The Light of Patagonia

[Note: This will be a longer form “travelouge” style blog post featuring a lot of images. Here, I want to share a bit of my recent adventures down south and talk about the incredible light we found on several occasions.]

Last month, in April 2024, I co-lead a workshop for Visionary Wild with their founder Justin Black. This was my seventh trip to Patagonia. It is one of those magical places that evokes a sense of wonder and awe like few places on this planet. Hence, the reason I have gone back there so many times. On most of my prior trips, I was covering the Patagonia Expedition Race or traversing the Patagonia ice cap–so there was little time to create landscape photographs of the iconic mountains and glaciers. This trip, set up by Justin and his incredible team was focused on landscape photography with a little bit of wildlife photography here and there as well.

The trip started out in Punta Arenas, where we all met up after the long flights. From there we moved to Torres del Paine, a location that Justin knew incredibly well. [Note: I too have been to Torres del Paine several times but mostly hiking in the mountains, not in the surrounding areas farther afield.] As a result of Justin’s deep knowledge of the park we were setting up at phenomenal spots every day for landscape photography. Justin had enough experience to judge the wind and the weather as well so that we could shift to other locations and still get images even in the worst conditions. The wind was a continuous battle in terms of keeping cameras steady–but for anyone that has traveled to Patagonia that is no surprise. The wild weather and extreme winds helped us create some epic images. Images we would not have had if the weather had been perfectly nice and calm.

The first few days in Torres del Paine, the wind really limited what we could do but that didn’t deter us from going out and producing a variety of images of shrouded peaks and barely visible mountains. Luckily, this trip was also fairly luxurious–at least compared to all my prior trips where I mostly camped in tents. We stayed at three different hotels in Torres del Paine as we moved around the park over the course of eight days. I remember hearing the wind roar outside my hotel room at Hotel Lago Grey (where the photos above were created) and thinking about all those prior trips in a tent with similar winds whipping the fabric of the tent so loudly that sleep was a rare experience. Being in a nice hotel, and having dinner cooked for you each night was a far cry from trying to light a camp stove in similar wind and rain in the vestibule of my tent.

As can be seen in the image below of the Cuernos del Paine as seen from Lake Pehoe (pronounced pay-way) we got really, really lucky with absolutely stunning light and interesting stormy weather. The evening before this image was created, myself and a few of the other crew went up to the lookout point on this tiny island and we were literally blown down and forced onto our knees by a wind gust well in excess of 80 mph (128 kph). On this morning at Lake Pehoe we hoped for good light and low winds and what we got was something I have very rarely seen before. The thin wispy clouds surrounding the Cuernos (literally the bull’s horns) captured the morning light and wrapped it all the way around the Cuernos so that both sides of the landscape were illuminated with alpenglow. Add in the crashing waves spraying us with glacial silt and the rocky foreground and it was landscape magic.

We certainly had other days where the weather wasn’t as cooperative but that just made the good light that much more incredible. Regardless of the weather, there were always a variety of moods–and wildlife–to photograph and observe. Torres del Paine is a goldmine for epic landscape photography. And you don’t really even have to hike that far off the beaten path to get something spectacular. Whether you ar hiking the “W” trail or go further away from the mountains (as we were on this trip) there are endless variations of epic mountain landscapes.

The Guanacos were a constant companion everywhere we went in Patagonia. They are related to Camels and are even more closely related to Llamas. They generally travel and live in groups for protection from mountain lions–of which there are a quite a few in and around Torres del Paine. During the daytime, we would often go looking for wildlife and invariably find Guanacos to photograph along with condors and the occasional Puma (aka Mountain Lion).

On one of our days on the east side of the park a few of us hiked up to the Torres, which was a ten hour hike round-trip (with time at the Torres) from the hotel at the base of the valley. We left at 4 AM and were pretty much immediately in a blizzard of sorts hiking in full Gore-Tex. The higher we went the deeper the snow got and the denser the clouds. I was thinking this might be a long hike for nothing much to see, but I had done this hike a few times in bad weather and had then somehow seen first light on the peaks as the weather cleared. Luckily the clouds parted just as the first rays of light hit the upper part of the Torres.

The peaks and the entire valley was bathed in about a foot (30 cm) of fresh snow–something I had never seen up there before. The snow certainly made for unique images. We also froze our buns off after hiking uphill for three and a half hours and arriving with wet layers underneath our Gore-tex outerwear. I took off my Arc’teryx jacket and put on a giant puffy and my shell froze solid in a matter of minutes. The descent was quite slippery and I was really wishing I had brought the mini-crampons. It was an epic hike–especially with the snow–and we got a few decent images to go with it.

From Torres del Paine we stopped in at El Calafate for a few days. Just around the corner from town are some incredible mountains and the giant Perito Moreno glacier. Having never been to the Perito Moreno glacier it was exciting to see something new on this trip. I have seen many, many glaciers all over the world and have traversed a section of the Patagonia ice cap on my last trip but it was wild to see the toe of the Perito Moreno glacier from a few different perspectives. This was also one of the places where we saw rampant selfie photography, which I always find comical–and occasionally I feel the need to photograph the folks taking selfies (as below).

After a few days in El Calafate we headed up to El Chalten, which I consider to be the “Throne Room of the Mountain Gods.” For me, the mountains above El Chalten–Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitzroy–are two of the most iconic and extraordinary peaks anywhere. Fewer climbers have summited anything in this range than have summited Everest. These peaks require incredible skill, speed and judgement like few other mountains–save for the similar stunning granite spires in Pakistan (the Trango Towers on the Baltoro Glacier) and perhaps a few of the giant cliffs in the Ruth Gorge in Alaska (like Mt. Barrille and Mt. Dickey).

As a climber, Cerro Torre and Fitzroy (whose indigenous name is El Chalten, meaning “smoking mountain”) are the epicenter of extreme climbing. If I am being honest, I have never had the skill to climb either one — very few climbers do. I could have possibly followed a stronger climber up one of these but even that requires a strong mind to solo over technical terrain with mind-boggling exposure below. Long runouts on sketchy gear is the norm here, and you have to be solid enough to deal with the exposure, the climbing, the loose rock, mixed rock and ice climbing and everything else while still moving upwards at breakneck speed to outrun any oncoming weather. Hence, all of this climbing history has built El Chalten and the surrounding massif into a cathedral in my mind. Just being there to photograph landscapes feels like going to church for me.

Luckily for us, we were gifted with some of the most mind-bending light I have ever seen. With our group we went to a few locations in and around the town of El Chalten several times to get those iconic views of the range. The main pullout just before you get into town offers a wide variety of options and epic views.

For me as a climber, Cerro Torre is the cat’s meow of the El Chalten massif. Both Fitzroy and Cerro Torre are obviously glorious, but the climbing challenge of Cerro Torre and the topsy-turvy, controversial climbing history of the peak lends to its acclaim. The East face of Cerro Torre (shown below) is a giant, extremely difficult rock climb while the West Face (not seen here) is essentially a huge ice climb with a few bits of mixed climbing on rock and ice. Either side is serious business. Torre Egger, Punta Herron and Aguja Standhart, the three smaller peaks just to the right of Cerro Torre (from the perspective shown below) are similarly challenging if not more so. Hence, on a few occasions I pulled out the FUJIFILM GF500mm f/5.6 lens and concentrated specifically on Cerro Torre as shown below.

On a few occasions when we went out chasing golden-hour light sometimes the most interesting light was behind us and not over the massif. This epic landscape (shown below) was in the exact opposite direction of Cerro Torre and El Chalten. Even without the iconic peaks, the river valley arcing through the pampas with wild clouds makes for a very different landscape image from Patagonia.

On a few different days, mostly when the sky was overcast, we also visited the Chorillo del Salto waterfall just up the road from El Chalten. The Chorillo del Salto is an easy one kilometer hike from the parking area and in April offers up fall foliage just below the waterfall. There are endless vantage points to photograph the waterfall from–and the trees themselves are just as interesting as the wider panorama shown above.

In El Chalten, if you aren’t willing or able to hike then a lot of the more famous landscape images are inaccessible. We weren’t in El Chalten that long on this trip so most of our landscape images were created at relatively accessible areas in and around town. Of course, on prior trips I have done a ton of hiking–all the way around the massif. Hence, it was nice to really concentrate on a few different easily accessible locations. The most obvious shot as you drive into town is on the road itself as shown below. As we drove into town that first evening we stopped and created a few images of the mountain range since you never know if you will ever see it again for the rest of the trip–that is just how the weather works down there. This image was severely backlit but due to the incredible dynamic range on the FUJIFILM GFX100 II I was able to pull out details in the foreground without losing the magical light breaking through the peaks in the distance. It isn’t the most epic image from the trip, but yet another solid perspective.

