Tobias Hagg attached a camera to a drone to capture this photograph.

Fly Like an Eagle: Tobias Hägg’s Drone Photography

By Serena Fox

Tobias Hägg likes to fly. But don’t imagine him in a helicopter or a biplane, zooming along toward a curved horizon. No, Hägg flies the way a hawk hunts.

He hovers, directly overhead, looking straight down, a fixed point in the sky as the earth turns beneath him. He stays low enough to see the details of the leaves on trees, the waves on the ocean’s surface, the fleck of a human traveler moving across the sand. He is unseen, but observes all—an omniscient narrator.

With the advent of affordable, reliable drones, the field of aerial photography has exploded in the past five years—and Hägg’s career took flight along with it. The 30-year-old drone photographer, who lives in Eskilstuna, Sweden, creates stunning “nose-down” images that are intentionally disorienting, often abstract, and minimalist. His subjects range from the fragile dot of a swimmer in an endless sea, to fir forests so dense they could be a close-ups of moss on a rock. Filling the frame with an unfamiliar perspective, his photographs reveal a world that is vast, isolating, and still oddly personal.  

Tobias Hägg uses Phantom drones and Sony A7 R2 cameras for his aerial photography.

Hägg frequently plays with stark contrasts of theme. At left, a homey cabin clings to a sheer cliff in Hägg’s native Ekilstuna, Sweden. At right, a woman floats in a vast ocean of Hägg’s favorite green hues.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have been interested in overhead images,” says Hägg. “But you had to be well-known or have a crazy budget to get up in the air, so it wasn’t something I was able to do.”

A passionate hobbyist since age 14, Hägg pursued film and photography off and on for years, studied digital arts in college, but kept his day job as a heating and refrigeration engineer. “When I got off work, all my spare time went into making images, and all my money went into gear and travels,” he says. When he bought his first drone three years ago, it was for fun. “I just wanted to create the images I’d imagined since I was young,” he remembers. “But it sort of took off, and people started enjoying my pictures. It reached a point where it didn’t add up anymore. The photography and prints took so much time, I had to choose: Either I do this 100 percent, or not.”

Today, about half of Hägg’s commercial work is aerial, though he also shoots interior and lifestyle images for advertising and magazine clients. His drone work has attracted worldwide attention, with more than 110,000 followers on Instagram, a growing business in framed and unframed art on his website Airpixelsmedia, a remarkable selection of images on Adobe Stock, and a recent sponsorship by the outdoor company Fjällräven.

“The cool thing about this image,” says Hägg, “is that just outside of the frame are the two sides of a beautiful fjord in Norway. But you can’t see that. I chose to isolate them in the middle of the world, so they can do whatever they want, go anywhere they want. If you see this image, I hope it makes you dream a bit of adventure.”

Adventure is a key source of inspiration to Hägg. “I’m always out,” he says. “That’s the main thing that takes my photography a bit further, so I don’t get stuck. I like to explore new places every day, push it in all directions, technologically and artistically. The best thing for me is to see something new for the first time, and then try to tell the story of it. So that’s what I do. I try to find new places and put my signature on them.”

Hägg’s favorite subject is the ocean. “It always draws me in,” he says. “Sometimes I get lost for hours watching the waves from overhead.” He’s fascinated by human’s scale in nature and often plays out that theme by including himself in his images, “just a dot,” barely visible from straight overhead. Adding that slightly absurd fragment of humanity, he says, helps to show the power of nature and our place in the world.

In the ocean shot on the right, the photographer is visible as the tiny dot in the center of the beach. “It’s about scale and size,” says Hägg. “I was trying to show how powerful the waves are.”

Trees are another favorite theme. “I think I do them differently than most,” says Hägg. Rather than give the viewer an overview of the forest, “I like to get up close. It’s the perspective from overhead that’s cool, not the altitude.” Seeking texture rather than representation, Hägg likes to fill his shots with what he calls “stacked up trees, where there is literally no room for anything but trees in the image.” 

When he shoots forests, Hägg strives for a close-up effect, filling the frame with a texture of trees. “I don’t like it when there are holes in the forest,” he says.

In his work, Hägg uses a range of altitudes from 5 to 120 meters but spends much of his time at 20 to 30 meters. “I usually fly lower, I think, than most photographers. It depends on the story I want to tell with the image.” Hägg shoots with two drones, a Phantom 4 Pro and a Phantom 3 Pro, and captures 4K video and 20-megapixel stills with Sony A7 R2 cameras, which he prefers for their remarkable dynamic range. “Pretty much everything I shoot in stills I also shoot as video,” he says, which gives him the flexibility to use either medium.

Hägg says a single shot can take a day or two of scouting (he sometimes starts with Google Earth), and then hours or days waiting for the weather, lighting, and composition to come together. “You never know what it will look like when you send the drone up,” he says. “Sometimes you think a location will be great, and you get up there, and — no.” On the other hand, some of his favorite abstract images were scouting accidents, an arrangement of land, ice, or water that created a pattern he never could have predicted from the ground. 

Hägg stumbled onto some of his most compelling natural abstracts during image-scouting expeditions.

He tells the story of one striking image taken at a natural hot spring in Torrevieja, Spain. A woman floats in a pool of deep red salt water. “When you look at it from the ground, it’s pink. But when you get up and look down on it, it’s this amazing deep color, completely different. You’d never know it.”

Hägg often flies lower than many drone photographers, emphasizing the direct overhead perspective, rather than the altitude, of his aerial work.

Once he’s captured the image, Hägg spends an equal or greater amount of time editing. “I really enjoy editing — I think it is where you can set yourself apart and express yourself. My image edits are how I tell my story, how I put myself into the image.”

Hägg never adds elements to his images and almost never takes out a rock or a footprint. “I think I’ve composited once or twice in my life,” he says. What he does do, endlessly, is adjust lighting, color, and balance. He says he spends 99% of his time in Adobe Lightroom CC, mostly in the basic adjustments panel. “I play with the tone curve for hours until I see which way I want to go with the image,” he explains. From there, he works on luminance and saturation, experimenting with which colors to bring out and which to de-emphasize. Occasionally, he’ll venture into the Effects panel or add a vignette.

When he’s happy with a look, Hägg often saves it as a preset—a feature he loves. His custom presets number almost a hundred, and he uses 30 or 40 fairly often. “I’ll try a preset multiple times on various images to see how it works in different conditions. If I like it, I’ll save it.” Sometimes he’ll create a preset just for a particular vignette, or a tiny adjustment for a certain type of sand or water. “It’s a preset of practically nothing, if you don’t know how to use it,” he laughs. “They just help me out, saving all that experimenting I’ve done for hours.”         

In this image, Hägg applied a rare black and white filter to the left side of the image, to emphasize his signature cool greens and blacks in the water.

Blue and green tones are Hägg' favorites to work with and are usually the colors he wants to pop in the image. During the editing process, he works a lot with Lightroom's Adjustment brush, figuring out how much clarity he wants or how much black. “I think I edit in a Nordic way,” he says. “The colors are mostly cool, and there’s an overall darkness there. But always with a little light in the dark, a little hope.”

February 23, 2017