Maxim goes behind-the-scenes with acclaimed lensman Joerg Mitter, who has helped revolutionise action photography.
Ask any extreme sportsperson, and the odds are that they’d have heard of Joerg Mitter. As the first photographer to mount a camera into a raceplane cockpit, Mitter has kind of become the go-to guy when it comes to photographing extreme sports. He is most famous, of course, for being the guy who’s caught over 60 pilot battles
around the world on camera for the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, as well as capturing Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos project for posterity.
Mitter is also the founder and head of photography at Limex Images, a network of talent that works on everything from lifestyle to adventure. The Austrian native, now based in Graz, has travelled to more than 70 countries, covering action in the water, among the clouds and on treacherous land. It’s given him unique insights into the mind of the extreme athlete and the relevance of documenting human achievement. We caught up with Mitter to discover what makes him tick, and what it takes to capture a frame worth a million words. If this is not out-there, nothing else is.
After all these years, are you always satisfied with each shoot?
I’m driven to reach 100 percent of my thoughts and imagination, but you have to accept that due to elements beyond our control, sometimes it is just not possible. With Red Bull Air Race, we’re shooting the whole time when the planes are racing but with other projects, it’s important to realise that when an athlete gets tired, it is time to stop and take a break. You have to deal with the weather, the time of the day and people’s moods. After a shoot, I’m usually not satisfied, then I look at the images—and it slowly dawns on me that they turned out well. Everything can always be a little bit better because it isn’t studio photography.
How do you prefer to cover aerial action?
The Air Race is interesting to shoot because you have a fast flying object in the sky that races at a speed of up to 370 kmph. You can freeze the action, you can play with it or you can create motion blur. It gives you so much opportunity to be creative, especially with a large crowd in the background. If I’m in the helicopter, I try to take as little equipment as possible to be more flexible. Normally I take two bodies; one with a wide-angle lens and one with a long lens. I love to take a 800-mm lens with me, which is quite bulky but it gets really fun to shoot with that from the air. Long lenses give you the opportunity to get certain angles even if you can’t get close; however, the helicopter, in strong winds, is not as stable as people would think—so one day it is easy, the other, tricky. I like to shoot from the ground as well; it’s more controllable and gives you more flexibility to explore different angles.
What are the risks involved when you do shoot from a helicopter?
I have flown more than 1,000 hours in helicopters taking photographs. Some machines are really good for doing things fast, others have bigger windows or doors that we can take off. Sometimes we can even sit on the skids. After so many flying hours, you get used to all these things. You know where the wind comes from, what the altitude is, where the directions are and you learn to talk the language of the pilot. Quite often, it’s not only you and the helicopter in the air, there are other helicopters and planes flying around as well so you have to de-conflict with everyone in the air. At the Air Race, there is a team in Race Control taking care of this so we’re in good hands.
How has technology changed how you approach your work?
In 2007, when we had the Red Bull Air Race in Monument Valley in Arizona, I mounted a full DSLR camera into the cockpit of a raceplane for the first time ever, and set it on an auto-trigger system. It was super challenging to find the space in the cockpit. Plus, when the pilots pull up to 10Gs, the camera feels 10 times the force so you have to mount it with zip ties, duct tape, clamps and mounts—which took a couple of hours to fix back then. Now, I use a GoPro camera for these kinds of things. It’s very flexible because of the size, so you can quickly secure it with a screw inside or on the wing. It is so much easier now. Maybe 10 years from now, we might be saying, “Remember when we had this huge GoPro camera?” Technology, in general, is changing so fast in photography. Image quality and ISO sensitivity are improving so quickly that it is possible to shoot almost anything with a standard camera.
How much preparation goes into the shots you get each day?
It’s really important to visually draw out the image in your mind before you go out and take it. Every pilot (and athlete) has her or his own skillset and technique so, therefore, little differences make a huge impact on photo timings. When it comes to aerial photography, level flying doesn’t work the best because you don’t see the wings or the shape of the plane. Turns and chicanes look best, so you have the nice side of the plane, which you need to line up with a background. We call it the chocolate side of the airplane, with the more interesting canopy and pilot. Some interesting shots also happen back at the airport where the difference between the pilots is visible. Every pilot has their own procedure of how they put the gloves on, when they close the visor or canopy and how they prepare before take-off.
You’ve definitely been to some extraordinary places and have photographed unreal performances. Have there been any photos that have surprised even you?
The giraffe shot in South Africa for the 2014 Red Bull X-Fighters was never planned. It was supposed to be an African sunset, but when we searched the location I saw a giraffe in the distance. Someone said that she even had a name—Lucy—and that you could walk up to her. From that moment I knew I wanted to photograph the silhouette with the giraffe and I almost couldn’t sleep because I was like, “How do I get this shot?”
You’re into adventure and extreme sports yourself, but it can often be difficult for a non-enthusiast to understand the dangers. Can you explain how risky your life can often be?
I would never risk my life for anything, let alone a photograph but, of course, I have been in environments that are not 100 percent safe. You do whatever you can do to make it as safe as possible—it needs to be a calculated risk.
That’s how all athletes balance their performances too, of course. If you could change careers, what would you do?
It was a childhood dream to be a helicopter pilot. Maybe I’m doing what I do because of that...
PHOTOGRAPHED BY Joerg Mitter / Red Bull Content Pool