Lay of the land

Graeme Murray was filming from the air when he saw the opportunity for a still shot—a finalist in the aerial category of the 2016 New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year contest.

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Last summer, Wanaka triathlete Braden Currie was making an audacious bid for Olympic qualification. His sponsor, Red Bull, commissioned a video to capture the rigours of multisport training in Currie’s Central Otago home.

Director Andy Deere booked Rotorua-based sports photographer Graeme Murray to film with a drone, while Murray’s friend, fellow Red Bull photographer Miles Holden, would be capturing stills.

After filming Currie swimming in Lake Wanaka before dawn and running through moss-laden West Coast forest, they needed a location for the bike component of the shoot.

The crew headed to Dean’s Bank, a one-and-half-kilometre loop track that skirts the Clutha River near Albert Town, between Wanaka and Hawea. At the far end of the loop, there’s a steep, winding ascent, and while filming Currie scaling the hill from above, Murray saw the potential for a still shot that compressed the snake-like path into one frame.

“I said, ‘This would look so cool if we do a drone still’,” recalls Murray. “He rode a couple of times up and down and I took some photos. I really like them—just the shape, basically.”

Murray also filmed a moving-image version for the video, but only the still image plays a visual trick on the viewer—at first glance, the rider’s shadow appears to be the rider himself.

Murray has long sought a higher angle in his sports photography. Before drones became widely available, he invented a pole camera system that allowed him to get up to seven metres above the action. Even now, the pole comes in handy when drones are unable or forbidden to fly—as rainy weather, airspace regulations and safety issues continue to pose problems.

Murray’s long experience shooting from above means he’s had a lot of practice at anticipating how elements of the land might look from an eye in the sky.

“It’s looking for patterns and shapes from the air,” he says. “When you do outdoors stuff you’re thinking on your feet a lot, light changes, shapes change, you’re looking around constantly. I think of a drone just as a camera angle. I don’t care about drones so much—I just care about camera angles.”

Red Bull-sponsored shoots typically grant Murray creative freedom, as the brand prioritises offbeat imagery that’s different from typical action-sports fare.

It pushes Murray to think more broadly about what he might be able to capture. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of experimentation, he says.

“You know from experience that something could look kind of cool—but you don’t know until you put the drone up.”