For this adventure, I took with me two FUJIFILM GFX camera bodies–the GFX100 II and the GFX100S. I also took along five GFX lenses including the GF20-35, GF32-64, GF80mm, GF100-200 and a pre-production version of the new GF500mm f/5.6. I also had with me the GF1.4x teleconverter as well to extend the reach of the GF500 for possible encounters with wildlife. You can read all about my experiences with the new GF500mm lens in my previous blog post. I also brought a medium weight Gitzo tripod not knowing how much hiking we would be doing. If I had it to do over again I would have taken my heavyweight top-end Gitzo GT5541LS tripod to help battle the wind. For those heading down, I recommend taking the heaviest tripod you have as lightweight tripods just vibrate in the hurricane force winds and are practically worthless.

My thanks to Justin for bringing me in to help lead this photography tour. Additionally, a huge thanks to our support staff and guides Ruth, Scott, Jocelyn, Zaira, Manuel and Carlos for all your expertise, help and care. Their support truly made this trip exceptional as they were always looking out for everyone and could literally (or so it seemed) make just about anything happen. Last but certainly not least, thanks to the participants that made this trip possible. We had a grand adventure not only photographing the epic landscapes but also getting to know each other and traveling together over eighteen days. For those looking for high-end photography tours to remote locations Visionary Wild is as good as it gets. I highly recommend them and Justin is an incredible photographer with deep knowledge of the locations he visits on his tours.

There are hundreds of other images I could share but alas, this post already probably contains more images than most want to plow through. Patagonia never disappoints and this was a phenomenal trip that well exceeded my imagination. On three or four occasions we witnessed light that was utterly breathtaking. From soft pastel hues to deeply intense purple pre-dawn light we were very lucky to be able to photograph the entire spectrum of possibilities. It was also a pleasure to travel with so many talented photographers in our group. Each day we would share our images and speaking for myself it was hard to not be jealous. Sometimes an iPhone image would blow you away. Other times it was David Chew with his incredible technique using a Phase One back and an Alpa technical camera rig producing jaw dropping panoramas. More often than not it was Justin creating one masterpiece after another even in imperfect conditions. That is all just part of the fun traveling with other photographers and geeking about gear, technique and photography in general.

Every time I go to Patagonia I am itching to go back and this time is no different. There are always new places to go to and different adventures to be had. I’d love to go back and actually climb one of the smaller sub-peaks in the El Chalten massif. I’d also love to fly over the range and do a bigger adventure project down there with some world-class athletes. It is truly one of the epic playgrounds. Until next time…hasta luego.

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A preview of the FUJIFILM GF500mm f/5.6 Lens

[Disclaimer: I am not an ambassador for Fujifilm but I have worked with them closely over the last five years or more. I have created images for the launch of the last three 102 MP GFX cameras including the GFX100, GFX100S and the GFX100 II. Check out my portfolio website to see those images and the behind the scenes video for those assignments. I have also created images for the launch of some of the GF lenses as well–notably for the GF45-100 and more recently the GF500mm lens. As a result, I cannot say that this preview is unbiased. I am certainly biased. I hope that you find this preview at the very least informative since I do use other cameras systems for some of my work and thus have similar gear that I know extremely well to compare it to. The GF500mm lens was provided to me for the assignments I was on to create images for the launch of the lens.]

The FUJIFILM GF500mm f/5.6 R LM OIS WR lens has now been officially announced. The GF500mm focal length on the GFX cameras is the 35mm equivalent of a 396mm lens. Over the last few months from early February through the end of April, I have had a lot of time with this lens photographing action sports, landscapes and some wildlife as well. Fujifilm USA has let me work with two different prototypes of the lens and even let me take one to Patagonia for three weeks. Hence, my sincere thank you to Fujifilm for letting me have so much time to work with this lens and to test out its capabilities. My hope here with this preview is to give you a sense of the lens and how it performs so that you can make an informed decision on whether or not it is a lens that will work for your needs.

Last year, when the GFX100 II was announced in Stockholm, the night before the announcement I was told that Fujifilm was also announcing a GF500mm lens to put on the road map. I have to say I was almost more excited for the new 500mm lens than I was for the GFX100 II. I have been talking with several different folks at Fujifilm about a longer telephoto lens since 2019 (and even specifically mentioned something like a 500mm f/5.6) so when they told me about this new lens I was over the moon. I am sure many of the Fujifilm photographers were asking for a telephoto GFX lens so it certainly wasn’t just me asking for it. Hence, you can imagine my excitement to be a small part of the launch of this lens–and to get to work with it for such an extended period of time before it was officially launched. Because all of my experience so far was with pre-production firmware and a prototype lens this will qualify as a preview, not an exhaustive review.

Let’s start with the physical characteristics of the lens. The first thing you notice when you pick it up is how light it is. It is easily hand-holdable. At 1,375 grams (3.03 Pounds) the GF500 is actually 50 grams (0.11 pounds) lighter than the GF250mm lens, which is pretty amazing given its longer focal length. Length-wise it is just slightly longer than the GF250 at 246.5mm (9.7 inches). The way the lens elements are arranged in the lens itself also means that the bulk of the weight is towards the camera body, which means it balances on a GFX100 II quite well — also making it easy to move when panning with the action. The front element has a 95mm filter thread so it is decently large but also not so big that filters would cost a fortune. It has an aperture ring, a manual focus ring and also focus lock/focus recall buttons. It also has the standard switches on the side of the lens as shown below that include restricting the autofocus distance, turning on and off the Image Stabilization (OIS) and a switch that tells what the buttons on the lens do (i.e. autofocus lock, preset AF and initiating AF).

The locking collar on the lens also has a built in Arca-Swiss style tripod foot (as shown below) which is one of the first I have seen from any camera manufacturer. I believe Fujifilm also added the Arca-Swiss tripod foot on the smaller format XF150-600mm lens but that is the only other lens I have ever seen that had one built-in and that ships that way from the manufacturer. This is a great addition to the tripod foot and I hope to see more of these from all manufacturers. Bravo Fujifilm! It slipped perfectly into my Really Right Stuff ballhead and seemed rock solid.

My first time working with the new GF500 was while photographing wind surfing at Ho’okipa Beach Park on the north shore of Maui in February. Ho’okipa is one of the best spots on the planet for wind surfing and I had two world-famous windsurfers to work with, Levi Siver (formerly sponsored by Red Bull) and Marcilio Browne (the current world champion). Hence, there was no lack of talent in front of the lens on this assignment. With the tight timelines and only a few lenses to share among photographers at that time I only had two days with the lens. But I made good use of those two days and we had perfect weather as well.

As you can see below I shot a lot of wind surfing images, all at 8 framer per second (fps) with the FUJIFILM GFX100 II camera body. In all, I created over 3,500 images with the GF500 in those two days–most of those were created while photographing wind surfing. With the GFX100 II, I would say that the GF500mm autofocus was pretty darn amazing, especially for a medium format camera. When it locked on the subject it would normally track the surfer all the way through the sequence unless another wave splashed up between myself and the surfer. I got around 80% of the images in focus while firing away at 8 frames per second and tracking the surfers in the AF-C mode. While 80% may not seem like a great percentage remember that any other medium format camera (aside from the new GFX100S II) would have a much lower in-focus percentage. The older GFX100S, with its less capable autofocus tracking capabilities (compared to the GFX100 II and GFX100S II), would probably be somewhere down in the 40% range. Hence, 80% is an incredible percentage for a camera creating 102 MP image files at 8 fps. With the full production model and new firmware this percentage might improve. I will definitely test that out when I can get my hands on a full production model.

While photographing wind surfing, I also used the GF1.4X TC to extend the focal length out to 700mm f/8. With the teleconverter attached that gets us out to a 35mm equivalent of 554mm f/8. With the teleconverter (shown attached to the lens below on my backpack) the images were still very sharp. I saw barely any noticeable drop in image quality. But I did notice that the autofocus was just a hair slower. Given that this was a prototype lens I would not say that is a definitive statement. We will see how the full production lens does. Though, in general, when using any type of teleconverter (of any brand) on a lens there is usually a very slight drop in autofocus speed–mostly because of the slower aperture that is a result of the teleconverter.

