Meet this Dutch pilot who clicks photos from his cockpit Photograph: (WION)
“There is a realisation that the views we see from the cockpit with the large, clean windows, are reserved for only a very few people in the world. The happy few who manage to become an airline pilot. If I can share that experience of flying a 747 underneath the Northern Lights or over a moonlit ocean, I have brought that experience of being a pilot a little closer to the rest of the world that will never be able to sit in that seat.”
This is how Christiaan van Heijst, a 34-year-old pilot describes his dual passion for flying and photographing the world from a bird’s eye view.
With more than 7000 hours in his logbook, he is one of the few who has mastered the art of capturing the world’s best wonders, several thousand kilometres above the sea level. In an exclusive conversation with WION, Christiaan opens up about his journey, his unique style of aerial photography as a cargo pilot and all there is to know about being the man with the best window seat.
"I realise more and more that my images can make people see the beauty in the world and appreciate the little things a bit more" says Christiaan (Source:www.jpcvanheijst.com) (Others)
Kickstarting an adrenaline rush
Born and raised in The Netherlands, Christiaan was drawn to the sky at an early age.
“I started with glider flying at the age of 14 and achieved my PPL (private pilot license) at the age of 18, even before my driver's license”, he says.
Driven with a fondness for the art of flying, he began as an aerobatics pilot and competed with the Dutch National Aerobatics Championship. With first place in the beginners class at the age of 20, he was hired as a First Officer on the Fokker 50 Turboprop. He remembers, “I flew it for almost 2.5 years with operations ranging from European contracts to local African airlines and military operations in Afghanistan that have left a deep impression on me.”
Breaking away from geographical boundaries and learning everything anew in the sky, his predilection for flying grew stronger. In 2006, he joined Transavia on the Boeing 737. He was then hired on the Boeing 747-400 at the age of 27, becoming one of the youngest pilots to be introduced on the very first 747-8 that entered service that same year.
Considering himself “privileged to fly for a living and to enjoy a life in the sky”, Christiaan currently flies as a Senior First Officer on the Boeing 747-8 and -400 Freighter for Cargolux; one of Europe’s major all-cargo airline.
But wait, where did the photographer and pilot in you meet?
Christiaan explains how photography was not a new found love interest rather he “was always interested in it since around the age of 10 but it became much more of an interest” after he got his first job as an airline pilot. He says, “I immediately felt and understood that the views and landscapes that unfolded from so high up in the air are unique that I just had to capture them with a camera.”
Following his appetite for taking good photos, he became an instant hit on social media when his photos became viral. Those are his “most widely known photos of an unexplained group of red lights in the Pacific Ocean, spotted on August 24th, 2014”.
Christiaan adds, “Those photos unexpectedly went viral after I posted them on social media, being picked up by the Dutch blog Geenstijl and consequently generated a lot of attention worldwide.”
The experience of taking pictures of the starry night is quite different from those taken on land than while airborne (Source: www.jpcvanheijst.com) (Others)
From thunderstorms to cloud formations, the pilot witnesses a bounty of natural wonder from his cockpit (Source:www.jpcvanheijst.com) (Others)
The art of clicking airborne
Photographs are one of the best ways to communicate with an audience.
Christiaan explains what he explores within this art form: “Photography for me, is more than just capturing some scenes, cockpits or clouds, it's my way to show the world how incredibly beautiful so many things are if you just take a moment to appreciate it. I’m lucky that I'm taking pictures from a unique vantage point so high up in the sky being a pilot, that allows me to see the entire world from a different perspective. The strong urge to capture the delicate plays of light had been present ever since, and I feel that I have to share as many of those views as possible while I'm able to.”
I’m lucky that I'm taking pictures from a unique vantage point so high up in the sky being a pilot, that allows me to see the entire world from a different perspective. I feel I have to share as many of those views as possible while I'm able to.
For someone so mesmerised with natural lights and colours, I enquire him about storytelling via pictures. It is commonly learnt that every photograph speaks 1000 words, what story do your photos tell, I ask?
Christiaan simply answers, “Actually, I do not try to tell a story with my photos, nor do I connect them with moral statements or messages. Nearly every shot speaks for itself, and as a whole, they convey the pure beauty of the world from above and through my eyes. I prefer the use of natural light in all its forms, and the only story I can actually think of is; just appreciate the world as it is. If I connect them with moral statements about religion or human pollution, they would lose their strength and essence. If my images make people realise or think a bit and see the bigger picture of the world and its beauty, that's a nice extra.
“Every city looks different, but at night it’s often a huge cluster of millions of lights that are sometimes chaotic, sometimes drawn in straight lines where the roads are. During daylight, most cities look like a mass of grey spots and lines but are most distinctively different because of the geographical location. For example, some cities are defined by mountains or islands (like Hong Kong) or large rivers that were the main reason for the city to be founded (like Kinshasa or Novosibirsk). Major cities like Hong Kong or New York are also easily visible because of the skyscrapers and the high buildings in comparison with smaller cities that are often much less developed. Every city has its own characteristics and features that are often beautifully visible from above”, he adds.
I do not try to tell a story with my photos, nor do I connect them with moral statements or messages. Nearly every shot speaks for itself
While he is busy capturing the nuances of nature with an upside-down view of the world, a few like Christiaan have given a boost to aviation photography as a lucrative career option.
