battery system and softbox. Sadly, because of a huge cold front rolling in, we had to condense a day of outdoor shooting into two hours. Which meant no time for the fiddly Quantum setup. I used the single SB800 speedlight to brighten up colours on the models where needed, and for the larger group shots, used a daylight reflector from the down-sun side. Fortunately the day was not too contrasty, and the ambient lighting quite pleasing.

Staff doing his Captain Morgan impersonation.

For the outdoor shots, I used the Nikon D700 and Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 almost exclusively, and almost always on f5.6. There is something magic about this f-stop on the lens, sharp as a tack, and the background pleasingly out of focus with beautiful bokeh in the highlights. For the rest of indoor work, I used the 24-70 f2.8 on around f11, and mixed the outdoor lighting with my Bowens strobes to fill in the darker spots and add accent on furniture. This could be tricky, as the outdoor light frequently gave me readings above the 250th top synching shutter speed on the D700, which forced me to compromise by overexposing the window lights a bit. But remarkably, the D700 retained detail. This was my first big shoot with the D700, in which I used it in a variety of lighting situations and could check how it handles noise in dark areas, detail in highlights and colour shifts in mixed lighting situations. I come back simply astounded – post-processing required, compared with images from my D300, is cut by at least 70%. It is simply too good to be true.

One of the beautiful bunkers at Langebaan golf courseAnd nowhere was this more visible than when shooting golf landscapes. These are typically shot within ten minutes after sunrise and ten minutes before sunset. You want loads of contrast, very low light and very bright highlights all in the same frame in order to shape the undulations of the course. If you’re going to have problems with noise and artefacting in the low light areas of the image, this is it. But there was very little to discern. In fact, retaining highlights remain the biggest problem (in the sky), so I used a Lee neutral density filter to bring the sky detail back into range where possible. Of course, shooting straight into the sun left no chance of that. Hence the post colouring of the sky, to give some detail at least.

All in all, the D700 handled it all very well, even where it had no help from external light sources such as in the golf shot to the right.

If you want detail in the course lawn, you have to shoot low angle, straight to the sun. That’s a recipe for disaster normally, but in this case, the camera pulled it off.

After having put it through its paces outside, I was wondering what the D700 would do indoors, with mixed lighting from outdoor sources and strobes and a firelight. We shot a sequence in the golf club loungeIn the lounge, the four-light setup that required extensive use of mixed lighting, from the standard lamps in the corner of the rooms to matching the exposure of the exterior light filtering through the window at the back, and exposing for the flames. I started by measuring the exposure for the flames, and set a combination of f11 and a shutter speed of around a 20th/sec.

Then I matched the output of the Bowens strobes to f11. I had two accent lights around the corners of the hearth to the right back and left back, respectively, to add a tiny highlight on the models’ cheeks, an umbrella keylight from left to add detail to the front and to the furniture, and fired all with a set of Pocket Wizards. Of course, the models had to keep reasonably still at 20th to avoid movement, but the slow shutter speed is in your favour when shooting flames, as it slightly blurs the movement and makes it look a bit more atmospheric. White balance was set to auto – I did not bother custom white balancing because I liked the slight warm tinge from the background lamps. And shooting at a 20th allowed just enough of the ambient tungsten to creep in and warm up the light balance.

Little Mia shortly before the incident

I did mention a near-drowning and some snake action. One of the models, 2-year old Mia, fell into the pool after the shoot, and sank like a stone. When she hit the bottom, she managed to kick and come up to the surface, but by now the frantic mum threw herself into the water, clothes and all, and fell straight on top of the youngster, pushing her down before she could get air. Quick as a flash, she was out with the child – no harm done, and hardly a whimper from Mia, who was running around the pool lawn five minutes later – and then nearly cut off her toe, presumably on a sharp piece of paving. Mild panic as we tried to stop the profuse bleeding, and once we got that under control, I left the pool enclosure – to walk straight into a huge boomslang in a tree. These are common occurences at Langebaan.

