Aviation photographers don’t approach a shoot hoping to make art. With the constant crush of deadlines looming, photographers work to tell a story, simply illustrate an aircraft, or convey a feeling. That certain images endure, and that we get to know certain photographers as artists, is only because of their superior abilities. In this issue we introduce you to some of the best aviation photographers working today, each with his or her own look and philosophy. We’ll share some of the most iconic aviation photos ever taken, ride along on the quest for the perfect video, and learn from one professional photographer who is going drone. —Ian J. Twombly
Position: Senior photographer, AOPA
Years active: 42
Gear: Canon 1DX and Canon lenses
Mike Fizer’s story begins in traction. It was there, after a fateful meeting with an airborne dirt bike, that he became passionate about the same activity that had ironically put him there in the first place.
Fizer was a kid with a new camera photographing his buddy doing jumps at a local riding park. After getting pummeled by the bike, he spent weeks in a hospital bed poring over books about light, composition, and the elements necessary to become a great photographer. Later, after a successful internship with Paul Bowen, he struck out on his own. Three days later he got a call from FlightSafety to do corporate photography, and soon after Flying magazine Editor Richard Collins came to town soliciting his work. When Collins came to AOPA in 1988 he brought Fizer with him, and the rest is history.
When it comes to aviation photographers, few are as versatile as Fizer. He easily switches between shooting people, aircraft, and landscapes. One of his best photos for AOPA combines all three (see “At Home on the Range,” p. 79). “The picture often presents itself,” Fizer says. “Sometimes it’s predetermined, but so much of what happens is pure luck.”
Video is Fizer’s current passion. He was shooting the restoration of the first Piper Super Cub and the builders started talking about family and tradition. “It taught me I needed to brush up on video,” he says. “Video is going through what photography did 10 or 15 years ago. It’s exciting to be part of something that’s changing so quickly.”
Position: Photographer, AOPA
Years active: 10
Gear: Canon 1DX, Canon lenses
It may take a village to pull off an air-to-air photo shoot, but it’s the photographer’s reputation that’s ultimately on the line. He or she is the one who has to get the shot. Chris Rose thrives on that challenge. “It’s your decision when to push the shutter,” he says. “Your singular moment to capture it.”
For a recent cover feature, Embraer brought a Legacy 500 and a team of pilots from Brazil to Florida to shoot for one hour. No pressure. “In that way, shooting airplanes probably isn’t much different from shooting weddings,” Rose says. “There’s a ton of coordination, and then everyone comes together on one day and you get one chance to do it right.”
Rose has been shooting for AOPA for a decade, and he credits being a digital native for his quick transition from graphic designer to world-class aviation photographer. “I was able to grow faster because of the instant feedback that comes with digital photography,” he says. Whereas before you’d have to brief a flight, shoot it, and then wait for the film to be processed before learning lessons and applying them to the next mission, digital photography enables the shooter to make instant changes.
In the future, that instant feedback will translate to drones, video, and a host of other technologies that Rose says will reshape the way we think about presenting the visual nature of aviation.
Position: Technical editor, AOPA
Years active: 32
Gear: Nikon D300S, Nikon lenses
Even though Mike Collins is an accomplished writer and editor, his first love is photography. Collins is a trained photojournalist, and he spent a number of years working as a professional photographer and newspaper editor prior to working in aviation media.
Early start… I was around 6 when I got my first camera. I picked it up, took a few pictures, and thought, that was cool! In sixth grade a kid in our class got all the stuff you need for a darkroom. We didn’t have all the instructions, but we figured out how to do it anyway.
Style… I try to apply the principles of photojournalism to aviation photography—to tell a story through photos.
Photojournalist’s paradox… Some of my favorite photos never made it in to the magazine. I liked them aesthetically, but maybe it wasn’t the best way to tell the story.
Tough assignment… In 2013 I flew around the world in a Mitsubishi MU–2. I struggled beforehand, thinking about how to make a month of flying not look like the same three shots—out the front windshield, of the nacelle, and looking down from the right seat. I think my background in photojournalism helped me identify opportunities that arose during the trip that made it look as dynamic and interesting as it really was.
Important gear… It’s not the equipment that’s important. It’s your eye. How you turn what you see into an image is what’s important.
Position: Associate editor of AOPA eMedia
Years active: 36
Gear: Nikon D4S, Nikon lenses
David Tulis has photographed four presidents, countless Master’s tournaments, NCAA Final Fours, NASCAR races, Super Bowls, and World Series games. His dedication to getting the right shot in challenging conditions has led to four nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Today he’s combining his passion for media with aviation as an associate editor of eMedia for AOPA.
In the beginning… I went to the University of Georgia and was on the staff at the daily paper. By 21 I was freelancing for United Press International and got the front page of the Atlanta paper.
Challenging conditions… When I was working in the Southeast bureau of UPI I covered a hurricane in Louisiana. The power was out everywhere. We developed the photos in a lake and sent them back through a police station.
A flying start… My dad was a traveling textile salesman who owned an Ercoupe and would stop in small towns with a fold-up motorbike to get to his calls. My mom was an English teacher in Georgia and she saw a profile of him in a magazine. As an assignment she asked her students to send him a letter asking him to visit, and he did the next week. They met and fell in love, and he used to take me flying all the time.
