If you've seen footage of B.A.S.E. jumpers Fred Fugen and Vince Reffet soaring from the world's tallest building -- or the two Soul Flyers whirling down 33,000 feet across the snowy face of Mont Blanc in France, or model Roberta Mancino posing gracefully in the sky in a cocktail dress and heels -- you've seen the world through photographer Noah Bahnson's eyes.
As well as being a world-class wingsuit pilot – he finished second out of 52 top-tier competitors in last week's Red Bull Aces wingsuit race – Bahnson is of the world's premier aerial photographers. He films some of the most impressive stunts the sky has ever seen (when he's not canoodling with his badass supermodel girlfriend, taking his wingsuit up a mountain for what he refers to as a "one-way hike", or participating in world-record skydives, that is). Fellow airsports athlete Annette O'Neil caught him up for a chat during a very rare break in his training schedule
The jumps you shot with Soul Flyers Fred Fugen and Vince Reffet have been all over the Internet.
I've been really lucky this year with Fred and Vince. Yeah, with the support of Skydive Dubai, we've gotten to do some pretty epic jumps. Really challenging stuff.
When did you start taking pictures in the sky?
I've always had cameras on, right since I started skydiving. In the sky, it seems like, why wouldn't you take pictures? It's awesome to be able to record these jumps and take them with me. The first aerial photography I was really recognized for was a documentary I shot in 2010. It was called Birdmen: The Original Dream of Flight. Filming it was a really interesting process, and it was the first time I got noticed for that kind of stuff. Things really took off from there.
Are you more or a photographer or skydiver?
Photography doesn't follow me down to the ground. I never take a camera out when I'm not in the sky. I guess I just don't enjoy taking pictures on the ground. It's funny: my uncle's a photographer, so I've been around it, but it never seemed fun. Actually, it's taken me quite a while to get around to setting up a camera. Until recently, I used the automatic settings for everything.
What's your background in skydiving and BASE?
I was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I started skydiving there, too – did my first 10 jumps there. I moved to Florida after that, to go to marine mechanics school. It turns out there's a lot of skydiving in Florida. I ended up going full-time into skydiving after the 16-month program, and never went back.
How long have you been jumping?
I've been skydiving for 10 years. Right now, I have about 10,000 skydives. At this point, I've worked in the sport as everything: AFF instructor, tandem master, freefly and wingsuit coach, and tunnel instructor. I've been a tunnel instructor since 2008. It's helped a lot with the flying skills. I've been BASE jumping for about nine years, and logged around 700 BASE jumps in that time.
What was the biggest challenge the Burj Khalifa jump posed for you as a photographer and as an athlete?
Controlling my fear and anxiety of only having one chance to get the shot, while focusing on what was right in front of me from minute to minute. It was a challenge to keep my heart rate down on the platform. The three minutes it took for the helicopter to get into position felt like forever.
How about the Mont Blanc jump?
So…getting out the tiny door of King Air 200 [aircraft] covered in cameras, while still being close enough to the boys to get the exit was tough. But the most challenging part was flying in the extremely thin air, both in freefall and under canopy on the mountain.
It's surprisingly difficult to move with power because there's just not much there to push on. Also, trying to forget that it was -50c at altitude took some effort. I have never been that cold.
How do you choose your cameras?
The number and type of cameras depends entirely on the task at hand. In general, I try to shoot one dedicated professional camera – what kind depends on whether it's a photo job or video job – and one or two GoPros as a back-up, or for a different perspective on the jump.
I don't overdo it – a headful of cameras doesn't really get the job done. The more cameras on the helmet – or the bigger and heavier they are – does effect the way I fly, and also complicates the opening process quite a bit in order to deal with the weight. The human neck wasn't built for those stresses.
What do you love most about your work?
The constant challenge. Having to multitask like hell. I have to do the same thing that the athletes are doing, but I have to do it while keeping my head totally still and framing the entire shot through a ring sight. It's very, very difficult, and I love it! Of course I can't complain about all the photos I get to do with my girlfriend [Roberta Mancino]. She's always happy to model for me, and her drive has pushed me to go farther and do more. You could say I'm a lucky guy.
Yes, you are. So what's on the horizon?
I'm just about to go into principal photography doing stunts for a big studio film – that I'm not allowed to talk about. Sorry.
What's the best advice you can give to someone who aspires to follow in your footsteps?
Always wear your seatbelt.