“If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
As a Photographer and Aviation nut, its pretty hard to top Air to Air photography on the “fun and technically challenging” chart. There is nothing as awesome as chasing the perfect shot in the air, so everyone with the urge should get out there and do it. Keep in mind, there is much more to A2A than pushing the shutter and getting the pictures, it requires lots of planning, coordination, and aerial ballet to pull off a successful photo flight. Don’t expect perfection the first few times you try it, but the end results are worth it, when everything finally “clicks.”
There aren’t a lot of resources for new photographers wanting to dive into Air to Air Photography. It can be intimidating, the challenges of an aerial photo mission multiply based on the number of photographers, the number of subject airplanes you are shooting, locations, and many other factors. I’d like to use my little corner of the web here to share some of the things I’ve picked up in my first handful of shoots and classes to (hopefully) help those new to A2A photography have some points to work from as they plan their first missions. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and as always, you need to do this at your own skill level and comfort zone.
I grew up reading “Air Combat” magazine, and the cover photos always seemed to reach from the magazine rack and grab me. While I grew up on/ around military air bases, nobody in my family was into aviation, but my Boy Scout troop was lucky enough to be led by two private pilots that were very generous to share their passion for flying with the troop.
My first experience in Air to Air photography was as the Safety Observer in my Scout leader’s Bonanza in April of 1982. We flew over and around Jacksonville Florida, aiming for the cover of the American Bonanza Society magazine, which we achieved in June of ’82!
As a photographer, my personal goal is to have one of my shots on a magazine cover someday, so if you’re still awake and interested, follow along on what I’ve learned so far, I hope its helpful!
Safety and Training:
Even from the early days in the Scouts, the concept of safety in the air was a key component of everything we did. General Aviation is very safe, but when you add the variables of open doors/ windows, cameras, lenses, wind, and multiple other aircraft…things can get complicated really fast.
The best way to start the learning process is to read everything you can find, and to train with someone who knows what they’re doing. I’ve taken multiple classes with Doug and Tony at 3G Aviation media, and although I had done A2A shoots prior, their classes filled in a lot of the gaps in my workflow, which made subsequent shoots easier/ safer/ and the end result was better photos.
If you are new to the concept of A2A photography, it is a huge relief to have professionals watching all of the moving parts for you so you can focus on primarily the photography. The costs associated with any training like this are intimidating, but you can’t really put a price on safety and peace of mind. Professional classes usually offer unique and interesting airplanes to shoot, as a bonus.
Once you get bitten by the bug, you will want to move onto planning your own missions, but its always good to have the fundamentals out of the way. If you can, take classes from different instructors with different styles, it will help you round out your photography toolbox and style.
Do it yourself:
Of course it is absolutely possible to plan and execute your own Air to Air photo shoot, the keyword here being PLAN. Planning involves reviewing all of the moving parts of your mission in advance, having contingency plans, and being able to adjust on the fly.
The major elements of the photo mission are the personnel, the gear, and the aircraft. If any of these components aren’t 100% ready to fly, regroup and don’t go until they are. Before taking off, everyone should know the location of the shoot, the background you want in the shot, and how you want the subject lit (time of day is important here). Everyone should have a good idea of what you want your pictures to look like when you’re done. Your pilots and safety observer(s) need to be “in tune” with each other, you, and the general workflow for the shoot. It goes without saying that you need qualified pilots comfortable flying in close formation with each other.
The Photo Platform:
This list is not all-inclusive, but you really need to think through the aircraft configuration(s). The subject and photo ships need to be compatible in speed and altitude capabilities. Your photo ship needs good visibility for the camera and pilots. A high wing aircraft is great if you’re shooting below and behind the wing, and a low wing aircraft with removable baggage doors (think Bonanza A26) is great if you have access to one, and if the pilot is comfortable and capable of flying in that configuration.) Open cockpit planes can be tricky, because of the slipstream, but you can work around the limitations with practice.
