How the Canon Ambassador fought through a snowstorm, walked on frozen water and used three DSLRs to meet a demanding brief.
George Steinmetz, also known as 'the flying photographer', is famous for his trademark low altitude aerial photography. His images from the skies effortlessly convey the scale of a story, pulling you in as you notice layers of details the longer you look.
George's tool for getting these aerial shots is his 'flying lawn chair.' It is "the lightest powered aircraft in the world, a motorised paraglider," he explains. It's essentially a seat, a sail, a tank of gas, a propeller, and him. In his native USA, you don't need a pilot's licence to fly one. And it gives him a different perspective on places he relishes.
George got into motorised paragliding in 1997 out of necessity, after a bush pilot he'd hired dropped out of a job in Niger. For photography, he now considers the paraglider to be better than a plane. It's hassle-free – no runways, no permits, no other pilots – and his aerial shots are more intimate. "I love seeing things from above," he says. "I think it's a perspective most people aren't used to. From above, you can see the expanse of things. I like photographing not super-high but from a couple hundred feet up, so you see the scale. I can see the world from above, but also three-dimensionally at the same time."
From his paraglider, the two things he looks for in a camera are fidelity and reliability. He often has to shoot late in the day, or else has to use an extremely high ISO because he's flying in "some kind of marginal condition." He finds that his current camera – the Canon EOS 5DS R – enables him to do things that would have been impossible not that long ago.
"I love the high-resolution sensor. It lets me do with a 35mm camera what I used to need a medium format or more to do. I have all the flexibility of a DSLR with zoom lenses and large aperture, but in a handheld device.”
His favourite lens is the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM. "I probably take three-quarters of my pictures with that lens," he says. "I have telephotos and super-wides and other things too. But I find I can do almost everything with that one lens."
More recently, George has started using a drone. He likes the precision the drone offers, but when it comes to distance it only has about a 2km leash. The paraglider flies at about 50km per hour and can travel around 16km away from wherever he took off and get back to the same spot. "The paraglider is a different experience," George continues. "It has a little bit less control, but a lot more range which opens me up to discover things."
However, the paraglider can be risky. In China, in 2007, George crashed into a tree and woke up on the ground. A branch stabbed through his cheek. "But the discoverability is quite wonderful," he says. He can gain up to 1,800 metres of altitude but is most effective at 30-150 metres above the ground.
George has showcased his skills as aerial photographer in the four books he's published: African Air collected pictures from a decade's worth of photography in Africa; Empty Quarter focused on Arabian landscapes, wildlife, and people; Desert Air focused on extreme deserts – areas that receive less than 10cm of rainfall a year; and New York Air captured New York City's five boroughs over four seasons by helicopter.
George recently used his aerial photography techniques, as well as some ground-level photography, to capture a story for National Geographic called Feeding China. China is the world's most populous country, but 87% of the land there can't be used to grow crops. At the same time, tastes in China are shifting and there's more demand than ever for meat, dairy products and processed foods, which require more agricultural resources to produce. So the story asked: how does a country with one-fifth of the world's population feed itself using less than one-tenth of the world's farmland?
In Rongcheng in China, George photographed workers stringing up seaweed and hoisting it high into the air to dry, forming huge skyscrapers of the stuff – green and dangling, dwarfing the men on the ground. At a festival in Xuyi County where 10,000 people gathered to eat crayfish, he captured an aerial photograph in which attendees sitting around tables look like molecules under a microscope. Inside an automated farm near Beijing, he documented the 3 million hens who produce 2.4 million eggs a day, and the robots that detect dead birds.
George spent four months travelling around more than a dozen Chinese provinces. He moved with the seasons to capture "extraordinary scenes" of people making and eating food. He quickly realised the story was about scale. And the problem wasn't just China's.
"I would try to find areas with huge amounts of one thing being produced or consumed. I wanted to find the biggest – the biggest dumpling factory, or the biggest pig slaughterhouse, or the biggest dairy farm. When you see it on that scale, it gets interesting."
One of George's favourite photographs from the National Geographic story on food in China is one of the Yuanyang rice terraces in the Yunnan Province seen from above. These rice terraces are the biggest in the world, spanning over 1,000 metres of vertical terrain. The photograph was used as the opening image for the article. George visited the region at planting time, when the terraces were lush and green and filled with water. "They all reflect at sunrise and it's really beautiful," George says. "They look like a fractured mirror."
A big part of the story was about the country's changing tastes in food and how young people are abandoning farmland and moving to the cities for a more modern way of life. George says China's problem is a reflection of the West's problems.
"The thing that struck me the most was the challenge for China to modernise a system for so many people, but also what the impacts are for the rest of the planet if the Chinese consume food the way that we do in Europe or the United States: so much meat and dairy product. I don't know how we're going to do that with the resources on our planet. Maybe we all need to think about eating a little less meat and dairy product, so the world can continue with some amount of wilderness left in it."
George believes things can change. "If we can find a way to meet the demand without expanding the human footprint on the planet, that's very significant for environmental reasons. But we have to realise that, for example, our oceans are a limited resource and we can't fish them all out. We can't cut down every tree in the Amazon to plant more corn. We have to start adjusting some of our behaviour to consume a little bit less intensively. I think most people aren't aware that food production is an environmental issue."
George, born in Beverly Hills, California, in 1957, studied geophysics at Stanford University but became "a little bit restless," so dropped out and spent the next two years hitchhiking across Africa. He says it was "a real dirtbag safari." He didn't take much with him: a snakebite kit, a small stove, a 35mm camera. "I loved taking pictures," he says, "and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if I could make a living doing this?'"
He returned to complete his course at Stanford and, after a brief internship with an oil company, got a job in a photo studio, was fired, got another job with a photojournalist, and was fired again. But the photojournalist kept in touch and passed on jobs. In 1989, George got his first story with National Geographic.
"My first story for National Geographic was about oil exploration because I studied geophysics in college and knew the oil business," he says. "So I could take pictures that told a story most people weren't aware of. I was a decent photographer, but I really knew my topic. That's the key. I think knowledge is much more important than photographic skill. You want to be able to tell your story. You have to do your research and know your topic really well."
George has contributed photos and photo essays to The New York Times, Smithsonian and GEO magazines, and became a regular in National Geographic, which awarded him an Adventurer of the Year prize in 2008. He has photographed the Salt Desert of Iran and the dunescapes of Brazil, spent time in Libya and Antarctica and taken pictures of robots in Japan and tree-dwelling people in Indonesian New Guinea.
For most of his career – in his own words – George has been a bit of a generalist. But his next project sees him continue to explore food sustainability, this time moving on to the global fishing industries. He says the media and people in general are more interested in beautiful pictures of food than knowing where the ingredients came from, but he senses a change. He wants to help show the agricultural realities behind the food on your Instagram feeds.
This is what George Steinmetz's photography does best. It's what he's aiming to do, whether on the ground or in the air, or whether he's photographing robots or rice terraces. "What I really love to do," he says, "is photograph things that nobody's ever seen before. Or, if it's something people have seen before, to show it in a different way."