Guest Blog: Aviation Photographer Moose Peterson
Then Came Gloria
The better a photographer you become, the more challenging it becomes to be a better photographer! It’s a cruel reality. We struggle and hope as we learn the basics of exposure, lens, f/stop, etc. that with that knowledge, we can then relax and play. It’s hard to imagine that photography will only be more challenging once we pass those hurdles.
On the bright side, the rewards become greater and the adventures sweeter when the photographic process settles in, and you look at the challenges to not only become better, but also make photography your own. It could be summed up as: style. Because with that style you become the visual storyteller whose photographs can change the world.
This realization and challenge hit me hard and early in my career because, along with everything photographic, I threw being in the photographic business into the mix (just because it wasn’t difficult enough). That actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise though as our survival depended on me pushing through these hurdles. I need that life or death struggle!
Human nature is such that walls tend to slow us down, if not stop us. Photography for most is a hobby, and with the real honest and needed desire to keep it fun (which is essential), often frustration settles in when we hit that wall and the fun fades. Sadly, all too often I’ve seen too many photographers on this path, or take this path, and real talent goes unknown as their passion disappears.
How do we achieve our goals of being better photographers (because there is no end to this race)? Many believe it’s by buying more and better gear (I wish it was that easy). The reason it gets more challenging the better you become is because the investment you need to make is in yourself!
While they are photographically based, pushing yourself to make the finished photograph in the viewfinder when you go click is a b*tch! Throwing away all crutches and embracing failure hurts! And making photographs that reach out and grab heartstrings rather than likes at times is really lonely. Giving yourself a reason to take that next step in getting better and keeping your passion alive is to go beyond the single click. It’s a “simple” formula I’ve used for the last three decades, editorial, and it’s turned out pretty well. Let me explain it to you by introducing you to Gloria.
There has to be a start, right?
It all began with my dear friend, Kathy Porupski. We met years ago through the intimate community that was NAPP and is now KelbyOne. Always a dear friend and supporter and fellow photographer (and friend to my entire family), we did everything from photographing a Black Skimmer colony to model shoots together. I helped her when I could, and she always returned that in spades.
Many years ago, after I dove deep into aviation photography, she told me about a friend of hers whose husband had planes and sent me a picture. Me being me, I thanked her but did nothing about it (you know, that mental wall, they were in Florida and I’m in California). Fast forward the clock a couple of years.
Scott Kelby was just about to publish my book Takeoff and a PR video needed to be created for the launch of the book. Looking at the economy of time and effort, I thought about KelbyOne in Florida and who was nearby where we could shoot the promo. It was then I remembered Kathy’s friend, so I reached out to her. Within minutes we were set to shoot the promo at Turin Aviation. What has this got to do with you becoming a better photographer? Hang in there, I’m getting to that. You gotta remember, I love telling stories :-)
I’m really bad at meeting folks and even worse when going up to a stranger and asking for a favor. Even though I could hide behind the KelbyOne cameras, I asked Kathy to come and be my shield. We arrived at the hangar, I met the owner, Ed, in passing, thanked him for the use of the hangar and then went right to making ourselves at home and creating a set at the back of the hangar.
At the end of the shoot, Ed came up and gave me a brief tour of his hangar and business. Kathy being the generous soul she is, talked me up to Ed, saying really nice things about my aviation photography, poking me to get out a couple of photos to show Ed. Well Ed and I started talking about his upcoming projects just at a time when I was looking for my next project to push my photography forward. That’s when the DC-3 / C-47 project was first mentioned. Kathy felt her mission was accomplished and left as Ed & I talked shop.
While I’m incredibly shy when it comes to people, I’m not shy when it comes to business opportunities. After Ed told me his plans to restore #43-48950 back to her WWII roots and return it to England in 2019 for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, I right then and there said I wanted to film a documentary on the entire project. Wouldn’t cost Ed a thing other than access to the entire project for its duration. Whatever the chemistry was, it was instant, and the adventure began!
Oh, what have I done?
Filming a documentary was totally new to me! Yes, we created the film Warbirds and the Men Who Flew Them. That was a week-long shoot. We also had started a three-year documentary project that, at the end of year two, the plug was pulled, but it was funded. This was a different animal, totally self-funded. Think about your normal photographic adventure that lasts a weekend, maybe a week. If you factor in the planning and prep for that weekend or week-long photographic adventure and expand it to two years, yeah, that doesn’t even come close to the panic level going off in my head. But I was and still am excited by it! A documentary; that means video, and while I can take the video, that really isn’t nearly enough to make a documentary. This meant I needed to enlist our son Brent too, as the main videographer and editor. That was a big plus!
With the basics of gear and a general plan of where we wanted to end up in two years, and in June 2017 it all began. A documentary by its very definition is telling a story as it unfolds. This means not one that is contrived or controlled by a script.
Photographically for the video and stills, documenting the restoration of #43-48950 / “Hit or Miss” as she would be named, required at the start basic photographic skills of exposure, f/stop and the like. But once you have the basics covered, the ground work images taken and filed, you have to move the photography forward to tell the story. Looking at it realistically, how many minutes would a viewer watch someone removing a screw or greasing a fitting?
