Behind the scenes with the photographers, Part 2: the special shots

How to get those breath-taking images

Martin Sonka in the Recon Flight

One of the perks of being a Red Bull Air Race pilot – or photographer – is getting to collaborate on creative photo opportunities outside the racetrack. Here, in the second feature of a two-part series, head photographer Joerg Mitter describes one of his favorite photoshoots, capturing pilots Matthias Dolderer (GER) and Martin Šonka (CZE) in the Alps early in the 2018 season.

Some of the most iconic aerial photographs ever taken of Red Bull Air Race pilots have been "extracurricular" shots, taken away from the race venues. And for these shoots, the rivals from the racetrack need to work in perfect harmony – with each other and with the photographer. "These shoots are different, because everyone is more relaxed. The pilots aren't thinking about racing," Mitter says.

But the Air Racing pilots do have to think about the formation they are creating against the scenery, and it is Mitter's job to guide their positioning. "It takes a lot of planning and knowledge. It starts with finding a good background, which I discuss with the Red Bull Air Race Communications team. Next, the Aviation team gets clearances. Then the third step is more photography related: When is the best time of the day for this? What heights do we fly? What's the best formation?" Finally, Mitter and his collaborators create storyboards, sketching out the shots they hope to achieve. "It's always safety first, and it's also a matter of trust among everyone in the air. The more trust you have, the better the teamwork and result," Mitter asserts.

One of Mitter's all-time favorite shoots happened earlier this year at Germany's highest peak, the Zugspitze, along with the famous 19th-century Neuschwanstein Castle. His pilot subjects were Dolderer, the 2016 World Champion, and Sonka, who currently has a chance to clinch his own title at November's Red Bull Air Race season finale. For this opportunity, Mitter's considerations included: "Which side of the mountain do you shoot? Do you shoot against the light, or with the light? Do you want to go wide angle to see the whole mountain range, or just a specific part of the mountain?"

During these special sessions, Mitter always flies with two camera bodies and has three to four different shots in mind. "I know which lens, body and shutter speed I'm going to use, because I'm shooting manual, so I'm pre-setting everything," he explains. "The effect of the propeller spinning makes a much nicer picture, and sometimes we shoot with a long lens; but that might blur the background, so there's a little balance of having the propeller motion yet keeping the background sharp. There's no point in flying in front of a beautiful castle if all you can see of it is motion blur."

The number of shots he takes depends on what he is trying to accomplish. A mountain like the Zugspitze provides an easier backdrop because it offers such a large field to set the raceplanes against, while capturing a distant castle with the raceplanes in the foreground is trickier to get right.

Mitter's shots from around the world

At the Zugspitze, where fresh snow had fallen overnight and Dolderer's home airport at Tannheim offered a welcoming base, the entire team was in high spirits, and Mitter knew it was going to be a good day. "The Zugspitze was beautiful, and everything for 360 degrees around it was spectacular as well. We were all excited," Mitter recalls. "When the atmosphere and the mood among all of us are just right, you see that in the pictures."

Mitter has logged about 1,000 hours in helicopters during his career, and his favorite is the one used at the Zugspitze: the aerobatic BO105 belonging to Austria's Flying Bulls. The photographer relates, "It has sliding doors on both the left and right side. With a helicopter, you have to face the nose into the wind or it can get unstable, so having sliding doors on both sides gives you the freedom to move the helicopter in a perfect place and also have stability. This is especially important if you're shooting with a very long lens on slow shutter speed."

When it comes to communicating with his helicopter pilot, Mitter says, "Over the years I've learned a little bit of pilots' language. In a helicopter, it makes a difference if you say 'this way or that way' or 'go to the north, go to the south.' And while 'higher' is very open, if you say, 'Can we go to 3,000 feet?' the pilot is going to know exactly what you mean."

Communication with the raceplane pilots is also vital. "You don't normally have radio communication with them – the photographer usually talks to his helicopter pilot, who in turn relays the message to the raceplane pilots. When we fly close together, sometimes it's best to visually show what I need with hand signals – come closer, back off, go up or down," Mitter describes.

Typically, the race pilots will make two or three passes before Mitter gets exactly the shot he is looking for. "Maybe in the first pass we realize that we need to fly 200 feet lower in the helicopter and the raceplanes 100 feet higher," Mitter says. "Then in the next pass we have the perfect line, but the raceplanes are hiding each other with their smoke. So we do it another time with precise orders – a little bit more separation, a little bit closer, one raceplane more forward – and that sorts it out."

What gives the photographer the most satisfaction in shooting for the Red Bull Air Race? "We are all very privileged to see these beautiful places from the air and have the opportunity to work with wonderful people," Mitter states, "and in the end, for me the biggest reward is when a pilot says, 'That's a really cool photo.' That is my goal for every shoot, to make them happy."