April 11, 2015 was an unusual Second Saturday at Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum. The weather was unusually bad for one of these events. WAAAM usually has freaky good luck with the weather for their Second Saturday events, but this time there were heavy showers rolling through all day long, and while there were periods of sun, there were also some fairly heavy showers. Despite all this, it was a blast.
The April 2015 event was themed Dodge Brothers. Yes this is the company that has led to the Dodge brand of cars we all know. There were materials around the museum about the history of Dodge Brothers. Also local Dodge owners brought in their cars to show alongside the museum’s many examples.
Probably what excited me most about the event, however, was they flew a 1929 Brunner Winkle Bird A that was owned earlier by Melba Beard, for the first time after its inspection. Melba was an early aviatrix, who won some air races, ran some aviation business, and was one of the charter members of the 99s. The 99s is the famous organization of women pilots, founded by a group of women in the late 20s including Amelia Earhart, the first president.
I am working on a project to produce a story on this plane and Melba, so I was quite excited to photograph this flight.
If you want your photographs to be great, they need a little something to separate them, at least a little bit, from the way we usually experience the world.
One way to achieve this is from unusual angles. Walking up to a subject and photographing it from a normal standing height, will tend to lend a snapshot quality to the image (of course there are many other things you can do to counter this.) An easy way to give your photo some extra punch is drop down to your knees or all the way to the ground. Admittedly, sometimes you’re down on your belly in places you’d rather not do that, but the resulting photographs are worth it.
A little more difficult is to go high. The positive effect on the imagery is a big part of why drones have become such a thing lately. Other approaches are to have a ladder with you. The high angle does take more planning, as you can’t just get up high without some technological means to get you up there. This is one reason there is less high angle photography in my archives, but I now include some in most of my production shoots, although low angle fits my aesthetic better.
Now get out there and place your camera in a more interesting spot than the pedestrian view.
When Second Saturday and a day when WAAAM needs to shuffle some planes around happen to coincide, great things are bound to happen. One such was 2/14/15, or Valentine’s Day 2015. That’s right the day that is the bane of single people everywhere was a fantastically fun day at WAAAM in 2015.
There is a Stinson SR-8 Reliant on loan at WAAAM currently and the owner came to WAAAM on this day to get it out and begin to get it ready for the 2015 flying season. Moving it outside meant that WAAAM moved several other planes outside to make way for the Stinson to get to the door. Plus the weather shaped up very nicely. It all came together as a great day for an aviation photographer.
The Stinson developed engine difficulties, so the flight we were hoping for did not happen. However, the Waco UBF did fly and that made for some great photo opportunities.
WAAAM had a Valentine’s Day event as part of the day’s activities as well. They had a presentation where they discussed love stories connected to several of the artifacts in the museum. I missed this presentation, having got too involved in the shooting.
Ok, so I’m going to tell you a bit more than just how to light images like these.
To start, I typically place the plane, car, or whatever object I want to photograph the person with for a shot backlit by ambient light, however, you can see in the images included with the post, not 100% of the time. I then determine what my exposure will be for the ambient light and set it with manual mode on the camera, so that it will not change due to any momentary changes in light on set. Typically, I set this ambient exposure such that it is perhaps a full stop darker than if I was taking a “normal” photo.
I have a speedlight in a softbox with a quarter or half cut CTO on it. I typically place this on a handheld boom for an assistant to hold in place, but will use a light stand if I can’t have an assistant on the shoot. I use the speedlight in manual, in the past triggered by a cord, will do it with pocket wizards now. I start with the speedlight set on full power as that will be what is normally necessary. The softbox is also positioned as close to the person as possible without being in frame. I typically have it directly where the subject is looking and about 45° above the subject. Having the light as soft as possible, rapid falloff, and as bright as possible are all positive attributes for this look. I use a 24-105mm lens wide open. Position the person 2 to 3 meters in front of the plane, car, or whatever and shoot a test shot. Adjust the speedlight setting to get the person as bright as you want.
Once you get all the lighting values set as you want, play around with various compositions. Generally you will want to keep the camera low as looking up at the person a little as well as them appearing large in relation to the plane, etc., is a big part of where the look comes from. I think I would actually prefer to shoot this with an even wider lens, but of course that requires some investment.
Once I get the shot to Lightroom, I create a virtual copy. The original copy I will apply a preset I made that increases the contrast about 20, +80 on shadows, -80 on highlights, clarity +40, and vibrance +30. I then set the whites and blacks so that there are tiny areas of both pure white and pure black, although I won’t set the whites darker than the starting point or the blacks brighter than the starting point. The other copy, I choose the camera portrait profile and do a very basic edit on it. I then select both copies and choose the “Open as Layers in Photoshop” option of the “Edit With” command. I then make sure the “camera portrait” layer is on top and mask out everything but the person’s skin. I then blend using opacity to get as much of the “crispier” look of the bottom layer without making their skin look strange.