I will say that the GF1.4X TC fits on the GF500 very well as you would expect. There is a tight seal and the teleconverter has little if any play between the lens and body. It is great to see that the teleconverter works so well with both the GF250 and the GF500 lenses. The teleconverter doesn’t seem to shift the balance that much either–the center of mass is still near the camera body. Thus, even with the teleconverter attached the whole setup still balances well and is easy to handhold. I worked with the GF500 both on a tripod and also handheld. Windsurfing is a sport that moves very fast and the surfers are all over the place so I found that working handheld allowed me to get the best images.

Photographing wind surfing can also be quite miserable. Typically the best conditions are when the wind is absolutely howling — often at wind speeds in excess of 40 to 50 mph (65 to 80 kmh). With that much wind it can be very challenging to hold a big lens steady and move it without being blown off the subject. Hence, as you can see above in the image of me working at Ho’okipa, I mostly worked behind a wind break created by a sheet of plywood set up at the beach. The wind really works you pretty hard after standing or sitting in those conditions for several hours. By the end of a session I had not really worked that hard but somehow I felt very dehydrated just from the wind pulling water out of me.

While on Maui, I also took the GF500 up to the top of Haleakala (the main volcano in the center of the island). The top of Haleakala, In Haleakala National Park, is situated at 10,023 ft (3055 m) and is quite cold compared to sea level down below. Knowing I would be going up on Haleakala I brought with me warm clothes and a down jacket–not the norm for a Hawaii trip but key for this adventure. From the top of Haleakala you could see Mauna Kea rising above the clouds on the big island of Hawai’i (shown below) and also the observatory on top of Mauna Kea as well. Using the GF500 I was able to frame up an image with both the rim of the Haleakala crater in the foreground and Mauna Kea in the background. The GF500 also allowed me to isolate various parts of the Haleakala crater for some dramatic landscapes.

While I had the lens on Maui, I hinted to Fujifilm that perhaps I should take it with me to Patagonia in April where I would be co-leading a photography workshop with Justin Black. Justin is an ambassador for Fujifilm and hence, he would be able to try out the lens as well. I never thought that would come to fruition but kudos to the folks at Fujifilm for making it happen. I got the lens the day before I was set to leave and wrapped it up in a Aquatech rain cover to hide its identity. I also took some gaffers tape and taped over any and all text printed on the lens to hide its identity since I would most likely be pulling it out in the company of other photographers. We dubbed the lens “Snoopy,” so that when we referred to it no one would know what we were talking about.

The Patagonia trip was a three week extravaganza where we visited Torres del Paine in Chile, and El Calafate and El Chalten, both of which are in Argentina. I mostly used the lens for landscape images where I would isolate distant peaks as shown below. We also had a few times where we photographed wildlife as well–mostly Guanacos, which are ubiquitous in that region of Patagonia. The first two images below were taken near the Lago Grey Hotel and show the fierce winds whipping around Cerro Paine Grande (top black and white image) and over the peaks in the French Valley (bottom black and white image). The first color image below is a photograph of Cero Torre at sunrise as seen from a lookout point several kilometers just outside of El Chalten, Argentina.

For wildlife, the GF500 was essential since I only had GFX cameras with me on this adventure–those being the GFX100 II and the GFX100S. I often used the GF500 with the GF1.4x TC to get a longer focal length depending on where the animals were situated. This Guanaco shown above was actually relatively close to us but I still used the teleconverter to fill the frame. I will share a lot more images from this Patagonia adventure here soon in a separate blog post.

I am not sure I have had this much time with any pre-production camera or lens before. I feel like I know the GF500mm lens quite well at this point having used it every day for almost a full month. For what it is, the lens is relatively compact and fits into a camera bag fairly easily. In terms of image quality the lens is very sharp. As with any longer telephoto lens, how sharp the final images appear is going to depend a lot on heat distortion effects. When the subject was closer to the camera, as with the wind surfing and wildlife images above, heat distortion was a non-issue. For the far off landscapes, even though we were freezing our buns off at dawn creating the photographs, the heat differential between where I was standing and the peak I was photographing definitely introduced some heat distortion when you zoom into the image. Heat distortion has nothing to do with the lens, it is just a factor of using a long telephoto lens like this and having a subject that is at a far distance. Regardless, the lens itself produces wicked sharp images similar to the GF250mm lens.

The GF500mm also has Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) as well. It is built into the lens and also works with the camera body to produce the best results. I did not specifically test it out as in most situations I either had the lens on a tripod or was trying to freeze the motion of the wind surfers. I am sure it works well but I will have to test that out with a production version of the lens. The only downside, if it can even be considered a downside, of the GF500mm lens is that at f/5.6 this lens might not be the best option for use in low lighting conditions. I am sure they could have made an f/4 version but it would have weighed more than twice as much and would have cost three times more. They opted for the f/5.6 version which is much easier to travel with and much more affordable as well. And f/5.6 lens is what I asked for five years ago so I certainly can’t complain on that front.

Overall, the GF500mm lens is pretty much exactly what you would expect from a FUJIFILM GFX lens. It is sharp, the autofocus is snappy and it is well built. I found very little if anything to complain about when using the lens. Honestly, I think Fujifilm knocked it out of the park and produced a lens that really opens up the GFX lens lineup making the system as a whole that much more useable for a wide variety of situations and photography genres. We now have lenses that range from 20mm all the way up to 700mm (a 35mm equivalent of 16mm to 554mm) and also two excellent tilt-shift lenses as well. About the only lenses missing at this point are a fisheye and an ultrafast wide-angle prime. I’d say the GFX system is rounding out very nicely right now. It is certainly the most well-rounded and versatile lens lineup in the medium format photography genre.

The price for the GF500mm f/5.6 here in the USA is $3,499 USD, which for a medium format lens of this caliber is a great price point. Considering lenses from Hasselblad and Phase One cost nearly twice this amount for shorter focal lengths this is a relative bargain in the medium format space.

For more information on the FUJIFILM GF500mm f/5.6 visit Fujifilm’s website. My thanks to Fujifilm once again for letting me be a small part of the launch of this lens and for loaning it to me for my Patagonia adventure. I look forward to working with it again as soon as it becomes available.

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2024 Red Bull Air Force Aviation Camp

Earlier this year, in Mid-March I once again had the honor of working with the Red Bull Air Force. The Red Bull Air Force is a team comprised of the best sky divers, wingsuit B.A.S.E. jumpers, and stunt pilots in the USA. Hanging out with them is like hanging out with Superman and Superwoman. Practically nothing is impossible and that is a huge part of why this crew continues to push and evolve their respective disciplines. I have worked with the team for the last fifteen years. This was the sixth team training camp I have photographed among many other assignments with them–and they have all been memorable.

The 2024 training camp was held in Louisiana. The weather was touch and go on a few days but overall the team managed to do a bunch of skydives and also try out some new formations and maneuvers that they can use for their air show demos. My assignment, as usual, was to document as much of the action as possible and also to create portraits, lifestyle images, can in hand images (images of the athletes drinking the product) and a team photo incorporating all of the athletes. The team photo is at the top of this big post.

The team photo itself was tricky to pull off. Trying to fit eight skydivers, two stunt pilots and an aerobatic helicopter into one still frame is challenging. The helicopter is pumping out some serious downforce just behind the skydivers standing on the tarmac. Aaron Fitzgerald (in the helicopter) also had to keep that bird steady as a rock while two stunt planes flew right over the top of him. He held the Helicopter there for five minutes or more as the stunt pilots Kirby Chambliss and Kevin Coleman tightened up their formation on five successive flyovers. I started farther away from the team not knowing how far out the pilots would be from the ground and then moved in closer and closer on each attempt to make the skydivers bigger in the frame. The Air Force has had some iconic team photos over the years (many that I created with them) so the pressure is always on to top the last one.

The whole point of the team training camp is to get the whole team together, which rarely happens, and practice the air show that they perform throughout the year at various air bases–and also to come up with new ideas and concepts and practice those as well so they can incorporate those new stunts into future air shows and events. One of the stunts they have been doing at air shows lately is scenario where Aaron takes up Miles Daisher or Luke Aikens in the helicopter and they jump off the skid of the helicopter just as Kevin Coleman buzzes the bottom of the helicopter as shown below. Kevin comes in at 180 mph (289 kmh) and his tail fin is only six to ten feet away from the bottom of the helicopter. From the ground it looks pretty epic as can be seen below.

