Aerial Photography at the Outer Limits and Discount on Large Prints!

0 - John FlaigMeet our February Featured Photographer:  John Flaig

Going Above and Beyond: Aerial Photography at the Outer Limits

Origins of Near Space Photography
In 2012 parachutist Felix Baumgartner astonished the world when he leapt from a helium balloon floating 128,000 feet over New Mexico. Safe inside a pressure suit, Baumgartner had entered the deadly environment known as near space: the altitudes between 75,000 and 328,000 feet, where air pressure reaches a near vacuum, temperatures drop to -60 degrees For more, and radiation levels can be a hundred times higher than at sea level. A few spy planes can touch the lower edges of this region and rocket planes have shot right through it, but generally near space is most easily reached using a simple helium filled weather balloon.

There is a long history of high altitude ballooning, ranging from the National Weather Service, which annually launches over 50,000 data collecting “sounding balloons”, to HAM radio enthusiasts who have been experimenting with weather balloons for decades. Until recently, radio tracking was the only way to follow a balloon in flight and find its payload upon landing. However, with the advent of inexpensive new consumer-friendly GPS trackers, along with advances in compact digital camera technology, the use of weather balloons for broader purposes has expanded to a wider audience. This technological democratization has allowed regular people to explore the very edges of space for themselves for the first time.

There are many platforms used in aerial photography, including kites, hot air balloons, helicopters, drones, jets, and spy planes. However, weather balloons differ from the conventional means in a unique way. On the way up, a balloon visits the altitudes home to all of these competing platforms, and then surpasses them, arriving at views of the planet that bridge the gap between conventional aerial photography and satellite imagery.

Starting out in Near Space Photography
Several years ago I started to notice an increasing number of astonishing videos cropping up on YouTube. Using high altitude balloons, Spot GPS trackers, and GoPro cameras, people of all backgrounds were posting video taken from the outer limits of the atmosphere. It seemed like the perfect combination of art, science, and adventure. Watching Baumgartner’s jump spurred me to action.

I formulated a plan using simple flight prediction tools online, and in December, 2012 traveled to eastern Iowa with the intention of having the balloon’s camera laden payload parachute to earth north-west of Milwaukee. But that’s not what happened. Inexperience led me to under-inflate the balloon. It rose too slowly, became trapped in the jet stream, and, to my shock, traveled over 300 miles, crossing Lake Michigan and landing in a tree behind the home of the head of the local historical society in Cedar Springs, Michigan. Amazingly, the only friend I had in the state lived just 13 miles away. He helped retrieve the payload box. The tree, unfortunately, had to be sacrificed!

I was hooked. After a few more flights it dawned on me that here was something with a huge untapped potential, and since then I’ve been slowly developing a photographic process and improving my ballooning technique. Due to both expense and risk, there are very few people in the world taking advantage of this platform purely for artistic ends.

Appealing to the Popular Imagination
Working on this project for the last two years has taken me from the Mohave Desert to the Grand Canyon, from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains and Midwest. Something deep in the human spirit yearns to reach into space, but for most of us, using a weather balloon is likely the closest we’ll ever get. To that end, I quickly discovered just how much the project appealed to the popular imagination. Nearly every balloon trip attracted some kind of media attention, culminating in a short video doc produced by National Geographic, an interview on NPR, several AP syndicated news stories, and even a TV appearance here in Milwaukee on TMJ4.

In 2014 I won “best photograph” in the first ever international high altitude ballooning competition, The Global Space Balloon Challenge, which was sponsored by Stanford, MIT, and the University of Michigan, and attracted 40 teams in 20 countries. More recently I collaborated with two UWM students on a trip to the Bad Lands in South Dakota. And increasingly, small companies and entrepreneurs from around the globe, often with zany ideas, commission me to film product promotions from “near space,” the next of which will take place in the skies over Phoenix, Arizona. And I’ve done a few wacky things myself, such as launching a cheesehead to an altitude of 114,000 feet. Some of my work has appeared in galleries in Milwaukee and Portland, Oregon, and in an exhibition at the American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, Colorado.

High altitude balloons offer one of the few vantages left from which new perspectives of the world can still be found. For a photographer, the use of weather balloons represents the rare opportunity to pioneer a completely new field, vast in scope and possibility. Going forward I plan to continue experimenting with higher resolution cameras and work towards increasing the public’s awareness of this new branch of aerial photography by seeking out opportunities to exhibit my work on a broader basis.

John Flaig hails from Brooklyn, New York originally, and has resided in Milwaukee since 1998, working as a software engineer. For the last year he has also been operating under a grant from National Geographic in a technical role on a project involving black market trade. For more information and photos, visit John’s website:







Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado

Spanish Peaks, Colorado

Sunrise & Moonset over Iowa

Sunrise over Iowa

Sunrise over Iowa

Sunrise over Iowa

Dry Lake Bed, Mohave Desert, California

Painted Desert, Arizona

Little Colorado River, Arizona

Badlands, South Dakota

Badlands, South Dakota

Marshalltown, Iowa




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