Have you ever seen photographs so extraordinary that you know there must be an equally remarkable story behind the perspective?
We are going to get a bird’s eye view on that today as I interview a new friend to Ever Widening Circles: Nat Geo photographer Theo Allof. He has helped us with three projects and we’ve spent hours on the phone together. What a nice man. I hope we can make today’s article feel like having coffee with friends!
First a few questions about perspective:
Have you ever shared a problem with a stranger and found their suggestion makes so much sense that you couldn’t believe you didn’t see it from the outset?
That’s the wonder of perspective, isn’t it?
There seems to be a sweet spot from which ordinary or even ugly things radiate with beauty and make total sense: too close and you have no context, too far and you can’t tell what to care about. Maybe a life well lived is all about living in that sweet spot as much as possible. ~ Dr. Lynda
That was my light bulb moment when I first came upon the work of professional nature photographer Theo Allofs.
I suspect the reason he has had his work in National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian, Time Magazine, New York Times, Newsweek and many others, is because he has a way of capturing the wonder of the natural world from exactly the right perspective.
And I wasn’t waxing figuratively when I mentioned we would view perspective from many angles today, because Theo will be taking us on a journey to some remarkable places on the planet through his camera’s lens, while flying his paraglider!
It really is quite a remarkable story, so we decided to let you in on an amazing conversation I had with Theo a few weeks ago, just before he was headed to Africa again.
I first need to share with you how I became acquainted with Theo. In researching another article for EWC, I came across Theo’s work and shot off a quick email introducing myself and the vision of EverWideningCircles.com. (Every other day we publish one article to demonstrate that this is still an amazing world).
I must have written a compelling message because Theo graciously took the time from is insanely busy schedule to write back to me.
We scheduled a phone call, and at least from my perspective, we seemed like long lost friends from the outset.
Theo’s first article was an EWC fan favorite, so after you are finished here, check out Theo’s article “How to Survive a Rhino Charge.”
Here’s my conversation with Theo a few weeks ago all about his extraordinary niche in nature photography: photography from a powered paraglider…
Dr. L: How did you get started in this aerial photography niche?
TA: I took this up for two reasons. First, I always wanted to learn to fly, and I had been doing some aerial photography in earlier years. But as time went by, the places I wanted to photograph were not places you could get helicopters and airplanes reliably. I wanted something that was easy enough to carry around in a vehicle. And something that, on the spot, I could get into the air 150 or 300 meters (500 or 1000 feet) above the landscape – or even higher, depending what I wanted to photograph.
I had been living in the Yukon for 22 years when I decided to spend a week in Phoenix with a trainer to learn power paragliding. This was about five or six years ago.
I was really afraid of heights and scared to death at first, but now, years later, I’m able to fly and photograph at the same time. I’m still scared, but only enough to keep myself really safe.
Because of the remote nature of the areas I photograph, I try to fly in perfect conditions to minimize my risks. I prefer winds to be less than 16 kph (10 mph), but sometimes fly in stronger winds as well. One of the most important risks I have to consider is to avoid turbulent thermals, so about 90% of the time I fly in the early morning.
Dr. L: Tell us a little about how you fly a powered paraglider.
TA: I start the day, usually before sunrise, finding a good place for takeoff and landing. The good thing is, I only need a space about the size of a soccer field. It can’t be rocky because I start by having to run very fast, with this device weighing about 45 kilos (100 lbs) on my back.
The paraglider’s “wing” looks like a parachute, and initially I have that laid out perfectly behind me on the ground. Then when I start running, the only way to get it up in the air is to sprint really fast with the engine idling. The less headwind I have the faster and longer I have to run until take-off.
As soon as I see the wing is directly above me, I give it full throttle and the momentum carries me forward for a little support. The momentum is greater than my own running speed and in that instant, I might leave the ground by a meter or so, but I have to keep my feet running in the air in case I hit an air pocket and find myself on the ground again. If my feet are not still running I could fall, sit on the cage and damage the prop and the cage.
Dr. L: How far can you travel?
