Getting the Shot

Advice from AOPA Pilot's senior photographer

April 1, 2006

"Now, were you in another airplane when you shot this?" I think every photographer lucky enough to make a living photographing aircraft has heard this question. Silly as it may seem, those not accustomed to images of aircraft in flight often wonder how aviation photographers "do what we do." To help launch the AOPA Pilot 2006 General Aviation Photography Contest (see page 104), I've been asked to lay down my camera, pick up a pen, and explain how "we do what we do."

Film versus digital

Much has happened in the past five years in the photographic industry. We've seen the advent of higher-quality digital cameras at lower prices, resulting in a spiraling down of film sales. This evolution is still in process and will be for some time, so my advice is to bite the bullet, retire the film body, and buy a new DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera.

I switched from film five years ago and have never regretted it. The romance of silver halides quickly faded when I experienced the ability to review images immediately, switch "film speed" on the fly, and have it all on a compact flashcard. The not-so-fond memories of carrying bricks of film, trips to and from the lab, and airport X-ray machines leave me thankful for this new technology. This transition came with a learning curve typical of a new medium; these machines are computers as much as cameras, so take the time to relax with the owners manual.

Equipment

Senate confirmation hearings pale in comparison to what can transpire between photographers discussing the tools of their trade. So without getting into different types and brands of cameras, or the qualities of those cameras, let me say that just about any camera will work, providing you know how to use it.

What will be needed is a variety of focal lengths that allow you to shoot from wide angle to telephoto. Today's manufacturers offer many types of zoom lenses that can reduce that gaggle of glass down to two lenses. I shoot my aerials with a 24 to 70mm and 70 to 200mm zooms on a 35mm format. For those with any budget left over, you might consider an ultrawide-angle zoom for shooting that new interior or panel. Or if airshows are your thing, a 400 to 500mm telephoto will get you up close and personal with your favorite aerobatic act.

Don't put away the credit card just yet; there are a few more items to fill up that new camera bag. Count on purchasing a polarizing filter. This filter cuts through the reflections on objects such as water, or better yet, atmospheric haze. This filter can salvage a hazy day, knock down the reflections on that new paint scheme, and boost colors into the high-definition-television realm. Some cameras have a built-in flash, but you may find it lacking in power. If this is the case, consider a hand strobe. Include a tripod and cable release for your kit and you'll be ready to roll.

It's always fun spending someone else's money, and I imagine some reading this are adding up the cost and thinking, "New camera system or a new panel-mount GPS?" (In some cases a fair comparison.) If the cost of a DSLR system is overwhelming, consider the DSLR's little brothers, the point and shoots. The higher-resolution models of these pocket wonders are perfect choices for enthusiasts interested in quality and convenience. Many of these cameras have quality zoom lenses with additional attachments at a fraction of the cost of what I've covered above.

Let's assume you've decided to take the plunge and wander down to your local camera store or browse the Internet. It won't take long before you realize just how many options are available to you, but don't let this stunt your initial enthusiasm. Dozens of Web sites await you with product reviews, "how to" articles, and forums where members share experiences. One of my favorites for comparison-shopping and helpful forums is online ( www.dpreview.com). It's a robust site with all the references you might need. For you serious amateurs, go to www.robgalbraith.com to check out the buzz the professionals have to offer.

Quality of light

All of the gear mentioned above will not produce those Kodak moments if you choose to shoot under poor conditions. As the sun makes its daily arc through the sky, the quality of its light changes. Recognizing these qualities and the emotions they evoke can guide your decisions about when to grab your photo bag and head out the door.

You may have noticed that most of the in-flight photographs published in AOPA Pilot are shot either in the morning or evening. At these times the light is softer and lower in contrast, and its low angle accentuates the shape of the aircraft and landscape. So get up early or hang out a little longer at the airport for those special shots — it's worth the wait.

This is not to discount harsh high-noon light, especially if you want rich saturated colors. Richly colored scenes love the spectral quality of the midday sun. To record the vibrant color of a coral reef and beach, it might be a good idea to take a flight during this time of day to shoot down on the scene. I earlier mentioned a polarizing filter; occasions such as this are perfect for its use.

