Choosing Light over Available Subjects

Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” These wise words are so true even in aviation photography. The repeated attendance of aviation events based on a list of demonstration teams and performers over an event with great lighting conditions is crazy to me. And let’s face it, we go to events to see and experience living breathing aircraft take flight. Shooting static aircraft is really just a matter of waiting for the right time of day. We don’t get to choose what flies or performs in whatever light we want. But we can choose events with better overall lighting conditions. That we choose light over available subjects.

Such stunning light in the late afternoon

In this episode of “Philosophy about Photography”. I want to talk about choosing an event with purpose over subjects of opportunity. After attending countless aviation events over the past 17 years, I’ve become very critical about what show or event I will attend. Just because there’s an event nearby, doesn’t mean I’m going to it. I have a tried and tested trifecta of reasoning for attending an aviation event. For me, it takes great lighting conditions, multiple shooting locations, and subjects I want to see. And having only one doesn’t cut it.

Light and location go hand in hand. The quality of light at an aviation event is directly proportional to your shooting location, show/crowd line, and the path of the Sun. There are numerous other factors that must be considered. Such as, where’s the show/crowd line? And what direction is it facing? Where’s the Sun now? And where will it be later? Does the event cater to photographers? How late can I stay after the show ends? Also, there are events with good light only for part of the day. Wings over Houston for example, the show faces east and at the start of the show, the light is garbage. The good thing is flying tends to start in the late afternoon. The first few acts are backlit but before you know it and for the rest of the show the sun is at your back. NAS Oceana is the exact opposite. The lighting conditions are good until midday and the Sun crosses overhead and then starts backlighting the event just in time for the Blue Angels.

My reasoning behind having multiple shooting locations is, I feel one cannot capture the feeling or present the experiences of a show from one location. There’s just too much going on to show from one point of view. When you do, all your images have the same perspective and tend to look the same. And you quickly lose the interest of your viewers and they either click away to some other interest or continue scrolling past the rest of your photos. My remedy for this stagnation is to shoot the first half of a show in one location and then the second half in another for one-day events. And for multi-day shows, to switch up locations on different days. The results tend to show a more complete picture of the show and I’m able to tell a more complex story with my images.

How many of my sought-after aircraft are supposed to be at one of these well-lit events? I may get to see two or three per show if I’m lucky. But for me, I’m in it for the long game. And with warbirds being my jam, I tend to gravitate towards the larger warbird events like the Planes of Fame air show in Chino California, EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh, and Thunder Over Michigan in Ypsilanti. And even when I make it out to a show with quality light along with the aircraft I want to see, there is still no guarantee that I will add any unique images to my portfolio. Events get canceled, Mother Nature likes to start tripping on show weekends, and unfortunately, accidents happen as well.

Yeah, you can use Lightroom and Photoshop to add filters and layer masks to correct for crappy light. But those images will not be as good as ones shot in superior conditions. And the workflow of processing a set of images from a poorly lit event is tedious and time-consuming. I’ve been there, done that and no thank you. But at least we can pick events that are more in our favor to produce better results.

Thanks for stopping by,

Steven

The Story Behind an Image, Part 6

Ever since 2004, I’ve had a passionate love affair with photography. And come to discover that I have a fondness with photos that comes with a story. Over the years, I have shot a few of them. Here’s the next installment in my “The Story behind an Image” series.

Part 6: The start of a new chapter

This story starts back in 2005 after months of penny-pinching saving, I had finally recovered and upgraded my gear from my break in at my apartment. I acquired at the time Canons new 20D and both their 100-400mm zoom and the 400mm F/5.6 prime lense. But after shooting with both at various events, I felt having them both was redundant. And wanted to narrow it down to one lense I preferred most.

It came down to the classic photographer’s argument of zoom versus prime. What’s more important, versatility or clarity? For me the brighter exposure and its tack sharpness of the 400 5.6 won me over. As well as its image quality was far superior to the zoom and it was an absolute joy to shoot.

Another contributing factor why I got rid of the zoom was during this time in my juvenile love affair with photography, I had a growing concern about the “look” of my images. Specifically, what’s going to set my images apart from others? Especially images from those who attend the same events as I. Since the vast majority of air show photographers prefer using a zoom lense over primes. I chose to shoot strictly prime. But doing so comes with its own issues. The most obvious is its lack of versatility in its inability to zoom. The way I coped with this inability was to concentrate on composition and trying to fill the frame with my subject with little to no negative space.

It’s worth mentioning during this time the highest resolution sensor Canon had was only 16 megapixels with the 1D mk2. Which was totally out of my price range. With such a low megapixel count to today’s standards, tight cropping was very noticeable, and you saw it in the image quality. And my 20D was only 8.2 megapixels and it struggled to shoot 5 frames a second. Without a consistent high frame rate, it made it pretty damn difficult to get a full frame uncropped image of a close flying aircraft successfully.