I then press shift, ctrl, alt e to merge all visible layers to the top (actually I programmed one of the buttons on my Wacom tablet to do all that.) I set the blend mode on this layer to “overlay” and set the opacity to 40%. This creates a glow. I mask that so that there is no glow on the person or airplane. Finally, I open Color Efex Pro4 and apply Tonal Contrast. I mask this so that it only shows on the airplane and the person. Then I might apply a vignette, depending on the individual photo.
In this explanation, I left out any skin retouching etc. This is very dependent on the individual, makeup, etc.
One of the biggest topics of discussion in the aviation photography world is what lens to use for air to air photography. Personally, I don’t think there is one solid answer, so I am here today just discussing my opinions on the matter.
The 24-105mm lens, my personal favorite. I am a huge fan of the camera in tight to the subject with a huge background behind it look. Once upon a time I hated this look, but came to love it while photographing volunteers working in habitat conservation. It makes your subject, whether it’s a person or an airplane, look powerful and important. Of course, for this to work well the pilot of the subject plane is going to need to fly very close formation, so make sure he or she is a very qualified formation pilot. This look is sure to be dramatic, and will make getting sharp images with slow enough shutter speeds to get prop blur as easy as it can be without a gyro. The above image was shot with this lens at 40mm, the widest shot I can find in my catalog. Probably why it is my favorite.
The 70-210mm lens. This is the other very popular choice. While I don’t like it as well, it does have its uses in aviation photography. One of the most important in my opinion, is when you are photographing multiple planes and you want to use optical compression to deemphasize the distance between them. This is often great for formations of warbirds. It is slightly more difficult to shoot with this lens, but don’t worry, it’s not as big a difference as you might fear. The above image of the FW190 and Mustang was made with this lens for the purpose of optical compression. The focal length in use at the time was 210mm.
Other lenses. Theoretically, you could use any lens for air to air photography, at least if you can fit it in your space in the camera plane. One I use sometimes is the 100-400mm. Probably the biggest reason I do this is that my 70-210 is very old and my 100-400 is quite a bit better. However, it does have the added benefit of allowing you a bit more reach if your subject pilot won’t be flying quite as close. The above image I shot with my 100-400mm, because I decided that the presence of IS in this lens vs. my very old 70-210 was an asset I wanted on this flight. I’ve heard some say IS makes no difference in air to air photography, but personally I found a noticeably higher keeper rate.
My first opportunity to learn these things was due to Madras A2A X. 2015 will see the second iteration of this event and I suggest that if you are interested in air to air photography, you attend. The event is organized by Lyle Jansma and instructed by Scott Slocum. The Erickson Aircraft Collection hosts the event in conjunction with the Airshow of the Cascades.
Most importantly, if you get the air to air opportunity, use your own judgment, but do remember what you’ve heard from others. Photography is a creative endeavor, so your personal vision is what is most important, but your opportunities in air to air photography are probably going to be limited enough that you don’t want to fly blind – don’t want to mess up your one opportunity by taking too short of a lens and the plane is a tiny speck in all your photos.
I recently attended my third Hood River Fly-In and I have to say this event keeps getting better and better.
This year I chose not to volunteer, unlike last year. There was more going on this year making me a little less certain that I’d be able to make it, as well as I wanted a little more freedom to photograph. I do feel a little guilty for not helping out, but some other opportunities to help unexpectedly arose.
By Friday afternoon, I was already getting reports that there were many airplanes there and I was fairly certain from this report that it was going to be a great event.
The Parker Pusher was scheduled to fly early Saturday and Sunday mornings, so I made plans to get there very early. I arrived in plenty of time and met up with a photographer friend of mine who had done much work around the museum. We made arrangements to chase the Pusher in a pickup truck for its takeoff run and be in position for its landing. The chase on the takeoff run didn’t work out as well as hoped, but we were expecting other opportunities. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. It was time for the Pusher to return from its first flight and I noticed that it had turned really early for the runway and the propeller was getting very slow. I was so focused on getting the shot that I wasn’t really hearing the radio, when suddenly the driver said something I didn’t catch and drove off quickly for the trees at the edge of the field. When we reached the trees he braked and swung us back around so we could see what was happening. We got turned around just in time to see the Pusher make a turn on to the runway and the skid at the tip of the wing caught the runway, spinning the plane around on to its landing gear. Turns out, the only damage to the plane was one of the wheels broke all its spokes. The pilot was ok, but it sure did scare us.
The rest of the event was just a great deal of fun photographing a wide variety of planes. To my knowledge, it was the biggest Hood River Fly-In yet. Make a plan to come next September.
I’ve heard about this event for several years now, but hadn’t been able to make it. Since the Oregon Aviation Historical Society is where I’m doing the majority of the research on my book project, I was determined to make it this year.
It was well worth the trip. Wildfires in the Northwest prevented some of the pilots from making it, so there weren’t as many planes to look at as hoped. Still there was a good selection of planes to look at. Furthermore, the smoky haze in the early morning air did make the sky look kind of ugly, but the light on the planes was amazing for photography. Smoke can actually make for beautiful light, if it doesn’t get too thick.
