Shots and a Q and A from My Shoot Aboard a US Navy Aircraft Carrier

OK, before we get into all this, just want to give you a heads up: I cover all of this in MUCH more detail (with more final and behind-the-scenes photos), on yesterday’s episode of “The Grid” which I’ve posted below, so you can just watch it right here if you like.

OK, if you’re not watching that video, here we go! First, some final photos (taken aboard the carrier George H.W. Bush) and then we’ll get to the stories and behind the scenes stuff.

Above: here’s an F/A-18 coming in for a touch and go on the flight deck.

Above: Here’s a wide angle (14mm) view from one of the launch catapults looking back toward the Island (that tower on the left).

Above: One of  the Crash and Salvage Crews on the flight deck in his fire-retardant gear on.

Above: Steam from the previous catapult launch blowing back toward the next F/A-18 getting ready to launch

Above: It almost ran me over. Thankfully, they grabbed the back of my deck vest and pulled me out of the way.

Above: My one HDR shot — here’s the view from the Bridge.

Above: This is taken from two levels up in the Island: from a place they call Vulture’s Row (basically, where visitors get to watch take-offs and landings safely above the Flight Deck).

Above: the weather was less-than-optimal for photography, but from what I hear, pretty standard for flying off a carrier.

Above: Another wide angle shot

Above: One of the Catapult and Arresting Gear Officers (known as “Shooters” on the deck (the crew who literally help “shoot” the plane off the deck).

Above: Literally right before they launch the place the pilot gives a crisp salute, and a split-second later they launch him off.

Above: Guiding an F/A-18 on to the launch Catapult (look how short the runway is!).

Above: One of my favorites — taken during a catapult launch.

Above: It’s not an HDR but I had to double-process this shot of the Bridge or the view outside the window would be totally blown out to solid white.

Above: The only other plane I got to shoot: A Prowler (on deck) with an F/A-18 taking off.

Above: An F/A-18 getting tail hooked for a landing.


Above: Here’s an iPhone video I shot of a tail-hook landing.

Now, It’s Story Time (Q&A Style):

Q. OK, how did you wind up shooting on an Aircraft Carrier?
A. It wasn’t easy. It took me literally eight years of trying to find someone who had a connection to get me on. I was close a couple of times, but either my schedule or the location of the carrier made it impossible, but then last week I got an email from Ed Buice of NCIS (not the TV show — the real NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Services), that he was flying out on assignment to the carrier George H.W. Bush which was already at sea and that I could come and assist with the shoot. Even though it was only three-days notice — I jumped all over it. 

Above: That’s Ed in the Officer’s dining room. Looks really serious, but he was a blast — great sense of humor — totally cool guy, really good photographer, awesome to hang out with, and he taught me a lot. Plus, he didn’t shoot me (a bonus).

Q. What kind of assignment did Ed have?
A. Ed is the Public Affairs Officer for NCIS and he needed shots of Special Agent Afloat Sam Bush (each carrier has an NCIS agent on board. More about this on that video at the top of the page).

We spent two days following Sam around the ship shooting him “doing his thing,” which was everything from posed portraits, to Sam conducting interviews, interacting with the ship’s Security Detail, dusting for prints — you name it. Sam is a busy guy, and after two days of shooting him (and baby-sitting us) he was probably thrilled to see us finally leave the ship. I did some flash stuff, and basically acted as Ed’s “Second shooter” (I put a few of my 2nd shooter shots below), but of course we also got to shoot all sorts of other cool stuff, too.

Q. Were their concerns about you shooting stuff that is Classified or that you’re not supposed to share?
A. Everywhere we went, we had a handler with us and they made certain that we didn’t shoot anything we couldn’t’ share. Of course, this means there were parts of the ship that were weren’t allowed to visit, and we always had to have permission in advance to enter certain areas and then permission to take photos once we were in that area. We actually had much more access than I had imagined but we made sure we stuck to the rules and didn’t shoot anything we weren’t supposed to.

Q. How did you get out to the Carrier?
A. We took off from the base in Norfolk, Virginia in a COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery) plane (a twin-engine Grumann C2 Greyhound — a mail and supply plane that also holds around 40 passengers as uncomfortably as possible and you’re seated backwards), and we landed (and got tail hooked) on the deck of the carrier (which was pretty cool and not as scary as everyone had warned me about).

Above: That’s me standing in front of our ride out to the Carrier. You enter through the back and you start screaming. Kidding. Kinda. Photo by Ed Buice.