Although hectically poisonous, they are back-fanged and extremely timid. The poor thing tried its best to escape the estate snake catcher and his long tongs. It hid in the garden, and after some broomstick prodding, came blitzing out – straight through my legs and into the garden behind me. It took a two full seconds after he had disappeared before I yelped and jumped several feet into the air. So much for good reflexes!

End of a perfect day

Let there be light

Posted: October 8, 2010 in Older posts, Shoots in short

Sometimes an idea for an image creeps into your subconscious and won’t let go. I dreamt about this one for ages. There is no such lighthouse, and there is no such coastline. Well, not both in the same place, anyway.

With that in mind, I went scouting. Planned. Dreamt some more. Finally found the spots, and then this week, the weather presented itself. Storms, low cloud, strong wind whipping up the foam and splashing my tripod legs. Then my own legs. Ag sis man, not nice.

Finally, the shot’s in the bag. Pushed the speed right down as far as it would go to get some blur in the water (30th), which meant hovering at f22 and far out of the best sharpness range of the 14-24mm f2.8.

Then off to a lighthouse, shot with the 24-70mm f2.8 at f11, and then a full day of Photoshopping to get the two images aligned. It’s not perfect, but it’s there. I can sleep now. Or dream up the next conceptual image.

Good enough to eat!

Posted: October 6, 2010 in Older posts, Shoots in short

I suppose life could be worse – having a delicious rack of lamb to photograph … I mean, compared to shooting industrial machinery or construction sites, this is positively stomach-rumbling.

I had these chops prepared at Excellent Meat Market in Milnerton. The butcher very kindly trimmed and spiced the meat for my shoot, and they spent a day in the studio getting tanned by strobes, maturing nicely.

Being such a gorgeous evening, with no wind (unusual for Milnerton), they then ended up on my braai grid. And if you think they look good enough to eat, they were! Simply outstanding meat from my regular butcher.

The studio setup consisted of a small softbox on a boom, overhead, an unsoftened light against the white backdrop to bleach out the background and force attention to the product, and a grid spot from camera left to pick out the textures of the spices on the edge of the meat. A bit of parsley and a sliced tomato added interest and offset the meat colour nicely.



The tree’s my tripod

Posted: September 22, 2010 in Older posts, Shoots in short

A recce weekend at the newly-revamped Gary Player course. Misty morning. Me bored. Took my camera and wandered off onto the damp course. The light was flat and uninteresting, but at some point, literally for a few seconds at a time, the sun broke through gaps between the low-lying mist and the higher clouds, creating beautiful backlighting on the blades of grass surrounding the greens.

The only problem was that I had no tripod, and needed to shoot at around f11 and higher for front-to-back sharpness, which pushed the shutter speed down. Further, the sun was shining into the lens, causing flare. I had to raise my camera position to use the mild cloud cover and diffusing effect of the leaves at the top of my frame to bring the contrast range back into usable territory.

The only vantage point from where I could exclude the sun from shining directly into the lens was halfway up a milkwood tree. There were no lower branches, but the trunk was angled enough for a “friction fit” – I jumped up, threw my legs and arms around the trunk, and clung to the tree with my legs clamped solidly (read desperately) around the trunk, leaving my hands free to shoot.

This worked fine – although it looked rather odd. At least, that’s what I read from the face of the security guard on his quad bike patrolling the area.

I had about 5 seconds to get this shot, as the sun briefly illuminated the area well enough to cause hard enough shadows to define the undulations of the course. If I had left it for ten minutes later, the sun would have been too high, causing the frontal shadows to shrink, and the definition and shaping of the course gone.

Fortunately, the sun and clouds played ball and gave me the five seconds to compose, expose and shoot. I got literally one shot. All the others taken before and after lacked the direct, hard light that helps define the shapes in this one so well.