In the air or on the ground

Being an aviation photographer can take you anywhere

July 24, 2014

Paul Bowen shoots from various airplanes while flying in tight formation to achieve his desired shots. But his favorite is the B-25 bomber where he sits in the open tail-gunner’s position, strapped in thousands of feet up. His headset and microphone connect him to the B-25’s pilot, and the pilot relays directions to the crew of the airplane Bowen is photographing. As the target plane gets closer, Paul directs them with signals.

Imagine your “office” being in the open tail-gunner’s position of a B-25 Mitchell bomber, and you’re strapped in tight.


Paul Bowen, of Wichita, Kan., doesn’t have to imagine.


Bowen, a commercial photographer who specializes in aviation photography, has taken air-to-air shots in just about every plane imaginable, including his favorite, the B-25.


Yet he says he probably only spends about five days each month behind a camera, primarily shooting business aircraft for advertising or marketing purposes. The rest of the time is spent in either pre-production or post-production work.


Photographer Paul Bowen, based in Wichita, Kan., has been shooting airplanes since 1972 and is credited with more than 1,000 magazine covers and countless advertising campaigns. Bowen is best known for his vortices aerials, which capture the spinning currents of air produced at the tip of a moving airplane wing, revealed in clouds or fog. For examples of his work, go to the “Cool Pictures” section of this newsletter.

“I may be on the computer working on images already shot, trying to drum up new business, or doing the filing and bookkeeping necessary to run a business,” Bowen says.


No two days are the same, and, not surprisingly, his favorite part of the job is actually taking photos. “I’m a problem solver,” he explains. “There is a beginning and end to each assignment, and the client or customer comes up with a problem or a need, and I determine how to achieve the highest quality photo in the timeframe and budget given.” 

One of his least favorite parts of the job is the hours. “Because the light is best in the morning and evening, I do shoots prior to sunrise and during the first hour of light, or prior to sunset and just after. I’ve seen more sunrises than anyone should see.”


Bowen says while you don’t need a college degree to become a commercial photographer, he recommends you get one since the degree will make you well rounded. But other things are a must — including taking photo and Photoshop classes, viewing countless online tutorials, and practicing and analyzing photography.


“Today’s photographers are 50 percent photographers and 50 percent Photoshop technicians,” he says. “If you know what you can do with pictures after they are shot it will help you in shooting the picture originally.”


While Bowen isn’t a pilot, he did take lessons years ago. He says that helps him understand what is proper to ask the pilot to do during air-to-air photo shoots. “We always have a 30-minute briefing before we start,” he says, noting they start with the artistry of the shoot, but always stress safety.  While it may look like the pilot is posing for the camera, he or she is actually looking at the chase plane, making sure that a safe distance is always maintained, Bowen says.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of photographers is projected to grow 4 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. Salaried jobs may be more difficult to find as more companies contract with freelancers rather than hire their own photographers, the BLS states.


Bowen’s tips for photographing airplanes

Shooting airplanes on the ground at air shows, airports or elsewhere:

  • If the propeller is moving, set a slower shutter speed of about 1/60 so you get full arc and don’t “freeze” the propeller.
  • Get down on the ground on your belly and look up at airplane. That gives an airplane a more dynamic appearance and it minimizes clutter in the background.
  • Shoot at lower light — sunrise or sunset — whenever possible.
  • Instead of shooting the entire plane, take photos of some of the more abstract details of the plane.

If taking photos of planes flying by at an air show or elsewhere:

  • Pan, or follow the airplane with your camera.
  •  Set your shutter speed between 1/250 and 1/500; that will still allow you to get a little bit of a prop blend.