AeroMark Images: Blog en-us Unless marked otherwise, all images are copyright (C) by Mark Bennett, all rights reserved. (AeroMark Images) Thu, 10 Nov 2022 13:48:00 GMT Thu, 10 Nov 2022 13:48:00 GMT AeroMark Images: Blog 92 120 The Frog in Your Hand My cover story for the September 2022 issue of ROTOR magazine is about manufacturing helicopter rotor blades. The premise was: most people don’t know how they are designed and manufactured. My job was to slightly improve what most people know.*

One of the photos in the piece prompts me to sing the praises of the “quickie” photo and the tool you might use to make it. (The cover photo, above, is not that "quickie.")

Why Not a "Real" Camera?

A fair question, especially to a professional photographer. Well, an event might pop up, unexpectedly, and your "professional" gear is not handy. Or, your phone is the only camera you have on hand. Or perhaps the professional gear is not yet set up or already put away, and it doesn't seem worth the effort to haul it (back) out. Whatever the reason, your smartphone might be just the thing.

So, let’s look briefly at smartphone photography, shall we? And I'll start by cautioning you that using a smartphone does not absolve you of the responsibility of making a good photo.

This frog (or toad?) was on the door sill at my aunt's house in Orlando, Florida, which I would use as my base while otherwise traveling the state for a story about helicopters in mosquito control. I was arriving late at night and, with no street lights or house lights on, was making my way to the back door with a flashlight. Seeing this little creature, I crouched down to her level then aimed my flashlight in from the left. I did not stand and photograph looking down from the top of the scene. And once at her level, I did not turn on the camera's flash and blast her in her face.

If I had photographed from my standing eye level, she would have been small in the frame and the concrete step on which she rests would have been also in focus, to no positive value in the composition. And if I'd used my smartphone's flash, the hard, head-on light would have been unflattering and overpowering on the toad, with the light falling off (becoming dimmer) very quickly with distance.

Airplane or amphibian, good technique makes for good photography.

When Once is All You Get

I was walking down the hall of our offices when I noticed this image formed on the frosted glass door to the conference room. It is the projected silhouette of a visitor, a man we'd known for several decades, the inimitable Jeffrey Pino. He had been a colleague, then, as president of Sikorsky Aircraft, a client and, at this juncture, a client with yet another aerospace company, XTI.

Jeff Pino BDN offices 20151019Jeff Pino BDN offices 20151019

The sun was reflecting off a parked car's windshield, directing its rays through a conference room window, casting this silhouette on the frosted glass of the conference room door. With smartphone in hand, I framed and shot. Ethereal, anonymous, and a bit misleading with the stems and leaves of a plant outside the window — six feet closer to the windshield than is Jeff — neatly projected alongside him. Nice!**

In neither case, the toad nor Jeff, did I need the photo. They were quickies I made because I found them interesting, then made sure to make interesting photos using the tool at hand: my smartphone.

The Good Gear's Not Handy

Sometimes a setting or event are noticed when the good gear is safely ensconced in its bag or case. Something is worth capturing, but it's not worth waiting to pull the gear out, or you're wrapped and the gear's packed and, only then, notice a little something you might find useful.

VHA TR graphic 20220813 2VHA TR graphic 20220813 224F7B3A9-5119-448C-B77E-D6FD8622E710

This wall decoration is near the front door of Van Horn Aviation's offices in Tempe, Arizona. They are one of the companies I visited for the rotor blade piece and, with my regular gear packed and me headed out, I stopped and put this into pixels with my phone. I didn't end up using the image, but notice that I framed it square and, despite the low light, I made sure to hold the phone very still — so, no slight motion blurs which are common with slow shutter speeds. (Obviously I could clone out that bit of plastic office plant at the bottom, but haven't yet needed to.)

Here's the photo that I shot with my phone that did make it into the photo essay. These are components of the main rotor blade made by Vertical Aviation Technologies in Sanford, Florida, which I noticed after my regular cameras were already packed and in my car — I was double-checking that I'd not left any gear behind when I noticed this shelf full of parts and realized I had not captured them close-up. I photographed them from a couple of angles and chose this one for its energy and range of details.

Outstanding imagery? No. Useful? Yes. 

Here's the two-page spread in which the image appears. It serves its purpose of indicating the company makes lots of blades. (They also make the helicopter onto which the blades are attached, but that's another story.)

