While most photographers use a drone to create aerial images, sometimes, that isn’t enough. Sometimes, you want to soar like an eagle, going 50 mph over the sheer face of a mountaintop as you photograph. If that sounds like you, then let me share with you the story of Bernard Chen, paraglider and photographer extraordinaire.
Bernard Chen was born in Vietnam during the height of the war, the youngest of two brothers and a sister. When his father died in the war, it was difficult for his mother to care for the family alone. Chen’s uncle, a captain in the South Vietnamese army, asked her to send the children to America. So, at the age of five, in 1975, Bernard Chen and his siblings were aboard the baby airlift out of Saigon. They were brought to America and adopted by a new family in California. Unfortunately, this is not where the story gets a happy restart in the land of the free. Chen’s new family moved to a farm in Arkansas. Speaking openly to us all, Chen bravely shared that it was an abusive household at the farm. His adoptive mother was an alcoholic. He describes how he doesn’t think that his siblings ever forgave her. For himself, he found it in his heart to let it go.
Both of my adopted parents were in the war, so I think we can't judge others because their experiences might be so much worse than we would ever know. Both of them have since passed away, but having two kids of my own now, I could never find myself ever wanting to hurt my kids or any child for that matter.
Life in Arkansas was not evil all the time. My parents introduced us to the beautiful lakes and mountains, and while growing up on the farm, it taught me how to work hard and never give up. I believe all my love of the outdoors came from this natural state.
Chen left home at seventeen. While at college, he met his wife, and they were married in 1997. Since she had family in Northern Virginia, they decided to move to Virginia in 2000. With that fresh start, Chen also switched his degree to information technology. Not long after, he got a job working at the National Institutes of Health in 2001 in the Section of Cancer Genomics Laboratory.
I remember the day my boss asked me to make adjustments to an image in Photoshop. I was like, 'what is Photoshop?' So from that moment, I dove into Photoshop, learning as much as can. After working eight years with the application, I became very proficient with PS. In 2004, we hosted a couple (Patrick Hoermann and Sandra Becker) from Germany working on their post-doctoral thesis. Patrick Hoermann had a digital camera and liked to take pictures of my kids. There was this one picture that he took of my daughter that just amazed me. At that moment, I started to think about buying my first camera. Ironically, I went to Germany in 2011 and photographed the wedding of Patrick and Sandra.
In March of 2009, I bought my first camera, the Nikon D700. When I received it and held the camera, I was shocked! It was so huge, and my first reaction was to send it back. It was very overwhelming holding that piece of technology in my hands. So, I called B&H Photo trying to get an RMA number, and the kind gentleman said: 'why don't you keep it for 30 days and return it if you still felt the same?' Well, you can say that person started my path into photography because I never sent the camera back.
Once he had his first camera, Chen was completely hooked on photography. He describes, in the beginning, photographing everything, as many do, just figuring things out. He would seek out landscapes, portraits, and even got into weddings. At first, he just photographed the weddings on his own, but eventually, he got picked up by Clay Blackmore. Chen describes those weddings being the epitome of luxury — $250k-plus events mostly in downtown DC. Eventually, however, the weddings burned him out. He reached a point of feeling like he did many things well but not one thing very well. He had lost his passion or was maybe still searching for it all along.
So, while still working for the National Institutes of Health, Bernard Chen went back to his roots with his photography. His true calling was always nature. Landscape photography became his serious hobby. Eventually, he even started a Meetup group to teach workshops to other photographers. He has since moved the workshops to his website, although he says that with the pandemic, he has no trips for now.
The full circle of what brought Bernard Chen to be a landscape photographer, his rough childhood twice over and zigzag through the genres of photography, are what led him to be who he is today and are important to understanding his art. Rather than being defined by those adversities, they have shaped him and his outlook and insights on life and photography.
