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.
Shadows before post process
Shadows after post process
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.
John Mohr at NAS Oceana 9/16/2012 Canon 7D EF 500mm F/4L Mk II 1/40th @ F/11
Cobra at TICO 3/10/2017 Canon 70D EF 70-200mm F/2.8L 1/40th @ F/25
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.
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,
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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,
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For the past 14 years, I have had a passionate love affair with photography. Like with anything we love doing, we run into problems as we learn and grow. And the more problems we face, work through and learn from them, the better our work will be. I’m a huge fan of the “Try, Fail, Learn, Repeat” Cycle. And I have learned some difficult lessons in photography because of this learning cycle. Normally this series is about the story of an image. But today I’m going to switch it up and call this one “The Lessons behind an Image.” Sharing a valuable lesson, I learned from one of my photos.
Part Four: Lessons learned
2004 was the start of my love affair with photography. Earlier in that year I got my first DSLR camera, Canons Digital Rebel. With a whopping 6.3 megapixels, numerous 7 Auto focus points and that cheap silver plastic body, it was one of the first DSLR you could buy for under $1000. I loved mine and took it everywhere. And that June, it came with me to the Grosse Ile Air Extravaganza for my second airshow of the season. Of the couple of hundred images I shot that day, here’s a series of eight I want to share with you. It’s of this gorgeous P-51 Mustang.
Of the eight images, for me only one stands out. As soon as I saw the Mustang, I knew there was an interesting image there. And at the time, I was very new to photography. I really didn’t have an understanding of what I was doing. I knew there was an image of this beautifully polished P-51 with a bunch of crap around it. I remember feeling the struggle and lack of confidence of trying to capture the image in my minds eye with the camera. I had two problems. First, what do I see that is so interesting? Where does it start and stop? And second, how do I hide all the stuff around the aircraft? You can see in the second image in the series, there is at least 7 cars, a C-130, a row of porta johns in between the canopy and the vertical stabilizer, some tents over the right wing and what the heck are these folks looking at over the left wing!
To overcome my first problem of what do I see that is so interesting. Where does it begin and end? Here is where the beauty of digital photography comes in to play. With a large enough media card, you have the opportunity to shoot far more than if you were to shoot on film. Since I began photography, I have always believed to carry with you more than enough memory cards. I never want to get into a situation where I would run out of memory while out shooting. Two things I remember many photographers telling me at the start of my photographic journey. One, invest in glass and two, get the largest memory card you can afford. It will give you the freedom to shoot all day and never have to worry about how many shots you have left.
So, I shot the mirror like finish Mustang like a machine gun. I shot with more confidence knowing that at the end of the day, I could explore my subjects freely and capture what interest me. This runs into my second issue; how do I hide all the stuff around the aircraft? How I did it was the easy part. I just positioned myself in a way that the aircraft itself covered up the unwanted clutter. But what I feel is more important is the why. And it is a lesson I have come to learn over the years, but I can still trace it back to this one image.
Knowing where the edges of your images are. To Isolate your subject along with hiding the unwanted and unnecessary clutter. Looking back on the image, when I took the shot, I didn’t know where the edges of that image was. But you can see me searching for them in the series of images. Close, getting closer, spot on, getting cold and then revisiting it. I feel knowing where the edges of your images are an important part of knowing what it is you are trying to show. One thing through the years that has help me define the edges of my images has nothing to do with aviation at all.
It was when I lived in Downtown Detroit and I would frequent the conservatory on Belle isle. There I came up with a system that taught me to slow down and to see what it is I was looking at. Once in the conservatory, I would walk through all the rooms, gear still in my bag, searching for things to shoot and keeping mental notes of subjects of interest. Then after making my way back to the entrance where I began, with my ideas for images, I would then gear up and retraced my steps. When I got to something I wanted to shoot, I would stop, focused in on what is catching my eye. Once I have an idea of what it is, I would set up my tripod, compose the shot, shoot and review. If it is not to my liking, I’ll recomposes and shoot again until I’m happy.
It was the complete process of evaluating the location, finding subjects of interest and the slow act of setting up my tripod. All the while, curiously studying my subject and mentally composing the shot. That help me start to discover where my images began and ended. From this one image, I learned two things. One, to keep shooting your subject until you feel you have captured the image that is in your mind’s eye. And Two, knowing where the edges of your images are. It took me many years and thousands of images, before I was conscious of how important these two lessons were to my photography.
