Photo Shoot At 6000 Feet ~ Air to Air
I know it makes many people cringe, but for some reason I love flying. Any type of flying, any time of the day, anywhere. OK, now add to that fact, I hate roller coasters and it probably makes no sense at this point. I’ve flown in open cockpit biplanes, helicopters, private planes, private jets, trained in a Cessna 152, and now I’ve flown in a Skyvan jump plane.
The term ‘flown in’ does not thoroughly describe my Skyvan experience. Let me help paint a picture. Imagine a big box about the size of a school bus, rip out all the seats, leave a bare metal floor and cut off the back half at a sharp angle leaving nothing but a HUGE open doorway about 8′ x 8′, add wings and a couple engines with props. Think…opening scene of Madagascar. But instead of penguin pilots, we had a Hawaiian shirt wearing, long-haired, unnervingly over-relaxed, flip-flop wearing hippy as our pilot. No kidding. That is the not-so-sexy Skyvan, designed to deploy parachutists by the dozens.
I had no plans of jumping, just shooting and my shoe laces when double-knotted. Flip-flops?
With everyone ‘snapped in’ we were ready. The flight briefing and planning was very detailed and created numerous visuals that raced through my head. We would be shooting four different aircraft in the first run; two P51s, a T-6, and an L-39 jet. With engines at full throttle, dust, wind, noise, and pure adrenaline were abundant.
It’s funny because at no time did I think, ‘oh, this is dangerous’. It’s only when I hear all the concerned reactions afterwards, that I think perhaps flying is dangerous. Besides, it was only a 6,000 feet drop…if you managed to not get diced by the horizontal Cruisinarts. I worry about everything, but not flying…goofy, right? I guess in general, aviation is one of the few things that can flood me with a child-like sense of awe. I’m more engrossed in the amazement of the experience, the moment, the adventure. When I’m there no worry or trouble is present, only the adventure. And add to that the concentrated focus of creating great images and there is absolutely no time to even consider anything but the moment.
Here is the challenge of photographing prop-driven airplanes. If you shoot at a high shutter speed, the prop is stopped and the plane looks static-not desirable. The plane needs to look like it’s ripping through the sky, which it really is. So to do this right, the photo platform, in the case, the Skyvan and the subject planes need to be moving at nearly the same speed [ we were doing roughly 130 knots ] with as little movement as possible. Because, ready for this, we need to shoot at shutter speeds around 1/60 to 1/125 of a second. 🙂 And to add variety to the images, I adjusted my shutter speed on the fly (literally, ha). It’s not easy, and the only way to guarantee sharp images is good camera hand-holding technique and shooting in bursts. For every sharp image I shot, 4 to 5 images were deleted, it’s just the nature of the sport.
The coordination between our pilot and the subject planes was critical and their ability to get us over areas with decent backgrounds was paramount. Because after being able to capture the plane properly, the background is the next most important element. These guys knew their stuff and we flew, with permission, into a closed military airspace zone with plenty of forest and very little distracting clutter below.
The next key to making these aerial photos, and every photo for that matter, look great is light. Once we arrived in the general location for our shoot we began doing large circles. With the sun very low on the horizon, close to sunset, it was the equivalent of having a subject in your studio and rotating the light around them as you shoot. After a loop or two, it became clear that there were great opportunities at nearly every angle; front, side, and back light.
With the sun down, our subjects bugged out and we headed back to base. The thrill of chimping through my images was nearly equal to the relief I felt unfolding my legs on the flight back. I was barely aware of the 24° altitude/temperature drop while I was shooting. Now my camera was shaking as I was thumbing through images. Hey, I’m cold. My child-like sense of lost time in the moment was gone, I was freezing. 🙂
The next morning we did it all again. This time with a group of private pilot owners and their single engine experimental planes. We were blessed by some lingering low fog that hugged the trees and valleys below as it was gently kissed by the rising sun. I can only say ‘Thank You!’ when opportunities like this reveal themselves. This flight was shorter and lower, only 2000 feet, but the child-like magic was no less wonderful.
So what do you think?
Ready to go flying, or are you feeling a bit nauseous? 😉