Photographer paragliders over West Virginia for breathtaking aerial photos
Photographer Bernard Chen felt that aerial photography was not limited to drones and learned to paraglide so that he could fly over West Virginia and capture the region in a new way.
Based in Northern Virginia, Chen grew up on a farm and developed a strong connection to all things nature. Adventurer and explorer at heart, Chen considers his work to be born out of the harmony between his fascination with the visual image and his wonder at the natural world.
“My photography allows me to explore and meet the world around me,” he says. PetaPixel. “I feel most connected with the natural world in those times when I wait for it to reveal something to me – I wait for a cloud to move, for the light to change, for a breeze to rise or fall. . I believe in discovery, wonder and the infinite power of nature to surprise us.
Chen’s story is similar to others who felt the same call to heaven, such as photographer George Steinmetz who flew a motorized paraglider across Africa, or Alexandre Buisse who did the same in France and in Italy.
It was this deep fascination with breathtaking landscapes that led Chen to purchase his first drone in 2013 before they exploded in popularity. While this opened up a whole new world for his photography, it didn’t take as big a turn as when he started spending time with adventurers – climbers, paratroopers, base jumpers, and other adrenaline seekers.
“I would tell you that if you want to improve your photography, befriend these kind of active people, and they’ll show you a world you never thought possible,” Chen said. “Most landscape photographers want to shoot from the top of the mountain or deep in a cave, and this group of active adventurers know how to put you in that position for this shot.
Introduction to this active world of adventure led Chen to backpack Seneca Rocks, descend into a cave in Alabama, jump out of a plane, and climb 300-foot giant sequoias in California. All of this, unbeknownst to him at the time, prepared Chen for the future of flying over a place close to his heart – Dolly Sods, Wilderness Area in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia.
“I thought skydiving would be my ticket to filming from the air. But it’s a one-way ticket to the ground, which isn’t what I wanted to do, ”he says. “I started to pay attention to this sport, which looked very exciting, and it was a sport that I could see myself fly with a camera.”
The process of becoming essentially a human drone took ten months of flight training at Almost Heaven Power Paragliding, West Virginia, to gain over 130 hours of flight time. This engagement was not easy – Chen’s first seven attempts at free flight experience were unsuccessful.
After spending some time thinking about what is mentally blocking Chen from succeeding, he came back ready and successfully pitched.
“I didn’t want to stop; flying was exhilarating! Chen said. “I went from a shaking body to a state of fantastic happiness within seconds. It was an incredible sense of accomplishment.
Once he became more comfortable with his training, he started experimenting with a GoPro. Once he mastered this in flight, he added more cameras to his engine, eventually attaching his Sony A7R IV and Sony 24-105mm lens to his chest.
“Flying with cameras was finally starting to happen, but learning to take pictures while flying was no easy task. Unlike drones, I am always on the move; any adjustment of parameters should be done with one hand. Flying low gives you the best compositions and brings the most danger. Once I put it all together, I can start planning flights to amazing places, and Dolly Sods was at the top of my list of dream flights.
While some may wonder why Chen goes all the way for aerial photography and doesn’t just use a drone, his answer lies in what is accessible to photographers. In the United States, drones are limited to a maximum altitude of 400 feet, while the flight can take Chen to 18,000 feet.
Being able to stay in the air for two to three hours also opens up a lot of possibilities to get interesting and picturesque images, while making the most of the paramotor which does not require a landing strip to take off.
After realizing his dream of flying over Dolly Sods, Chen is eagerly awaiting a flight to Iceland in 2022 and has expressed a desire to visit sites in the Southwest and Alaska.
“I see myself having three cinematic cameras mounted, recording different angles in flight. It will be an experiment to see what works, but I like this challenge; this is what motivates me to explore our beautiful planet.
More of Chen’s work can be found on his website and his Vimeo page.
Image credits: All images are courtesy of Bernard Chen and used with permission.