Drone Photographer Stefan Forster on Planning and Shooting Technology

Swiss Stefan Forster has made a name for himself internationally as a landscape and drone photographer. Its vast archive contains many drone recordings of places that are no longer as readily available to photographers and filmmakers today. The equipment is therefore in high demand by customers like the BBC and Netflix. In an interview with c’t Photography, he explains why he traded his life as an employee for a life as a freelance photographer, how he keeps himself in good physical shape for his extreme tours and why he prefers to leave his drone in his backpack. back on weekends.

How and when did you discover landscape photography on your own?

I was a rather unusual child. Instead of playing with friends and going on vacation later, I was mostly alone in the forest and enjoyed the peace and seclusion. Colors and shapes have always fascinated me. So is the power of nature. Thunderstorms, waves, storms – the more you feel nature, the better. The photograph arrived later. At the beginning, photography was for me a kind of legitimation to be able to be outside. This legitimation later became an appointment. In the meantime, my camera still travels with me and my brain as a reminder. With almost 200 travel days a year, you experience so much that you can’t absorb it all.

How do you prepare for your shoots, do you have a precise plan before you start?

My photos live on the weather and bright moods. Of course, it is very important that I plan the photo in advance so that I know my way around the site and know exactly what focal length (lens) I should stand in which spot. For that I use software like The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) and TPE 3D. In advance, I also go to a location several times and mark the locations on my map. In order to be able to record special light scenes, I also wait for an exciting light, which occurs frequently, especially when the weather changes. With stable phases at high pressure, there are usually no good light atmospheres and blue skies are not my thing anyway.

Are your photo tours a physical challenge?

Staying in good physical shape is essential for a landscape photographer. I train in the mountains every week. My favorite tour takes me from the Rhine Valley to the Hohe Kasten or the Stauberen Kanzel. 1240 meters above sea level, which I try to conquer several times a week when I am at home. On the photo tours themselves, I differentiate between photo trips with clients and photo trips where I travel alone. On customer journeys, the average is one to three hours of walking per day. When I travel for my own needs, I focus on finding new places and climbing hills and mountains. Sometimes I lose up to twelve pounds during a four week trip, which unfortunately I only regained too quickly due to my second passion, food.

Do you work alone or is there a team?

I am a “lone wolf” type, as are all nature and landscape photographers. I like solitude and independence in my work. Being an employee has never been my thing and I have always hated every employer. The happiest day of my life was when I was able to start my own business. My team consists of a few friends who give me lessons and of course my wonderful wife Iris. She makes sure that everything is going well and that the ship does not sink. You only ever see my work and my stories, but it is she who keeps my back free and thanks to which I can practice my profession with such concentration in the first place.

What are the challenges when shooting with drones?

My advantage with all drone photography and videography was that I was one of the first in the world to invest in the drone. I was still able to film and take photos with drones in countries where drones are now prohibited and only possession of the drone is punishable by imprisonment. Initially, people took great pleasure in stealing these giants with a single-lens reflex camera. It is now like when the cars piled up; Rules have to be found to be able to control drones or their pilots, which have been purchased millions of times. The difficulty now is to obtain a flight permit. This is either invaluable or you must be able to show a private pilot license.

You say “extreme logistics issues” on your website, could you please give an example.

Cameras get smaller and smaller, but you take more and more with you. Working with a drone also requires a lot of electricity. Unfortunately, electricity is not always available in the places I travel, so I sometimes have to work with large solar systems or even portable power generators. If it is a multi-day excursion with the packraft (backpack boat), tent, sleeping bag and provisions with you, you are faced with these logistical issues that every member of the expedition has to face. to face.

What type of drone, camera, lens and filter are you using?

I have been working with Nikon for about ten years and I am a fan of the Nikon Z system, especially the Z9. I would never trade in my mirrorless cameras for an SLR again. The advantage of the weight and size of the package is just too great. And once you get used to the real-time histogram in the digital viewfinder, you don’t want anything else. For the lenses I use the Nikkor Z 14-30 mm, 24-120 mm and 100-400 mm. Animal photos are taken with 180-400 mm and 500 mm. When it takes to the air, I currently use the DJI Mavic 3 Cine, DJI Mavic 2 Pro, and if needed the DJI Inspire 2.

What role does image processing play in your recordings?

Image processing is of course essential when saving RAW files. However, as I am constantly running out of time and want to spend the short time I am at home with my family, I am extremely minimalist when it comes to developing the images. I often hear it said that I could have gotten the most out of the individual images. But that’s not my strength and it’s not my goal. If the sky wasn’t rosy, it wasn’t. Then I come back to the place so often until the sky is pink. As a photographer tour guide, I have this opportunity again and again.

“Now I’m where no one sees or hears me, bar none. »Is it still that easy to do?

Unfortunately, since there are many of them, drones no longer enjoy a good reputation. The media have once again done an excellent job. Drone bashing is a popular title. In order not to exacerbate this dissatisfaction, I decided three years ago, if possible, to only fly when no one is around and I definitely couldn’t bother anyone. Flying on weekends is taboo, even on days when many people are hiking. Even though I am legally allowed to fly, I will do without. When it comes to animals, I also make sure not to fly when there are escape animals around. However, animals that are unaware of the danger in the air react extremely relaxed to drones. Last spring I was able to film wild pumas a few meters away with the drone for the BBC, the animals did not bother on the drone. In particular, nature films and documentaries would no longer be conceivable today without a drone.

How important has filming become to you as a photographer?

Even though I would never have believed it possible a few years ago, the income from the sales of licenses for my films (aerial photos) far exceeds those of my photographs for books and calendars. Due to travel issues caused by the pandemic, many producers are dependent on purchasing existing footage. As I often travel to remote areas on my photo trips and have been able to record rare movies, now I have an archive which is widely used by clients such as BBC, Netflix, Google and LG. So for me, at least financially, photography is taking more and more space. With the Nikon Z9, with which I can now record 8K in RAW at 60 FPS, I plan to invest a lot more in my ground archives in the future.

You can find Stefan Forster’s fascinating images on, for example, his website or in the c’t photography portfolio. From January 2022, he will tour Switzerland with his new conference “Le monde d’en haut”.

Stefan Forster took this aerial photo in New Zealand.

(Image: Stefan Forster Photography)

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