DPP: How did you come across the actual apparatus?
Steinmetz: It came along in my moment of need. I was talking with William Langewiesche who had written a wonderful book about the desert. He told me I should get a hold of a friend of his in France who was into motorized paragliding. I looked into it; it looked dangerous, but interesting. So, I contacted his friend Francois Lagarde and he told me how long it would take to train and how much it would cost. I asked him if he would be willing to go with me to Africa for a month. We bought identical aircraft and I trained and we did the trip. This was in 1997.
DPP: How does your aircraft work?
Steinmetz: It consists of three components—the wing of a paraglider, which is similar to an aerobatic parachute, a backpack-mounted motor and a single-seat harness that ties the three pieces together. It's launched by laying the paraglider out on the ground behind me like a kite, and with the motor on idle, I run into the wind and the wing pops up like a kite. Once it's above me, I give it full throttle. You basically run your ass off until you're airborne. I only need a clear area a little larger than a basketball court for takeoff and landing. I steer with a combination of weight-shift and pulling on the Kevlar lines attached to its trailing edge. These act like flaps on a conventional airplane. The whole thing packs up into three bags weighing less than 72 pounds. Upon arrival at a location, I spend a few hours assembling and tuning the motor. The best time to take off is at sunrise. You have beautiful light and the air is very calm. With 10 liters of gasoline mixed with two percent oil, I can fly for two to three hours. If the motor quits, I can glide to the ground with a 7:1 glide ratio. I never fly over an area where I can't make an emergency landing. I once landed in the ocean while photographing whales and did get dragged across a dry lake in a sandstorm. When I haven't flown for six or eight months and the first time I go up, I think, "Holy shit! What am I doing up here?" But I think that fear keeps me alive.
DPP: How high have you gone?
Steinmetz: I'm finding if I have no thermal lift I can gain 5,000 or 10,000 feet on a flight. On my first flight with Francois, I wanted to photograph the volcanic crater Arakao. I got up about 5,500 feet with an 18mm lens to get the picture.
DPP: What photo equipment do you go up with?
Steinmetz: The best for me are zooms. My favorite is a 24-105mm. I'll often fly with a 16-35mm, as well. When I used film, I used to frequently take a second body and often that second body was a panoramic camera like the Hasselblad XPan. Now, with digital, I don't have to do that, the sensors are so amazing. I'm now using the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Since the motor to power my paraglider is on my back, I do get a decent amount of vibration, so I try to shoot at 1/500th. With image stabilization, I can get down to 1/250.
DPP: Some of your aerial shots include animals such as the camels casting long shadows in Oman. How do they react to you?
Steinmetz: Since I'm relatively quiet and I don't create a lot of rotor wash, I don't intimidate the animals. There's a shot I did of flamingos taking flight over an orange-colored lake in the Alto Plano area of Bolivia. It's that color because there are a lot of mineralized springs that the algae feeds on, and the algae turns color, and the flamingos are feeding on the algae. So, you have these thousands of flamingos and a skyline of strata volcanoes. Flamingos are usually extremely skittish. I've tried to photograph flamingos in Iran and Africa, and usually they take off when you're within a kilometer of them. But these Bolivian flamingos weren't for some reason, perhaps because they don't have any aerial predators or terrestrial predators. I was able to get within 50 feet of them. It was challenging to fly up there because these lakes were at something like 14,000 feet.
DPP: The resulting photographs are abstracts, yet they still retain a context.
Steinmetz: That's what I like to do with this aircraft that you can't do any other way; these wide-angle pictures where you get to see something up close, but you get this tremendous context. It gives you this instantaneous sense of place. From a plane you can't fly that low, and you have the propeller and the window and all that other stuff in the way.