I flew with manufacturer MD Helicopters from their factory in Mesa, Arizona, to Monument Valley, along the northern edge of the state, as the company delivered cleaning supplies to the Navajo Indian Reservation during the COVID pandemic. The reservation is remote, and the people were suffering badly due to poverty and the low availability of medical care. MD Helicopters flew nearly every week for a year, at their own expense, delivering not just supplies, but PPE and medicines and, in their first couple of flights, chain saws!

The company helped not for publicity, but because it was a thing they could do to make the world better.

The subject here, however, is the photography. While I brought along the cameras and lenses and gyro stabilizer for the air-to-air photography, during a fuel stop in Page, Arizona, that gear was safely stowed in the aircraft, but I grabbed a couple of candids with my smartphone.

What you'll notice is how the near aircraft is in focus while the far one is not. As you might have experienced, smartphone cameras often put nearly everything in focus, especially in bright light. Because I didn't want everything in focus, I invoked the "portrait" setting on the phone, which purposefully keeps the near thing (typically the face of your subject) in focus, and the background out. Of focus.

Here's another candid — the pilot of one of the two helicopters, Dave Salem.

What's to notice about this image? The portrait setting was again employed, but also I chose to look up at him, framing Dave as a hero which, on behalf of MD Helicopters, he was. To learn more about shooting the hero (not what it sounds like), my article on that topic shows the why, the how-to, and the how-not-to. Plus, I just noticed, it ends with a photo from the same trip to Monument Valley!

Love The One You're With

Sometimes your smartphone is the only camera on your person because it's the only one you wanted, even though your intention was photography. Despite their limitations, smartphone cameras can do good work — though you still have to work at it.

AAHF ICE 20210130 10AAHF ICE 20210130 10

For a couple of years I volunteered with the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation at the local chapter here in Arizona. My duties fit my abilities, which meant graphics (promotional cards, certificates, banners), videos (marketing) and photography. Sometimes that last realm was handled with just my smartphone, as in the above.

This member, Bob Warner, was working on the Huey helicopter, one of several aircraft owned by the group. At times I'd just flit around the hangar, indoors or out, and capture the men and women at work. But as I stated at the top, just because the camera is attached to a phone and a calendar and a game player, doesn't mean you can ignore good photography.

I like this photo because it plays around with what is important in the composition. Is it the main rotor mast with swashplate, in the foregound? Well, sorta, since it is near and in focus. But Bob is a human, so our eye is naturally drawn to him. Plus there is strong lighting on him which, whether Bob or a box of Brylcreem, strong lighting in the midst of weak lighting will always grab your attention.

AAHF ICE 20210130 07AAHF ICE 20210130 07

Another candid at the hangar. And another photo playing with "what, exactly, is the subject here" question.

Though this volunteer is relatively small in the frame, being a human he, again, draws our eye, helped along by the bright light just above (though far beyond) his head. Thus, despite the vertical stabilizer being large, in focus, and full of little details, our eye immediately darts to the human, then maybe to the guy in the turquoise, near the light (though it doesn't linger there because we find so little information), then over to the vertical, where we try to read the number then, ooh, look at this big yellow bulbous thing, then back over to the human.

If I had centered this guy in the composition, we would have not lost his importance ("oh, he's in the center of the shot — he's the subject, right?"), but everything else would have been secondary and only partial (on the left, out of frame, is the side of the paint booth). Look at the center of this image — there's really nothing of import there. By composing the way I did, there is interest in the several subjects and there is order to the information.

Alaska-based operator ROTAK Helicopter Services asked me to capture images of their putting over 80 large fans on top of the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion, the West Hall, that was under construction. I arrived a day early, took only my smartphone, and scouted the perimeter of the site, which is huge, looking for possible vantage points for photography. The above is the south entrance, and it caught my eye.

The next day, among the nearly 3,400 frames I shot of their K-MAX lifting and placing and lifting and placing, mostly shot on the roof of the building, I managed to catch a few frames from that street-side location using my regular camera and a long lens.

Why, Oh Why?

As the oft-quoted saying, in manifold variations, goes: the best camera is the one you have with you. If you've got your fancy-schmancy digital camera with envy-inducing lenses, well, good for you. But sometimes, when the need arises, you won't have that gear with you, or it's packed away, or you went without it on purpose. In that case, indeed, the best camera will be your smartphone.