When I was working up images back at home, I showed the above image to Katie, my other half, and asked her what she thought. Her response was that it was so out there she could barely even understand what was happening or where I was in relation to the action. I would say that is often the case for a lot of skydiving images and perhaps many of the images in this blog post. For some images it is easy to tell where I am in relation to the athlete and in others not so much. My hope is if the photograph looks this crazy to the viewer they have some sense of just how out there it looked in real life.

Of course, a huge part of the training camp is to skydive as much as possible–both for fun and to get a lot of footage that they can use to promote the team and Red Bull in general over the course of the next year. In the image below, team members Andy Farrington, Miles Daisher, Sean MacCormac, and Jeff Provenzano let loose while skydiving. For a lot of these skydiving images I am using either remote mounted mirrorless cameras or GoPro action cameras mounted on the team members helmets. They are all experts at using a GoPro or an Insta360 style action camera and they pretty much all have at least one (sometimes two) recording video on every single skydive. To get still images I have my GoPros running in time-lapse mode and firing off two frames every second. As you can imagine, that ends up being an incredible number of images in the end.

The Red Bull Air Force team members are true professionals. They know how to make something look off-the-charts cool. And they know how to play to the camera. Andy Farrington, the skydiver smiling into the camera above, is not only one of the best skydivers and wingsuit pilots on the planet but he is also one of the best at filming skydiving. Hence, every time I put a camera on someone’s helmet they seemed to make some magic happen. At some of the training camps we will have a few extra aircraft for myself and the video crew to shoot out of but at this Aviation camp we had just the team, myself and an incredible drone pilot working to document the action. This meant that I had to rely on remote cameras a bit more than usual. Even so, hopefully the images speak for themselves.

The GoPros were also mounted in the cockpits of the stunt planes (as shown below) and also on the wings of the aircraft as well. In the three images below, all created with GoPros, the top image is of Pete McLeod buzzing the tarmac, the middle image is of Kevin Coleman doing the same and the bottom image is of Kirby Chambliss upside down with the ground reflected on his wing. In all we created over 35,000 images on the GoPros over the course of four days. I am never quite sure what we are going to get but one thing is sure–there are always a few epic GoPro images.

Of course, there are plenty of opportunities to get up in the air as well. When Aaron Fitzgerald isn’t practicing his aerobatic routine, I can often hop in the helicopter and photograph the action out of an open door. Flying with Aaron is a huge privilege. I have spent many hours in the back of his helicopter and it never gets old or routine. He is one of the best helicopter pilots on the planet and what he can do in a helicopter is literally mind-blowing. I have been in the helicopter once when he ran through his entire aerobatic routine–and that was one of the highlights of my career just to be there. This year I got a sweet image from the back seat of him just flying along normally but the light was just right and shows what the view looks like out of the front of the helicopter. Of course I also got some wild images from the ground of him practicing a new routine as well.

Of course, I also have a lot of other obligations on the shot list when on assignment at the Aviation camp. Cheif among those are to create new portraits of the team that will be used for all the air shows and events they participate in. The team is constantly traveling and it seems almost every weekend they are skydiving into a Formula 1 race, performing at an air show or some other major sporting event. They don’t stay in one place for long and their portraits are displayed on giant LED screens to give the audience a sense of who it is falling out of the sky right in front of them.

I take the portrait part of these assignments pretty seriously and try to create portraits of each athlete that they and I can be proud of. The hope is that they actually like the portrait of themselves as well, which is usually a much higher bar than just how cool the image looks stylistically.

Shown above are portraits of Kevin Coleman (top left), Amy Chmelecki (top right), Pete McLeod (bottom left) and Miles Daisher (bottom right). These portraits are produced on the fly so to speak. Typically, as with this occasion, I set up a little studio space inside a hanger and leave it set up for the entire camp. For this setup we used a gray background and lit it with three Elinchrom strobes (big studio flashes). When there is some down time I grab a few athletes and we hammer out some portraits of them in various poses. Usually these mini-sessions last no longer than five minutes per athlete. We get serious straight on portraits, then to the side, profiles and then we just let go and get some funky off the cuff moments as shown below. We try to have some fun with it as getting your portrait taken is never all that much fun. All the athletes know the drill and are professional about it but still I like to make it painless.

It isn’t often that I see the team members take selfies but during this camp there was a moment that was hard to pass up. The image below was from right at the end of our team photo session. It isn’t everyday that the team has everyone together and a helicopter hovering right behind them. They had been standing there getting blasted by the rotor wash for five minutes or so when Jeff Provenzano pulled out his phone and snapped what has to be one of the coolest selfies ever created. Luckily I saw this happen and snapped off a few images of them taking a selfie together.

Another part of the assignment is just documenting the behind the scenes happenings in-between the skydives and aerobatic routines. On the average training camp day the team might make six skydives or a dozen or more depending on what is happening. Hence, there is a lot of parachute packing in-between skydives. Communication between the skydivers and the pilots is also critical for safety so there are a lot of group discussions that I try to document. These images aren’t necessarily portfolio images but all just part of the story.

Over the course of the week, the stunt pilots Kirby Chambliss, Kevin Coleman and Pete McLeod (from Canada) and Aaron Fitzgerald (flying the aerobatic helicopter) are constantly going up to practice their routines and work on new maneuvers as well. Sometimes I am in the air to document these flights but more often I am on the ground. Seeing the stunt pilots go through their entire routines is pretty wild. As shown below, these planes can go full vertical at any moment like a rocket launching into the sky. In the image just below Kevin Coleman flew down the length of the runway and then went vertical. In the image below that, Kirby Chambliss is performing the Cobra maneuver. For that image of Kirby, I was photographing him with a wide angle lens so you can tell just how close I was to the action. I was standing out in clear view next to the runway and Kirby came through this flight path several times. Each time I moved in closer and closer. I could see him look at me so I knew that he was aware of where I was. At one point he flew past me at over 150 mph (241 kmh) with his wingtip only ten feet from me. I didn’t flinch and we got a wild shot of him just a few feet off the ground as shown in the third image below.

By far, one of the most intense moments of the aviation camp was when Luke Aikins was flying his plane (that has an air brake attached to it) while the rest of the Red Bull Air Force skydived around him. As shown in the three images below, this resulted in an absolutely mind-blowing set of images from the remote cameras. All of the skydivers rotated around the plane as it descended. At one point Jeff Provenzano reached out and grabbed the wing of the plane as they all descended at the same rate. The air brake that Luke has attached to the plane allows the plane to fall at the same rate as the skydivers, which is terminal velocity (for a human body)–about 120 mph (193 kmh). The video from this stunt is even more compelling than any of my still images and can be seen here and here on Instagram.

I wasn’t in the plane for this first skydive but shortly there after they tried the same thing with wingsuit skydivers and afterwards Luke ran over to me saying we gotta get you up in the plane to photograph his perspective out the door. I knew that if Luke was excited about the perspective it was going to be pretty wild so I jumped in the plane to head up. After climbing up in altitude for about ten or fifteen minutes Luke engaged the air brake and we immediately slowed down and started descending rapidly. I was waiting for the wingsuit skydivers to show up and seconds later they were right there just outside the open door. In the image below team members Andy Farrington, Mike Swanson, Jeff Provenzano, and Miles Daisher are floating just next to the plane. They seemed so comfortable it was almost comical.

I didn’t know what to expect or how long this would go on so I had the camera cranked up into the 20 fps mode and I was blasting away as Andy Farrington (the closest to me) just outside the door flashed me the “rock on” hand signal. They flew next to the plane for thirty to forty seconds–much longer than I expected. I had so much time that I framed up a variety of compositions. This one shown above that includes the door frame, the wing and the plane’s wheel seemed to give the best sense of the scene. I even stopped shooting a few times as my right eardrum had pressure building up in it so rapidly it was painful. We fell over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) in those thirty or more seconds. Because the air brake wasn’t fully deployed we weren’t falling straight vertically at the ground but we matched the glide path of the wingsuit skydivers which is a 3-to-1 glide ratio. Hence, we were falling roughly at a 35-degree down angle as can be seen the image below.

