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Arial photography has always fascinated me, especially when you rediscover familiar places from above. I first saw Francis Cormon’s work at a photo exhibit near my hometown in Normandy, France. I had often seen paramotors flying over the Normandy coast and countryside; little did I know that one of those pilots was Francis shooting breathtaking images of the beautiful French landscape. Paramotoring, also known as powered paragliding, is a form of ultra-light aviation. The pilot wears a harness with the motor attached on his or her back to propel a parachute or wing. This allows for take-offs from a level surface. Please note that I conducted this interview in French (our native language) and translated it into English for dPS.
Which started as a passion first, photography or flying?
Photography has always been my first passion. When I leave in the morning with my paramotor attached to the back of my car, I’m not going flying, I’m going to make images from the air! My father was an avid photographer, he updated his gear often and I always ended up getting the old equipment. I love nature and I quickly started doing macro photography. When I picked up diving, the camera followed me, occasionally getting wet in the process. When I decided to start flying, I carefully picked the machine that would be best suited for photography.
Is photography from a paramotor popular in France and in the rest of the world?
When I started in 2000, it was very unusual. There were about 3 or 4 published photographers in France who shot from a paramotor. Since then we’ve multiplied but the combination of being a pilot and a photographer sets some limits. In the rest of the world, as the practice of paramotoring expands, new talents are emerging. One also needs to live in a country where the landscape changes. I am quite spoiled here in France!
Do you need a special permit to fly?
I do, in certain areas. I try to avoid them, but I am planning to get an aviation radio to be able to contact control towers and get authorizations. In France you need a paramotor pilot certification, insurance and a knowledge of aviation rules. If you take off from a field, you need the authorization from the mayor and the property owner.
How many flights do you do in a year?
As many as possible! The weather greatly limits the photography flights. The pilot needs calm conditions with very little wind and the photographer needs sun light. I have made about 1000 flights since year 2000, with approximately 400 photography flights. This year I have made about 20 beautiful flights that yielded some nice images.
What photo gear do you use?
I fly with a Canon 5d MarkII, a 24-105mm IUSM and a 70-300 DO. I often change lenses during the flight. The large sensor allows for cropping and the possibility of using high ISO (often ISO 1600) without affecting the quality too much.
Do you shoot video?
No, not at all, although my camera would allow me to. I am too much of a perfectionist to add this to my skill set. My days are only 24 hours long!
What time of day do you fly and why?
The early morning light is the best for photography, in my opinion. It’s a good thing since it’s also the best time for a steady flight, before too much thermal activity comes to shake things up.
What is the main challenge about doing photography from a paramotor?
You have to make images while respecting the environment, being the least disruptive as possible and very respectful of the regulations. In a purely photographic standpoint, you are subject to vibrations and constant movement. You have to shoot on the fly and try to frame as accurately as possible.
What do you prefer to shoot?
I have a preference for graphic images, when colors and lines make a visually harmonious composition. The lucky shots are also a great satisfaction, an unexpected subject, a rare light combining with the ocean or a volcano. I like to be surprised. For fun I like chasing hares while flying 3 meters off the ground using my 70-300. Great chase, where the animal usually wins over the photographer.
Do you also do photography on the ground?
Yes, occasionally. I take family pictures, of course. I get requests for specific images and I enjoy doing macro photography. I try to limit myself as each image requires a lot of time in post-processing: sorting, editing, optimizing and sharing.
What is your next project?
Every year, for the past four years, I have been working on a book for each Normandy département (translator’s note: the region of Normandy is divided into 5 sections called départements). Each project includes a book with a collection of arial images, the publication of selected images in “Au Fil de la Normandie” magazine and an exhibit. This year will be the last of the series: “La Manche vue du ciel”. There are more projects to follow but I am planning to put less pressure on myself. I want to start flying for fun and when there is a good chance to bring back beautiful images.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start doing arial photography with a paramotor?
I would advise a new comer to choose the machine according to its capacity for slow flights, its good visual clearance for the photographer and one that fits in the budget. I would advise against making it a full-time profession. The helicopter is still a preferred method for arial photography. Also, the choice of a good instructor is important. You have to master the flight before being able to use the camera. From a practical standpoint, on the first photographic flights, do not hesitate to push the ISO. It’s better to have a noisy picture than a blurry one!
You can see hundreds of amazing arial images by visiting Francis Cormon’s website.
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