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

Red Bull Air Race pilot Kirby Chambliss in his Edge 540, shot from a Beechcraft Baron. Slowing the shutter speed to blur the background is most effective when flying very low to the ground. Shutter Speed: 1/60 sec.
On The Ground
The most critical part of the shoot happens on the ground during the preflight briefing session, which sets the script for what will happen in the air. In fact, a formation flight isn’t legal unless it’s briefed by all pilots beforehand. Topics to cover include takeoff and landing procedures, join-up, altitudes, radio frequencies, emergency procedures and route. It’s helpful to show photo examples when discussing the maneuvers you’d like to fly.

Communications should be reviewed during the brief. For efficiency and safety, it’s important to standardize the terminology that will be used to position the subject aircraft relative to the photoship.

For multiple-ship formations where airplanes will move on and off stage, it’s helpful to conduct a “walkthrough.” This is essentially a dress rehearsal where the pilots will enact the maneuver sequence on the ground. Things can happen quickly in the air—it’s not a place for improvisation. If it hasn’t been briefed, don’t do it.

In The Air
The question I’m asked most often by photographers is, “What shutter speed do you use?” To capture the blur effect of a full propeller arc, shutter speed will vary based on factors such as rpm and the number of propeller blades, but I find that bracketing between 1/60 sec. and 1/200 sec. works well. A gyrostabilizer allows you to slow it down further for background motion blurs. When shooting jets, you have the luxury of a faster shutter speed, but in either case, you want to be as steady as possible. Avoid putting your lens into the airstream, and don’t lean against the vibrating fuselage.

When setting up your composition, it’s easy to become fixated on the subject airplane, but there are many other elements to consider. Because everything is in constant motion, you need to think several steps ahead by determining what you want and translating that vision into specific directions for the pilots. On each flight, I plan for a mix of scenic and tight compositions. By flying a series of orbits (360s or racetrack patterns), both can be accomplished with a full range of sun angles.

Composition: Scenic
I like to select a location that matches the character or mission of the subject airplane, for example, an open-cockpit biplane low over sand dunes or a corporate jet against a city skyline. First, I’ll position the entire formation relative to the background and then adjust the subject plane relative to my photoship. I state positioning directions on the intercom, and my photoship pilot relays them over the radio. Some photographers may choose to speak directly to the subject planes to avoid delay or translation problems, but I prefer not to press a push-to-talk button in order to keep both of my hands as steady as possible.


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