It was also during this time I discovered I fancied capturing images of warbirds much more than the sleek modern jets. To me, they are like living machines with these old massive engines for hearts. I love the fact that they were painstakingly restored by hand and maintained with great affection. And I sought out aviation events that cater to them. In July I stumbled upon “The Greatest show on Turf”. A warbird show that is held on a grass field in Geneseo, New York. From my apartment in Michigan, it was nearly 6 hours away. If I remember correctly, my plan was to drive to Geneseo on Saturday and stay the night at a hotel. Check out Sunday morning and head down to the show. Then after a day of photographing airplanes in the summer sun, make the grueling six-hour trip back to Michigan so I can go back to work bright and early Monday morning. Looking back now, I was 29 at the time and I know I can’t handle a weekend of that pace these days.

I remember on the drive over being so intoxicated with excitement about the show. I’ve never been to that part of New York before as well as seeing warbirds operate on a grass field. Entertaining all my wild expectations about this virgin show of mine, I drove on into the night. After arriving at the hotel, I found something for dinner and was off to bed.

From the hotel, it was a scenic 30-minute drive to the airfield. And my unexplored airshow questions had a child like rhythm to them in my head during the trip down. The most frequent was, what direction is the crowd line in relationship with the path of the Sun? That has become my main and driving question of what aviation events I will attend. And to my surprise, the event runs southwest to the northeast, with the crowd line facing northwest. Meaning the Sun was to be at are back for most of the day. But come late afternoon, it maybe a bit tricky but nothing that could not be avoided.

I recall flying started early with trainers then worked its way to the fighters. And earlier on in the show the vintage aerial display was interrupted by two New York Air National guard F-16s and performed a couple of spirited passes. I quickly switched over to aperture priority, selected F/5.6, composed my subject and held the shutter down. And as quickly as they showed up, they were heading home. While chimping, I came across the image that is so closely tied to this story.

Since I began shooting aviation events, there is always that one image you want to be razor sharp. You must remember; this was 2005 and the resolution of the LCD screens on the back of cameras were shit. What looked sharp on the rear screen versus what is sharp on your monitor were two different things. The show continued and afterwards I said my goodbyes to sleepy little Geneseo and drove back to Michigan.

After an interminable and exhausting day at work, I finally got to view my images for the past weekend. And to my amazement, the one image I was fixated on was absolutely razor sharp. When viewed full size, you can clearly read the name of the crew chief on the side of the canopy. It’s what this image did for my confidence in my abilities as a photographer and was a turning point in my photographic journey. My mindset changed from “I hope I can” to “I can” capture images with the look I want. Like any creative individual, having the confidence in yourself and your gear is huge. It’s ironic, I went to Geneseo to capture warbird images and unexpectedly gained confidence in an image of a modern fighter.

FAR_71

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< The Story behind an Image part 5

 

 

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Common mistakes made in Aviation Photography

I like to shine a spotlight on some common mistakes I’ve made in the pass along with countless others who love photographing aircraft. Mistakes if left unchecked, can turn into bad habits and poor processes. There are four common errors I want to discuss that deals with aviation photography, but the same infractions can be seen in other genres of photography as well.

The first is pure black shadows. The undersides of wings, tailplanes and anywhere that falls into shadow. If your image were shot in early morning or late afternoon, most likely your shadows will be extremely dark. It’s those images shot mid-day with shadows that are as dark as night that I want to address. Here’s the thing, shadows are darker tones not pure black. Don’t believe me, go outside and take a look. So, why does this happen? One of two reasons. Either it’s a result of poor exposure or bad post processing. You the photographer, should understand how your camera exposes an image and know how to properly adjust your settings to get the correct exposure. If you use Lightroom, Photoshop, Elements or whatever… You should have a good understanding on how to correct and adjust exposure in your software. I can’t stress this enough, Google and YouTube are your know it all friends. Take advantage of them and learn from them.

The freezing of propellers on aircraft and rotors on helicopters is the next issue. When you freeze the rotors on a helicopter or the prop on a plane, you end up with a very silly looking image. As if they’re floating motionless about to fall out of the sky. It’s an easy mistake to make and can be challenging to overcome. It’s a result of having your shutter speed too fast. And it goes against that saying of having your shutter speed be at least your focal length. Meaning, if you’re shooting with a 400mm lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1/400th of a second. Even at 1/400th it’s just barely enough to blur a prop and will still freeze a main rotor. Here’s a technique that I’ve use with a fair degree of success. I’ll start shooting around 1/320th and after each pass of an aircraft, I’ll lower my shutter speed. Shoot and chimp to see if it’s sharp. If it is, I’ll either go slower or stay where I’m at. And if the image is blurry and out of focus, I’ll crank up the shutter. Getting rotor blur on helicopters is much more difficult. They spin much slower than props. Which means you’re going to need to lower the shutter speed even lower. I’m not going to try and make it sound easy. Because hand holding and shooting a large telephoto lens at slow shutter speeds is not. But with time and practice, you can and will find the shutter speed range you’re comfortable with.