Q. How did you get off the carrier?
A. They literally shot us off with the same Catapult they launch the F/A-18 Hornet’s off with, and that was actually pretty intense (and pretty fun) but it was over in literally 3-seconds and the rest was just a regular plane ride (accept you’re seated backwards and there are virtually no windows and it’s louder than a Monster Truck & Tractor Pull).

Q. Any surprises?
A. Yup. Two. The first was — after we got on board, after an hour or so we learned that none of our luggage actually made it on the COD plane. Nothing. Not my camera gear. Not my overnight bag. No toothbrush. No underwear. No phone charger. Nada. We were kinda freaked!

Q. So what did you do?
A. We had a guardian Angel. We’re looking for our luggage and up comes Tony Curtis (not the actor; one of the ship’s Mass Communication Specialists, 2nd Class). He’s one of the ship’s photographers (a really good one as it turns out) and he says, “Hey, I read your blog every day” and we started talking. He was a totally cool guy — great personality, smart, talented and when we told him our heartbreaking story, he says, “Don’t worry — I’ve got you covered.”

Above: That’s MC Curtis (totally great guy) and he basically saved our trip. He’s really a smart guy, so we called him MC2 (MC Squared) for short. 

Q. So he had toothpaste?
A. Better. He had a ton of Nikon gear. A ton! (see below). He takes us down to his department where his boss, and head of Media Communication MCC (Chief Mass Communication Specialist) Matt Bash, has approved for us to borrow some gear (awesome boss, right?). So, Tony unlocks this door, we walk in and he says “Whatdawant? A D4? D800? What kind of lenses? 14-24m? 70-200mm? 300 f/2.8? We were saved! Whoo Hoo (and Tony is now our new best friend).

Above: Just part of their equipment locker. They had everything! It was like breaking into B&H Photo.

Q. So what did you do first?
A. We geared up and then Tony asked me “Where do you want to shoot first?” I asked if we could shoot on the flight deck (fat chance, right?) and he said “Sure! Let’s grab some gear — you’ll need a helmet, goggles, gloves, and a flight desk safety vest” (which he handed me) and we headed for the flight deck. I almost blacked out.

Above: That’s Sam, MC Curtis, Me, and MC Walter (another really good Navy photographer. These guys seriously know their stuff, and work their butts off. MC Walter was totally cool, too and he helped me out with everything from giving me shooting location and camera tips, and pulling me to safety).

Q. So….how’d it go?
A. Honestly, I totally blew it. When I stepped out there, and we were literally in the middle of everything. We’re getting blown around by Jet Wash; jets are rolling right by us; another is taking off, we’ve got loads of gear on (plus, we have layers of clothing because it’s cold and windy) and then I put the camera up to my eye and “Clonk!” I have goggle on so you can’t put it up to your eye — you have to put it up to the goggle, which is just weird because it’s like two-inches in front of your eyes, but that’s not why I tanked it.

I was so overwhelmed, pumped and just exciting, I just started firing. I took a ton of shots of planes taking off and landing, but what I didn’t realize at that point was that this scenario never changes. It’s the same planes taking off from the same runways, landing on the same runways, and if everything goes as planned, it all looks exactly the same, so just shooting jet after jet creates a bunch of very similar-looking photos of gray planes. When I looked at the images from my first shoot, I was pretty bummed. No color, no people, just lots of gray planes. Very cool stuff, but a lot of the same stuff.

Above: Here’s the typical type of stupid shots I took, with a big red bar on the right side killing the shot (that’s called a Belknap — thanks Jose Ramos) and of course I could crop it out but that’s not how it’s supposed to work. I’m in charge of composition in the camera — not afterward in Photoshop, so shooting like this feels like a total failure of my most basic job as a photographer. I had a bunch of these. Actually, a ton.

Q. Did you do any teaching?
A. I did a talk for the Navy photographers on board with some tips on how to move to the next level with their photography. It was only about an hour talk, but afterward I did some one-on-one portfolio reviews (and saw some really fantastic, creative images which actually inspired me for my 2nd shoot the following day), and I shared a few Photoshop tips and shortcuts.

Above: Here’s a shot taken by Ed Buice during my talk. What I’m saying right here is “Don’t forget to pack an extra toothbrush!” LOL!

Q. So, did the 2nd shoot go any better?
A. Dramatically. First, I was settled down and more focused. I had gotten used to the jet wash, roar of the jets, and the fact that I would be dragged in different directions at any time to keep from being literally run over by a jet taxi-ing on the flight deck. But beside that, I knew that for more interesting shots, I needed to include the human factor, and I needed to include color, which honestly was everywhere because the flight deck crews wear different solid-color vests and helmets for quick visual ID.

