Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Self Portrait - Ten years in the making

I'd been wanting to make a photo like this for a long time. About 10 years, actually. Sometimes though, realizing the image in your minds eye takes a little more time and effort than you'd expect.

Paragliding has been a dream of mine since following my college roommate Matt to Sun Valley, Idaho in June of 2000. Matt was, and still is, an avid pilot, and his life that summer revolved around flying a paraglider. Photographing Matt and his friends soaring glass-off conditions before sunset in the Boulder Mountains cemented my desire to fly, even though I couldn't afford it at the time. The light was stellar, and I was happy to be taking pictures, but part of me felt a little jealous I couldn't join those guys in the air. The seeds of my desire to fly had been firmly planted on my bucket list that summer.

Ten years later I found myself living in Salt Lake City, in a valley that turns out to be an excellent place to learn to paraglide. At the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, a long ridge extends out of the Wasatch Mountains, and ramps down to the valley floor. The ridge, known as the Point of the Mountain, divides the Salt Lake and Utah valleys from one another. "The Point," offers consistent soaring conditions for paragliding eight months out of the year. With an easy access training hill less than 20 miles from my house, and a handful of well respected paragliding schools to choose from, I found myself strapping into a paragliding harness for the first time.

Learning to paraglide is only part of this picture. Taking interesting photos while dangling from a fabric wing presents more than a few challenges. First and foremost, pargliding photography requires enough skill and good judgement as a pilot to take pictures safely. When the conditions are good at the Point of the Mountain, there are enough other pilots in the air that it requires your full attention to safely avoid a mid-air collision. Busy skies also take something away from the drama of paragliding photographs much like a picture from a crowded ski resort doesn't compare to one shot in the backcountry. So even when I could find open airspace to pull out my camera at the Point, my early attempts at capturing the freedom and drama of paragliding came up somewhat short.

As my flying skills improved, moving to less crowded sites offered the space to take my hands off the controls, and put my eye to the viewfinder. Mountain sites like The B in the shot above, also provide a more dramatic mountain backdrop for great photos. The launch for The B is at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Thermaling above launch provides views into Fergusen Canyon and the lower ridges of Twin Peaks.

The final component to this shot was stepping away from the DSLR camera and using the GoPro camera mounted on a trekking pole. GoPro cameras are everywhere in the paragliding scene, mostly mounted on pilots helmets to record video of their flight from a POV perspective. While these videos become repeatitive after you've watched a few, the fisheye lens is perfectly suited to capturing the pilot from the end of an extension pole. It shows the pilot's position in their harness, and the wild freedom of flying high in the mountains.