TA: I can carry about 11 liters (3 gallons) of fuel, enough to fly three hours and 95 kilometers (60 miles) in one direction, but I never do. I need to go out and then get back to the point of take-off, so I have to make sure if I go out 30 kilometers (20 miles) with a tail wind, I have to calculate how much time and fuel I need to get back with a headwind. For this reason, I try to fly first against the wind.
I’m usually in the air just before sunrise and keep my flights to a maximum of 2 hours, until the light gets a bit too harsh for good photography.
Dr. L. What about safety? Can you just fall out of the sky or is the wing like a parachute?
TA: I have two things to think about: Most importantly, I have to consider flying when there is no possibility of thermals and downdrafts. That’s different than flying a paraglider without an engine. They need the thermals to get up into the air, and they can handle a downdraft. If they hit one, the wing will collapse, their lines can go slack, and eventually, the wing will fill with air again as they fall.
But if I hit a thermal it can be deadly. This is because I’ve got a spinning prop on my back and if my lines go slack, they might get caught in my prop.
So that’s why I can’t fly during thermal times, like mid-day.
Secondly, I always have to consider the fact that the engine can stall at any time. I have to make sure that I can get to a safe place to land in an emergency.
If I’m flying above an area where I could not land safely, then I have to be flying much higher, so if my engine stalled, I would be able to glide to a safe landing spot.
As a rule of thumb, I can fly about 5 times the distance that I am in the air. For instance, if I’m 1000 meters (3300 feet) in the air and my engine stalled, I could glide 5000 meters (3 miles) before having to land.
Dr. L: So, how do you land?
TA: The landings are the easier part. I start by flying a loop around my vehicle to check the windsock because I have to land by flying against the wind. There are two handles I use to steer the paraglider, on my left and right sides. For landing, when I’m about ten feet above the ground I pull back on both gently, and it works pretty much like the flaps on a plane.
My wing speed is usually 40 kph (25 mph), so by breaking carefully, I can slow it down to a slow landing speed. Takeoff is the tricky part and landing is usually very gentle. But I should add that I’ve also had a number of rough landings.
Dr. L: This sounds like so much to think about. When do you have time to think about taking a picture?
TA: First I have to get into the air and look for a subject to photograph. When I find something, I can let go of my right brake line and secure it in position with a magnet. I have two camera bodies hanging on my chest, so I choose the one with the right lens for the subject. I have to do everything with my right hand because my left hand is still holding the left break, so the focusing and everything is done with one hand.
Of course, I have to position myself for the shot but I can only make left turns with just that one hand on the controls. So before I take the picture I make a right turn first, going in at an angle towards my subject. I usually do several circles over my subject and barely ever get the best shot on my first pass.
Dr. L: I’m wondering if the vibration of that big engine makes photography difficult?
TA: You’re right. That vibration is a problem. I used to turn the engine off when I would start to shoot, but again I always have to minimize the risk. If I turn the engine off, there is always a chance it won’t start again.
Once, when I was flying over the Namib Desert, about 11 kilometers (7 miles) from my vehicle over sand dunes, I thought I was safe and took a risk in turning off my engine. I don’t know what I was thinking. I had no reason to switch the engine off. And walking over the dune for miles carrying my 45 kilo (100 pound) engine would definitely have been no fun. But I switched the engine off anyway and then it would not start again. I kept spiraling downward, trying to start the engine and just when I was about to land, the thing started, so I could fly back to my vehicle.
Now I’d rather have a blurry image than take the risk.
Dr. L: Let’s get to these images, Theo. Tell us about each of these beautiful landscapes and some of the details we see in each photo:
This is a very traditional Masai Village with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.
Here’s the straight down picture with the beautiful symmetry and geometry of the village and the ingenious design:
This is the kind of perspective that I get when taking to the air. One would never be able to discern the beauty of the geometry here without this vantage point.
Of course, there are practical reasons for the design of this village. It is ideal for herders who keep their livestock in the center at night, and all around the outside of the huts, there is a fence of thorn bushes and branches so the lions can’t get in. In the daytime, they take the animals out to the grazing grounds.