Here I am Monday morning sitting downstairs in the hotel having some coffee still energized from how amazing yesterday’s show was. Wings over Houston 2018, the one and only show I attended this year. True be told, as of last week I was more excited about getting out of Michigan and hanging out with my friend Rob Wetterholt then the show itself. I’ve always enjoyed his level of excitement about aviation as well as photography. This would be his first time going to the Houston show and I doubt it will be his last. As for my blog, I had no agenda of any kind for the show. My only plan was to go and have fun. Last week, I was thinking that I would have very little to nothing to write about along with sharing my images from the show. Normally don’t like the idea of writing a play by play post about an airshow. But because of the access we got, and it was a pretty awesome adventure, it’s worth sharing. I know we all have an airshow or some type of aviation event we would love to re-shoot or redo if we had the chance. From the countless shows and events, I’ve been to, hands down Sunday at Wings over Houston 2018 is that show. Holy Shit! It was amazing!
It all started Saturday, the weather was crappy with overcast sky and a very low ceiling. I was amazed that the Blues flew in that soup. Sunday’s weather looked more promising. Like I said earlier, I had no plans other than hanging out with Rob, having fun and maybe take some pictures. Well Rob knows a guy in the Coast Guard, Charlie “The Mayor” Wilson. He in turns knows Chris Ebdon, photographer, aircrew as well as the admin for social media for the Collings Foundation at Ellington field. Rob and Chris had been texting back and forth during show. We finally got to meet face to face after the show. During our convention, he informed us that there was supposed to be a photo flight with the Collings Foundation F-4 and F-100 after the show but the weather pooped out. But it was rescheduled for Sunday morning. We continued to chat it up for a while and then Chris offered us if we wanted to see the Collings Foundation other aircraft in their hangers? Yeah! Who doesn’t want to see that? So, we piled onto Chris’s golf cart and we were off to the Collings hangers! Once there Chris opened their hanger and…. There was their Huey and TA-4J crammed into the hanger. Chris was very knowledgeable and offered us an informative look at the Collings Foundations operations. We also got to climb around their Me-262. Such a wonderful collection of warbirds.
Before we left, Chris informed Rob and I about the morning Photo flight with the foundations F-4 and F-100. Turns out Professional aviation photographer Scott Slocum was heading out over the gulf in an L-39 to photograph them both. Chris offered to take us in the morning to the ramp, so we could shoot them start up and takeoff. We were all aboard! How often do you get a chance to see and shoot a real live F-4 and F-100 taking off in the morning light? Yeah, and it gets better!
So, the plan was to get up at the crack of dawn and head over to the Collings hanger to meet Chris and head over to the hot ramp. We had an issue at the gate that could have shut us down our little adventure. But Rob called Chris, he meets us at the gate and quickly cleared up the issue. We quickly packed up our gear, piled onto Chris’s golf cart and raced over to the hot ramp. Wings over Houston does have a morning photo tour for photographers, but they were restricted access while the aircraft were started. But with Chris being part of the Collings aircrew, we got to stay close and keep shooting.
During the startup, Chris contact airport operations to see if someone could take us out to the runway so we could shoot both the F-4 and the F-100 taking off. He got a hold of his contact and soon after, here comes a Ford Expedition with Ellington field operations on the side of it. Yeah, This is going to happen!!! At this time the F-4 was started up and was making its way to the runway. We jumped in the OP’s Expedition and we got dropped off yards away from the western side of the runway. It would had been better if we could had been on the eastern side of the runway with the sun behind us. But I’m grateful for just getting the chance to be out by the runway. 7D MK II along with 500mm F/4.5 in hand, I’m ready for this! In the distance you can hear the two J-79’s roar to life. Here we are in the morning light, next to the active runway where the Collings Foundation F-4 is barreling at us! Excited is an understatement!
Personal disclaimer: Wings over Houston was the first show I had shot in about a year. So, my shooting skills were a bit rusty. The image I wanted from this is the burner shots after the aircraft passes us. I got this… sort of. It’s cropped but it works. But more importantly, I’m happy with it. It’s never the one you want but it’s the one I got.
After both aircraft took off, I turned to Chris and said “You know I’m buying you dinner! Does not matter where! Whatever you want!” We were hoping to stay put until the both aircraft returned. We knew both aircraft were going to do a few touch and go’s before landing. But soon after all the aircraft involved in the photo flight were airborne, airport operations came and grabbed us up. We thank them for the great opportunity then jumped on Chris’s cart to head for the other end of the runway to catch them land. Chris spotted out a location on flight line in front of the crowd line to shoot them touchdown. The F-4 came back first, did two touch and go’s before landing using its break parachute. Shortly after the F-100 did the same but with the pop of the burner as the power was added for the touch and go!
