Flying High With the Fujifilm X Series – Chris Magnay on Aerial​ Photography

No doubt you have seen examples of aerial photography. And we are not talking about drone footage here. We are talking about photographers getting up amongst the clouds and taking some seriously amazing shots of landscape and nature. Be it a shark in deep waters or a national landmark from several thousand feet, it is a genre that many of us will never get to indulge in. But, we are so fortunate to have members in our community to get sky high with this style of photography both for fun and for work. And here they share those experiences with us. Let’s kick off this mini-blog-series with Chris Magnay. Chris has been a long-time member of our community and has shared with us some amazing images of the Australian outback. And when it comes to the outback, not many could compare to just how far out Chris is!


To kick things off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, your work and your photographic journey?

Hi Greg and thanks for inviting me to your blog! I’m middle-aged, still have most of my hair and have a wonderful family with three young kids. I live in the small remote town of Kununurra, halfway between Darwin and Broome, just inside the WA border. I came here 16 years ago as a young commercial pilot looking for his first flying job, and continue to fly up here today. Being so remote brings many challenges as well as opportunities, so I’ve had a fair share of other jobs – I am a qualified jeweller and also part own a caravan park up here. But I guess all my roles come together around tourism and also the spectacular landscape where we live. I bought my first ‘serious’ camera when the kids started arriving, an Olympus Pen, then upgraded to a Fujifilm XT-1 when I discovered how rewarding landscape photography is. 

I started sharing my work on Facebook to show my friends and family how amazing this place is, and that is where I developed, I guess. I love going out exploring, chasing waterfalls and epic vistas, patiently capturing our night sky and always having a clear card and charged batteries during the storm season. We use lots of these images for our social media accounts for the caravan park to help sell our region, and this led to other people and businesses asking if I could do work for them as well. Being a small town, we have to be a jack of all trades, so I have dipped my toes in all sorts of disciples – food, portrait, property, product, clothing, macro, agriculture. I’ve got a real passion for taking images of people now, but it’s still a work in progress – so much to learn and practice. I’ve also been known to overcommit my time, so I try really hard to choose what I do that speaks to my heart and allows a good work-life balance – and allows me to chase my kids around with a camera. When I look back, it’s the shots of my kids that fill me with the most joy, so I really work at developing my skills in this area.


To give the folks at home some perspective, how close is your nearest 7/11 or Digi Direct store?

The nearest digidirect store for me is in Perth, 3,226 km away! Our town is around 600 people, 850km to Darwin and about 1000km to Broome. We often drive to Darwin to catch flights to the east coast! But starting next year there is direct flights from Kununurra to Melbourne from May to August, so it’s a wonderful opportunity to come and visit during winter when our weather is perfect!


We have all seen examples of your landscape photography, what is it about the Australian landscape that you find so compelling to shoot?

I get totally lost when I head out bush with a camera – mostly metaphorically and occasionally physically haha. The landscape up here is vast, brutal at times, incredibly majestic but it is also an ancient place where people have walked for 40,000 years – but even that is just a blink in the age of the place. So when I’m out there, you get a real spiritual sense of connection to the country, and I hope that comes across in my images.


What opportunities have you had to shoot from aerial? What was your first experience and was that in a helicopter or plane?

Working in aviation and also being a photographer brings a few opportunities! I have flown drones for a couple of years and love the perspective that aerial views bring and have also had a few jobs capturing stills and video from aircraft too. Most of the demand is for video, but I have been taking images out of aircraft windows as long as I have been flying. I think the first ‘job’ I had was some video footage of the Bungle Bungles at first light. It’s really hard to get good video footage from a moving helicopter and still working on this!


 Are you a qualified pilot yourself?

 I have been flying commercially on and off for 16 years, and currently working 3-4 days a week flying Cessna Caravans and Pilatus PC-12’s around the Kimberley.


What have been some of the greatest vistas you have had the ability to shoot from the air?

I have been fortunate to see some of the greatest Australian landscapes from the air: The King George Falls, the Bungle Bungles, Montgomery Reef, the flooding Lake Ayre – but only have ‘snapshots’ as I was also flying at the time. Although Qantas recently shared a shot of the Bungles I got through the window with the XE3/27mm combo.


 What sort of commercial work have you shot from the air?

 Most of my commercial aerial work is with drones, but there are some limitations to their use – you can’t get very far, they are limited in speed, can’t go very high, and the drones I use have fixed focal length. I have been lucky to shoot aerobatics from a helicopter (that was fun), plenty of air to air aircraft, landscape from helicopters, the Kimberley Moon music festival as well as some infrastructure projects. Its been a combination of stills and video.


If you had the chance to fly over any location in the world to capture that winning shot, where would it be?

 Well I can’t give away too much but there have been a number of award-winning photos taken from Chopper around Broome and also Wyndham – amazing abstracts of colour, texture and patterns (check out some of the amazing work by Fuji X Aus member Mati Beetson and also Mieke Boynton) but some of the places on my bucket list would be New York city, Iceland, I’d love to get a shot of Bondi Beach on a busy day, a volcano, but mostly I’d love to clock up some chopper time in my own backyard doing my own work – the mudflats in Wyndham, visiting remote and inaccessible waterfalls in the wet season, the coastline around Broome and Lake Argyle on a still evening.


What is your typical Fujifilm kit that you would take up with you on an aerial shoot?

 It’s pretty hard to change lenses in a windy helicopter, so I would always try and have all my gear set up before we hop in the chopper, and it would largely depend on if it was video or stills. My stills go to would probably be the XF16mmF1.4 on one body and XF50-140mmF2.8 on another. For video it would depend if I needed footage of passengers (wider is better so the 12mm Samyang), a general all-rounder might be the XF18-55mmF2.8-4 mounted on my XT-3 on a gimbal and also have the XH-1 with XF50-140mmF2.8 mounted on a shoulder rig with my for tighter shots. I haven’t nailed the perfect setup for video as it’s super difficult to get smooth footage. Helicopters vibrate terribly and move around in the air a lot. Gimbals can help, but they can do funny things under accelerations. Ie if the chopper yaws, the gimbal will roll. I use Variable ND filters when shooting video and it helps shooting at higher frame rates and slowing the footage down in post-production. I am planning on building a gyro stabilised platform – I guess its a dumb gimbal – to just smooth out the footage when shooting video. There are expensive options, and there is also DIY versions so I will see what I can build myself. Being able to communicate effectively with the pilot is really important so tell them exactly what you need from them before you take off and they keep talking through the flight – what’s working and what’s not, what you need next and how you would like to do XY and Z. It’s expensive to fly for you or the client, so planning well is key!


An finally Chris, where can people follow your work?


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