Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Niche markets can be lucrative, and enterprising photographers can find opportunity and inspiration in the clouds

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Wyche Coleman flies his custom Wolfpitts Pro, shot from a Piper Cherokee. To find the best sun angle, fly a series of orbits and roll out on a heading where the light illuminates both airplane and pilot. Calling for “smoke on” when an aerobatic airplane is in a sideslip adds drama. Shutter Speed: 1/125 sec. All images: Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF 28-135mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS USM

Put several airplanes in the air,
separated by only a wingspan, flying as fast as 150 knots and as low as 1,000 feet over unforgiving terrain, with roaring engines, a glaring sun and jarring wake turbulence—serenity probably isn’t what comes to mind. But from a photographer’s perch, a flying machine in its element is a beautiful and surprisingly tranquil sight. As a photographer, pilot and aviation magazine editor, I learn something new on each photo flight and from regular interaction with aviation photographer peers. With thorough planning and an experienced team of pilots, you can safely capture the thrill and essence of an airplane in flight.

Sean Tucker (Oracle Challenger) and Bill Stein (Edge 540), photographed from a Piper Seneca. During the very last light of the day, light fades from the background (here, a lake), but still illuminates the higher plane. Shutter Speed: 1/125 sec.
Getting Started
An air-to-air photo shoot consists of a formation flight of two or more aircraft, where the photographer rides in the lead airplane (“photoship”) and gives positioning instructions to the wing or subject airplanes. While it helps to be a pilot with formation flying experience, it isn’t necessary in order to get successful photos as long as you understand the dynamics involved.

Air-to-air photography is a team effort. Your photoship and subject pilots will make the difference in being safe and capturing the image you want. Because there’s a tendency to show off for the camera (this may be fun on the ground, but it’s dangerous in the air), choose your pilots wisely. “Watch this!” is the scariest thing to hear during a flight because it may be the last thing you’ll ever hear. Take each flight seriously and only use pilots who are experienced in formation flying.

A photoship isn’t the most comfortable shooting platform. With a window or door removed, it’s noisy, cold, windy, often bumpy, and you may be sitting in an awkward position. To mitigate this, I wear a noise-reduction headset and lots of layers of clothing. If I’ll be sitting on my knees, I’ll bring a pillow (some photographers prefer to wear knee pads) to use as a buffer from the seat rails.

Extra care is required with an open door. I secure my camera bag to a seat and wear a fabric helmet to protect my headset. Still, things happen. I once lost a circular polarizer that I had rotated incorrectly, and I’ve heard of much worse. Camera equipment can be replaced, but the last thing you want departing the aircraft is you. Several years ago on a winter shoot, I was bundled up in heavy sweaters and jackets. Unbeknown to me, I had inadvertently unbuckled my seatbelt. As I leaned toward the open door, nothing was holding me back from a hasty return to the snowy scene 8,000 feet below—an alarming discovery back on the ground! Since then, I always wrap masking tape around the seatbelt buckle or wear a climbing harness that’s secured to a hard point inside the airplane.

Other important considerations are weather and timing. Direct sunlight is optimal; if there’s an overcast layer, I usually opt to postpone the shoot. Low light is best; my preferred launch time is about an hour before sunset.


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