Again, Rob and I jumped onto Chris’s cart and headed over to the Coast Guard hanger to see if we could shoot them pre-flight and start up before their demo. Rob and Chris both know Charlie Wilson and he is well known at the base in Houston. The Coasties were very welcoming to the idea! As we are there hanging out in front of the hanger waiting for start of their demo, the alarm sounds! The crew must gear up and go to work! The demo bird on the tarmac is now going on a mission and we are going to shoot them gear up and go to work!
The back up bird was pulled from the hanger and placed on the hot ramp. Chris’s plan was to shoot the pre-flight, start up and then head out across the runway where the Demo was to place and shoot with the sun at our backs. As a seasoned veteran of the show, Chris know actually where the Coast Guard was going to do their demo. We parked, and Rob ask Chris “Is this where we are going to shoot from?” No sooner than that, we look up and there is Debby Rihn-Harvey in her Cap 232 known as the Hurricane 2, nose down and pulls up feet over our head. Chris’s reply was priceless, “Is this good enough for you Rob?” Right in the middle of the airshow box!
Soon after Phillips 66 Aerostars landed, the Coasties Dolphin was inbound to start their search and rescue demo. First pass was their high-speed pass down the show line. Follow by gear down transition to a hover to lower the rescue swimmer, pretty much right in front of us. Being that close, was very exhilarating. Such an awesome sight and sound! I’m thinking, how much cooler can this get?
Well, during the show Saturday, retired Lt. Col. Jerry “Jive” Kerby flew in a freshly painted A-4 Skyhawks from Draken International and was scheduled to leave during the show Sunday. He was heading out west to do some aggressor work. Shortly after the Coast Guard search and rescue demo was over, Jive taxi Draken lovely scooter to the active runway, gets clearance for takeoff, power comes on and the little A-4 leaps off the runway effortlessly on a downwind takeoff! The gear starts its slow trip to their wheel bays and all the time racing towards us! Yet another amazing opportunity!
Tora! Tora! Tora!!! Has always been one of those acts I felt I never captured well until now. Shooting them from inside the airshow box at tree top level with pyro going off on either side of us was sensory overload! Our location gave us a unique perspective of their act, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Orbit after orbit, I swear they were aiming right for us!
I normally don’t shoot video, but here’s a short video of the action from our location!
After that intense round of shooting, the World War II bombers and fighters made their way to the runway. With a close and unobstructed view their take off roll, I dropped my shutter speed to show a sense of speed and the power of takeoff. Once airborne, we had a great opportunity to caught them flying in front of the dark clouds of smoke from the pyro going off. With the lightning and our location, it made for some visually stunning image capturing.
After all that action on the field, we headed to the crowd line before the Viper demo started. That is where we ran into the pretty eyed Zoe “SIS” Kotnik, next year’s Viper demo pilot and the first female to do so. “You Go Girl!” After the Viper demo, we again hopped on Chris’s cart and wondered about for some food. Our pace slowed down a bit until the Blues started up and we headed back to the show line where we shot the Viper demo.
Having seen the Blues a ton of times, the only shot I wanted to capture was the sneak pass down the show line. From our vantage point, we had a great line of site as his sneaky approaches. Saturday was soggy with tons of humidity, and Sunday was fair skies but dry. The day with no vapor, that’s the day I’m going to nail the sneak pass. Go figure?!
Before the Blues finish up and landed, we head over to the hot ramp to see what maybe leaving after the show. Traffic leaving the show is going to suck, so why not hang out with the Collings Foundation aircrew on the hot ramp. As the sun start to set, we find a spot up on show line to shoot from. With the show day winding down, Blue Angels 1-6 along with two number 7’s starts up and taxi out to the runway to head back home to NAS Pensacola. The Blues departure in some very nice crisp afternoon light. Soon after, we hear the turboprops of Fat Albert come to life. With the Stars and Stripes flying from the top of the cockpit, Fat Albert taxi by us on the way it’s way to the runway.
Now the sun sets and the light is fading fast, we hop on Chris’s cart one last time to head over to the Collings hangers. As we weave our way through statics, we hear the sound of a helicopter running about to take off. As we get closer, we realize it’s the National United States Armed Forces Museum beautiful CH-46! Chris makes a formula one pit stop and we dismount off the cart, frantically bust out the gear one more time and started shooting. What a nice final opportunity with the moon in the background. We finished the long but incredibly awesome day at Pappasito’s Cantina for dinner.
I have to give a huge THANK YOU to all the Houston members of the Collings Foundation, Ellington field airport operations, along with all the volunteers, staff, pilots as well as the performers who makes Wing over Houston possible along with all their welcoming and kind hospitality. I can’t thank Chris Ebdon enough for letting us shadow him during the show, You’re Awesome!
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