How has the camera changed me? In many ways, it was able to reveal the many layers of who I was. Photography has opened me up as a person and brought me out of that quiet, shy mode that came from an abusive family. I didn't know how to communicate, let alone deal with people's emotions. Sometimes, I find myself closing up when I don't know how to deal with issues. People would think I was upset, but the reality is I was reverting from a trauma that I subconsciously held inside. I believe I have a passion for nature because it's peaceful, soft, and I can be myself without anyone next to me. Over the years, photography helped me mature as a person and gave me opportunities I never thought I would have. I never thought I could stand in front of 100 people and share my work verbally. Presenting seminars was a life-changing event for me. I became confident in myself, which I never had when I was growing up. Before I held a camera, I could count on one hand of all the places I've been. Now, I feel very blessed to have witnessed many beautiful places on this planet, and along the way, I met so many good people and some who have become good friends.
So, now that you know and understand where Bernard Chen came from, let me share with you where he is now, his latest achievement. I have been friends on social media with him for so long that I cannot even remember adding him, but we have never met and only chatted photography maybe five years ago. So, this week, while teaching my photo workshops, I laid down at night to rest and check social media. I immediately came across photos and videos from Bernard Chen in my newsfeed that blew my mind. This man, this literal eagle, flew himself over the iconic Dolly Sods operating a paragliding contraption with one hand and his mirrorless camera with the other to fulfill his dream of seeing the place from the air. The resulting footage is beautiful and captivating. It is also unbelievably dangerous.
If you haven’t heard of it, Dolly Sods is a formal U.S. Wilderness Area in the Allegheny Mountains. Located in West Virginia, this is a high-altitude plateau, with parts reaching 4,700 ft in elevation. It is a harsh place of tranquil beauty, mainly huge flat boulders, and brush, with some bonsai-esque trees. For a very brief time each autumn, the plateau of the Sods comes alight with color. The usually stunted flora, in particular, the stubby blueberry bushes, have a Cinderella transformation to light the land aglow like wildlife. The reds and oranges are a draw for photographers in the know who are willing to brave the dangerous heights and back roads up there. It happens quickly, though, and the fleeting moment is what Bernard Chen calls heaven. He feels an emotional attachment and fondness for the Dolly Sods area. A quiet place, he visits it often and describes the way that the winds flow west to east due to its positioning on the Continental Divide. You can tell Dolly Sods has a piece of his heart.
As a photographer, we like to challenge ourselves to find and create new compositions. If that means getting low or high, that's what I tried. That creative challenge pushed me to buy my first drone in 2012. I was amazed when I saw my first aerial view from a drone. Since then, I have always wanted to have that experience from the air.
I love making videos! I like writing and adding narration and music to create a story. I got into videos because when I got home with my still images, I felt it didn't bring the motion or emotion of the moment to people's brains. I've had many people thank me for giving them a chance to see a beautiful landscape that they could never see with their own eyes. It inspires me to keep capturing moving images and bring them to life. Also, at the same time, I know my kids might not appreciate the videos now, but later in life, when I'm gone, they will always be able to see their father live life to the fullest.
One of the positives about photography is it brings all activities together. It's like the bridge that connects the active adrenaline junkies to people with cameras. My photography path took a turn when I met an expert climber at Seneca Rocks, Justin Simpson, and he was looking for someone to take pictures of his climbing. I have always dreamed of being on top of Seneca Rocks, so this was my lifetime chance. I have never climbed with ropes before in my life, and here I was carrying a pack full of camera gear and two tripods up the face of a cliff 250 ft tall. I would be lying to say I wasn't scared, but it was the incredible view from the top, and the feeling of accomplishment was indescribable. Two weekends later, I was ascending down a cave that was 300 ft deep. I swore it would be too dark to get any good images, but when I was halfway down, I was in tears, not because I was scared, but the beauty I saw looking up made me cry. A year later, I was climbing 300 ft redwood trees for a week with my camera. How could I be so blessed to witness such a beautiful landscape? My eyes were changing. My photography was changing. Along the way, a good friend encouraged me to fly paramotors. The dream of flying above Dolly Sods took a step closer to reality.
With the dream of flying over Dolly Sods, Bernard Chen took flight training at Almost Heaven Powered Paragliding, Ona, WV, in November 2020. “After training, with the help of my instructor, I purchased the PAP paramotor due to one reason. It can break down in 10 minutes and fit into the back seat of my truck. I didn't learn to fly to stay local; I want to see the world uniquely. My other large purchase is my wing, which is a Mac Para Colorado 21m. It's more of an advanced wing and allows me to travel ground speed between 20-50 mph.”
