The Lessons behind an Image: Part One

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.

film roll of 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.

 

FAR_90

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.

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The Story Behind an Image, Part five

Using up my Bag of Tricks

Show 6, post 1: Northern Illinois Airshow

On September 9th, I drove over to Waukegan for the Northern Illinois airshow. The home show for Warbird Heritage foundation. I meet up with my good friend and fellow photographer, Rob Wetterholt. It was a great little show with a nice line up of performers along with a well laid out static display. I set out to try again to capture a sense of motion while shooting jets. The weather forecast called for partly cloudy skies in the morning and clearing skies as the day went on. By the time things started flying, the sky was clear and blue. I was a little disappointed about not getting the opportunity to try to do some cloud blurring but it’s Mother Nature, what are you going to do? For this show, I rented the Canon 5DSR again and my old friend, the 400mm F/5.6L. Canon’s 400mm F/5.6L is a hidden gem of a lenses. I bought the 100-400mm MKI and the 400 5.6 at the same time. After shooting both lenses, I was turned off by the softness of the 100-400 and sold it. I shoot the 400 5.6 for years and absolutely fell in love with its clarity and sharpness. Before I sold it and got my 500mm F/4.5, I got comfortable shooting it slow. Like 1/80th for takeoff/landing and 1/160th for flying and getting good constant results. The 400 5.6 is not a low light lenses and does not has image stabilization. But what it is, an amazing light weight sunny day lenses that is easy to shoot handheld. In ideal shooting condition, it’s a joy to shoot. I had my 500mm for about 2 years now and still growing into it. But after returning to the 400 5.6, I’m strongly considering getting it again. I had no problem with shooting it slow again.

Which leads me into the title of this post, Using up my Bag of Tricks”. After shooting for some time, I have gathered a few techniques that I like to use to help capture images that I see. These are not anything that I myself have come up with but things I use to try to make my images stand out from others. While shooting at the Northern Illinois Airshow, I got the chance to use all my bag of tricks. Which does not happen too often. This post I’m going to share with you my small but slowly growing bag of tricks.

show opening for phone

Shooting slow to get a sense of motion and speed

This is the hardest of my tricks and I’m still trying to master it. It is my favorite way to isolate a subject. With the background blurred out and the subject tack sharp, the result is an image that shows a great sense of speed and motion. Here’s the thing about panning, it is the same if you’re panning an aircraft in flight, a person riding a bike or a race car on the track. Panning is panning, subject does not matter. What does matter is finding a stance and motion that YOU are comfortable with while panning. It is not the same for everybody, what works well for me may not work for you. This may sound dumb but holding your gear properly is a big factor too. While shooting, you HAVE to be stable and smooth while panning. Shooting a telephoto lenses handheld and at a low shutter speed is not easy but with practice, you can master it. Two important things I want to mention. First, whatever lenses you are using, keep your fingers away from the manual focusing ring while shooting. It does not matter if your using auto focus or any other type of focusing, if you turn the manual focusing ring while shooting, it will override any other focusing type resulting in soft and or out of focus images. And second, use a single auto focus point along with continuous tracking and shooting while panning. Do not use all auto focus points along with continuous tracking and shooting while panning. You’re going to confuse the shit out of your camera and will result in soft and out of focus images.

With the 400 5.6, I shot takeoffs/landings from 1/80th to 1/100th. Shoot flying subject slow depended on the background to show a sense of motion. During the show, the sky was clear blue and was no reason to shoot slow. But one the Hoppers, flying L-39s did do a very low flat pass that on the bottom of the frame has some blurred tree tops. It is not the sharpest image but you get the idea.

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I went down to 1/30th (5DSR/400 5.6) on the Skyraider “Bad News” to get a full ark of the propeller as it taxies back to the hot ramp.

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Shooting Low

Or I like to call it, “Doing the Alligator”. Laying on the ground with the camera at ground level, shooting up at your subject. The main problem I have with doing this technique is have a clean and unclutter background. Which at most airshows and aviation events is hard to come by. I have seen this type of shot done with wide angle lenses but I like using something with a bit more reach. Along with, I like to drop the horizon as low as I can and show very little of the ground. Giving the subject a proud stance and a strong presence in the frame. It’s fun to do on a grass field too, shooting through the weeds. You can also use this technique to shoot under airshow fences like this shot from Plames of Fame. Just be careful and mindful of your surroundings. People can and will walk on top of you and your gear.

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Shooting High

Getting up and shooting down on your subjects is something I would like to do more often. There are many ways to do so. Many shows and events have portable stairs alongside aircraft so you can take a peek inside the cockpit, it’s a great location to shoot surrounding aircraft from up high. Another way to photograph aircraft from a higher location is to use a monopod, live view mode and self-timer. I add this technique to my bag of tricks last year at the Planes of Fame show. With my Canon 70D and 70-200mm, I extended all the sections on my monopod, switch to live viewing so I can see what the camera is looking at on the view screen, angled the tile screen down so when I raise the monopod up I can see what I’m trying to shoot. With the camera auto focus drive switched to self-timer 10 secs and in aperture priority @ F/4 to have a high enough shutter speed to not worry about camera shake when the camera is up in the air. Depress the shutter button to start the timer, holding the bottom of the monopod, quickly raise the camera up where I want to shoot. Looking up at the view screen tiled down, compose the shot, hold everything steady and wait for the timer to end. Lower the camera and check the results. It takes some time getting used to but well worth the effort.

