Ahead of the launch of his new exhibition and book, aerial photographer Maciej Margas talks to the Insider about the thrills and spills of his chosen vocation…
Go on, how does it feel being up there?
What I really love is the overwhelming feeling of freedom and the thousands of ways I can photograph. It’s my call where we head, how high we go and which lens I use. It’s an extraordinary feeling when you’re 3,000 meters above ground and the helicopter is turning so sharply that you’re practically hanging from the safety harness: you feel so alive. It’s all so dynamic – within seconds you’re flying over an entirely different place and have to decide, fast, what to do and how to do it.
Do you have a part of Warsaw you love flying over?
I don’t think I have one favorite place, I’d rather choose a favorite part of the day and that would be right after sunset. The city lights are all on, but you’ve still got the sky streaked in orange and blue. It’s amazing to see how it can all change so quickly within a few minutes.
How have your flights over Warsaw differed?
My first was in 2015, and as I was still a newbie I didn’t manage to shoot much more than the city center. In 2016 I knew which areas I wanted and since this time we were flying at 3,000 meters we could fly freely over all of Warsaw – even the airports. When you’re that high you can zoom in on a distant district and it’ll take five minutes to fly from one end to the other. The second time I was much more aware of the technicalities and that made planning and photographing much easier. Before, I also had a crew taking care of the harness, lines and general safety – the second time around I was dealing with all that myself.
What are the biggest challenges of aerial photography?
To start, cost: a two-engine helicopter flying 600-900 meters above ground costs zł. 10,000 per hour (plus VAT). There aren’t any institutions who care much for documenting Warsaw from the air for future generations, so raising the money is an issue. Fortunately, for the second flight a crowdfunding campaign meant I managed to secure four hours flight time.
Then there’s the equipment: flying at night over Warsaw you need cameras capable of creating low-noise images at a high ISO (6400-12500). My technological partner on the project was Canon Poland and they rented me their best cameras: a 5DsR capable of shooting 50mpix images, and a 1DX (later a 1DX-2) capable of shooting over 14 frames per second – when your hands are trembling, the wind is in your face and the whole helicopter is shaking, you’re shooting like crazy to just get one sharp image. The day before, I also suddenly remembered I needed lots more memory cards – imagine how that would have looked if I had gone up in the chopper only to find I didn’t have any memory. I called all my friends and we went on a mad dash around Warsaw collecting up cards.
And the weather?
I’d say that’s the second biggest problem. You can’t predict it a month ahead, and even three days ahead you’re left pretty much guessing. When we did the 3,000 meter flight we waited for over two months for the right conditions: three times the flight got called off when we were already at the airport. By the time it went ahead it was November and the temperature was approximately 20 degrees colder than on ground level. Further, many of the permits you need are only issued a week before; the photo equipment might already be rented to someone else; you need to stay in touch with all the crew. You need to be immune to stress, be able to make fast decisions and have bags of patience. With all that to consider, it’s hard to work concurrently on something else so you have to really be able to dedicate your working life to photography.
What have you learned from looking down?
In terms of land mass Warsaw is five times bigger than Paris – did you know that! At the same time, the whole agglomeration has five times fewer people. You only get a sense of Warsaw’s size from the air: it just goes on and on. I think that makes it different to many places, such as Paris or Rome. It’s also very chaotic – it’s very hard to find any system in place with regards to the shape of the streets – and there’s also still so many empty plots, even in the city center. Finally I learned to look on Warsaw as a living organism, and that’s how I ended up organizing my book: by showing, among other things, its lungs, heart, fabric and so on. Warsaw is so big and complex, even when you see it as a whole you’ll never be able to understand it…
Warsaw On Air
Maciej’s exhibition opens on April 2nd at 7 p.m. Admission is free on launch night. Beyond that, the exhibition runs until April 13th from 1 p.m. till 9 p.m. Find it on the 35th floor of the Warsaw Trade Tower (ul. Chłodna 51). Admission is priced at zł. 5.
Warsaw On Air is also available as a 256-page hardback photo album. Written in Polish and English, this epic souvenir is priced at zł. 99 and available only from: warsawgiftshop.com