A different definition of bird-hunting

The image of the first Brazilian Gripen E during its first flight has been seen by a worldwide audience. We spoke to the man behind the picture – and what flying photography is all about. Enter the world of our colleague Linus Svensson.

Ask our followers on Instagram why they’ve chosen to follow Saab, some of them will likely say it’s because of all beautiful images of jet fighters. After all Saab was constructed primarily as an aeroplane company in the 1930’s – the art of crafting beautiful planes runs in our DNA. And yes, we tend to publish “wallpaper moments” of these steel birds quite often on Instagram. Some of these pictures are taken by visual communication manager and photographer Linus Svensson and Stefan Kalm, photographer at Saab. We had a chat with Linus, who recently got to fly beside and above – inverted – the new Brazilian Gripen E during its first flight, landing this nearly iconic image of the new defender of Brazil.

Great shots don’t come by chance

When it comes to flying photography, random shots by luck are not the way to go, and it’s not just up to the photographer to deliver. Having the whole pilot crew fully involved and neatly briefed is pretty much everything, Linus explains.

”Planning is extremely important since we’re talking aviation photography. In comparison to most other photo disciplines I lack the possibility to move and tilt the camera freely, or even my head in whatever way I need, due to g-forces. In order to get what you want you need to be in complete sync with the pilots – and at the same time make sure the needs of the company is being fulfilled.”
This means basically that the pilot is equal part of taking the picture, in the sense that the photographer can only capture what the pilot brings into the field of the lens.

”Most flights we do are test-oriented, made for trying out new material and upgrades of a plane. On those occasions we sometimes get to tag along in the backseat of a Gripen D or an SK60 to document.”

Conducting a jet – and its surroundings

Whenever airborne, a comprehensive brief has been held prior to take-off. When it’s finally photo session time, Linus becomes the conductor of all planes involved.
”This means I get to plan compass bearings to find suitable spots for shooting. So I pretty much get to call the shots by giving directions like ”go northeast with a 45 degree bank” This means that everything has to match perfectly.”

He continues:
”As a photographer I’m searching for as much variation as possible in the shots. The perfect photo session should generate images that seems like they’ve been taken at different occasions. Sketches are a good way to go. I usually present some rough drafts for the pilots during our briefs. But even if a flight just renders one single good image, it’s still worth the effort.”
Another kind of variation lies within the surroundings. You would think that clear blue skies means the perfect conditions for aviation photography. Think again.

“Without clouds it’s hard to get any depth in the image. I always prefer some clouds. And as we were out shooting the Brazilian Gripen E we spotted some in the horizon. We went there and the pilot I flew with, Henrik Wänseth, took us straight above the Brazilian bird, made a very smooth and slow roll, leaving us inverted for a few seconds – and there it is, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Closing in and finally… snap! Sometimes you feel instantly that you just landed the perfect shot. That feeling really raised the hairs on my arms, it still does just talking about it actually, haha.”

“The really tricky part is to get the light right. In “normal” photography you know where you have the sun or whatever light source you’re using. But being above clouds and having your entire “studio” spinning means images easily can get over- or under-exposed.”

What would you say are the main challenges in taking jet fighter images?

“If I have to really pick I’d say the g-forces and shooting through glass. Every photographer knows the challenge of shooting through a window. If you are in a car you always scroll down the window to get that perfect sharpness and get rid of all reflections. The g-forces and the flight orientation is also a challenge because sometimes it makes you dizzy and sometimes you can barely hold the camera. G-forces also effect the position of the camera. There is a sweet spot for the lens to avoid sun flares and sharpness issues when shooting through the canopy.  Another thing is taking photos with a mask on, but you get used to it.”

How much editing goes into your pictures?

“Not much at all. Part of our philosophy is to really document the business and our products and show them for what they are.”

This latest image of the Brazilian Gripen E has received a lot of praise. Your reaction to those reactions?

“Of course it’s flattering. This is however a fantastic teamwork, and I’m not only talking about the pilot crew but of everybody who’ve participated in this endeavor, and not least my colleague Stefan who’s been my mentor and coach since I started at Saab. I feel humble for the task and grateful for having been given the job. To be part of an event like this is truly a privilege.”

 

In Linus' headphones

Air to air photography often calls for inspiration. This is how Linus energizes for a full days work up in the clouds.

Photo equipment

Camera: Canon 5DR, it has just about the right weight/image quality ratio. Sure, I could wish for a Hasselblad, but I don’t think I could manage to hold it during a sharp turn. I´m longing for lightweight mirrorless cameras with great continuous shooting speed.
Lens of choice: The Canon 24-105 mm lens does a great job and is super versatile. I´m limited to bring just one lens and the opportunity to catch both wide & closer shots is rewarding. If I was slightly stronger I would picked the Sigma 105mm – fantastic sharpness but a very heavy piece.