In the image above you can see my foot and part of my upper body sticking out of the plane door. Usually I try not to break the plane of the open door as there is a lot of wind pushing you around if you do, but in this instance I was trying to get a different composition without the door frame. When I am photographing out of an open door on an aircraft or a helicopter I am typically tethered in but in this instance it was a serious safety hazard to be tethered into the plane. Hence, I was wearing a parachute and was not tethered to anything in the plane–just in case I fell out. Being tethered in is a safety hazard in this instance because if the parachute somehow gets deployed while I am still in the plane and I am tethered in then the plane is going to crash with all of us in it. Being untethered meant that if somehow the parachute opened while I was still in the plane it would pull me out of the plane and we would hopefully all survive. It is definitely not a good thing to have your parachute deploy while you are still in the plane so I made sure not to accidentally catch any part of the rig on something inside the plane or accidentally pull the release while photographing the wingsuiters. Regardless, it was pretty comfortable sitting on the floor of the plane next to Luke and photographing out the open door. To get a sense of what it was like photographing the crew wingsuiting next to us in the plane check out Luke Aikins behind the scenes video he created while I was photographing the team here on Instagram. And then consider that he was flying the plane in a 35-degree nose dive and filming that on his iPhone at the same time.

There are endless images I could share here. That is a huge problem with these types of assignments–you have to photograph everything and often at high frames rates to make sure you don’t miss it since the action happens so fast. In all I created almost 60,000 images. That took a week just to go through them all and find the keepers–and then another week to work them up. It took Red Bull even longer to figure out which ones they wanted to put up on Red Bull Content Pool. Hence, posting up images from this gig has taken a while.

My sincere thanks to Red Bull for hiring me yet again to work with the Air Force team and to the team members themselves for allowing me to be a part of the action. This collaboration with the Red Bull Air Force has become one of the longest professional relationships I have ever had. All of the team members at this point are good friends. I have seen and done so much with them over the last fifteen years that I truly feel a part of the crew. Even with all of our work together somehow I have never gone skydiving but we are going to take care of that this summer–and I will finally go on that skydive with the team. For now, we will leave this here. I will post some other images on Instagram so stay tuned for that. If you made it this far, thank you for reading this entire blog post and checking out the images. Until next time….

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Camera Specs that may no longer Matter

With the recent improvements in software, notably from Adobe and Topaz, there are a few camera specifications that may no longer merit too much concern. Those two specifications are sensor resolution and high ISO noise. It feels strange to write that last sentence as I have been chasing the best cameras and sensors for decades now. My leap into medium format cameras, first with the Hasselblad and more recently with the stellar FUJIFILM GFX cameras, has been a major part of that quest to find the best image quality possible. This isn’t to say that a high-end capable camera is not worth it anymore, but here I would like to point out that other factors may be more important–like dynamic range, autofocus capabilities, frame rate and so on. Since I mainly use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to process my raw images there are two features in those software options that have really revolutionized what we can get away with.

First off, let’s talk about Adobe’s Super Resolution feature built both into Lightroom and Photoshop. When this feature was first announced in March 2021, I wrote a fairly detailed blog post about it which you can find here. That post goes into much more detail about how to use it and the results. The upshot is that by right clicking on any image and choosing “Super Resolution” Adobe’s software will use AI to increase the resolution the image by a factor of four. It basically doubles both the horizontal and vertical axis of the image–and it does a fantastic job. Hence, with this feature a 24 MP image becomes a 96 MP image. As shown below, this feature can radically increase the size of any image making it possible to make larger prints than otherwise would be possible with the lower resolution image file.

In the screenshot above you can see a 24 MP image blown up to a 96 MP image using Super Resolution. The 24 MP image is on the right and the 96 MP version is on the left. I have used the Compare feature in Lightroom to show both images at 100% magnification.

In 2024, there are still quite a few cameras coming out with 20 to 24 MP sensors. The 24 MP benchmark has been and continues to be a popular sensor resolution. 24 MP makes a lot of sense for most photographers as the files are easy to deal with and don’t fill up a memory card as fast as larger file sizes. Of course, these days 46 MP is also a very popular sensor resolution as well. My tests in the past with 46 MP sensors have shown me that you can easily make prints up to 40 x 60 inches. With the Super Resolution feature in Lightroom you can now go even larger with no worries.

The Super Resolution feature also works wonders with even larger image files. Take for example images produced by any of the GFX 102 MP cameras like the landscape image shown below produced with the FUJIFILM GFX100 II. This 102 MP image file becomes a 408 MP image when Super Resolution is applied. I realize a 408 MP image file seems absolutely ridiculous but if you need to print something on a 60-foot long wall or the side of a bus then this option will really help out in those rare circumstances. Also if you want to apply an extreme crop but still want to have some detail in the image Super Resolution can help in that instance as well.

As shown above, the large 102 MP GFX image files look amazing when Adobe Super Resolution is used to increase the file size. On the left is the 408 MP version of the image and on the right is the original 102 MP version of the image. I have found that higher resolution image files tend to net better results when you use Super Resolution–probably because there is more information for the software to work with when upressing the image file.

The other camera specification that really may not matter that much anymore is high ISO noise. Adobe introduced Denoise AI early last year and it is unbelievable how well it works to remove noise from images while retaining or even enhancing the detail of the image. When I first tried it out I was completely blown away at how well it worked. I also found that the default setting of 50 was way too much noise reduction for my taste. As shown below, I tend to use a setting of 25 to 35 when using this tool in Lightroom. For me, 30 to 35 seems to be the sweet spot. I don’t feel the need to remove all of the noise, just to remove enough noise so that the noise itself is not the thing you look at when viewing a print of the image.

The Denoise AI feature in Lightroom can be found in the Detail section (in the right hand column) of the Develop module. Once you click on the “Denoise AI” box then a dialog will show up as shown above and you can move the slider to select the amount of Denoise AI you want to apply to the image. The image preview on the left side of the dialog box will show you the results at 100% so you can adjust as you want.

I realize both of these features are using AI software to some degree — and there is a lot of hate out there for AI image generation — but this is a very useful application of AI software for our needs which does not create anything that isn’t already there in your image. I too am not in love with the AI image generation software and have written a few different times about how that will have a huge impact specifically on the photography industry (and already has had a massive effect). But I do applaud Adobe for adding these very useful features into Lightroom and Photoshop.

Of course, Topaz Labs has had similar software that can upres images and reduce noise using AI enhancement for quite a while now. I tested that software a few years ago before Adobe launched their versions and found it didn’t work as well as I would have liked. I am sure it is much better now than it was years ago but for my work the Adobe tools seems to work just fine. Topaz also has software that can help sharpen images that are a little on the soft side as well. While that might be useful for some, I have not found a need for it and would rather rely on good camera technique and fast shutter speeds to get crisp images.

We are in an age where the software is a huge part of the final image result. This has been the case with Apple iPhone images for quite some time now. But for those of use using larger cameras and sensors, it is wonderful to see these options come to Lightroom and Photoshop. Regardless of how well these features work, this isn’t to say that high resolution cameras are not important. As the old saying goes, “Garbage in, garbage out.” We still need to use care and good camera technique to craft our images. But, this also means that if I choose to take my lighter 24 MP camera on a trip I don’t have to worry that it might not be enough resolution for making larger prints or whatever the client may need.

I am still a total geek about getting the best image quality possible in any and all circumstances. That is why I still use the FUJIFILM GFX system as my main cameras–all three of the 102 MP cameras. They have incredible image quality (that few other cameras can match) and they also have remarkably low noise at higher ISO settings. Super Resolution and Denoise AI help us take our images further than ever before–and that is something that a lot of photographers will rely on in the future regardless of their camera’s specifications.

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Global Shutters and Flash Photography

Finally, the era of global shutters has arrived for full frame professional cameras with the release of the Sony A9 III. I don’t use Sony cameras, but regardless, this is a huge innovation that will slowly take over the industry and push camera technology ahead. I don’t expect global shutters to be in every new camera from now on. I expect that it will take five or more years for this technology to trickle down–and for Sony and other manufacturers to make a variety of global shutter cameras. Since Sony is the largest manufacturer of camera sensors, they will be the company dictating the pace at which global shutters are incorporated into cameras.

One of the downsides of global shutter sensors is that their dynamic range and noise characteristics are not as good as the older regular CMOS sensors. The Sony A9 III is more akin to an APS-C sensor of the same resolution when compared to similar 24 MP cameras. Nonetheless, this is a small issue in light of the advantages–especially for sports and wildlife photographers. Also, with the new AI Denoise feature in Lightroom, noise doesn’t really matter anymore. ISO 12,800 on just about any camera is totally usable with a little AI Denoise applied in post-processing. Certainly, as new global shutter sensors are improved the issues with noise and dynamic range will be addressed and improved upon.

