Claes Axstål: The Flash Master

He perfected the art of capturing extreme action with high-powered, custom-built flash rigs and he did it all on his own!

Claes Axstål of Gothenburg, Sweden is a successful self-taught professional advertising photographer. He developed his own amazing Airborne Flash Photography system that he uses to capture hyper-realistic images of aircrafts, boats and automobiles at full tilt. Since 2002 he’s been a proud member of the leading aviation photographers society, International Society for Aviation Photography (ISAP) and he’s also the author of the definitive, “Airborne Flash Photography for the Marine & Aviation Industry.” This is his inspiring story.

Q: What camera and lenses did you use to shoot this series of helicopter pictures? Was this an advertising assignment?

A: I used the Leica S2 and the 180mm lens. It was an assignment for the European Helicopter Center. I used my high-powered flash setup, which I call “Airborne Flash Photography” for all the photos, except a couple.

Q: Did you have any formal training or study the work of any flash geniuses such as O. Winston Link or Harold Edgerton in devising your flash system. Did you create this as an autodidact on the basis of trial and error?

A: I am a total autodidact and I have not even read any photography books. I grew up playing with cameras and flashbulbs at my father’s photo store, Foto Man, in Gothenburg, Sweden.

In the early ’80s, I started my professional photo career photographing skiing and wanted to find my own style using medium-format cameras and flash on the mountainsides. You can say that the heritage of my imagery derives from my ski photography, which is where I first perfected my flash photography. At the time I had never seen anyone doing ski photography with flash and the same was true of aviation photography. I founded my company, Carpe Momentum Photography, in 1982.

With the advent of the new millennium I wanted to take my flash photography to new heights. I first thought about demonstrating it for the aviation industry, using the same realistic action photography techniques I had pioneered with flash photography of skiers in the high mountains. According to Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine that covered my work, “Airborne Flash Photography was born on 28 March 2001 when [Claes Axstål] for the first time photographed the Saab Gripen fighter jet for the Swedish Air Force.”

To achieve this I built my own flash equipment, which is not only shielded electromagnetically for operation on board an aircraft, but is also sealed for protection at sea, and has a total weight of 250 kg. When you’re shooting straight into the sun and you don’t want to show just a silhouette of the subject, there is no substitute for raw power.

In other words, “Airborne Flash Photography” is real photography, with no artificial enhancements or computer-animated imagery!

Q: How do you manage to achieve exposures that capture beautifully lit, exquisitely sharp helicopters in flight along with subtle sunset backgrounds that look natural? Are these images enhanced or manipulated in order to get the effect you want?

A: I don’t like to manipulate pictures in post-production. In the case of aircraft in backlight, I first meter the sky and then add the amount of flash illumination needed for the specific subject distance and aperture. I used to use a laser for measuring the distance, but nowadays with digital cameras you just need to make one or two test shots to know what aperture you need for the distance and the flash power you have available.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography and decide to pursue it as a career? You shared with us a very cute infant photo of you with a Kodak Starmite with side-mounted flashgun around your neck and holding what looks like an M-2 flashbulb in your tiny right hand so you must have started young.

A: You can say I was born into it. This image was taken when I was one and proudly displayed at the front of my father’s photo store, Foto Man. I started working at the store in the ‘70s. As I mentioned earlier, I started my professional photo career photographing skiing in the early ‘80s and wanted to find my own style using medium-format cameras and flash on the mountainsides. Working in my father’s photo store is also how I first became interested in Leica.

Q: How did you capture this spectacular, perfectly composed sunset (or sunrise) image of a lighthouse on a little island, and was this a personal shot or part of an advertising program?

A: We were flying around and around Faerder Lighthouse for the helicopter shoot and I snapped this shot without the helicopter in the picture. Helicopters are very effective as photo platforms and it is also very easy and fast to find the right position when shooting from a helicopter. But to get a helicopter in the picture with a fixed object or sunset is much trickier and demands good communication with your pilot and, in this case, the pilot of the lighthouse as well.

Q: What is it that drew you to high-speed subjects like skiing, boats and aircraft? Do most of your images freeze the action, and what do you think of images that do the opposite and have you used them in your work?

A: I guess I was drawn to these subjects because I like skiing and live near the ocean. I also wanted to be a fighter pilot, but at recruiting time, I found that I needed eyeglasses. So I make sharp pictures instead and that has taken me airborne. I don’t think there is anything wrong with planning to capture the action and I do that too.

Q: What characteristics of the Leica S-System make it especially conducive to your work?

A: The most important feature cameras with leaf shutter have is their ability to synchronize with flash at very short exposure times (high shutter speeds) so you can use wider apertures and illuminate subjects with flash at greater distances. But when photographing helicopters and planes with rotors you often want to use a longer exposure time so you don’t freeze the blades and get a static look. However, when shooting directly into the bright sun the flash power might not be enough, and you might need to use shorter exposure times anyway.

The extraordinarily good lenses are great assets when working with demanding clients in the aviation and marine industries. The S models have the best ergonomics of any medium-format camera. I also think that their viewfinders are the very best on the market, especially for people like me who wear glasses!

Q: How do your pictures of travel subjects differ from your high-speed flash images, or are they similar in terms of technique?

A: Well I do of course take “ordinary” pictures as well, and these are not made with special one-off, high-power flash systems, or necessarily with any flash at all.

Q: In some of your helicopter in flight images the main rotor is quite blurred, and in others it is only slightly blurred. What are the most common shutter speeds you use, and what is the basis for your decision?

A: When the sun in the picture is too bright and you can’t get close enough to the subject for a long exposure time, you need to attenuate the existing light by shooting at a faster shutter speed.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three to five years? Do you plan to explore any other subjects or genres in your personal or commercial work?

A: I think I will always want to use flash photography for much of my work, but it depends on what the clients demand. To travel on assignment without 250+ kg of flash equipment is certainly much simpler, but flash is essential for most of my bigger projects. I’m working on developing a new flash setup for automobile photography that will enable long exposures and flash duration times. Now that camera manufactures seem to understand the advantage of flash synchronization at higher shutter speeds and shorter flash durations perhaps, I can also begin to travel lighter and with less flash equipment.

Thank you for your time, Claes!

- Leica Internet Team

Get in touch with Claes via Twitter and his Facebook page. You can also see more of his work on the Facebook pages of Carpe Momentum Photography, Extreme Marine Photography and Airborne Flash Photography.