Helicopters with the doors removed are great photo platforms, but there are extra vibrations to deal with, and its tough to speed match to many airplanes (great for other helicopters, though). A Piper Cub has a great space with the window up/ door down. Weight shift carts/ trikes can be used, they’re very open, and can cruise with a lot of small aircraft.
As the photographer, you need to think through all of these factors, and plan accordingly. Another advantage of taking a professional class is that the instructors will arrange for a suitable photo ship and safety gear. You will probably shoot from a skydiving plane, or a cargo plane with a ramp. You cannot beat these for comfort, speed, and good visibility in the air. Be sure to wear knee-pads, as the aluminum floors can be hard on your knees when bouncing around in the air.
The cost of operating ramp equipped aircraft is pretty high, so you will likely have to share the ramp space with other photographers. Keep a positive attitude about bouncing around with other cameras and lenses hitting you in the head. This type of photography is a bit of a contact sport, and you may have to muscle in on someone to get a shot, and you should expect to get bumped around a little.
Regardless of your photo ship, its always good to practice your field of view/ photo angles, and the other ergonomic issues of moving the cameras while you are strapped into your seat, or in your ramp position, while still on the ground.
In addition to knowing your window to shoot, practice the areas you can zoom through in order to get some secondary shots. During the preflight, pay close attention to anything loose inside the aircraft that can blow out in the wind. You want to look for loose sectional charts, water bottles, or anything else that can get sucked out of the opening, potentially ruining your day or the subject plane’s day with a FOD strike. Look/ plan for anything that you could catch your clothing or gear on. Wear non-reflective colors if you are shooting behind glass. In an open window/ cockpit environment, I always wear a flight suit. You can get a genuine military flight suit from Ebay for $30-40. The advantages of the flight suit are many: They’re fireproof (don’t use fabric softener on them), they have lots of pockets with zippers (secure your cell phone behind a zipper and don’t bring it out until you’re back on the ground), and they look cool, which is always a bonus in aviation. Its always good to wear pure cotton underneath a fire suit also. Synthetic fibers can melt in a fire, which would be bad.
Nobody in the photo plane should be wearing hats, loose clothing, un-tethered glasses/ sunglasses, or any other gear that isn’t secured to their body. If you won’t be on the radio or intercom while in the airplane, you will need ear protection, bring extras for your friends that will more than likely forget theirs.
Timing and Weather, location:
In general, you will get better results if you’re flying in the early morning or late evening. The light is less harsh and the wind is calmer. Plan your location for beauty or the message you’re trying to convey in your photo. A WWII airplane flying over a six lane highway full of rush hour traffic is going to look out of place, but an executive jet with a metropolitan skyline in the background will be right at home.
Once you have your location planned, you should have your shots planned out in advance for the “poses” you’d like your aircraft to perform. The photo ship is going to play a big role here, you need to know how much of a “window” you have to work with for positioning the subject in the frame. You need to plan where you’re going to rendezvous, and have a common frequency to talk on without stepping on your nearby airports. Your photo ship and subject/ safety pilots need to be in radio communication, and the photographer needs to have a way to communicate locations, altitudes, and angles to both the photoship pilot and the subject pilot.
Once you successfully rendezvous with the subject plane over your desired location, its time to take some photos. Safety first: double check all of your tethers for your gear, no loose objects, and the photographer securely attached to the airplane.
Communicating the shots
Frame your subject with hand signals or radio communication and start taking your photos. Its critically important here to stay out of the wind and to keep your camera gear as steady as possible so your shots aren’t blurred beyond recognition. When you first start out doing A2A, you are going to be excited/ nervous/ and get caught up in the moment. Its ok, this is also supposed to be fun! You as the photographer are the “conductor” of this orchestra, so you have to plan for it and act the part. Your pilots are listening for your direction….no pressure! The initial excitement of taking photos of another plane flying in close formation to you is going to make you forget a lot of the items you planned for initially, so its helpful to make a “pose list” as part of your preflight planning, and keep a copy in the plane. Print off some of the shots/ poses you like, brief them during the preflight, and try to form them into a coherent list with nicknames you can call out during the shoot. This is where a second pilot or safety observer can really help by reviewing the poses as you take them and calling out the next shot. I’ve seen some folks write the “shot list” on their arm in a magic marker, or on a checklist you can secure to the bulkhead on the photo ship. It gets easier every time you go up, so don’t panic. Stop occasionally during the shoot to take a deep breath, look around, and take in the scenery.
