Besides numerious publishings in worldwide magazines I am always proud to cooperate with one of the worlds greatest and most famous photography magazine – Nikon PRO. This issue’s article is about my involvement in photoshooting the Red Bull Stratos project which will remain a historical event for all times, and also in my memories forever.
You’d have to have been hiding under a considerably large sized rock not to have seen or heard about Felix Baumgartner’s extraordinary feat of daring, the Red Bull Stratos project, in October last year. The Austrian skydiver, daredevil and base jumper fell from a height of 39 kilometres, reaching an estimated speed of 1,342 kilometres per hour (or Mach 1.24), to break the skydiving altitude record previously held by USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger, the record for the highest manned balloon flight of 37,640 m previously set by Nicholas Piantanida and become the first human to break the sound barrier without the assistance of a vehicle.
The project had been planned since 2010 and involved an incredible team of people. Never far away from extreme sports, Nikon photographer Predrag Vuckovic was on hand to make sure this historic event was fully documented.
Our task was to make history through photography, so that after a while when someone looks at the photos it can have the complete story in its head about the Red Bull Stratos – from start to finish. This means that we photographed the whole team – not only Felix, but also all the people involved in the project, their tasks and all the details. Our pictures are what’s left behind.
After nearly 200 photo shootings behind me for Red Bull and some of those required climbing through the mountains and diving, extremely difficult conditions, now it came something completely different from everything I have ever worked on. In the first place because none of us three photographers didn’t know what to expect from the whole project concerning photography and everything that was waiting for us in New Mexico. Only after the first test jump in March from 21 km and second one in June from 29 km, we had a vision about how it will look like the final jump which was scheduled for the October.
The Stratos project was based, rehearsed and executed in Roswell, New Mexico at the Roswell International Air Center (notorious for the UFO incident of 1947), which was used because of its climate and wide-open spaces. Each photographer covered a different aspect of each phase of the project and then swapped around for the next phase to ensure the images were different each time. Predrag explains the complicated process.
‘One photographer was always on the runway with the capsule for the preparation and lift off, another was inside with all the guys from mission control and the last was with Felix, walking around. Once Felix was inside the capsule, the photographer that was on the runway went to the helicopter and followed the capsule and balloon up to a height of two kilometres. The photographer that was with Felix went to the mission control room, and the photographer from mission control went to the recovery helicopter. This was the helicopter with the team responsible for Felix including a doctor. The plan was that they would get to Felix first when he lands. The photographer on board the Cineflex helicopter (which on the actual jump day, was me) rendezvoused with the recovery helicopter within an area of two square kilometres of where it was expected Felix would land. We waited there until Felix was at a height of 35 kilometres and then flew up to about 2 kilometres and waited. Felix was planning to open his parachute at a height of about 1.5 kilometres, so we waited there, as I was responsible for the first photographs of him opening the parachute and landing. We would follow him down to the landing zone with the second photographer from the recovery helicopter who would also cover the landing. After that, all three of us met in front of mission control, it was all planned like that and it all came together on the day.’
‘I’ve been working for Redbull for 7 years and my photography always comes with some kind of pressure because in most extreme sports you only have a second to capture the shot. Of course everybody was under pressure but we were preparing for this for nearly a whole year. We rehearsed for every element of the project many times and it was pretty well organised.’
Another important thing that separates the Red Bull Stratos from my previous projects are the people who worked on it. They are mostly older people, scientests and professionals in every possible way. With them everything somehow went peacefully, with no stress even when it is a moment for it. In every situation you could simply felt their enormous experience and the thing that they always had everything under control. Therefore you have must felt safer. Acquaintance of all those people and my communication with them have left a large trace on me. Everyone in the team was no different from another, they were full of kindness, restraint and it was all in top level – even more than that. We functioned as one.
The one thing that was out of the team’s control was of course the weather. The original scheduled launch on the morning of 9th October 2012 was delayed for five hours because of weather problems. The launch was eventually aborted due to a 40 kilometre per hour winds at the launch site and was rescheduled for the morning of the 11th October, although the project’s meteorologist Don Day, announced that the date would again be postponed until the 14th. On the day of the jump, Don predicted that Felix would land 70 kilometres from the launch site. He calculated the wind direction, the atmospheric conditions, the speed Felix would be travelling at – everything, and he was spot on.
This project may not have been physically demanding as some of the previous ones but it was definitely hard. We had extremely difficult conditions for photography. Preparings and equipping began at 10 pm till 6 am when everything was ready for the launch. What happened was that we did not sleep for 30 hours or more. The biggest problem for good photos was the lack of light because it was all done at night. For me in one hand it was a real challenge to make a good shot with a less light. When I look now, my impression is that it is precisely the lack of light which contributed that this whole serie of photos looks spectacular. Looking like that, these photos have some higher, impressive meaning and they avoke the atmosphere of the whole Roswell… simply look great. Equipment that I worked with was the Nikon D4 and this camera is one of the best in the world when it comes to a low light shooting. So, I had a technical advantage which made everything worked smoothly and literally perfect.
Predrag’s camera of choice for the assignment was the two Nikon D4 and one D800 with the 85mm, 50mm and 24mm f/1.4, 200mm f/2.0,14-24mm ,17-35mm f/2.8 lenses on the ground, and the 70-200mm and 300mm lens in the air. Shooting such high-octane action from such a distance wasn’t so much of a problem as you might expect, as Predrag explains.
‘Our pilot was super professional so there wasn’t a lot of movement when we were shooting, he was one of the best when it comes to piloting helicopters for this kind of shoot, so it was very stable. There were no big movements because it was a special helicopter with Cineflex. We removed the door from the left side totally so I had a lot of open space for all my movements.
‘It’s really hard to explain the feeling when you know it’s a once in a lifetime experience. When you’re shooting something historical it’s different, it’s more than a pleasure to be involved in projects like that – it’s really some thing different and unique. I’ve spoken with me friends and fellow photographers and we don’t think anything similar will happen in our lifetime. I don’t know if it’s possible to break the record, Felix was on the edge of the atmosphere so any higher and you’d be in space, It took 51 years to better Joe’s jump which at the time was really amazing – so maybe after another 50 years, something like this will happen again, who knows.’
For more information on the Red Bull Stratos Project, visit: www.redbullstratos.com