This is when you dig down and push the photography forward to tell the story and keep the audience’s attention. Can you show the wrenching, a common activity in an interesting way? Changing lenses, perspective, light or lighting, a combination of all of these, will one take the common and make it uncommon, grabbing the viewer’s imagination and make them wonder? At the same time, since we’re not in control of how the story unfolds, can we be fluid enough with our gear and talent to set up and capture events on the fly? That takes an entirely different level of photographic skill. Wanna get a sense of this for yourself?
Challenge yourself to take ten photos, put them in order and without ANY captions or titles, give them to someone and see if they can “read” your story. Want to make it even tougher? Tell the story of one day in your life, tell about a chore you don’t like doing. And if you truly want to challenge yourself and push your photography, have someone ELSE pick the story you need to tell in those ten photos. Once you have this challenge, you have to plan its execution, from the photography, the finishing and then the presentation. This process will make you a better photographer!
Two Years In And Still Not At The Finish Line
At least once a month, Brent and I fly down to Tampa for a week of filming with the plane and crew. There are really no words for the immense satisfaction, fun, and reward that comes from working with this piece of history and telling her story!
This is an aircraft that flew over Europe, dropping paratroopers, pulling gliders, and serving as a flying ambulance, and then returned to the states to spray for mosquitoes for thirty years. That’s the biggest challenge in improving our photography we need to recognize… it’s not about us; it’s really all about the subject and its story. We’re just merely the witnesses that present that story through our images with our passion. For Brent, Ed, the crew and myself, that’s what keeps us going in the 102-degree, 100% humidity, downpour Florida weather. That’s why we’re investing $5-7k each month for that week of filming in the hope that, at the end, there might be a return on investment. It’s all about telling a story.
There is nothing about the photographic process or this project that goes smoothly and as planned. Identifying problems and solving them is the #1 way to move your photography down the road to becoming better. Here’s a real simple problem we needed to solve: how to work in the incredibly tight space of the cockpit. You could go with a camera like a GoPro, but you’re really limited creatively. You could go with a camera like the D850 to be creative, but now you’re way oversized for the arena. There’s simply no room for that body and lens. Then the Nikon Z6 came out and solved all our problems of being creative in a very limited space.
This brings me to Gloria.
“Hit or Miss” #43-48950 never actually had nose art during WWII. She was the lead plane for Operation Varsity, the crossing of the Rhine. All the rest of the planes around her in her serial were shot down. She came back without a hole, so Ed gave #43-48950 the name, “Hit or Miss.” With the crowning of a name, it seemed only natural to give her nose art as well.
That’s where Joel Iskowitz, an incredible and famous artist comes into the story. While I knew of Joel, our paths had never crossed until that day at the nose of “Hit or Miss.” For two days he painted, I photographed the painting (stills, video, time lapse, night, moody light, hard light, flash fill, multi flash at night) and we talked. Man, did we talk and talk (so enjoyed that)! Everything from light to color to color psychology to basic business.
At the end of it all when the nose art was all done, I asked him what was the pinup’s name? That’s one thing he hadn’t even thought about.
Well, he thought he was done painting until I asked that question. Just like photography, Joel had the right paints, the skills, and the passion, but in finishing the piece, he realized that without a name, it didn’t have the last little bit to give it the personality we see at the nose of “Hit or Miss.” He named the pinup model Gloria, and with that name, put on the finishing touches making her, Gloria.
Right Foot, Left Foot
There is no guarantee that if we keep pushing our photography, we will see the results we think we should. While knowing that brings no comfort, it does mean we should give ourselves a break as we work towards being a better photographer. While Brent & I have put in our time, spent the money, pushed our professional creative talents following our passion with “Hit or Miss,” there is no guarantee in the end, we will have a film. Our subject is a plane built in 1943 that has already flown to and from England once. The forty-day adventure planned to launch in late May is just that, a plan, even at this point. And if it doesn’t make it to Europe, we will still have come out for the better for the project.
All that we have learned taking on this project, from filming permits and narration script to remote cameras and battery management, all of that is experience you can’t buy at a camera store. I know it was hard for me when the realization came that getting better as a photographer required a growth of the mind, spirit and heart. Nowadays, I look forward to that challenge and seeing the results in my photographs. I love telling stories, especially visual stories and the challenges it poses. That’s because the better a photographer you become, the more challenging it becomes to be a better photographer!
You can learn more about the Normandy Bound documentary at NormandyBound.com, keep up with the progress of the journey on the Hit Or Miss Facebook page, and watch the official documentary trailer here:
You can see more of Moose’s work at MoosePeterson.com and WarbirdImages.com, and keep up with him on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. You can also see his classes on everything from wildlife, landscape, and aviation photography to gear essentials and post processing on KelbyOne.
You can find out more about his son and colleague Brent’s work at BrentPetersonDigitalInk.com.