Inclement weather doesn't mean you shouldn't break out a camera. Overcast skies are great for shooting aircraft panels and interiors; the soft light compliments these situations with open shadows minus the harsh contrast of direct sunshine. If you have a polished aluminum exterior, hop outside the aircraft and check out the reflections on the wing. Bare metal is much like a mirror, and cloudy days bring out the best in that recent buffing.

If our solar buddy is napping, not a problem; grab your tripod and go. Nighttime or time-lapse photography can spice up a ho-hum tarmac with glowing horizons and all the bling-bling Mr. Edison has to offer. When was the last time you saw a dynamic shot of Las Vegas in the daytime?

I cannot stress enough the importance of understanding this point. The next time you notice anything that stops you in your tracks, enjoy it for sure, but ask yourself why. What is happening with the light, where is the source, why is it beautiful? (Or ugly, for that matter.) Understanding this opens up a whole new way of looking at the world, and even better, recording it.

Ground shots and interiors

Positioning of both the camera and the subject is obviously an important consideration, but try to find a pleasant view of your subject with an uncluttered background. Rarely do I shoot from a normal standing position. I'm either on my belly for a low angle or up on a ladder or fuel truck. Both these angles can hide an unsightly background. I should mention that you should wear work clothes — photography can be rough on your attire.

For exteriors during daylight hours, I turn the aircraft so the sun sits from the 10 to 2 o'clock position off its nose. If I'm shooting the left side the sun goes to 10 to 12 o'clock and for photographing the right, the sun sits from 12 to 2 o'clock. (There is something unnatural about shadows cast forward on an aircraft.) If I'm shooting after sunset I position the aircraft so I can see the reflection of the sunset on the side of the fuselage.

If you're shooting the interior or panel but it isn't an overcast day, park the aircraft in the open shade for the soft light. My technique for panels with glass screens is to nose the aircraft into a hangar until the shadow from the hangar falls behind the cabin area. Generally the nose will be resting just over the hangar door tracks. This gives me the open shade and allows for satellite reception when we turn on the avionics. But be aware that open shade light is very blue, since blue sky is what's illuminating the scene. It is easily correctable on the computer or at the lab. Another idea with glass cockpits is to set up the aircraft with a nice view outside and shoot right after sunset. Use a tripod to stabilize the camera and a cable release to prevent motion, and at some point the outside exposure will match the inside (or just pop in a little fill flash).

Air to airs

Aerial photo missions are what we live for — it's an exhilarating experience — but make no mistake, it's all business. Air-to-air photography requires two or more aircraft to fly in close proximity with one another, something most pilots spend their careers avoiding. This formation flying is usually between dissimilar aircraft, aircraft with different operating envelopes and flight characteristics. So before I pick up a camera or a pilot turns over an engine, the most critical part of the mission begins with a briefing. This brings together the photographer and pilots to plan the flight. These aren't just any pilots; they are experienced formation pilots. Experienced professionals. In most cases formally trained professionals. Did I mention professionals? Having put myself in some uncomfortable situations, I cannot stress this point enough — work with pros. Do not even consider doing otherwise.

There are a variety of subjects to cover in the briefing. I usually start by letting my "platform pilot" (the one who is flying me) and the subject pilot talk about a range of considerations, including climbout speeds, maneuvering speeds, and frequencies to be used. Once the pilots are finished we then discuss where we're going, signals and communication protocol, any special maneuvers that might be required, possible obstacles, airspace considerations, and so on.

Once the aircraft are formed up in flight, the photographer then takes over the direction of the shoot, but the pilots always have the last say on all issues. Once over our destination I will work the subject aircraft through a variety of positions. We'll do three-sixties right and left, fly level into the sun, have the subject high, then low, gear down, lights on, more three-sixties right and left, more level flight into the sun...you get the point. The adage for trailing pilots is: "If your neck doesn't hurt and the sun's not in your eyes, you're out of position." There is much truth to this; this kind of formation flying is very much a workout for the pilots.

I should mention prop arc and the camera's shutter-speeds, an important point with photographing piston aircraft. You want to avoid shutter-speeds faster than 1/250th of a second to avoid "freezing" the prop. For the full prop arc — that graceful disc floating in front of the aircraft — use 1/60th for a two-blade prop and 1/125th for a three blade. It doesn't hurt to ask the subject pilot to keep those rpm up. These numbers change for turboprops and radial engines. Depending on how many blades, I usually shoot these aircraft no higher than 1/125th. Jets are a breeze; set the shutter up to 1/500th and blaze away.