The people in this photo are the villagers and the fellow second from the right is the chief’s son. It was funny because I took off that day just outside the village and there was no wind, so I had to run and run, and I was running towards them, and they didn’t know what to think, and then they just ran away! And later on, when I circled over the village, some people were scared of me and ran away again, hiding in their huts.
People in less traditional villages in Namibia live very simply too. This is a village of 10,000 people with no electricity, no running water, and no indoor toilets. There is no heating, so I have seen people bicycling at night, for miles, to carry firewood back to this township.
This is a lagoon at the edge of the Namib Desert near the township in the previous photo. I had to fly a long way over the coast to get to this spot, about 25 km (15 miles). This photo has special significance because I photographed this for friends who love abstract things.
Different depths of water account for all the various colors in the image.
This is an area of the Simpson Desert in Southern Australia that is about 800 kilometers (500 miles) across. A few years ago I was there with my wife, and the desert was flooded for the first time in decades. The strange pattern of these sand dunes is created by the wind.
This formation is a difficult thing to explain. It’s all wind erosion. The wind blows over the first ridge, (from the left) and picks up speed for a while, carrying sand grains with it, until it slows again and the sand falls back to earth creating the next dune a kilometer further, and then that same process happens for hundreds of kilometers for millions of years.
I took off about 8 to 10 kilometers (5 or 6 miles) away, where we had camped, but got myself into some trouble on this flight. This was one of my first flights while photographing and there was frost on the ground. I had quite a tailwind and didn’t calculate how long it would take me to get back against a headwind.
I was nearly frost-bitten by the time I did get back, and to complicate things further, I did not have my reading glasses so I couldn’t see my GPS to see my location. Fortunately, I had radio contact with my wife and she could listen for me in the air, way off in the distance, and then used the sound of my engine to guide me back to the landing spot.
These are the dunes near Sandwich Harbor in Namibia, on The Skeleton Coast. Most of the sand probably comes from the mouth of the Orange River in South Africa and is carried by the current northward. Then the sand is deposited on the shore at low tide, picked up by the wind, and then blown inland 80 to 100 kilometers (50 to 60 miles). This creates these strange, abstract forms so beautiful from the air.
Again, these are forces that are taking place for hundreds of thousands of years.
This a fishing boat from Angola that got stranded not long ago on The Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Most of the ships that are stranded on this coast lost their way in the thick fog that is so common here, and most are from the whaling industry in the 1800s. During that period, the ships had no radar and since this is such a foggy part of the world, ships were stranded frequently.
It’s natural to think that all the shipwrecks are the reason why it’s called “The Skeleton Coast.” But that name actually comes from the fact that the coast used to be riddled with whale skeletons when the whaling industry was at its height.
Here, I’m flying over some important salt-producing lagoons near the coast in Namibia. The various salt lagoons are such dramatically different colors here because each pond has a different concentration of salt, and, therefore, a different species of color-producing algae. The algae helps crystallize the salt out of the water and speeds up the process.
I’m about 800 meters (a half a mile) in the air here in case my engine stalled, so I could make it back to the beach where I took off.
This photograph is a great example of the reason I do a lot of research on Google Earth before my trips. It gives me a place to start when I consider where I might go next.
These are natural circles of vegetation found in the Namib desert called “Fairy Circles.” No one really understands this phenomenon, but some speculate that the type of plants that form the rim of the circles might be using a kind of poison that keeps other plants from competing with them. Other people think these circles indicate some sort of termite activity.
This is one of my favorite aerials, and I’ve printed this for abstract fine art purposes. This is a back-lit image I took when flying over part of the Chalbi Desert in Kenya when it was temporarily flooded.
The yellows in this photo are reflections of the sunrise.
Many of the places I’m photographing, like this, are far from settlements. There’s no grazing or people in vehicles, and there are very few ways to make a living, so they are rarely visited by people. In the 5 times, I visited this area, I only saw three vehicles in total.
And here’s one of the amazing things: As beautiful as these landscapes look from my perspective in the air, they are almost always very desolate and broken-down when seen from the ground. Once in the air, my whole perspective changes. It is so beautiful.
This is an image taken over Lake Bogoria where huge numbers of Lesser Flamingos flourish.