History of High Speed Flash Synchronization

In my photography, as many of my readers will know, I have been pushing the envelop in terms of high shutter speed flash photography for quite some time now. I started out using the Elinchrom Ranger strobes with the PocketWizard Hypersync technology built into their radio transmitters, which allowed me to get up to around 1/1,600th second shutter speeds using strobes. I first used Hypersync as an experiment photographing ice climbing way back in 2012 (as shown below). Hypersync was the first technique I found that allowed me to raise my shutter speed to freeze action and light up a subject that was more than 60 ft (18 meters) away from the strobe.

I then took those Hypersync techniques to Hawaii where I used five 1,100 Ws Elinchrom Ranger strobes to light up a surfer on a wave that was around 500 feet (152 meters) away from the strobe as shown below. There is a behind the scenes video entitled Hypersync Surfing on my website from that experimental project. I wanted to see just how far I could push the flash technology–and I found out. While the Hypersync technology was clunky and hard to figure out, the results are hard to argue with. The surfing image we created wasn’t the best surfing image ever but it did offer insight into the possibilities–and it was as far as I know the farthest anyone had ever pushed strobe technology (outside of military applications).

At the same time that Hypersync was developed by PocketWizard, Profoto was hard at work implementing High Speed Sync into their new B1 500 Ws flashes. High Speed Sync (HSS) has been around for decades in Nikon and Canon speedlights as a way to sync flash at higher shutter speeds than the standard 1/250th second sync speed. It was great to see this brought to more powerful strobes like the B1 and later the B1X, but it was still not anywhere nearly as powerful as the Hypersync technique noted above. The advantage of the HSS strobes was that they could sync at up to 1/8,000th second, whereas the Hypersync option depended greatly on the camera used and really only worked at up to 1/1,600th second on Nikon cameras. To be clear HSS and Hypersync function quite a bit differently. For a full explanation of HSS vs Hypersync (also later known as Hi-Sync) check out the blog post HS vs HSS that I wrote for Elinchrom.

With the release of the Elinchrom ELB400 way back in 2015, Elinchrom took the Hypersync technology and customized it to work much better for the ELB400 and later the ELB1200 strobes. In fact, on a flight home from Switzerland returning from a pre-production distributor meeting at Elinchrom HQ, I came up with fifty or sixty different names for the new technology knowing that Elinchrom wanted to name is HS. “Hi-Sync” is the name they chose off the list. Hence, the new Hi-Sync (HS) technology they created was the ultimate high speed flash photography option on the market–until the release of the Sony A9 III. The HS technology they created allowed for syncing flashes up to 1/8,000th second shutter speeds with both the ELB 400 and the ELB1200 using the HS flash heads–which had a slow flash duration to help sync up the timing. Essentially, the flash fired before the shutter and this allowed the camera to use a slice of the light emitted by the flash. As shown below in an image created for the launch of the Elinchrom ELB1200, this gave us the ultimate in outdoor flash power.

The problem with HS technology was that it was hard to figure out. There was no auto setting and you really have to experiment with it to make it work for you. In contrast the Profoto B1 and later the B1X had TTL but modes just like a speedlight that allowed for full auto flash control. And hence, as you would suspect, many photographers went with the easier, but much more limiting option.

Using Strobes with Leaf Shutters

After using the Hypersync and Hi-Sync technology for five or six years, I dove into the medium format world and purchased a Hasselblad H5D 50c, which used leaf shutters in the lenses instead of a focal plane shutter in the camera. That camera system cost more than my car, so it was a huge investment. The leaf shutter in Hasselblad cameras allows for syncing strobes at all shutter speeds available on the camera. The H5D 50c only went up to 1/800th second, but their newer cameras had shutter speeds up to 1/2,000th second. The leaf shutter was the original “global shutter” and essentially acted the same way. The full sensor (or piece of film back in the day) was full exposed to the light with no restrictions at all shutter speeds just like the newer global shutter in the Sony A9 III.

As shown below, I used the Hasselblad for both portraits and action images. The autofocus on the H5D was pretty pathetic but with some workarounds I could make it work for some sports, especially if I was using lighting. I found the leaf shutter to be extremely powerful compared to other flash techniques but in reality I found using the HS (Hi-Sync) technology with my Nikon cameras and the Elinchrom ELB1200 was still more powerful for lighting up a subject from a far distance.

Sadly, Elinchrom has given up on the HS technology as none of their strobes have that built in anymore. They have gone for the easier to use HSS option with TTL and auto modes, which totally makes sense as most people purchasing a flash want to create portraits and the flash is relatively close in those scenarios. The number of photographers using the Hi-Sync techniques to light up distant subjects was understandably a very small number so it didn’t make much sense to keep producing strobes with that technology. The only manufacturer that still has HS technology (not HSS) incorporated into their strobes is Broncolor. They have HS built into the Move 1200L, and the Siros 400 L and 800 L strobes. But with those options Broncolor did not optimize the flash tubes to work specifically for HS and hence, they only work in HS mode at the highest power settings where the flash duration is slow enough to make it work. I still consider the Elinchrom ELB1200, which went out of production in 2020 to be the most technically advanced strobe ever created by any company. Sadly, they are very hard to find now. I will keep mine in good condition as long as I can until something better comes along.

The trick with using leaf shutters with your strobes was pretty simple. Your flash duration (i.e. how long the burst of light emitted from the flash) needed to be faster than your shutter speed for everything to work as expected. If the flash duration was longer than the shutter speed then you would end up clipping the flash and the exposure would not match what your light meter read. This is partly why Hasselblad shutter speeds only went up to 1/800th second and later to 1/2,000th second. Most strobes, even the high-end Profoto and Broncolor studio strobes, had relatively slow flash durations at the full power settings. Even the incredible Bronocolor Scoro packs, which cost over $15,000 just for the pack itself, have a t0.1 flash duration of only 1/132 second. That is incredibly slow. They get much faster as you lower the power on the pack–as with all strobes. The Profoto Pro-11, which costs an eye bleeding $17,499 and that is just for the power pack, goes up to a wicked fast t0.1 flash duration of 1/17,500th second at the lowest power setting but at full power the t0.1 flash duration is a pedestrian 1/600th second. [Note that the t0.1 flash duration notation is the most accurate available and commonly used notation for evaluating the actual flash duration. Most companies use the less accurate t0.5 notation as the numbers look more impressive.]

Using Global Shutters with Strobes

Global shutters are sensors that read out all pixels at the same time. Older digital sensors scan the pixels on the sensor line by line. Some cameras, like the Nikon Z9 and the Sony A1 could do this incredibly fast as shown below, but they were not reading all of the pixels at the same time. Hence, a global digital sensor is essentially the same as a leaf shutter used in medium format cameras. The only real world difference is that they can achieve much higher shutter speeds than any leaf shutter ever could. For example, the Sony A9 III can go up to 1/80,000th second shutter speed.

As discussed in the previous section on using leaf shutters with strobes, the flash duration needs to ideally be shorter than the shutter speed when using global shutter (or you will have to compensate the exposure slightly since you are only getting a slice of the light in the actual image). This was the same scenario with leaf-shutter cameras from Hasselblad and Phase One. Another common issue when using leaf shutters is that the radio transmitter had to be more powerful and able to transmit the information to the flash faster than normal to trigger the strobe right when the shutter button is depressed. Otherwise you will end up clipping the light from the flash because of the delay in the radio trigger sending the signal to the flash/strobe. With my Elinchrom strobes I had to switch them over to a different “speed” mode to trigger the strobes faster with my Hasselblad.

With global shutters and fast shutter speeds the reality is if we want to use flashes and/or larger more powerful strobes with these new sensors we need to invest in better strobes that have fast flash durations at all power settings. What that means is the cheaper, slower HSS TTL strobes with very slow flash durations at the higher power settings are going to be tough to use with global shutters, especially outdoors where you want more power. Even though they are quite expensive, the strobes shown above like the Broncolor Move 1200L (left), Profoto Pro-11 (center) and the Elinchrom FIVE (right) at lower power settings are going to work much better than a lot to the cheaper strobe options like Godox and Westcott. I’m not saying you can’t work with those less expensive options but just as with leaf shutters the best results will always be gained with the higher end strobes.

