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When the U.S. Military or any number of the dozen aviation publications need shots of planes, helicopters, and pilots soaring through the air, they call expert aerial and aircraft photographer Tyson V. Rininger. Tyson is a pioneer in the field, and has been notably tactful in facing many of the inherent risks to aviation photographers during his 20+ years of shooting. He’s documented the world’s fastest piston driven aircraft (RareBear), covered the first civilian spaceflight (SpaceShipOne) for Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine, and has also shot from the platforms of numberous WWII-era B-25 bomber airplanes.
Beyond the technical feat of shooting these breathtaking subjects, aspiring aviation photographers need to be prepared for a lengthy and somewhat expensive road to success (read: cost of specialty gear and fuel). “It’s a windy, noisy ballet of machinery that can be both costly and potentially deadly,” says Tyson. “But once mastered, aviation photography is an exhilarating and rewarding experience.”
We talked with Tyson to learn what it takes to gain a presence in the aviation photography space. In his own words, here are his how-to’s for building rapport with pilots, credibility with image distributors, and expertise with technique.
Building rapport in the industry
Very few photographers are able to just hop on a plane and shoot without gaining general knowledge of the aviation world. Aircraft and fuel costs pilots and aircraft owners a lot of money, and they justify that expense with stellar imagery, exposure, and sometimes financial reimbursement. So unless you have a portfolio or come highly recommended, your chances of catching a flight are pretty slim.
But, there are many ways to gain experience and build a portfolio without begging pilots for a seat. Air shows, fly-ins, and other aviation-related events provide excellent access to aircraft and a multitude of photographic opportunities. They also provide an opportunity to meet pilots and aircraft owners, and eventually build rapport over time, which could result in an air-to-air photography session (i.e. shooting other aircraft from the air).
While aviation photography can be thrilling and quite risky at times, your job as the photographer and coordinator of a flight is to put the pilot’s minds at ease, and make the flight as relaxing and organized as possible.
Selecting an aerial platform
I’m often asked what’s the best platform from which to shoot from, other than an airborne aircraft. Unfortunately there is no simple answer because the chosen platform must have comparable performance to the aircraft being shot.
For example, if the goal is to photograph a home-built single-engine aircraft, a Bonanza B35, Cessna 172 or even another similarly designed home-built aircraft would work just fine. However, if the goal is to photograph a corporate jet, a multi-engine aircraft, or other high-speed airplane, a completely different platform will be needed – such as a WWII-era B-25 bomber.
Connecting with qualified pilots and aircraft owners
Finding a qualified pilot requires a great deal of networking. Organizations such as the International Society of Aviation Photographers (ISAP) is a great resource to help you get to know the residents of your local airport (assuming it’s a local shoot). Aviation related forums, chat rooms, and newsgroups can also prove beneficial.
Even then, knowing the limitations of the pilot and the aircraft is a must. A pilot might be willing to fly, but he or she may have little – if any – formation flying experience, which can result in an extremely dangerous situation. Anyone who knows me knows that I humorously mock the ego of pilots – however, most pilots would tend to agree with that. The problem with egos is that they tend to get in the way of common sense, and when a camera is involved egos can turn ugly. That being said, check, double check, and triple check that the crew you are working with is credible – if the pilot is of the caliper you expect, then they will have no doubt done the same research on you.
Note: when you have found what you believe to be the perfect pilot and aircraft, a quick check of the Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) will ultimately determine whether you can legally remove any windows, doors, or hatches. That alone can throw a wrench into the whole shoot.