This photo was taken over Lake Logipi in Northern Kenya, another one of the important breeding areas in Africa for Lesser Flamingos in eastern Africa.
These flamingos (the hundreds of tiny white dots) are running in the shallow water, only a few inches deep and the beautiful patterns are created where they’ve stirred up the mud, within a minute of running.
These are also flamingos (tiny white dots in the upper left at the end of a river delta. My assistant that day, who lives near this place, looked at this photo and couldn’t believe this was the same place he knew only from the ground. Again, these areas are almost always so desolate that locals have no idea of their beauty from the air.
This is a stunning view of the morning light over the sandy part of the Namib Desert.
Here’s another great image of dunes. It highlights the beautiful fog that often quickly rolls in from the ocean. On this particular flight, I barely managed to land because the fog was coming in so fast. Within 5 minutes of landing, I couldn’t see 20 meters (65 feet) in front of me. I got so fascinated by the images I was taking, that I didn’t calculate the speed of the fog.
These are Oryx Antelopes in the area of the fairy circles on the east side of the Namib Desert.
These animals are living in an area that was once used as two livestock farms. But years ago, the owners turned their farms into one big, very well-run, private wildlife reserve. The old artificial water holes in this area were once used by livestock but now keep the wildlife populations a little higher than normal, and I love to photograph there often.
This is a flock of ostrich I photographed by circling very low. Since I was so close, they gathered tightly, like being safe in numbers. I like to include shadows that are as clean as possible in my photos.
This is a herder in Northern Kenya, part of The Rift Valley, one of the wildest places I’ve ever been. There is just no infrastructure at all in these places. This forces people to be very careful about protecting their livestock. So protective that I was sometimes afraid of being shot out of the sky.
The herders are taking their goats and camels to a very important oasis. Here’s a beautiful photo of the oasis:
These are camels watering at the oasis that made the abstract patterns for the image we looked at earlier.
My power paraglider is a two-stroke engine, like a chainsaw, so it makes quite a lot of noise. Even so, these animals are so thirsty they don’t seem bothered by my presence in the air above them.
I’ve taken this photo to purposely include the shadow of my power glider.
These are common zebras sprinting as I came in low over them.
Here’s another photo taken when I was working very hard to get just the right shadows. I was aiming for a picture like this for about three weeks. I wanted clear shadows on a clean background and zebras walking in the right direction, perpendicular to the sun. This was very hard to get. It was finally a combination of opportunity, perseverance, and luck.
This is a herd of Oryx Antelope. My goal was to get shadows that were so clean you could tell what kind of animal they were. I was shooting with a longer lens not to disturb them so much.
This a view from high above the Kimberley region of Western Australia. An aerial of a meandering river in mud flats in rainy season, with mangrove trees lining shores of main rivers and tributaries.
Dr. L: Well that was quite a travelogue, Theo. I can’t thank you enough for sharing this fascinating perspective on the world with us. Where will you be headed next?
TA: My next flying will be in Zambia to photograph the Zambezi River from the air.
Dr. L: We will look forward to having you share more beauty and wonder with us. Thank you so much!
Theo Allofs and I spoke for an hour and forty minutes to create this article. I have to close with some comments about what a wonderful person he is. Theo is another one of the new friends to EWC. He’s the type of person who connects easily, like an old friend, eager to share the wonder they’ve found.
He and his wife, photographer Jami Tarris, are good people from ordinary beginnings who found and followed their passions. As they generously bring us their stories over the coming year, I hope we continue to get to know them as people and professionals.
Connections to the natural world run deep in all directions. We are lucky to have them as our guides for a while.
Thank you, Theo, for another transforming adventure.
If you want to follow Theo’s work more closely, you can find him on Facebook and at his website.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret… Theo’s personal Facebook page is where all the action is. Scroll through that if you’d like to feel like you’ve touched the world! He posts his personal favorites for images and often tells the story about how each was captured!
Both articles are filled with breathtaking images.
The couple also leads photography tours all over the world that sound extraordinary. If you’d like to see their Photographic Tour website, you can take a look at the spectacular images from some of their tours at Focus Expeditions.
We can’t wait to see where Theo takes us next!
~ Dr. Lynda
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