Both Broncolor and Elinchrom do have strobes that have much faster flash durations at the full power setting — somewhere in the order of 1/2,400th second (t0.5) at full power. Sports photographers have been using these type fast flash duration strobes (from Elinchrom, Dynalite and others) for years because they needed fast flash durations at full power to freeze motion with the lights up in the rafters of stadiums (think Basketball and Hockey). This is where a lot of the TTL HSS (like the Profoto B1X, Godox, etc.) strobes are going to have a lot of issues with the new global shutter cameras because their full power flash durations are incredibly slow. Looking at the specs, the Broncolor Move 1200L would be one of the best strobes on the market for use with global shutters since it has a t0.1 flash duration of 1/2,300th second at 80% power–and it only gets faster the lower the power setting. The Profoto D2 1,000 Ws moonlight is another excellent option. My old Elinchrom ELB1200 is in that same ballpark (as the Broncolor Move pack) when used with the Action flash heads–but sadly it is no longer made.

As global shutter becomes the norm in future cameras, I foresee a slew of professional photographers ditching their cheaper strobes and upgrading to higher end professional strobes like those made by Broncolor, Profoto and Elinchrom that have faster flash durations. Profoto certainly has a phenomenal strobe in the Pro-11, but the weight and cost of that strobe are prohibitive. The Profoto D2, as noted above is a great option for much less money–but it is still quite expensive. Broncolor has the venerable Siros L options with fast flash durations but their strobes are the most expensive options across the board until you get up to the Profoto Pro-11 level. If you still have an Elinchrom ELB1200 and the action flash heads, hold onto those as they will be excellent strobes for the forthcoming global shutter future. Hopefully the strobe manufacturers are aware of this change and will start developing new products with faster flash durations in anticipation of the forthcoming technology. At some point there will be no need for HSS or HS technology at all. The new global shutters will open up a new era of creativity in the photography world–and I for one am very excited to see what we can do with the new technology.

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Winter 2024 Newsletter

The Winter 2024 issue of the Michael Clark Photography Newsletter is now available for download. If you’d like to sign up for the Newsletter just drop me an email and I’ll add you to the mailing list.

This issue of the Newsletter includes an editorial entitled Ready. Set. Go, a behind the scenes recap of a recent Fujifilm Factory Tour, an article detailing my personal project Sky Diving the Annular Eclipse, an editorial entitled The Year Ai Goes Big, and much more.

The Michael Clark Photography Newsletter goes out to over 8,000 photo editors, photographers and photo enthusiasts around the world. You can download the Winter 2024 issue on my website at:

If you’d like to check out back issues of the newsletter they are available on my website here.

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2023: Year in Review

2023 has been the busiest year yet since the pandemic began in 2020. With that said there were still some blank spaces on the assignment calendar but the first half of this year was very close to normal in terms of travel and assignments. Regardless, I was still able to create some wild images. I can’t say that it was an epic year of creativity but it certainly had its moments–and some of those moments really got me excited to push harder in the future.

This year also brought with it some amazing experiences like working with the Red Bull Air Force again as well as shooting for the launch of the FUJIFILM GFX100 II medium format camera. As you will see below, this year was all over the map in terms of photographic genres and clients. This was also the first year I have traveled internationally since the pandemic began, which was very exciting. Though I have to say that the airlines have managed to make international flying even less fun that it was pre-pandemic. Without further ado, here are what I consider the best images I have created this year.

Winter 2023 Snowpocalype
Wolf Creek Ski Resort, Colorado — USA

In January 2023, a friend of mine, Charlie Pinder from the UK, came over and we set out on a winter adventure to do some skiing and ice climbing in southern Colorado. Charlie used to be the Director of Photography for Red Bull in Austria. Hence, I have known him and worked with him a fair number of times and we became friends through our work together. We had done one prior trip together when he came to visit and stay with me several years before this 2023 adventure. It was a blast to see him again post-Covid. Little did we know that we were in for one epic trip.

Our first stop was to head up to Wolf Creek, a small ski area in the southern Colorado that gets epic amounts of snow. As we were driving up from Santa Fe, New Mexico it was becoming apparent that the snow might actually be insanely deep during our two days in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The ski area was actually shut down the day we arrived because there was too much snow and getting to the ski area was pretty dicey. Luckily, the roads were plowed and open the following day and we ended up with two amazing days of deep powder. In fact, for me, who is only an intermediate skier, the powder was so deep that I had to relearn how to ski in deep powder to some degree. At one point, at the top of the mountain in near white out conditions we stopped and snapped some photos in the otherworldly landscape as shown in the image of Charlie below.

After our epic two days of skiing, we headed to Ouray, Colorado for some ice climbing. At this point in the trip it had already snowed four feet while we were in Pagosa, and it was still snowing so it was dubious if we could even get to Ouray. To get to Ouray, we had to drive over Red Mountain Pass–which is the most dangerous road in North America. I have driven over the pass at least sixty or seventy times in my twenty five years of ice climbing in Ouray. Hence, I knew what we were in for.

The weather forecast was snow all day. When we got closer to the start of the big mountain passes, just north of Durango, I asked some of the locals if they had heard anything about the conditions on the road going north to Silverton and then to Ouray. They said bluntly, “I wouldn’t drive up there in these conditions.” But, the road was still open. We were stopped by a cop on the way up to Molas Pass and asked about the road again and he said that the road was open. So on we went.

Getting to Silverton wasn’t that tough, the road was well plowed. Between Silverton and Ouray, on the actual Red Mountain Pass, we ran into a huge truck jack-knifed on the road but luckily were just able to squeeze by and get around the truck. We ran into a few other cars and trucks having difficulty but there was nothing we could do for them. On we went at 25 mph going slowly so as not to get in trouble. We made it into Ouray and found out the road was closed only twenty minutes after we had gotten into town. Ouray was of course buried with nearly seven feet of new snow in the last four or five days. Even getting around town was pretty slippery. Charlie commented several times how impressed he was with my Subaru Outback (equipped with winter tires). We saw a lot of other larger trucks, including several Toyota Tundras, having some serious issues with traction and they had chains on as well. When we saw other vehicles with traction issues we would just pull out or cruise right on by with no issues. Rock on Subaru! Check out Charlie’s timelapse video below that he posted on Instagram to see the drive from Durango to Ouray. What you might not be able to make out in Charlie’s timelapse are the giant cliffs just next to the road that make this drive pretty exciting.

The ice climbing wasn’t that epic because with the huge amounts of snow you basically had to clean your route off before you could even get on the ice climb. It continued to snow the entire two days we were in Ouray and in the end I think it was over to two meters or more of snow — seven feet at least that fell over the course of our six day trip. The driving was at least as exciting as the skiing and ice climbing. It wasn’t the worst driving conditions I have ever seen on Red Mountain Pass but it was close. All in all, it was a great way to start off 2023.

On a separate note, my twelve year old, tortured 2011 Subaru Outback developed some serious issues a few months after this trip and I purchased my third Subaru Outback largely based on just how well it had done on this epic winter trip. There is not much a Subaru with winter tires can’t handle and that became quite evident on this adventure.

Red Bull Air Force 2023 Training Camp
Eloy, Arizona — USA

In February, I was once again invited to photograph the Red Bull Air Force training camp in Eloy, Arizona. Over the last fifteen or more years working with Red Bull it has been an honor to work with the Red Bull Air Force and their incredible skydivers, BASE jumpers, wingsuit team and the legendary pilots they have as well. I have photographed every training camp the team has had here in the USA since 2010. This one was a little different than the normal training camps in that it was an International version with Red Bull skydivers, paragliders and pilots from all over the world flying in to participate in the training camp.

On one evening the crew set up an array of pyrotechnics for the team to swoop through on an evening skydive. The image below of Sean MacCormac busting through a wall of pyrotechnics was one of the surprising images that came from that evening. We both paid for this image because of my poor choice in positioning myself right in the firing line. For the full story on this image read my blog post entitled The Wall of Pyro. This was an incredibly difficult image to capture and it is a small miracle that my camera could autofocus this fast in such low light at f/1.2.

During the few days I was documenting the aerial training camp I also had the opportunity to go up in a hot air balloon and photograph skydivers, paragliders and some wingsuit skydivers blasting past our balloon. In the image below, Miles Daisher flew his wingsuit past our hot air balloon at 120 mph (193 kph) and you can see the plane he jumped from above him in the background. Again, I am blown away that the camera could track him so accurately, especially on a cloudy overcast day. This is a very unusual image in that it is very rare to see a wingsuit pilot flying in the air from this vantage point.

In another cool setup, the team set up some huge smoke bombs and the then they skydived through the smoke. In the image below Mike Swanson is swooping over the pond and through the smoke just before landing right next to me. There were a lot of really cool images that came from this setup including a few where the skydiver was so low that they could hardly be seen because of all the smoke–and then they popped out and landed blind.

