July 25, 2013
Bobbi Zapka isn’t a pilot and isn’t in the military. But she often spends her days working in the back seat of a F-16 or T-38 or in the back end of a C-17, often with the ramp and door open.
Zapka is chief of the aerial photography department at Edwards Air Force Base. She says every day on the job is different.
“We mainly use high-speed digital video, shooting 200 frames a second or more, of whatever test event is taking place so the engineers can analyze it and compare it with their data,” she says.
That means they must shoot while dealing with G-forces. “If you’re pulling three G’s, your arms weigh three times their normal weight and your camera weighs three times its normal weight,” Zapka says. “It makes it very challenging to maintain the framing required when that framing is a small spot on another aircraft.”
But it is also a very fun job. “You see some really cool stuff,” Zapka says. “And more importantly, you’re part of a bigger team. You’re working for the Air Force in helping them to perfect weapons and aircraft for the troops on the ground and overseas.”
On the down side, because you work in a fast-paced and demanding environment, you sometimes work even when you’re supposed to be off. It can also be a dangerous environment, she says. “You will know people that you will lose.”
Students interested in this occupation should have an avid interest in shooting photos and video, and pursue a four-year college degree. When hiring, Zapka says she looks for people who are willing to listen and learn from those with more experience. “You will be challenged,” she says. “You need to think outside the box because you might have it all planned out, go fly, and then something changes — it could be your lighting, or your camera may have a problem and you will have to perform minor maintenance, or ad-lib. You need to be able to adapt and still get the shot.”
Zapka says she also looks to hire people who know their cameras, have a solid understanding of videography/photography, and who can come back with a product that is sharp, in focus, and properly exposed and framed. Because of variables involved, flight training will most likely be on-the-job training.
While the Air Force only has a limited number of aerial photography and video positions worldwide, she says there are also opportunities to shoot for other companies and organizations, including commercial, military, media, advertising, motion pictures, police and others.
“If you want a job in this field, you will need to work for it,” Zapka says. “But it can happen; I’m proof of that.”
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