Next, let’s discuss poor composition. Not talking about images of flying aircraft. Which is heavily influenced by what auto focus point you have selected. I’m talking about images of aircraft on the ground. Placing your subject dead center of the frame is not only boring, it’s less appealing then a well composed image. An overlooked aspect of composition is foreground and background. Having them cluttered or distracting can take attention away from your subject. I feel the biggest accomplice to poor composition is being in a hurry to “Get the shot” and not thinking about what’s visually interesting and how do you want to show it.

Therefore, I feel every photographer should nurture their creative eye as much as possible along with develop some type of shooting routine. To understand what makes an image “Pop”, how to draw your viewers eye deeper into your image and to connect with them. It’s always good to have somewhat of an idea of what you want to shoot before heading out to an event. Just knowing what it is your trying to capture is a start to having a routine. And it’s part of mine. Once I’ve an idea of what I’m trying to capture, I then try to find the edges of the frame that is catching my eye. I then compose my image, shoot and review. If I’m not pleased with the way it turned out, I then recompose, shoot and review until I’m satisfied. There will be situations where you will not have enough time to go through your routine. But if you have one and you practice it enough. When the time comes, you’ll be ready and be able to quickly go through the motions of your routine to capture the moment.

Good Composition

Finally, is poor sorting of images you’re showing. Showing 7-8 slightly different images of the same aircraft is a quick way to lose your viewers’ attention. If it’s your personal website, Facebook or Instagram. You should be able to find the best images of what it is that you want to share with your audience. Coming up with a sorting process will help you find the right images to show. Having some sort of process and the discipline to follow it is key. Here’s a link to my process that I’ve been using successfully for years, “The Pain of Sorting”. It may work well for you or it may not. You should find a sorting process that is right for you.

With a better understanding of exposure, a newfound confidence in panning, some experience with composition along with knowing how to find the images that best express what you want to show, your photography will continue to grow.

 

Until next time,

Steven

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Aviation Expo 2020

During all the years I traveled from one airshow to another, I’ve always played with the idea of a “Dream airshow”. If time didn’t matter, what would it look like? What aircraft, demos and jet teams would attend. 2020 is looking more and more like a year without airshows due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, I decided to put together “Aviation Expo 2020”, a virtual airshow based on images from my photo archive. There’s aircraft I wish I could add to this, but I haven’t gotten around to shooting them yet. But after searching my vast archive, I did manage to round up a very impressive group of aircraft. Here’s my adventure from “Aviation Expo 2020”

After parking the rental car, I geared up and made my way to the staging area for the morning photo tour. The participants were hand pick and I was lucky enough to be selected. The tarmac was laid out perfectly. There were no tents, Porto potty’s, food vendors or anything around the aircraft to clutter up the background while shooting. Canopy covers were removed and everyone in the group was respectful, courteous and professional. Enjoying the spectacular morning light and the historic aircraft, time quickly passed, and the main gates were open and flying soon began.

Before the morning humidity burnt off, the flight activities started with a vapor contest. Each participating aircraft got 5 passes to make the most impressive vapor. Including prop and wingtip vertices and the showstopper, the full cone. The USN Super Hornet demo team with multiple cones, was the mornings clear winner.

Following the vapor contest, there was going to be only 4 heritage flights. But with so many qualified pilots and variety of aircraft, it quickly got out of hand with all the number of different combinations. But of all the amazing formations, we didn’t get to see a “Thunderbolt Flight” with a P-47 and a A-10.

After the heritage flight fiasco was over, it was time for the photo pass challenge. The challenge was split into two categories, single and two ship. Needless to say, Dale Snodgrass smashed his opponents with grace and style and Steve Hinton came in a very close second. The twin Thunderbolts from Tennessee easily won the two-ship class.

“Aviation Expo 2020” was the largest warbird gathering in history. Aircraft from World War Two to Vietnam was present and flying. The sound of all those historic Engines running at once was unforgettable. There were a few jet warbirds too and they didn’t disappoint. The show set a new world record for having the largest mass takeoff of warbirds since World War Two.

Now it was time for the show headliners. One by one, the jet teams took to the air and performed. The USAF Thunderbirds were up first. Followed by the RCAF Snowbirds, then the USN Blue Angels with Fat Albert doing a JETO takeoff. The Starfighters team got back together for this show. Flying from “across the pond” was the Breitling jet team and the RAF Red Arrows for the grand finale.

There was a short pause in the show come late afternoon. During this time everyone walk the static aircraft and got a bite to eat before the evening show.

As the sun made its slow journey toward the horizon, fuel tanks were topped off again, engines started up for the final performances of the day. It was amazing and the light was magical.

Stay safe and keep busy,

Steven

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