Humans have been fascinated by the flocking, swarming and migratory behavior of flying creatures since time began. Photographer Lothar Schiffler has made their transitory tracks visible like never before.
Gulls, crows, mayflies: How did you first get interested in creatures of the air?
I often had to guard the chicken coop from buzzards in the village near Stuttgart where I grew up. It impressed me how those birds could hover for minutes on end without flapping a wing.
Strictly speaking, what you create aren’t really photographs …
True. That’s because it’s technically impossible to photograph a bird’s trajectory. Long exposure blurs their movements and they are swallowed by the light. Back in the 1980s, I tried to develop 16-millimeter negatives on photo paper – but without success.
How did you solve the problem?
Modern single-lens reflex cameras are able to capture high-speed videos. With my Nikon D5500, I can film 50 high-resolution images per second. My assistant Nikolai Klassen has developed a special software that lets us put the image sequences we extract from the videos back together into track segments, like a stack of overhead transparencies.
So the computer does the work?
As far as processing is concerned, yes. A five-minute film consists of 15 000 frames. It would take me weeks to do what the computer does, namely pick out from the confusion of lines those flight paths that make a pleasing pattern – and airbrush out the insects in front of the lens that would otherwise ruin the picture.
The biggest challenge is picking out the best flight patterns from 15 000 individual images
Which flight paths do you like best?
I particularly like to watch the common swifts from my balcony in Munich, the evident pleasure they take in describing bold, bizarre curves and their masterly use of thermals. Once a swift leaves the nest, it stays in the air for two years without landing. They are true artists
of the air.