What few people realize that when it comes to air-to-air photography, there is so much more to it than just grabbing a camera and going flying. I tend to compare it to SCUBA diving – one wouldn’t expect to jump in the water and swim around at depth for an hour without the proper gear. Flying in an aircraft with the doors and windows open can make for a seriously challenging environment. Typical gear would consist of:
- NOMEX flight suit
- Quality gloves (either fingerless or thin enough to allow for ease of work, but still able to keep warm)
- Operational headset
- Helmet (for improved safety)
In terms of cameras, the needs are obviously based on the exact situation, but typically a single camera body and fairly versatile lens – like a 24-120mm – suits most occasions. Lens hoods, filters, and other accessories should be left on the ground as they could prove to be more of a complication than they are worth. (Lens hoods are known for getting ripped off the camera when accidentally exposed to the air stream.)
If you’re shooting through Plexiglas, such as a canopy, filters can cause extreme damage due to the knurled ridges surrounding the edge of the filter. Other accessories, if not properly secured, can become loose and wedge themselves into vital areas where flight controls and other operations can be severely hindered.
Finding the ideal conditions
Hands down, the best time of day to conduct aerial photography is during the early morning twilight hours. The second best option would be just prior to sunset.
Early morning shoots allow pilots to take off once it’s legal to do so and then fly along as the light continues to improve. There is also less chance of turbulence and rough air in the early morning hours. And unlike a sunset flight, the only limitation to flight time is fuel. A sunset flight requires pilots to be on the ground by a certain time, if flying under visual rules, and the changing temperature of the ground and sky can potentially offer rough skies – making low light photography extremely difficult.
Shooting technique tips
Shooting techniques can vary greatly depending on the type of aircraft. Propeller-driven aircraft need to be shot at a slower shutter speed to provide a sense of motion or prop blur. Fast shutter speeds will freeze the blades and make the aircraft appear as though it will fall out of the sky, while blurring the propeller blades will enhance the sense of motion. Typical shutter speeds will range from 1/30 second to 1/250 second depending on the RPM of the of the individual aircraft’s propeller. Jet aircraft are a bit easier to shoot, since there are no visually moving parts and therefore shutter speed is not as much of a priority.
When photographing prop-driven aircraft, sometimes rough air or other stability issues make low shutter speeds nearly impossible. Camera manufacturer’s image stabilization technology can help a little, but if you want to minimize vibration further, a gyroscope may be your best option. Starting around $3,000, Kenyon Laboratories offers the versatile KS-6 Gyro that counteracts most camera movement and can make the difference between getting the shot or adding another photo to the blurry library. There is, however, a catch since using a gyro requires carrying around a bit of additional gear and not every aircraft has the room – so be sure to conduct an appropriate pre-flight check of the aircraft you’ll be using before committing to a gyro.
Start thinking in 3D
There’s one thing that sets aviation photography apart from other types of photography, and that’s the ability to think three-dimensionally. For example: if the light is bad, you’ll need to change the heading of the aircraft to accommodate the sun angle. If the background is busy or distracting, head on over to a more pleasing environment. If the light or positioning of the subject aircraft is poor, depending on the pilot’s skill, re-position the subject aircraft or the entire formation flight.
There are certainly situations that will limit maneuverability, but unlike most types of two dimensional photography, aerial imaging has the potential for more versatility – and creative freedom.
There will be times when you need to hire a pilot or pay for fuel. From a business standpoint, only the photographer can justify whether the outcome is going to be worth the expense. Often times the contracting publisher or agency will be responsible for costs, though it’s still your responsibility to work within a pre-arranged budget by limiting flight time and necessary crew.
A savvy photographer may be able to use their business and marketing skills to work out a sort of trade with the pilot or aircraft owner, especially if the aircraft is destined for public or commercial purposes (such as air shows). The downside is that it’s very unlikely that you’ll receive payment for conducting the actual shoot. Instead, marketing finesse will be vital in order to distribute imagery to magazines and other agencies that will hopefully result in some form of income, justifying all the time and effort put into coordinating the shoot.
Striving to become a full-time aviation photographer can be a lengthy yet rewarding venture. Perseverance and professionalism will reward dedicated photographers with an exciting subject as well as the chance to get to know some pretty amazing people within the industry.
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