Camera Gear, Settings, and what you want to capture:
The technical portion of the actual photos needs to be considered at some point. Plan your angles, remind your subject pilot to smile (or look serious), etc. If you’re shooting a military themed airplane, the pilots should wear a flight suit and appropriate headgear. If you’re taking the pictures right, out-of-place items will stick out like a sore thumb.
If you are going to have the subject ship bank, turn on smoke, or do any other maneuvers, use a count-down on the radio so you can prepare for the shot. For example, “on 3, bank right towards the river..1…2…3.”
I normally carry two cameras with me on a shoot in the air, a full frame with a wide angle lens and a crop body with a zoom lens. My current gear is a Canon 5D Mk4 that I will equip with a 24-105L F/4, and my Canon 70D which I usually pair with the 70-200F/2.8. These cameras both have great focus systems, the lenses have awesome Image Stabilization, and they have a high burst rate. Before you take off, make sure your batteries are topped off, and your memory cards are empty, as its a no-no to change either of these while in the air. With the cameras secured to your harness/ vest, you should develop a rhythm for getting lots of shots. I will do a 10 shot or so burst, adjust the shutter/ composition, do another burst, then switch cameras and repeat. Digital film is cheap, take a lot of pics!
Props and Shutter speed
A two-bladed propeller plane flying into the setting sun is going to need a different formula than a three or four bladed prop, or a jet, or a helicopter. You need to have the basic camera settings figured out before you get in the air, but that shouldn’t stop you from experimenting while you’re taking the shots. A great piece of advice I picked up in the classes I’ve taken is to start out with a fast shutter speed and work your way slower, then work your way back up. I have found the “safe” zone for getting shots that convey movement in the air are going to require a 1/60th shutter speed for a two bladed prop. You can get away with 1/80 for a three bladed prop, depending on the speed of the engine. Its going to vary every time you go up, so do take a second to look at the images on the back of the camera and adjust occasionally.
Nothing looks more out of place (to me) than a restored warbird in a beautiful setting with perfect lighting and just the right angle…that looks like its about to fall out of the sky because the props are frozen from too high of a shutter speed. Keep those shots and crop them for pilot “hero” shots, but you should really try to have as much of a sense of motion in your pictures as you can.
The chant in my head as I’m shooting A2A is “pupils and prop blur” which means I can see the eyes of the pilots and I can’t read anything on the propeller’s stickers. In reality, as long as you can’t make out anything legible on the prop, and the arch is at least 75% covered by the propeller (25% gap) you’re doing pretty well. The “full prop disc” seems to be the Holy Grail for aviation photographers, and it will require practice and frustration, but the end result is worth it. Reread the first line of the article…”If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
Things can get complicated quickly if you have multiple subject airplanes, other traffic, or any other number of factors that can happen in a regular flight. Just remember that if anything feels unsafe or out of place, break it off and regroup. There isn’t a photo that has ever been published that is worth your life or someone else’s.
The extra speed of a jet will let you get away with a higher shutter speed, and you can focus on the composition and clarity of your shot. Depending on your scenario, you can get neat items in the frame such as refueling booms, flares, smoke, or other maneuvers for that magazine cover shot.
There are lots of different groups online and in person for aviation photographers. The community as a whole can seem intimidating, but the “big names” in this little world are actually very approachable. I’ve had a lot of luck asking questions and getting good advice from the pros, but you have to have the mindset that you will always run into someone who has had a bad day or just doesn’t want to share, and that’s ok. Keep trying, don’t give up. A true professional in the industry won’t mind sharing their camera settings or other strategies. Just because someone gives you the recipie for Coca Cola doesn’t mean you’re going to put Coke out of business.
I hope this article was helpful, feedback is always welcome. Safe flying and photo taking!