Q. Aren’t these trips usually just 24-hour quick over-night trips?
A. Generally yes, but the weather was so bad they delayed, and then cancelled our flight back to base, so we had to stay another day on board without our luggage (LOL!). Hey, honestly, I was thrilled because that gave me a third shoot (the 2nd shoot was a dawn shoot that morning that was a bust because the sun rose straight into a giant gray cloud bank). It was that extra shoot where I got some images I at least thought were decent. I wasn’t thrilled, but at least I wasn’t miserable. It’s harder than it looks (especially because of the dynamics of a VERY active flight deck.

Q. How were the accommodations?
A. We had Officer’s quarters, and we got to eat with the Officers, so compared to the rest of the shipmates, it was heavenly. However, the actual sleeping part was kind of challenging because our stateroom was located just two decks below the Flight Deck and they run flight operations, well…pretty much all the time. So, what was that like. Close your eyes and picture this scenario: You’ve somehow fallen asleep in a Port-o-potty. While you’re asleep, a huge Semi-Tractor trailer pulls up so close to your Port-o-potty that it touches the door. Then the driver Revs his engine as loud as he can for 15 or so seconds, then he jumps out; takes a baseball bat and hits your Port-o-potty as hard as he can (so it hard it shakes the whole thing), then he starts a running chain saw for another 10-seconds. It was exactly like that. Only louder, and this happens about every 60-seconds or so. Weird thing is — you somehow get used to it, and you fall asleep, but the first time you hear it, after you stop freaking out, you start to laugh hysterically. Well, Ed and I did anyway.

The bathrooms were somewhere down a hall or two, but the hall is pitch dark with just a very dim red light (like you’d imagine a submarine would be during war games), and they were often clogged beyond belief —- sometimes to the extent that you’d go in there, look around and say, “Oh hell no!” and walk right back out. In the dark.

Above: Ed and I shared this spacious room, reminiscent of a suite at the Four Seasons, but larger. Lots of storage space, but that’s about it. It made you not want to hang out in your room. Nice lighting, though. ;-)

Q. What did you learn from this trip?
A. I learned that the sailors and Marines who work on the George H.W. Bush are an incredible team. The flight deck is a miracle of precision, teamwork and timing. The pilots that land on carriers are literally wizards (especially when they land at night, and we watched a night landing session — the photos were a total bust — didn’t’ have a tripod, but not sure that would have helped), and however thankful and proud I was of our men and women in uniform, after seeing what they do, my respect for them went up another big notch. I was really impressed at the professionalism, courtesy, attitude and work ethic of everyone I ran across. Really impressive, and even the Captain seemed like a really great guy (and the crew all spoke very highly of him). My humble thanks to the crew of the George H.W. Bush for their service to our country, and for the sacrifices they make, and their families make, every single day. It was really an honor to visit the carrier, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Thanks to my buddy Ed Buice for an experience I’ll never forget. I had so much fun hanging out with you, and I learned a lot about the “real” NCIS and some of the dedicated people who serve there. Thanks to MC Curtis for saving our trip and for his wonderful hospitality and great attitude while we were there, and to MC Walter for the tips and advice and for looking out for us on the Flight Deck. Thanks to their boss MCC  Matt Bash and all the dedicated photo and graphics crew on board for making us feel so welcome. And of course thanks to the men and women of GHWB for everything you do to keep us safe and our country free. My hats off to you all.
  1. Awesome Scott! Want to take a tour of my Bass Cat, it goes faster than the Carrier. :)
    We took a 4 hour cruise out of San Diego on a destroyer but I would love to tour an operating Carrier. Did they let you fire the Phalanx? :)

  2. Scott – please share your post process and sharpening technique (and settings) for these awsome images. Your Nikon images are so crisp & clear compared to those from my D3’s.

  3. Scott, Thank you for sharing your experiences and especially for telling the story of the Navy’s Mass Communication Specialists. The talent of these Sailors and the products they produce for the Navy on a daily basis is just incredible. MC Master Chief (ret.)

  4. Dude, That is an awesome story and the pictures are fantastic! My childhood dream was to be a Naval Aviator , so I am so jealous , yet happy for you at the same time! I am a serious plane nut too so seeing the Prowler up close is awesome. Thanks for sharing!

  5. That was one of the most entertaining post I have read from you in a while. Thanks for sharing. Awesome images and insight into life on USN Carrier :)

  6. Thanks for the great detail of insight and how-why-where-when & who regarding the shoot. Very useful. And that’s one hell of a gear collection :)

  7. Really enjoyed the show yesterday! You and your wife makes us laugh! You guys should have your own show. Thanks for sharing your stories! We r a aviation family. My husband has his pilots license, our middle son has solo our Cessna and our youngest son is a 11th grader at West Michigan Aviation Academy High School! The aviation director is a recently retired Marine pilot, Major Pavey. He was on a air craft carrier. Our family goes to Air Venture in Oshkosh every year too.