Tiling the frame

This is by far the simplest trick in my bag and probably the most controversial. I have found that other either love it or hate it. I love it. I feel it adds visual interest to the subject and maybe some attitude as well. You can also combine this technique with others for even more visual interest.

Trick no# 4?

My newest trick I added to my bag I really don’t know what to call it. It’s showing an aircraft in a series of images. Each image can stand alone but place side by side, you can visualize the whole aircraft. I unconsciously started doing it at the Selfridge show. Just another way for me look at things differently and to see new images. This is something I’m going play with, nurture and make more my own.

Along with the elements of design and my mind’s eye, I feel confident I can capture images unique to me.

To view larger images, click on thumbnails

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Until next post,

Steven

Fun With Statics

Show 5, post 3: Selfridge ANGB Open house and Airshow

My normal routine when I’m at an airshow once I get in is to look around at static and shoot the images I see. Selfridge had a very good static display and I took advance of it. With a 5DSR (I rented from Lenrental.com) and my 70-200mm F/2.8L I started shooting. Seeing the image, finding the edge of the frame, compose, shoot and chimp (recompose and reshoot if necessary) Strangely enough, my favorite shots from the show are of my static images. Yeah, I had two images from my Selfridge experiment I was happy with but that is about it when it comes to the flying. The shooting conditions was only good for a very short time and was strongly backlit for the most of the show.

Shooting statics can be challenging to isolate your subject from ground cluster and other distractions. As I’m shooting, going through my bag of trick, I added a new trick. It’s showing an aircraft in a series of 3 to 4 images. Each image can stand alone but place side by side, you can visualize the whole aircraft. Here’s two series I’m happy with. The first one is the CAG Bird from VFA-143, the “Pukin Dogs”

And the other is an Selfridge A-10 painted in special marking for the 100th Anniversary of the Red Devils of the 107th Fighter Squadron.

What I like to do while shooting statics, is to walk around the ramp, camera at the ready and my head on a swivel, looking around for images. When I do see something, I find what is drawing me in and where are the edges of the image. I’ll adjust the aperture if needed, compose and shoot. Chimping to check composition, exposure and would reshoot if I’m not happy with the result. If I find something that has a lot of visual instead, I’ll start to open my bag of tricks and shoot until I feel satisfied I have captured the subject the way I wanted.

When it comes to what lenses I use, it depends on the subject and where it is. I don’t want to set any kind limits on what focal length to use while shooting statics nor would I say that can only shoot static with a certain focal length either. There is no right or wrong went it comes down to what your mind’s eye sees. The question is do you have the appropriate amount focal length to capture what your eye sees? I have come to enjoy using my 70-200mm F/2.8 for statics. I love how it flattens out the perspective along with zooming tight to isolating details. Heck, 99% of my Selfridge static images was shot using my 70-200mm.

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While walking along the edge of the “hot” ramp, I saw an interesting image. As soon as I saw it, I know it was a 500mm shot. 70-200mm was not enough to get close in and isolate the Mustang and the 35 without too much clutter. Even at 500mm, I knew there would be some post process work to get the shot I wanted. Here’s how it was shot.

Selfridge_099 uncropped

And after some post processing….

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The elements of design are not set in stone and not by any focal length, they are only limited by your imagination and your knowledge of how to use your gear properly.

Click on thumbnails to view larger image!

Until next post,

Steven

 

My Selfridge Experiment

Show 5, post 1: Pre-show thoughts on Selfridge ANGB Open House & Air Show

During my time at EAA AirVenture, while talking to many aviation photographers, one thing kept popping up in conversations. Prop blur and how getting a full arc was the “Holy Grail”.

full arc with Doc

Frozen props looks unnatural. When we look at a propeller driven aircraft with its engine running or in flight, we see the propeller spinning. It’s basic photography, creating an image of what we see i.e. prop blur. But on the flip side of aviation photography, it’s acceptable to totally freeze jet aircraft in flight.

stopped raptor

Why is that? Why don’t we try to show a sense of motion when it comes to shooting jets? Is it because we think it’s hard? It can be done. Here’s two example I shot @1/160th. Both using my 7D MKII but the F/A-18 Hornet was shot with a 200-400mm F/4 with 1.4X extender IS (Image Stabilization) which was off, USM (Ultrasonic Motor). And the F-100 was shot with my 500mm F/4.5L USM, which doesn’t have IS.

slow hornetslow hun

Both you can see a sense of motion but I want to go farther with it. So, Selfridge open house is coming up this weekend and there will be quite a few jets flying there. My personal challenge is to show more motion while shooting jets. This can only work if there are some clouds in the sky to blur. Not too many and not too few. Blurring a clear blue sky is pointless along with straight overcast. I’ll be using a Canon 5DSR from lenRental.com and my 500mm F/4.5L. My plan is to shoot in shutter priority starting @ 1/160th and go down to 1/100th. I may underexposure 1/3th stop to prevent blowing out any highlights. My keeper rate is going to go to shit but all I need is one. The idea of this scares me but I think I can do it if the conditions are right.

Until later,

Steven