The atmosphere was casual and friendly. One of the best parts of the event was conversation with friendly folks.
All in all, I’d say this was an event I intend to make in the years going forward. I hope next year the weather will allow more pilots to get through.
Every Second Saturday, WAAAM hosts an event aptly named Second Saturday. These events include flying, rides on antiques cars, and usually an educational program. I try to make it every month, although weather and other things sometimes interfere. I definitely like to see and photograph old cars and planes outside more than in a hangar and this is a good time to see WAAAM’s stuff outside.
August 2014 the concentration of the event was motorcycles and snow mobiles, but I received the pleasant surprise shortly after arriving of finding out that the Parker Pusher was to fly that morning. This aircraft was a plane built by a Mr. Parker in 1934 apparently from remains of an old Curtiss Pusher that was built in the early days of aviation, most likely 1912. It had removable wings and appeared in movies using this fact to its advantage, because they were easily replaced. If you ever saw the old plane fly into a barn, losing its wings, that would be this plane.
I positioned myself to photograph the plane taking off, and to my surprise there was a lot of flying that day, so I stayed in that position most of the day, and didn’t see much of the other Second Saturday festivities.
For even more excitement the Pusher is scheduled to fly again at the Hood River Fly In, both days at 8:00 am.
I finally did it! I finally flew in a light plane. I finally photographed some planes air to air. What do I plan to do now that I’ve achieved these goals – work towards doing a whole lot more of it.
Several years ago, I read an article in Digital Photo Pro about aviation photography. Aviation photography had long been a field that I was interested in pursuing, but knowing that professional level aviation photography usually requires some special access I had no idea how to go about it. This article gave birth to a kernel of an idea of a way I might be able to make it happen.
This made me hyper alert to any further information I ran into online of ways I might be able to make this happen. I saw several things online early on that inspired me that this may be possible. One of the key items was there are actually workshops out there that teach photographers how to do this sort of photography. Here it was the key thing that would allow me to demonstrate ability in the field in a method that the only thing I needed was money to make it happen.
Unfortunately, money was in short supply and I had to let several opportunities pass me by. I was afraid every time that the opportunity might be my last. Finally, when 2014 rolled around, I received word that a friend, Lyle Jansma, was arranging an event known as Madras A2A X in conjunction with the Erickson Aircraft Collection. Here was the best opportunity yet. It was closer to home than any of the others, reducing travel costs. It was with a collection with which I was very familiar, although I knew them as Tillamook Air Museum up to that point. I was determined that this time it was going to happen.
I threw together every dime I had. I discussed the issue with family and mentioned that for the time being I’d prefer a contribution to this venture to any birthday, Christmas, etc., gifts. Together, we made it happen.
The night before the first flight was quite interesting. I couldn’t sleep to save my life. I was very excited about the next morning. I was also scared that I might be very frightened by aspects of flying in a light plane, most notably, sitting in the open door of the plane in flight. Turns out, none of this scared me when I flew. In fact, I found that there’s nothing like flying in formation with a couple of warbirds while skimming along the tops of the clouds. It is beautiful and strangely peaceful. (Ok, it’s also dang cold, but well worth it.)
In addition to the absolutely incredible flying – first hop with an FM-2 Wildcat and F4U-7 Corsair skimming the clouds in the late morning, second flying close formation with two incredible aerobatic pilots in the late afternoon, and the final hop right at dawn with a P-51 Mustang and a Focke Wulf FW190 replica) – we had lots of fun on the ground. There was the grand opening and dedication of the Madras Maiden party, several lunches with the group, and finally a real cool bbq with the airshow crew to close out the weekend.
Now it’s time to get back to work incorporating aviation photography into my editorial/commercial photography business, where I specialize in people, the cool things they do, and the machines that help them do it; in simpler terms, portraits, planes and cars.
I’d like to thank the organizer Lyle Jansma, our instructor Scott Slocum, and the pilots Scott Slocum, Brent Conner, Mike Oliver, and Greg Anders.
In working on my book, I’ve been doing a great deal of research at the Oregon Aviation Historical Society, located in Cottage Grove. It is a friendly little museum, dedicated to the preservation of Oregon’s unique aviation heritage.
Thus, I happened to get advance warning on a new event they were planning. It took place on June 28 and was titled 1st Annual Cottage Grove Wings & Wheels. The general idea was to have a plane displayed alongside a car of roughly the same time period. This concept sounded intriguing to me and I was anxious to see the display.
The event was planned quickly with roughly one month of preparation. Thus, expectations were modest. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the staff, however, the event exceeded all expectations. There was a good number of airplanes and cars, lots of friendly people, good food, and everything went smoothly. The only negative in my experience was the uncontrollable factor of the temperature. It got quite warm; the most popular food item at the event was root beer floats.
As the event, was so much fun in its first year and every expectation is that it should be better next year, I expect it will be an absolutely incredible event in 2015. Make sure you watch for notice of this event and put it on your calendar. A good way to do this is to sign up for the mailing list at Oregon Aviation Historical Society.