Overall, the 2023 Red Bull International Aerial Camp offered up a wild array of image opportunities that were quite different than those I have created of the team in the past. It was great to be part of the crew and to be able to work with the incredible athletes at this training camp. It was also great to meet all of the international athletes that attended as well. Fingers crossed I can photograph future International Aerial Camps for Red Bull.

New Mexico Tourism
Taos Gorge, Taos, New Mexico — USA

During the course of my year, I have a few local assignments sprinkled in with my other more normal action and adventure gigs. The client I work with locally most often is New Mexico Tourism and every once in a while these assignments result in amazing images. On one such gig, I was driving back from Taos and saw this stormy sunset over the Taos Gorge and had to stop to photograph it. I had my 102 megapixel FUJIFILM GFX100S with me and that gave me a lot of resolution to play with. I think I like the panoramic version of this image better than this one, but I thought I would share the full resolution (uncropped image here).

Lower Mesa Falls, Idaho — USA

It has been a huge honor to work with Fujifilm the last five years, since my first assignment with them creating images for the launch of the original GFX100 in 2019. Once again this last summer I was on an assignment to create images for the launch of the GFX100 II. This time around we chose the sport of whitewater kayaking and after a few delays decided to go to Lower Mesa Falls in Idaho. The kayakers were James Shimizu, JT Hartman and Darby McAdams. Over the course of three days we created a variety of images but there were a few that stood out. Below are some of my favorites from that assignment. For the full story, check out Fall 2023 Newsletter. There is also a gallery of the best images on my website here, which includes a behind the scenes video as well.

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As you might expect, the GFX100 II is a stellar camera. In my mind it is the best camera Fujifilm has ever created in the history of the company. I wrote up a full preview of the camera here. My thanks to Fujifilm for bringing me back once again to help launch one of their exceptional GFX cameras.

Fujifilm GFX100 II Announcement
Stockholm — Sweden

In September 2023, as part of the launch of the new FUJIFILM GFX100 II, Fujifilm flew me out to Sweden for the actual launch event in Stockholm. As usual with these Fujikina launch events, there are a lot of press attending, some fancy diners and in-depth seminars for folks to find out more of the technical details of the new products. There was also some hands on time for people to try out the new gear as well. Since I created images for the launch I already knew the camera decently well but it was a great time to celebrate with the Fujifilm crew and meet the larger photography community that came to the event.

While I was in Stockholm for six days, I had time to explore the city and run around photographing a variety of city scenes. The image below is of Sergels Torg in central Stockholm. This location was literally a few hundred yards from my Hotel. I met up with Elia Locardi, who had been to Sweden before, at the launch and we went out together to photograph this location after the festivities. Even though it was just September, the wind it was quite chilly standing out on a bridge to get this image as the sun set. It was a blast to see Elia again, talk shop and catch up.

I also spent a considerable amount of time riding and exploring the amazing subway system in Stockholm. The metro there is one of the easiest to use I have seen anywhere. And almost all of the major subway stations have these elaborate cave corridors painted with wild colors and epic scenes as can be seen below. For a photographer, it felt like being a kid in a candy store running all over town to check out the various subway stations.

Skydiving the Annular Eclipse
Santa Fe, New Mexico — USA

A few months before the annular eclipse Jeff Provenzano contacted me. Jeff is a member of the Red Bull Air Force, who I have worked with on numerous assignments over the last 15 years. He is also one of the world’s elite sky divers. Jeff wanted to do a personal project skydiving with the eclipse. When he first called I was dubious as to how we would pull this off. Red Bull has over the years contacted me several times to photograph some of their athletes during an eclipse–and each time the logistics of getting the shot were pretty much impossible. This time around I thought through the options and told Jeff the only way to pull off any images would be a double exposure–either in camera or in photoshop after the fact.

Jeff lined up a helicopter for the sky dive, but he could not get a permit in any of the three locations he could get a helicopter. In the end, I told him not to worry, I already had thousands of photos of him skydiving and I could photograph the eclipse in my own backyard since Santa Fe was in line with the eclipse. On October 14, 2023, I spent an hour photographing the eclipse, then came back into the office and got to work. Combining the photos in photoshop resulted in the images you see below. It worked out phenomenally well. As can be seen in the last image, I even managed to capture a solar flare during the eclipse.

My sincere thanks to Jeff Provenzano for coming up with the idea for these images. This was by far the most exciting set of images I created in 2023. When I saw the first composite image come together on my computer I just about fell out of my chair I was so blown away. I wrote a full blog post about this personal project which you can find here. And there is also a web gallery of the best resulting images on my main website as well.

Fall Colors in Japan
Shinshu and Hida Prefectures — Japan

This past fall, I led a photography tour entitled “The Fall Colors of Shinshu and Hida” with George Nobechi and Nobechi Creative in Japan. This photo trek set out to explore the central mountains of Japan and follow the fall colors as the trees changed colors all along the mountain chain. First off, I didn’t know that central Japan had such incredible mountains–rising to over 12,000 feet in elevation. One of the highlights for me personally was Kamikochi National Park, which lies due west of Tokyo. As shown in the first few images below these mountains are not unlike the Alps in Europe and they are the steepest, most impressive mountains (at least for climbing) in all of Japan from what I have seen.

Through out the ten day trip, we visited a variety of different villages and towns as well as set up a few impromptu photo opportunities for the participants. On one such stop we photographed Murozaki Tadahiko, who is a tenth level iaido master (swordsman). George took us to a local waterfall and we used my Elinchrom strobes to light Murozaki up as he practiced his craft. I photographed him with the strobes first to dial in the lighting and find a decent composition for the participants. In that brief time I was able to create a few memorable images, but the best images I got that day was without the lights. The image below is just of him standing in front of the waterfall at the end of our session.

Earlier on the trip we also visited the Jigokudani Monkey Park, which is one of the most famous tourist sites in Japan (outside of the cities). It was fantastic fun photographing the monkeys and watching them interact with all of the tourists but for me the really stunning part of that adventure was the incredible Cryptomeria Forrest we walked through to get to the Monkey park. I spent a considerable amount of time photographing the forrest on the hike in and then found a perfect spot on the way out to try some motion blur images (as I have done with Aspens in the past). Working with my brand new FUJIFILM GFX100 II, I shot a few hundred motion blur images of the forrest and there were a few gems as shown below.

Fujifilm Factory Visit
Taiwa — Japan

On my fall trip to Japan, I was also able to go visit the Fujifilm Taiwa factory in the Miyagi Prefecture north of Sendai, Japan. This factory is where the GFX cameras and lenses, as well as the X100 and X-Pro line of cameras and lenses, are manufactured. Years ago, when I went to Japan for the launch of the original GFX100 I was told that Fujifilm would set up a private tour on my next visit. Then of course, Covid happened and well, I didn’t make it back to Japan until this fall (nearly five years later). Hence, I am grateful that Fujifilm set up this factory visit. It was incredible to see what goes into making the cameras and lenses I rely on for my work. I wrote an entire blog post about the factory visit. Hence you can read all about it there in that post. But, once of the major highlights was walking in and seeing my image from the GFX100 assignment in 2019 hanging in the main lobby of the factory as shown below. My thanks to everyone at Fujifilm for the exceptionally warm welcome and the great hospitality during my trip to Japan.

U2 at the Sphere
Las Vegas, Nevada — USA

On September 30th, I was one of the lucky ones to go see U2 on their opening night at The Sphere in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am not sure how I got tickets for this concert as it was a lottery system but it was pretty epic to see an entirely new type of concert experience with such a huge screen. Since it was opening night, none of us knew what to expect. There had been no YouTube videos showing the experience so we all had no idea what was about to happen. As can be seen in my Instagram post below, by the third song we were already blown away. The entire concert was sensory overload, and it took a few days to really take in what we saw and experienced. They only have a dozen or shows left in their residency at the Sphere but if you can go see the show I would highly recommend it. I have been a massive U2 fan since I first saw their videos on MTV way back in 1981 and I have seen them several times over the years but this concert stands out from all of the others–and also set the bar incredibly high for all other concerts going forward. This is going to be very difficult to top!

So long 2023. My thanks to Red Bull, Fujifilm, National Geographic, New Mexico Tourism, Teton Ridge, Nobechi Creative and all of my other clients with whom I worked this year. Thank you for taking the time to check out some of this years highlights. Feel free to comment on any of these images and tell me which one you think is the best of the best from this year. Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year to you all. Here’s hoping your 2024 is filled with even more adventurous travels and amazing experiences!

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