Cross-discipline approach… Aviation and photography are a marriage made in heaven. I get to tell stories and hopefully help the pilot population grow.
Modern journalist… One of my toughest assignments I had to write, photograph, and do a video in a very short time. I like the challenge of the work. I’m driven to tell a story.
Position: Freelance photographer
Years active: 44
Gear: Canon 5DS R and 1DX, Canon lenses
Perhaps no other aviation photographer working today is more famous than Paul Bowen. His shots of vortices in the fog of the Pacific Ocean captivated a generation of pilots and shooters (see “Swirling Vortices,” p. 78). Although vortices made him famous, warbirds remain his passion.
Independent man… I grew up in Southern California surfing. One day someone brought a camera to the beach and I tried it. My zoology degree took me to Wichita and I got a job at $1.75 an hour working for the only commercial photographer in town. Later I approached Beech and asked them to let me take ground shots. They liked them so we went up for an air-to-air, and I promptly got sick. I’ve worked on my own ever since.
Keeping it fresh… It’s always different. I could be shooting a similar airplane but the pilots, lighting, background are all new and exciting every time I go up.
Pilots are critical… It’s the pilots who are the heroes of any shoot. I direct them, but it’s the pilots that have to get in position.
Philosophy… My goal is to evoke an emotion. I want people to stop because of a visual. I’m trying to draw the viewer in with the image first and the type of aircraft later.
On warbirds… I have a passion for World War II aircraft because of the personalities of those airplanes and what they mean to us. We’re finally understanding that we owe our freedom to them.
Position: Former EAA senior photographer, currently freelance
Years active: 37
Gear: Canon 1DX or 5D Mark III, usually Canon lenses but has been experimenting with Sigma for airshows.
Best known as the Experimental Aircraft Association’s senior photographer for 28 years, today Jim Koepnick is on his own, shooting the people, places, and aircraft he loves.
Path to EAA… I was asked to help the local newspaper correspondent where I grew up. That got me in the Oshkosh paper, and living in Oshkosh led me to EAA. There I learned lighting, camera formats, and really improved my skills.
Ever-changing landscape… I think there’s diversity in aviation. A lot of people think of air-to-air or airshows, but it’s such a full spectrum. It’s people and it’s how to make a plane look good on the ground, how to do it in conditions you can’t control.
The people… Who could have imagined that I’d be sitting there talking to and working with my idols? I have letters from Neil Armstrong and Frank Borman. I was exposed to so many interesting people. When you’re there you don’t realize the gift and treasure it is to meet those people. Only in retrospect do you.
Giving back… Teaching and mentoring are big to me now. I’m going to Sun ’n Fun to mentor and experiment with lenses. Sure, it’s nice to see my name in a magazine, but it’s rewarding to pass it on.
New perspective… This shot (a WACO AGC-8 over fog in central Florida) was in 2012, my first year of freelance. I’m used to shooting tight pictures. He was lower down by the ground fog and it gave me a chance to look at things differently. It’s a wider point of view, beyond just the piece of metal, into maybe what aviation feels like.
Position: Senior editor/photographer, Plane & Pilot
Years active: 12
Gear: Canon 1DX, Canon lenses
Relative newcomer Jessica Ambats is a triple threat: pilot, photographer, and editor. She thrives on the challenge of executing unusual photo missions, and has been known to put together incredible shoots with airplanes that have no business sharing the sky.
Informal beginning… I had a convoluted path. I always had an interest in photography but never took any formal training. Then I attended a conference of the International Society for Aviation Photography and it clicked for me. My first hands-on work was for Pilot Getaways magazine.
Being a pilot… It helps me to be more engaged. I know their limitations. Early I did some formation training and that changed the game for me. I now thoroughly understand all aspects of a photo flight.
Power of social media… You get instant feedback and your stuff is seen all around the world. Lots of nonpilots see it, and they can’t even fathom how it’s done.
Philosophy… I put a lot of research in to planning the location. The background is as important to me as the airplane.
Challenges… I love shooting dissimilar aircraft because it’s fun and more challenging. Having different sizes and speeds keeps me on my feet.
Position: Freelance photographer and videographer
Years active: 11
Gear: Canon 5D Mark III, Sony FS700 for video
Safety first… My overall mantra is safety. My harness is a must-have.
With a previous career as a computer developer and success as a rock climber and adventure photographer, Mike Shore took the long way to aviation photography. Now he combines his love of extreme sports with breathtaking photos and video.
Follow a passion… I was a Java coder and I couldn’t take it anymore. I quit and became a climbing photographer. There were some really cool jobs in the beginning. I was on El Capitan and a storm came in. There was a chopper plucking climbers off the wall and this amazing light. National Geographic published it. My mom keeps asking when I’ll be back in that magazine.
Love of power… I was always interested in weird things like torque and engines. I love to see smoke and people going upside down.
Challenge yourself… A big thing for me is shooting something that we haven’t seen before. I worked forever to get this shot (above). It’s taken from a Cub. We worked with the tower. Told them we would be orbiting above the aerobatic box. I knew from being a pilot and flying acro when the airplane would dump energy and I anticipated it.
Gear… My memory cards are critical. Don’t ask me why I say that.
The future… Gimbals are getting smaller and smaller. We can now get stabilized shots at a high quality for less. I also can’t wait to take drones into the airport environment and the acro box.