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Photography at Cruising Altitude: Santiago Borja Captures Nature Like You’ve Never Seen Before

Santiago Borja spends nearly 1,000 hours every year on a Boeing 767 as an airline pilot. He is also an award-winning photographer recognized by National Geographic, SONY World Photography Awards, Tokyo International Photo Awards, and more. Santiago studied software engineering before deciding he wanted to become a pilot. Now, he flies airplanes and builds apps in his free time between flights. His photography evolved as a passion when he saw incredible sights from the cockpit of the planes he flew all over the world.

He’s captured lightning mid-strike, cumulonimbus clouds up close, and unbelievable scenes that demonstrate the power of nature from the unique viewpoint of an aeronaut.

We caught up with Santiago for a Q&A, and here’s what he had to say.

Outdoors.com: Tell me about your outlook on life.

Santiago Borja: I’m a father now, and that has changed my perspective a lot. What I love the most about what I do is that it allows me plenty of time with my family and to be there for my kids, while still doing what I love for a living. I believe that balance is the most important thing in life. Economic, personal life, professional life, etc. The more balance you get, the happier you are.

Outdoors.com: Why do you love being a pilot?

Santiago Borja: I’ve been in love with aviation since I was a kid, which is probably what most pilots would tell you. But apart from that, I love that it has given me a completely different perspective of life and the world. I used to be a person whose “world” would be the city and probably the country around him. Now, being able to be at the other side of the planet in just a few hours, has made me see our entire planet, both nature and civilization in a completely different way.

Outdoors.com: What are three things about you that would surprise us?

Santiago Borja: Probably that I have never taken any photography lessons in my life. I love sports, but I’m not a fan of any one team and never keep track of scores or games, not even when my country is winning the soccer finals. And the third one would be that I don’t watch TV at all, not even the news.

Outdoors.com: What is your most memorable flying experience, and why?

Santiago Borja: I have had many and in various different ways. But a recent one was a flight on an ultralight airplane—my first one. With a landscape photographer here in Ecuador, we flew around the mountains near Quito, big mountains like Cotopaxi with an elevation of more than 19,000 feet. Watching those tiny mountain climbers make their way up reminded me of the days when I did mountain climbing, many years ago, on that same mountain. It’s one of the most inspiring things one can do in life.

Outdoors.com: How do you have time to be a software engineer, pilot, and photographer?

Santiago Borja: I think it’s all luck how sometimes things align in life and they just happen. I spend a lot of time abroad in cities I’ve flown to many times before, so instead of just roaming around places I already know, I can spend a few hours processing my photographs or doing some software development, which is something that you can do remotely and on a per-hour basis or maybe work on personal projects. I have a few apps of my own in the app store.

Outdoors.com: What is your greatest fear?

Santiago Borja: Probably that nature has no obligation to be fair or make sense to us anytime. Being a pilot, you can easily lose your license if any health condition appears at any time. I think that the pandemic taught us to not take our health for granted.

Outdoors.com: What things do you think contributed to your success?

Santiago Borja: My wife in the first place. Back in the day, when I had to make the terrifying decision to become a pilot and therefore lose many, probably once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, she was there to support me chasing my dreams and taking the risk.

Outdoors.com: Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Santiago Borja: I follow a few people doing very interesting things online. One of them is Mark Rober who has a very interesting career path and a great focus on engineering applied to kids learning, so he’d be on the list for sure.

Outdoors.com: Who inspires you and why?

Santiago Borja: My father has taught me very important lessons in life. My wife keeps surprising me every day with her kindness, hard work, and love for the entire family. They inspire me every day to become a better person.

Outdoors.com: What is your craziest story?

Santiago Borja: Something crazy storm-related—I remember from a few years back on a flight to Europe, when a family got off the airplane at the last minute because their 15-year-old daughter had a bad feeling about the flight. We talked to her and tried to convince her that flying is safe, etc., but they got off the airplane anyway, which is something I’ve not seen before. Anyway, we took off, and 10 minutes into the flight we got struck by lightning, we had to dump fuel and return to the airport.

Outdoors.com: What advice would you give someone trying to improve their photography?

Santiago Borja: Photographic “rules” are really “guidelines.” Learn the technical side of photography well, and then just practice and practice a lot, don’t let the “rules” constrain you; learn your own rules and settings. Nobody told me that a six-second handheld photo from a moving airplane was going to be an award-winning one.

Outdoors.com: What is the most important lesson life has taught you? 

Santiago Borja: I would have to say it’s balance. Modern life pushes you to make a lot of money or chase a lot of success. But I believe that the happiest man is one who doesn’t make the news on any particular matter, but has a great balance professionally, economically, with family, friends, and personal time, etc.

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