Christiaan says, “Aviation photography is quite big but consists mostly of spotters and people who take pictures from other planes from the ground. There are only a few photographers out there who actually take pictures from the cockpit, the weather and clouds, and the landscapes that we see from above. It is a little bit of a niche-market and I'm one of the few who uses this vantage point to capture the spirit of flight.”
He adds, “There are also some like photographers of National Geographic and other big companies who use (this form) for example, to show how fast glaciers are melting, or how certain parts are polluting. I think the view from above certainly helped us understand how precious certain parts and systems are and help with mapping the world. But personally I do not want to do that, I just want to capture the beauty of the world. Every picture just shows the simple views, but if people want to draw conclusions after seeing them, that is up to them.”
Flying over the mountains of Afghanistan changed the pilot-photographer. (Source: www.jpcvanheijst.com) (Others)
In the picture, Chicago by night (Source: www.jpcvanheijst.com) (Others)
Learning on the move while flying
Christiaan has flown all over the world except Antarctica with his camera, capturing landscapes and natural phenomena that occur once in a lifetime. Has it changed him?
He answers, “The more I've been taking pictures, the more I've become aware of how delicate and beautiful light can be sometimes. It has not changed me very much, but I find it amazing that so few people (including pilots) are not even seeing the beauty that is visible to us every day and they only 'see' the beauty after they see my photos. I realise more and more that my images can make people see the beauty in the world and appreciate the little things a bit more.”
Recently, I was extremely lucky to witness and photograph the re-entry of an old Chinese rocket booster that happened to fall into the atmosphere exactly at the place where we were flying...The fireball appeared just next to us and 'flew' all across the sky while I could take a few pictures of it.
Offering an alternate view of the already filmed objects, Christiaan narrates an incident he feels he was lucky to capture owing to a perfect medley of timeliness, scope and leverage: “Just recently, I was extremely lucky to witness and photograph the re-entry of an old Chinese rocket booster that happened to fall into the atmosphere exactly at the place where we were flying. It was pure luck because nobody could predict the place where it would fall, nor was I prepared for it. The fireball appeared just next to us and 'flew' all across the sky while I could take a few pictures of it. Being at the right place, right time and with a good camera.”
At this point, I am tempted to ask him about his best memory while flying and photographing. He says, “One of the most beautiful things I've seen was a large storm of Northern Lights over the Arctic Ocean, North of Alaska. The green and purple glow were moving very fast, for as far as the eye could see and was reflected in the ice below. That was something I will never forget. In another incident, in the beginning of my career I flew contract work in Afghanistan; based in Kabul we flew domestic flights with a small turboprop airplane to all sorts of local airports. Flying that low over Afghanistan has left a very deep impression on me, the beautiful Hindu Kush mountains and the breathtaking sceneries that are so remote and barely seen by people from the air.”
In the beginning of my career I flew contract work in Afghanistan. Flying that low over Afghanistan has left a very deep impression on me, the beautiful Hindu Kush mountains and the breathtaking sceneries that are so remote and barely seen by people from the air.
What about challenges while conducting a dual job mid-air?
Christiaan emphasises that his “airline allows him to take photographs” and that he “takes photos from the cockpit only if the workload and flight allow him to, as flying the airplane is always his number one priority”. He flies long-range where the pilots are in ‘cruise’ at high altitudes and don’t have much to do. Also, they are flying often with 3 or 4 pilots at a time, where every pilot gets a few hour-breaks during the flight. “During such a break I can take pictures without disturbing the other two pilots, or I can take pictures from the jumpseat in the cockpit while my colleagues are busy with landing the airplane”, he adds.
As a pilot-photographer, Christiaan ensures that basics are taken care of. He says, “During daytime, the main problem is to get rid of the reflections in the windows. All papers in the cockpit and uniforms we wear are white and tend to reflect in the windows during flight. Another problem is the thick, layered windows of the cockpit. When I zoom in through the windows, the thick glass makes the images blurry so I have to limit my zoom to get sharp images. During the night, challenges are different. I have to use long shutter times and that requires a very stable flight in smooth air. Very often the airplane is very stable and I can use shutter times of up to 20, sometimes 30 seconds without getting a blurry shot. Also, I use extreme fisheye lenses for the photos from the Northern Lights and Milky Way. Since they capture such a large area, a tiny bit of movement hardly shows in the end result, making it possible to use long shutter times without getting blurry photos. I still have to take about 20-25 photos to get at least one that is sharp enough.”
He adds, “Some people ask me why the stars are still sharp while the airplane is moving so fast (950 km/h). The answer is that the stars and the moon are so extremely far away, that the movement of the airplane is negligible. During long exposures, the airplane might move fast but relative to the stars the movement is nothing. Of course, lights on the ground do move with those long shutter times, but the stars remain steady and sharp.”
Towards the end, I ask him what remains to be his favourite photograph till date and he answers, “The best photo still has to be made. I don't have any single photo that is my absolute favorite, but mostly I prefer the photos of the Northern Lights and the cockpit, that show how unique the view is we have as pilots and also shows how amazing the Northern Lights are, and how very small we are, even in a big plane high up in the sky.”
After a successful stint at authoring a photo book ‘Cargopilot’ in 2016, Christiaan intends to remain a part-time photographer and a part-time pilot. He also enjoys writing and is considering exploring that too in the coming future.