  8. good stuff !! question about your post processing. Looking at the F/A-18 touch and go’s seems to look somewhat HDR but not full HDR. Love the look, care to share the process. Thanks.

  9. What a great opportunity. Although you may not have liked the weather, I love it for the photos. I may have mentioned this on Google+ or Facebook, but most of the carrier shots I saw from my old employer were always on sunny, blue-sky days. I guess that’s good for the annual report, but I tend to like the atmosphere provided by those clouds in your shots better than seeing another sunny day in a fighter jet. Now if only the luggage folks had as much precision as the flight deck crew, you’d have your own toothbrush out there. Glad to see you got the chance to visit and thanks for sharing it with us.

  10. I love these stories, and this is one reason why I love photography so much!
    Thank you for sharing.
    You must be exhausted, doing this right after you shot the NFC pro football game. Hope you have a chance to get some rest.

      1. Glad you caught up on sleep… and, I agree so much time slips by fast when you get into games like Call of Duty! Enjoy playing! You deserve some “me” time for sure.

  11. Scott, I’m a Navy & Air Force vet and I really enjoy stories like yours. Just curious, why were your night shots a bust? Seems like you could have bumped the ISO enough to get something?

    1. Hi Gary: First, thanks for your service to our country. :) As for the night shots; I bumped the heck out of the ISO, but they keep it VERY dark on the deck of the carrier (for obvious reasons) and those jets move pretty darn fast so I got a lot of very grainy, soft shots. I do have a few static shots of planes just sitting on the deck at night but they’re all pretty much a snooze.

      1. Scott, thanks for the reply. I have to share a funny story. During my Navy days I served on a Frigate and we used to do plane guard for the Midway in the Sea of Japan. One time during, night-time flight ops, one of my buds, Alex, decided it would be cool to get a photo of the jets flying overhead before touching down on the Midway. Not being a photog, Alex used the flash on his camera. It lit up the sky, blinded the pilot who had to divert and circle around a few times to get his vision back. Fortunately, nobody was hurt so Alex survived…but to this day, nearly 25 yrs later, Alex is still affectionately known as “Flash!”

  12. I loved seeing the images and reading your story. I’m a former Navy photojournalist and now private pilot. The images are outstanding. I joined the Navy in 1978 because I figured the way to become a better photographer was to shoot more. The film and processing costs prohibited me from doing that. What better way to learn than join the navy and let them pay for the training, film and processing. That doesn’t even take into consideration all the top notch equipment. Great coverage!!!!

  13. Holy Cow that’s awesome! Unbelievably amazing experience you had and a great telling of the experience to bring us all along. Can’t believe they lost your luggage! Also can’t believe how much Nikon they had- what you have done if it was Canon tho! Oh!

    Also though I’d link you to this which is a hilarious yet insightful look into the lives of a Navy pilot-

  14. when you look at all the shots… you realize just how lucky you were to have had the chance to capture this beautiful set. ! well done master… well done..
    Greetings from Rotterdam.

  15. Scott, I was moved to tears at your tribute to all these very dedicated and hard working men and women in our nation’s service. May God watch over them one and all. Kudos to you as well for giving up your time to hold a class with some of the photogs on board. Get way to repay the privilege of this opportunity to shoot on such a magnificent vessel.
    Old Vet

  16. Well won’t those photographers be spoiled when one day they have to buy all their own equipment. Seemed like overkill, unless they have high failure rates with their equipment. Btw, incredible experience. Makes you appreciate the lifestyle we enjoy in our day to day living.

    1. Steve, I spent 20 years as a photographer in the Navy and yes, it is kind of shocking when the time comes to have to outfit your own camera bag.

      The reason for so much equipment has little to do with the failure rate, but everything to do with a public affairs department that covers a floating city that has 5,000+ Sailors and Marines onboard. They run operations 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. With that kind of operational tempo every shooter needs to have everything available to them at any time. You never know when, or what, you’ll be called out to shoot so you have to have the equipment readily available.

      The other reason for what may seem like an excess of equipment is that in the case of lost or damaged gear, you can’t just call up and order from B&H and have it in a day or two. It takes time to get anything out to the ship. So they do keep a few things stocked.

      I never got to serve on a carrier, on some days I consider myself lucky for not having to, but on others I kind of wish I had gotten the opportunity. I definitely appreciated my duty stations knowing that it could always have been harder.

