Travel

Aloft: Canadian Rockies Aerial Photography

In an excerpt from his new book, Aloft: Canadian Rockies Aerial Photography, Paul Zizka showcases a birds-eye view of the Canadian Rockies.

  • Mar 30, 2021
  • 1,051 words
  • 5 minutes
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Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawn to high places. It explains why I left the flatter lands of eastern Canada 20 years ago and found another home in the mountains. There’s something about having the world spread out at your feet that is utterly intoxicating. It’s not only about the aesthetics, although for a photographer that’s definitely part of the equation. Another part of the appeal is less tangible, beyond the realm of the visible. The perspective and freedom that those loftier views offer are unparalleled – and addictive. From up high you feel acutely aware of your own insignificance, yet also like the whole world is at your fingertips.

I’m also drawn upwards because of a deep-rooted desire to see my beloved Canadian Rockies from a different angle. I experience so much joy in rediscovering familiar valleys and peaks from a completely different perspective. As I gaze out at all those landmarks from a high perch, I reflect on the various stories I’ve attached to them over the years.

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For my first decade of wandering around the Rockies and career as a landscape and adventure photographer, I “earned” my altitude. Hiking, scrambling and mountaineering were my gateways to moments spent up above the treeline, looking down at the winding rivers, turquoise lakes, sweeping forests and shimmering glaciers. I’d be curious to know how many metres I gained in order to collect the images that appear in my previous books. While I still primarily rely on my feet as I seek photographs that fulfill me, in more recent years I’ve had the opportunity to leave firm ground altogether and fly by helicopter over the Canadian Rockies on multiple occasions.

The first time I ever flew was during a rescue off of Castle Mountain in 2009 after an unfortunate climbing incident in which my partner broke his foot on Eisenhower Tower. Though we were only in the air for mere minutes, and I had the safety of my friend front-of-mind, I could not help but be blown away by how quickly Castle Mountain, an icon, became almost unrecognizable. I was immediately struck by the boundless potential for photography that flying could open up.

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Since then, through my commercial assignments, as well as some personal work over the last few years, I’ve boarded helicopters several times, hovering over much of the Canadian Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage Site, which comprises the contiguous national parks of Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho, as well as Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hamber provincial parks.

Shooting from a ridge, face or summit, with one’s boots firmly on the ground, is for me more exciting, creatively speaking. The availability of foregrounds allows for a lot more compositions. There is also the possibility of using the human element or long exposures on a tripod in order to make images more compelling. There’s the luxury of time and immersion with one’s surroundings. And of course there’s the fact that a journey and effort are required to afford the heights as opposed to finding yourself up high in an instant, and that journey can offer countless photo opportunities along the way.

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Fall Aerials, Banff National Park
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Yet, photographing from a doorless helicopter offers unique opportunities and can be extremely productive. In fact, all of the images found in this book were photographed over a total of perhaps eight to ten hours! The ability to reposition the camera at a moment’s notice and improve an angle without the limitations of spatial barriers makes for very fruitful sessions. What’s more, seeing the summits from above them provides a perspective that even a mountaineer can’t obtain.

Even though aerial photography does not require much in terms of physical effort, it still presents specific challenges. Even with the doors off, the angles are often limited. With the wind, proper communication, which is paramount for a productive shoot, can be extremely difficult. With all the motion involved, image sharpness can be hard to achieve. Weather can wreak havoc on the best-laid plans. Along with the ever-changing conditions, the possibilities for images are so plentiful that aerial photography can be mentally taxing as one has to constantly adapt and assess conditions and camera settings. Removing the doors of the aircraft means becoming very exposed to the elements, such as bone-chilling temperatures and powerful winds. Finally, there’s the fact that you find yourself hundreds of metres above the ground in a tiny metal box that is at the mercy of the weather. Unlike in mountaineering, where safety largely comes down to one’s own skills and decision making, flying means trusting a pilot’s skills in order to get up and down safely. When I find our position slightly unnerving, I focus on my purpose out there and keep shooting – it keeps my mind from wandering!

 

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Interestingly, creating the images was not the most difficult part in making this book. The sorting and selecting that ensued were much more arduous. Though I’d created a handful of books before this one, the process never gets easier. Photographers are close to their work and the image selection process is always painful. Out of thousands of images I started out with, 135 remain. I am proud of every single image in this book. They all meet my personal standards as a photographer. But aesthetics were only part of the equation in the elaborate selection process. I also had to consider variety: geographically, seasonally and compositionally. For that reason, herein you will find images from various seasons and areas, with some images featuring well-known, iconic locations and others that highlight more obscure backcountry locations. Some images were processed in black-and-white to emphasize drama and structure, while others showcase the fantastic array of colour the Rockies can offer. Some were shot wide, top-down, while others were shot with a telephoto lens, towards the horizon.

Ultimately, what I’ve aimed to provide is a different perspective on the Canadian Rockies and one that highlights their unparalleled beauty. I hope it gives you a new sense of scale of this magnificent place and that you enjoy the chance to gain a birds-eye view of Canada’s celebrated mountain range. May your own explorations bring you sweeping views and a fresh outlook, no matter how high your adventures take you.

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