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January 21, 2014

How one daring photographer makes his Windows Phone fly

Martin Hämmerli's custom-modified Henseleit helicopter, outfitted with a Nokia Lumia 1020

Most of us go to crazy lengths to protect our smartphones from the slightest scratch.

Then there’s Martin Hämmerli, who one day last fall drove several hours to a rocky Swiss ravine, strapped his Nokia Lumia 1020 to the body of a radio-controlled model helicopter, and sent the fragile-looking craft soaring 36 stories into the crisp November air.

It had all started with a dare.

Hämmerli, a 44-year-old corporate IT manager in Lindau, Switzerland, spotted a contest run by Nokia and National Geographic challenging amateur photographers to “put the Nokia Lumia 1020 to the test and discover things they never thought possible with a smartphone.”

The obvious solution? Make it fly.

Obvious to Hämmerli, at least, because he’s been obsessed with sticking cameras inside RC aircraft since he was a teenager—and knows better than anyone all the ways things can go wrong.

For his very first flight, he mounted a film camera onto an RC airplane and attempted to take an aerial portrait of his hometown. The experiment, he says, ended “dramatically.”

“I crashed into a roof top, smashing a couple of roof tiles.” His plane and camera were also totaled. “But the pictures were good.”

And so thirty years later, he’s still at it, and now even runs a small aerial photography business on the side.

For the Nokia-National Geographic contest, Hämmerli knew exactly where he wanted to shoot: The Landwasser Viaduct, a century-old train crossing that curves majestically 450-feet above the Landwasser River, between the Swiss towns of Schmitten and Filisur. A few hours by car from his house, it was the perfect spot to test both his Lumia 1020 and piloting skills.

Flying an RC helicopter is a skill that can take years to master. Add photography to the mix, and you also really need to be a master multitasker. On a typical shoot, for example, Hämmerli must keep a vigilant eye on things like the craft’s altitude, dwindling battery power, and unexpected wind gusts—all while hunting for interesting angles and steadying the copter enough to focus and shoot.

Martin Hämmerli flying his Canon EOS 5D Mark III.

This time, he’d also have to factor in a fast-moving train. The picturesque viaduct has a single train track, and a check of the railway timetable showed that only two trains emerged from the mountain tunnel each hour. In addition, the Lumia 1020 camera was set to the highest resolution, meaning there would be a short wait between shots. He might only get one try per train.

On top of all that, the temperature on the day of the shoot was a skin-numbing zero degrees Celsius—“more a problem for me than for the helicopter,” says Hämmerli. He’d need nimble fingers.

He did have technology to help. Hämmerli brought his Henseleit Three Dee Rigid, a pro-level RC model that he’s heavily customized to accommodate the demands of photography. It’s powerful enough to stay aloft nearly 15 minutes carrying a 6-pound Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the camera he uses on typical commercial shoots.

He’d also outfitted the Henseleit with a GoPro Hero 2 camera. This second camera delivers a real-time video link for a pilot’s eye view from the cockpit, making the helicopter easier to fly. Finally, the helicopter carried a GPS-based autopilot system, the DJI AceOne, capable of taking over and steadying the craft when Hämmerli needed to focus on taking pictures.

But even with all these electronic smarts, there were still concerns: Would the GPS receiver lock onto enough satellites in this rugged terrain to guarantee a safe flight? Would his jury-rigged smartphone camera set up work? Were there people anywhere in the vicinity he’d need to steer clear of? “Whenever I do this, it’s a mixture of adventure and uncertainty,” says Hämmerli.

In the end, it all worked spectacularly—even the little mechanical radio-controlled “finger” Hämmerli built just for the contest to trigger the Lumia 1020. The entire photo shoot took full day: six hours driving and six hours searching the viaduct for the perfect launch site and waiting for the trains.

The Landwasser Viaduct, a century-old train crossing that curves majestically 450-feet above the Landwasser River, between the Swiss towns of Schmitten and Filisur. This photo earned Martin Hämmerli a spot as a finalist in a recent National Geographic-Nokia photography contest.

His photos—which were touched up only with Nokia’s Creative Studio app—were named as finalists in the Nokia contest. Next time, he says, he hopes to win.

What’s up next for Hämmerli? “There are some concrete dams in the Swiss Alps that I’m planning to take pictures from. Plus I’m working on a project with Nokia which will focus on panoramic aerial photography. And I already worked on a project discovering the world above clouds.” With thousands of dollars—not to mention occasionally his phone—at risk on each flight, it’s not a hobby for everyone.

“Every crash hurts,” says Hämmerli. “But I’m willing to take that risk for a perfect shot.” 

You can see more of Martin Hämmerli’s aerial photographs on his website. Or check out all the finalists and winners from the recent Lumia 1020 photography contest.