Nothing is more dismaying than enlarging an image to discover it's little more than mush because of camera movement during the exposure. Technology has brought forth a new generation of "image stabilized" lenses that can reduce camera vibrations significantly. Another device is KenLabs' gyrostabilizer, a gyroscope that attaches to the camera for further stabilization.

I want to wrap up with a remark I once made to a pilot, who happened also to be the client. He was explaining in no uncertain terms the importance of getting the particular shot he had in mind. I quipped,"I'm only as good as my pilots." This turned out not to be a career-advancing response, but it's very true. Every time you see an aerial shot, remember these pilots are waking at all hours of the morning or staying up late, sometimes doing a couple of missions a day, flying with their necks pretzeled so as to keep me in sight, the sun burning out their corneas, their hands cramped from flailing the throttle, and all this time having to listen to me say, "Up a little, down a little, back...no, up. OK, that's good" for several hours. I've always appreciated the compliments offered me, but I'm also always very quick to remind these folks that it really is as much the pilots' skills as mine. So the next time you run across an AOPA Pilot editor in person and want to offer compliments, don't forget these guys and gals not only write, they fly too.


Mike Fizer is the senior photographer for AOPA Pilot. He lives in Wichita.


Mike Fizer's Toolkit

Cameras:
Canon EOS 1Ds MII
Canon EOS 1Ds
Canon EOS 1D

Lenses:
Canon 14mm L f/2.8
Canon 17-40mm L f/4 zoom
Canon 24-70mm L f/2.8 zoom
Canon 70-200mm L IS f/2.8 (image stabilized)
Canon 24mm TSE f/2.8 (tilt shift lens)
Canon 90mm TSE f/2.8 (tilt shift lens)
Canon 180mm Macro f/3.5

Miscellaneous:
Canon 550 & 580 Speedlites (handstrobes)
Gitzo 1300 series tripod with Arca Swiss ballhead
Kenlab KS6 gyro stabilizer
B+W and Heliopan polarizing filters
Whibal gray balance card

Computers:
Dual Xeon PC and Apple G5
Photoshop CS2
Capture One raw converter


Do You Have the Right Stuff?

Announcing the AOPA Pilot 2006 General Aviation Photography Contest

Think you've got what it takes to be a general aviation photographer? Well, now's your chance to find out by entering the AOPA Pilot 2006 General Aviation Photography Contest. Enter your digital photographs of general aviation subjects taken since January 1, 2003, by going online and following the simple rules.

There are five categories:

  • General aviation aircraft: any nonairline, nonmilitary aircraft, in flight, or on the ground. Warbirds (retired, non-government-owned military aircraft) are acceptable.
  • Airports: general-aviation-oriented people, events, and situations at airports.
  • Pilots: portraits of general aviation pilots in aviation settings on the ground or in flight.
  • Aerials: images such as clouds photographed from the air or air-to-ground images.
  • Altered images: photographs manipulated for artistic purposes by applying digital and/or traditional special effects.

From May through September, AOPA ePilot subscribers will be invited to visit AOPA Online to select a picture of the month from among the entries chosen by AOPA Pilot staff. The monthly winner will be announced in ePilot, and published on AOPA Online and in AOPA Pilot. Photographs will be judged on their originality, composition, and general appeal. Participants can submit only one photograph in each category per month, but may feel free to submit photos every month.

This fall, AOPA members will be invited online to choose first, second, and third place winners in each category. AOPA Pilot staff will select a grand-prize winner from among the finalists.

Category winners and the grand-prize winner will be announced at AOPA Expo in Palm Springs, California, this November. Winners will receive cash awards and the winning images will be published in the December issue of AOPA Pilot. To be eligible for the final selection, images must be received by AOPA by 5 p.m. Eastern Daylight Savings Time, September 1, 2006. Sorry, no exceptions and the decisions of the AOPA Pilot judges will be final.

Complete details and official contest rules are available on the AOPA Web site. Good luck and get those digital cameras clicking!