May Blue Skies Fill Your Horizon
The promise of photography the first time we pick up a camera body is overwhelming, nearly life changing! We’ve all been exposed to photographs, but to have that power within our own reach nearly takes our breath away that first moment we embrace that magical black box. Then we find our first photographic love in the viewfinder and all those feelings come rushing back to push our photography even further. For over 25 years, this was the feeling I got every time a critter filled my viewfinder! That emotional reward has kept me going out over and over again no matter the photographic reward. Then in 2008 my photographic world was blown apart and reassembled in ways I never knew were possible!
It was June of that year that my childhood of stories and model building were reunited in the viewfinder. I was incredibly fortunate to grow up spending the summer hiking the Sierra backcountry with my father, a WWII & Korean War vet. At night around the campfire when not staring at the heavens getting my nightly navigation lessons, my dad would share his stories with me being in a B-29. Those nights under the stars planted the seeds for much of my life to come, ones I wasn’t even aware were there.
What makes us the photographers we are comes from all our experiences we’ve had up to that moment we go click. I’m not talking about photographic experiences, but all of our life experiences! On that June morning in 2008, my 25 years of panning with birds to capture flight shots, along with my childhood stories around the campfire, came together in the viewfinder when that first aircraft at Reno Pylon Race School exploded my world! Just hundreds of feet away, the thunder of the engine vibrated the earth, getting louder and louder as it came closer… the explosion of air rushing by, and the thrill of experiencing 400mph up close and personal, and getting the shot. Wow! As I warn everyone I take out to photograph aircraft for the first time, “Don’t blame me if you get hooked,” because from that moment on, I sure was!
Where The Pixel Leads Us
As we all painfully know, success with one photograph or one photographic shoot means you’re hooked, but then the real work begins. I was again incredibly fortunate in my career to hook up with folks very generous with their knowledge. Richard, a gifted aviation photographer befriended me, providing some key insight he’d learned over his years. Bob, an amazing pilot and gentleman took me under his wing to mentor me as we made the real decision to add aviation to our wildlife image library. What many call “reinventing,” we simply call natural growth as storytelling is in my genes. So the challenge beckoned!
I’m sure you’ve been there, from that new camera experience, new photographic endeavor and finally the challenge. No matter the genre of photography you find continually in your viewfinder, how do you move the pixel forward? Fun, yep, fun, that’s what is key in making it all work as you go through the ups and downs it is to be a photographer! At least that’s what I do with a huge dose of passion. In this case I set my goals real high, and that’s to move from photographing aircraft from the ground to up into the skies. Like everything in photography though, getting there requires small steps.
Typically photographers start off with little if no foundation in the fundamentals of photography. Again I was fortunate in 2008 in having enjoyed some success as a wildlife and landscape photographer. For example, panning a 500mm lens hand-held with a speeding aircraft in the viewfinder was second nature after 25 years of chasing birds. And watching that background to make the most of it is landscape photography to me. And what all of these genres of photography have in common is the same as the photography you enjoy, light! In following that light I quickly went from a ground-based photographer to sky-based and over the past nine years, and it’s been a thrilling ride. It’s one you can do too!
What Is So Cool About Aviation Photography Any Who?
That’s a darn good question, thanks for asking! When I’m asked this, the first thing I tell folks is it requires no special gear to start photographing aircraft. Seriously, any camera body and lens that has 200mm in it and you’re golden! With this in hand, the next thing I tell folks is access is open to everyone. All spring, summer and fall there are hundreds of airshows and fly-ins around the nation, permitting everyone with the same access to some amazing aircraft. With this equal playing field is the next cool thing about aviation photography, standing out from the rest!
This is where your skill and passion as a photographer comes into play. At most airshows, for example, the aircraft fly when we tend to think it’s the worst possible time of day for light, noon. If you start to create images of static or flying aircraft in this kind of light that stands out, you will instantly stand apart from the photographer standing next to you shooting the same thing. How?
What are you doing for exposure? Are you under ½ a stop to play up shadows and punch up colors? Are you watching your background to incorporate the small cloud? Are your basic hand-holding and panning skills top shelf so the photograph is tack sharp? Have you spent time with the static aircraft to understand the aircraft’s best angle for the light so you can incorporate that knowledge when it’s flying? How are your post production skills? Are you fixing or finishing your photographs? And most importantly, are you incorporating a passion for photography and subject that comes out in your photograph?
This is just partly what’s so cool about aviation photography! Let’s be honest here, as we’re all photographers, first, we can’t just own one body and one lens, especially when the bug has bitten us. Then there is the speed and sex appeal of our subject. The amazing folks who are part of our aviation heritage play a huge part of what makes it cool. Many aviation photographers primarily photograph the folks of aviation, the plane being just something in the background. Then there is the challenge in getting the shot in the worst conditions that everyone loves. And finally, getting out tomorrow to do better than you did today! And the best part and what makes this the coolest is that after all of these rewards and successes, there is still so much more. What I think is the ultimate reward!
The Sky’s The Limit!
When you know that there is no limit, that the sky’s the limit. It’s an exhilaration that propels your photography to a whole new level! Air-to-air photography (not aerial) is an adrenaline rush like none other I’ve experienced! Literally hanging out of an aircraft with only a safety harness between you and the earth directing another aircraft like a remote control on a string with a camera in hand is a thrill I wish all could experience! That feeling the first time you put a camera in your hand is relived each and every time the prop turns heading off on a photo mission. That’s until the reality that you must, must produce at the very least a tack sharp image sets in. Then a panic greater than falling out of the plane strikes you!
You’ve gotta do better than the other guy, you’ve gotta do better than the last time, the next flight depends on your success of this one. What’s your secret ingredient to making it all come together in the viewfinder? Your passion for your subject. All the lessons you learned on the ground photographing parked aircraft as well as those flashing by at airshows come into play as the breeze slaps you in the face as you look out the door through your viewfinder. And hopefully you’re thinking this is all up your alley because it is!
There are many traditions in aviation that naturally are transferred to aviation photography like helping the new guy. It’s one aspect I truly love about aviation because I’ve been a recipient of that tradition, which is why in large part along with Scott and the team at KelbyOne we’ve brought out Takeoff. From the cover, you might think this book is about aviation photography, and you’d be right. But man, it’s much bigger than that as photography is photography no matter the genre. Gear, flash, settings and basic techniques are part of Takeoff, as a firm foundation is required. What about the business of photography, printing and the real toughie for me, walking up to a stranger and asking to make their portrait? Yeah, that’s all in the book as well, because they are universal photographic challenges.
What Takeoff includes more than anything else is what photographers love, all the secrets. I lay them all out there because I have no secrets, but more importantly, I want you to move your photography forward no matter the genre that excites you! What kind of secrets you ask? How but the biggie, just how do you get an air-to-air photo mission? How do you make your photographs stand out from the guy next to you (the answers apply to any genre of photography)? How about getting your images published? Yep, that’s in the book too.
“They belong to everyone!” The first time Bob said those words to me, they really set me back on my heals. After 25 years of guarding the slide and then the file, the idea of just giving a file to someone was about as repulsive a business concept as they come. Bob and I were talking about the ownership of aircraft when he made that comment. He went on to say that he was just the momentary steward of that aircraft. He was just the one at the moment who got to share its history, tell its story. Ever since that conversation the giving of files to pilots has been kinda basic business practice and it has paid back in spades.
Photography, just like aviation, has many traditions, and one of its grandest is the telling of stories. It’s probably why aviation photography has become so incredibly popular because we are historians, visual storytellers at heart. May blue skies fill your horizon!