Oh Snap!: Zebras Look Better from a Flying Lawn Chair

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 2 2011 1:34 PM

Oh Snap!: Zebras Look Better from a Flying Lawn Chair

Elephants are generally annoyed by helicopters. The noise of the propellers prompts them to run away, make angry noises, or otherwise change their behavior.  The same goes for pretty much all self-respecting wild animals, which creates a problem for aerial photographers.

Photographer George Steinmetz addressed this quandary by building what he calls his “flying lawn chair,” which is often cited as the slowest motorized aircraft in the world. Only about as loud as a leaf blower, he can float above his subjects at a narrow distance, keeping up with them, without pissing them off.

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Many of the photos above, currently on display as part of the “Migrations” exhibit at the Anastasia Photo gallery in New York City, were taken from this contraption.  Captured this way, herds of animals in motion become enchanting shapes and patterns on the vast landscape below.

Although Steinmetz’s work often conveys a sense of tranquility, composing images of running zebras or vicuñas while piloting an aircraft is actually an adrenaline-filled pursuit.

“It’s like playing rodeo, this hectic game,” he explained, over the phone from his home in New Jersey.  

Steinmetz prefers a minimalist operation. No pilot who needs to be told where to go—just him, alone in the sky with a single camera and a couple lenses. He navigates to the perfect spot and then removes his hands from the steering controls, letting the device glide unmanned at 25 to 30 miles per hour as he adjusts his focus and exposure.  Managing his speed in relation to the animals’ speed and getting close enough to capture details and textures (while staying far enough away to remain unnoticed) is tricky—particularly if his subjects are also in the air. 

He recalls attempting to capture James’s flamingos in Laguna Colorada, Bolivia, the only lake in the world, he says, where the animals congregate and breed.

“When I’m flying my hands off the controls, 50 feet above the ground, above birds that could take flight right in front of me … it’s stressful,” he says. Had the birds gotten in the way of the propeller, “I would have busted both my knees and drowned in mud,” he says.

Ultimately, the risk is worth it, he says, for these “surreal magical moments”—moments that are increasingly rare. Steinmetz has been photographing wild animals for more than 30 years in Africa and other parts of the world, but in the last decade, tracking down large herds of wild animals has become increasingly difficult. Not only has loss of habitat made them harder to find, but also their behavior has changed. In Sudan, for example, he blames men’s love of AK-47s for both the absence of elephants and the fact that those still present are more distrustful than ever of humans in the sky.

Heather Murphy is a former Slate photo editor and the creator of Behold, the Photo Blog. Follow her on Twitter.