Up In The Air: An Aerial Photographer Shares His Craft

Jill Rahn's picture
Photographing airplanes and other flying machines is not something one routinely finds on a list of preferred occupations. It is in fact one of the more esoteric slices of the professional photographer’s pie. Not surprisingly, aviation photography is a demanding and potentially dangerous occupation. It requires a high level of arcane expertise in a very specialized subject area. Understandably, there is little room for error. Hanging out of flying machines with a camera in your hands is not a run-of-the-mill photo assignment.

Sunset shot of Lockheed P-38L Lightning for Ezell Aviation and Red Bull (owner). (Nikon D2X with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 at 1⁄180 sec at f/6.7; Kenyon KS-8 gyro.)
All Photos © Jay Miller

It’s not only shooting from airplanes, but helicopters, hot air balloons, sailplanes, missiles and rockets, hovercraft, and even a few flying saucers that make up the great subject variety I see on an almost daily basis. I’ve aimed my cameras at some very strange as well as some very mundane flying machines over the years, but all have one thing in common—they are designed to move things or people from point A to point B in expeditious fashion.

My aviation clients cover the gamut, from major international corporations to private pilots wanting vanity images for an office wall. Pictures are shot for promotional materials, office decoration, technical/historical/legal documentation, and/or publication art. Exceptional quality and highest resolution are always a given. The work is sometimes tedious, but it is never boring.

Over the years I’ve had some amazing experiences, seen some extraordinary aircraft, and rubbed shoulders with some uncommonly famous aviators. From Red Bull’s fabulous polished aluminum Lockheed P-38L Lightning to the notoriously ill-tempered Chuck Yeager, I’ve had the privilege, via my aviation photojournalism world, to come in contact with a broad swath of the most noteworthy people and flying machines in the international aviation community.

North American P-51D Mustang and Temco TT-1 Pinto formation shot for Lewis Shaw (owner). (Nikon D2X with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 at 1⁄60 sec at f/7.6; Kenyon KS-8 gyro.)

My career as an aviation photographer started during the late 1960s while writing a weekly aviation column for my hometown newspaper. Photos were part and parcel of my work, and though equipped only with an old Argus C3, I did my best to cover the local aviation scene and produce images suitable for the stories I was writing, but by the mid-1970s I had switched to Nikon F3s and a variety of Nikkor lenses.

Most of my work as an aviation photographer involves two basic photography venues. The most common, which I refer to as “static,” entails placing a subject aircraft in an idyllic setting—usually a clean airport ramp or inside a hangar—and photographing it in situ. The results can be pretty boring, but for select clients (usually those trying to sell aircraft) they fit the bill.

Interior shots often complement the static ones. These can be as simple or as elaborate as one wants to make them. For me, such photography entails a lot of preparation in the form of being mindful of details. Hiding or organizing seat belts, arranging interior decoration (often including food and beverages and human models and place settings and flowers, etc.), and analyzing ambient cabin lighting and white balance are just a few of the variables that must not be overlooked.

Sunset shot of Lockheed P-38L Lightning and North American P-51D Mustang for Ezell Aviation and Red Bull. (Nikon D2X with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 at 1⁄320 sec at f/8.5; Kenyon KS-8 gyro.)

Less common is air-to-air photography entailing the use of a photo ship and one or more subject aircraft as “targets.” Air-to-air photography is not for the faint of heart or for any pilot who lacks serious quality time in a formation-flying environment.

Several of my fellow pro aviation shooters specialize in this genre. Among the best are Paul Bowen, Katsuhiko Tokunaga, Jim Koepnick, Mike Fizer, and Erik Hildebrandt. There are others, but these are among the most experienced and accomplished.

Most air-to-air sessions start with a preflight briefing. It is of supreme importance that everyone in the air understands his/her position relative to the photo ship, the route, the direction, the speed, the altitude, and how to utilize the communication equipment (or how to interpret hand signals).

In most cases, the photo ship is the aircraft all the subject aircraft position on. A photo ship can be just about anything that flies, but it is very important—in fact mandatory—that it has performance on par with that of the subject aircraft.

North American SNJ-5 Texan for Ladd Gardner (owner). (Nikon D2X with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 at 1⁄80 sec at f/4.2; over by 1⁄3 stop; Kenyon KS-8 gyro.)

Ideally a photo ship should provide the photographer with a relatively unrestricted field of view. No photo ship is perfect, but some aircraft make better photo platforms than others. Though I have photographed air-to-air while flying in everything from 75 mph Curtiss-Wright Juniors to Mach 2-capable McDonnell F-4 Phantom IIs, I much prefer shooting from aircraft like the Beechcraft F33 Bonanza, or Bell Model 407 JetRanger, or North American B-25 Mitchell (the tail position of which provides an extraordinary hemispherical field of view). Unfortunately, these are not always available on short notice and their operating costs are not always justifiable to the client.