  17. Hey Scott, I’ve told you many, many times over the years that you are blessed! This takes the cake though. WOW! Too bad you didn’t get to ride in a fighter, or did you?
    Have a great weekend my friend! PS, Matt’s Lightroom Seminar Rocks!!

  18. Your trip brought back memories of my own similar experiences back int he 1980’s. Same type of scenario of flying out to the carrier and staying overnight. Of course everything was film and I shot with a Hasselblad. Perfect description of the sleeping accommodations! Awesome.

  19. Scott, amazing shots and story behind the shots. I loved your description of your sleeping experience. Priceless! I love you honesty on your first day of shooting pictures….I think everyone would have done the same thing and shoot everything in site if it was the first time. I’m thinking another post of not so great shots is in order of your experience like your inspirational bad football shots. Thanks to the men and women who protect our freedom and thank you Scott for your post and letting us experience your life through the camera.

  20. Scott, The show was delightful – mostly due to your co-host.

    Thanks for sharing your great experience w all the tribulations. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could revisit every wish I had time, maybe when the weather is better, some other time of year, other time of day, with different gear… place? You showed how to take advantage of what’s available when the planned/hoped for situation isn’t ideal and still come up with great shots.

    BTW: the raindow reflectionss on the 3 planes shot from the Vulture Deck are Mardi Gras colors – how timely!!

  21. Scott, great episode and photos. As a 16 year Navy Veteran, this brought back many memories. I spent a good amount of time on several different carriers and came away with some excellent work as well. You are lucky to have had the privilege to spend time on one of the most impressive pieces of military power in the world. Short of taking a ride with the Blue Angels, you can’t get much better than this as a civilian. Keep up the great work!

  22. As a retired Navy Master Chief with 30-years of service I must say I loved today’s post. It brought back memories of my days on the U.S.S John F. Kennedy (CV-67). You described life on a carrier to a “T”. Working on the flight deck of a carrier is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and it does take highly trained men and women to pull off that ballet everyday. I am thrilled that you got to experience that and I’m sure it’s something that will stick in your mind and you will remember fondly for years to come. Congratulations on being able to pull that off. They don’t let just anybody do that.

  23. Hi Scott – terrific blog post. Possible “Best Ever” and that’s saying something..

    One question. The “On The Bridge” image you say it’s “not an HDR but I had to double-process this shot” – what do you mean by double-process? If you could write that up I would really appreciate it.

    Or is it as simple as one shot set up for the seascape, one for the bridge itself and merge via layers in PS? Did I answer my question?

    1. Hi Paul: You just did, but it was just one photo (not two). I open the photo in Camera Raw: did the exposure for the inside then opened that in Photoshop. Reopened the same Raw photo again, but this time did the exposure for the outside view, then used a Layer Mask to merge to them together in Photoshop. :)

  24. So am I the only one drooling over the goodies on the shelves? I realize you have most of them already Scott, but damn…kid/candy store comes to mind!

  25. Scott, As a former Navy Photographer, I want to thank you for taking your time out to teach some of the new generation of Naval Photographers some of your knowledge. If you knew how much they really appreciate the time you spent with them, it might even overwhelm you more. As for getting back on a Carrier, as the MC’s next time. Being the PAO of the Navy, they can get you access….

  26. Hey, Scott! Great post today. I really got to your blog late today, but it was good to see the pictures that you showed on The Grid on Wednesday. An unbelievable experience for you, and thanks for sharing it with us. So what’s next on the bucket list? :-) BTW, thanks for answering my question on the show… I’m sure you got all your gear back eventually. I would have been freaking out not knowing where it was. At least you were able to buy a toothbrush!

    Have a great weekend and enjoy watching the Super Bowl.


  27. Hey Scott
    What’s the deal with usage on the shots?

    Can you use them however you want – e.g. in a book?
    How about the people shots, like the portrait of the guy driving the tractor or whatever – did you get releases? Do you get an automatic release because they are govt employees/service people and the govt grants you release that covers them?

    How does that all work?

  28. I did a shoot this fall with the Navy (on a docked battleship, not an aircraft carrier at sea, so I’m still totally jealous) for a project I’m working on. Everyone I worked with was extremely cooperative and helpful. They really went above-and-beyond to make sure my shoot went smoothly. I just wanted to chime in to add to the praise.

  29. Scott,

    Great Stuff here, but like you said there are some outstanding MC’s that take awesome pictures on the daily.
    I served on CVN-76 and you are right, there is a lot of overplayed aircraft pictures. You really miss out on the workings of the ship and the bellies of the beast.
    I wish that people could see the inter workings of the propulsion plants some days.

    Also If you ever want to get in touch with someone for another ride let me know and I have a few better ways to get there.


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