Last Updated on 05/14/2018 by Mark Beckenbach
Photographer Sebastian Schweers tells us about how he got to shoot a large format camera while flying a plane
“The whole thing came out of a bit of a bet,” says Sebastian Schweers about shooting from an airplane with a large format camera. At ISO 100, f8 and 1/250th, Sebastian was able to get this pretty cool photo opening our story. Sebastian has an interesting family history with photography being a big part of it and aviation being another large part. So when Sebastian shared this image, we were able to get in contact with him and asked him for a feature.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Sebastian: Family! My great grandfather was already taking pictures of the family in the late 1800s. I have baby pictures of my granddad, how cool is that? It got passed down to him, then to my uncle, then to me. My son is about to turn one, so I am intending to continue the lineage. In the past decade I have moved around a lot due to work postings, so naturally I took the camera and it all grew from there on out.
Phoblographer: What made you want to get into large format work?
Sebastian: My wife and I spent a few years living in China. In Shanghai, to be exact. While before that, I was strongly gravitating towards street photography, I found myself exploring areas that were mostly devoid of life – abandoned neighborhoods waiting for their demolition, grand infrastructure objects like interchanges, bridges, etc, and I caught myself thinking how amazing that must look like on large format.
That was it, the thought never left my mind. A few months before we were leaving I found a local company, Shenhao, that made them there. I thought it would be a great souvenir of our time there, so I pulled the trigger in October 2013. I bought a box of film along with it and off it went. The first time it took three tries to get an image. I was blown away. Especially shooting her at night, with Fuji Provia and Acros. I ended up exhibiting a lot of that work. When we moved to Switzerland in 2014 I thought, sweet territory to the max. I was wrong again. Turns out that not only am I a terrible landscape photographer, it’s also REALLY tricky to reliably develop E6 at home. So over the years I shot less and less. Just a few weeks ago I found a great lab and decided to re-start. It’s going great.
Phoblographer: So for you, what was going through your head when it came to shooting large format inside of a plane? That’s sort of a nightmare because you’re not steady, right?
Sebastian: The whole thing came out of a bit of a bet. I am still in contact with a bunch of Shanghai friends, and we were chatting that I’m going on another flight and that, since I’m not flying this time, it’s my chance to come armed with cameras. One of them, my good friend Julien (great photographer in his own right, check him out) almost dared me to bring the large format. I had done a few large format cockpit shots before, but always on the ground, in the hangar, in peace, but once the topic was out I knew it had to happen.
Now the guy I was flying with, Kevin, knew me since we both did ground school together, and is up for all kinds of shenanigans, so we thought it would be worth a try. I wasn’t all that worried about blurring the image, I used 100ASA speed film, at f/8, that gets me 1/250th of a second which is plenty for 65mm. The real problem was the size of everything. I sat in the back, which gave me access to my backpack on the other side of the bench, but it was still like playing tetris.
Phoblographer: What was it like focusing the camera? It seems like you focused to infinity. But what about figuring out your metering?
Sebastian: So this was pretty much a first try. I did bring a tripod, focusing hood, everything, but I very quickly found out that that was way too much hassle. So I decided that for the next trip, I was going to pre-focus on the panel, and mark the setting on the rail so I can just set it to this when it comes to taking the shots. For this time I just pointed the camera at the sun and focused until I got a sharp disc. Worked out good enough. I didn’t really meter. We had direct sunlight under a blue sky and that’s pretty much how you define Sunny 16. So that’s what I used.
Phoblographer: Were you scared at all? What was that feeling like?
Sebastian: No, it was fine. I have a license too, I’ve flown with Kevin before, I knew he wasn’t going to kill us. Flying is fantastic. I started when I was 14, solo’ed at 15, and was quite gutted when I had to take a break for work travels for a few years. Picked right up where I left in 2016, now I fly around Switzerland, France and Germany, about once a month. That said I was really happy I got to focus on taking photos this time, and to record video. Only problem was that I was on a bit of a night out the evening before and having my head down in the sun REALLY made me wish i didn’t. The flight out was better. The video from the shenanigans are here.
I am a little bit sad that I didn’t manage to show the photos to my uncle-in-law, the late Richard Collins, whom you can legitimately call an aviation legend in the US. That, and a very nice man. He passed away before the photos returned from the lab. He did see the video though, which makes me happy. Here’s to you, Uncle Richard!
All images by Sebastian Schweers. Used with permission. Follow him on Instagram and Flickr