Operating costs of aircraft are, incidentally, an issue that no photographer should ever take for granted. Aircraft are inherently expensive transportation. A North American P-51D Mustang (valued at approx. $2 million) for example, costs roughly $2500 per hour to fly. Accordingly, when asked to photograph air-to-air, don’t mess around. Time in the aviation photography business is serious money.

Air-to-air work in high-performance jets brings a whole new set of equations into the photographer’s workload, not the least of which is having to wear a G-suit, helmet, and oxygen mask. These can be cumbersome and debilitating if you aren’t used to them, and when accompanied by high G-loads and spatial disorientation, can make photography a physically taxing and very uncomfortable experience. Graying out and nausea, when mixed with expensive camera equipment and a small cockpit, are not a combination you will look back upon with fond memories.

Only 15 Temco TT-1 Pintos were built. This is one of seven thought still to be flightworthy. Shot for Lewis Shaw (owner). (Nikon D1X with a Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 at 1⁄250 sec at f/8.0.)

I much prefer shooting at sunrise or sunset. The window of opportunity with either is about two hours, though seasonal variations and weather always have to be built into the decision-making equation.

I currently shoot with a Nikon D3X and a Nikon D3S. I also have a Nikon D300 for backup. My lens selection—most of which I use with considerable regularity depending on the client’s needs—includes everything from a Nikkor 8mm f/2.8 to a Nikkor 600mm f/4.0 VR. For the vast majority of my work, my three primary lenses are the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8, the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, and the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. For air-to-air, most of my shots are taken with the 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses. Cockpit and interior shots are usually taken with the 24-70mm lens, though I often use my 8mm or 16mm or 14-24mm lenses for larger cockpits that require more angular coverage. I use fill flash as needed.

My secret air-to-air weapon, as I call it, is a Kenyon KS-8 gyro. Not many photographers are fully versed on the attributes of this extraordinary tool, but for those of us who have a Kenyon and use it, there is nothing else on the planet that comes close to doing what it does—which is stabilize a camera when everything else around it is moving.

The Kenyon allows shooting at very low shutter speeds (1⁄80 sec or less) while permitting tack-sharp images. Rock solid handheld photography is critical when photographing aircraft with propellers or rotors.

Last, but far from least, is safety equipment. I will not shoot from an open aircraft compartment without a safety harness. Coupled with a set of quality carabineers and secured to one or more appropriate pieces of hardware in the photo ship, a Protecta Full Body Harness (with a 6-foot shock lanyard) gives me some assurance that I won’t fall out. Note that I not only tether myself to the photo ship, I also tether my camera equipment to my harness assembly. Camera gear is easily dropped in turbulent conditions—and it’s expensive to replace. Additionally, you don’t want to know what a 4-lb camera can do to something on the ground after it reaches terminal velocity.

Sigi Angerer, head of Red Bull’s aviation division, on the wing of Red Bull’s Lockheed P-38L Lightning. (Nikon D2X with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 at 1⁄250 sec at f/7.6; under by 1⁄3 stop.)

Airplanes, even static ones, can be dangerous to be around if you’re not paying attention. Wing trailing edges are sharp, pitot tubes can puncture eyeballs, rotors and propellers are killers, jet engines are the world’s largest vacuum cleaners, and even functioning radar can be dangerous if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Keep your eyes and ears working at all times when you’re around any flying machine.

I charge my clients by the hour or negotiate a package deal that keeps everyone happy. Rates vary depending on the financial size of the client and the degree of difficulty of the shoot. Most of my professional aviation photographer friends charge from $750 to well over $2500 per day—usually exclusive of expenses.

I’ve never hesitated to tell folks what I do to pay the bills. When I say, “I photograph airplanes,” I cannot count how many times I’ve heard the words, “Oh wow! That must really be cool!”

You won’t get any argument from me!

Jay Miller (www.jmillerpics.com), an aviation photographer for much of his 50-year career as an aviation journalist/historian, is the Chair of the International Society for Aviation Photography (www.aviationphotographers.org).

Semiretired, he is the author of some 36 books on aviation subjects and the retired director of the American Airlines C. R. Smith Museum and Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection. He lives in Ft. Worth, Texas, and is married with two adult children.

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mripod's picture
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Psychegareza21's picture
The shots was indeed great

The shots was indeed great from the shots that was taken above and vice versa. - KSA Kosher