Over winter, spring, and summer, Chen trained, gaining both hours and experience. He wanted to be proficient as the Dolly Sods flight would be dangerous and technical. He described to me how launchings and landings were the most complex parts to master. It took him many hours to learn how to fly by reaction rather than by thinking. He had to build muscle memory. After about 20 hours of flight training, he finally felt comfortable to start using camera gear in the air. Or course, I asked him about his gear.
Sony for its weight and size. The Sony a7R IV is ideal for my flying, along with the Sony 24-105mm f/4 lens. That light combo easily connects to my Cotton Carrier in front of my chest. I found that most of my shots are at 24mm, so the next lens I would like to try would be the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8, giving me a little more speed.
My favorite view is actually from what I call 'flying camera.' The chase cam looks like a cone with a GoPro in front. The cam connects from a string to the wing, and it just flies behind as a follow camera. Most people see this video, and they assume it was a drone capture. I utilize three more GoPros around my motor, an Insta360 ONE X2 camera, and another GoPro underneath the wing to shoot down onto the landscape.
Having the right gear isn’t enough though. He did have to master muscle memory and flying first.
I am constantly moving: my left hand controls the throttle, my right is holding my camera, and I'm looking at my camera while flying level. The combination can be pretty daunting and challenging. After 10 months of flying, I have over 135 hours of flight time. But, one can never relax or become comfortable. This sport demands your full attention every time you fly, and the minute you relax, something will happen that wakes you up again.
The night of the planned flight for Dolly Sods Bernard Chen couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned, his mind going a mile a minute. Everything had to be perfect. He had no idea how his images would turn out and knew that he couldn’t review them while in flight. It was one chance. The weather worried him most of all; wind especially can be not only dangerous but fatal. The forecast looked good, though, and so, he made the drive up. In the predawn light, after 10 months of planning and training, Bernard Chen flew into Dolly Sods at 5,000 feet.
I was lucky, and it ended up being a perfect day for flying. I had fog, sun, mountains, blue skies, and no wind, and I was in high heaven.
I had my shutter speed at 1/200 per second, aperture at f/4, auto ISO, and I was hoping this was fast enough to be sharp. I was using both my viewfinder and the back screen for composition, and it just depended on if I could see my back screen. Any adjustment that I had to make, I did it with one hand. I was confident that my Sony offered enough dynamic range to pull out the shadows or bring down the highlights.
When I was flying over Dolly Sods, knowing that my dream finally was being realized in real-time, it was almost like a spiritual awakening. I'm having this surreal experience happen right in front of me, and all I could think about was how much Dolly Sods has given to me the past 11 years, and she continues to provide me with beautiful imagery. Words can't describe how I felt covering the vast distances of the red carpet of vegetation or when I was skimming on the top of the fog. It's an incredible feeling of accomplishment when the plans you worked so hard to achieve becomes a reality.
I hope that Bernard Chen’s dream achieved helps inspire you to pursue even a small dream of your own. Chen next plans to fly in Iceland. Once one goal is accomplished, keep climbing higher. With patience, determination, and hard work, a great many things are possible.
If you would like to see more of Bernard Chen’s work you can find him online on his website, Vimeo, Instagram, and Facebook.
Bernard Chen was the photographer at my wedding in Hua Hin, in my home country of Thailand. He did a phenomenal job at capturing one of the happiest days of my life! I've followed his work since he started making videos on Vimeo. His videos really get to you emotionally and you can feel the passion he has for his work. Let yourself be swept away by one of his breathtaking videos!
I had no idea that this project and article was all about Dolly Sods until I had read more than halfway through it. What a nice surprise! I traveled through that part of West Virginia dozens of times in my early adulthood. Would love to get back there someday, if circumstances permit. Thanks, Kate, for writing a piece on an area that means a lot to me!
Kate, great story. I have to admit that I like your text even better than the really great pictures. You have a good style. It's very pleasant to read: lively and informative. Keep it up. Many thanks!
(Only one criticism: the music of the video...)