But fancy-schmancy or the thing in your pocket or purse, you have to use good technique and compose with care. It's poor craftsmanship to do sloppy work just because it's just a smartphone.


If you're wondering what smartphone I use, and which fancy-schmancy cameras, I purposefully did not include them in the above because, as much as I really like my gear, the brand and model are not important to making good images.

* It’s a good-looking piece that even non-rotor-blade-purchasing people can enjoy here.

** Sadly, this is the last photo I have of Jeff; he perished in the crash of his P-51 just a few months later.


(AeroMark Images) aviation candid helicopter iphone Kaman K-MAX MD Helicopters MDHI photography ROTAK rotor blade smartphone Mon, 07 Nov 2022 04:06:39 GMT
From One, Many I will tell you right off the bat, the following has the same image over and over — sort-of. If you're interested in seeing some (just some) of what's possible with a single image, jump in!

If you need to scroll through something akin to counting sheep so as to lull yourself into slumber, you might also find value here.

If you have no interest in interesting things, well, I suppose you can do something else. But you're here already, so you might as well make the most of it, right!? But I'll make a deal with you — I'll not ask for too much reading of text, preferring (don't we all) the looking at of pictures.

Let Us Begin

This airplane is a contemporary of the Douglas DC-3, which was known in military parlance as the C-47. This is a Curtiss C-46, which might look similar, but it is actually much larger and heavier and, to my eye, much sleeker. I photographed it at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia, during its single low-level fly-by.

I trust your first impression of the photo is, "yuk," as well it should be.

But that "yuk" is not because this is a bad photo, but because we are looking at the RAW image; the data saved by the camera when I pressed the shutter button. Most RAW photos will look rather bland because, while the camera is actually recording the most data it can, the immediate result is not particularly attractive. What every RAW file needs is processing.

First, though, you might spot a tiny bit of dust in the sky, above the  wingtip on the left. We should get rid of the dust first, but it's just the one spot, right? Or two?

For purposes of this demonstration I have darkened the sky so the dust-fixing indicators will be more obvious. There's more dust than was obvious, right? To find them all, I actually add a removable setting to the image to accentuate the dust spots. And believe me, it is best to ferret them out and take care of them at the start.* & **

Add a minimum of processing and, while it's still blah, at least it's clean.

Let the Processing (Really) Begin

And then, voilà! With adjustments to color temperature, brightness, clarity, saturation, and sharpness, a clean, bold, colorful image can emerge from the blah.

Let's remove those foreground attendees so there's nothing to distract us from this beauty thundering by.

We can punch the colors and contrast which, despite the trees developing a lot of vibrancy and busy details, the aircraft jumps even more boldly out of the image, with its wider range of colors and its smoothness differentiating it from the foliage.

Or, kill the color and the image becomes all about textures.

Here, the textures are muted and the color is almost, but not completely, gone — though with a sepia tone over the whole.

Forget sepia! Blast it with fiery orange! Notice how this and the sepia version have, like, zero detail in the sky. Interesting…

Finally, purple and peach dueling it out for what might be a dawn flight. Or a spooky one.

Why, Oh Why?

My first thought, in crafting this piece, was to show that it takes time and effort to bring beauty to photography. The initial capture is important (proper exposure combining aperture and shutter speed appropriate to the subject and the intentions), but it doesn't stop there.

And beyond that initial capture and that initial processing, there is much that can be done to create an image that blends with others or stands out from them all. Keeping in mind the first rule of communications — get the viewer's attention — consider how an otherwise fine photo can rise above its innate goodness to grab eyeballs by the horns (whatever that means).

* Why so many dust spots? This was a multi-day trip that had me swapping lenses on my cameras. Take a lens off and put a different one on, and off and on and off and on, where every swap is an opportunity for teeny tiny dust specks to waft into the camera and attach to the sensor. I do what I can to minimize those opportunities, but it happens.

** If you're concerned that I left two splotches of dust just above the tree line on the right edge of the image, those are actually birds. I could have removed them, same as dust, but I kinda like seeing them.

(AeroMark Images) aircraft airplane aviation Commando Curtiss display museum photography post-processing processing Fri, 30 Sep 2022 21:56:45 GMT
Too Many and Not Enough A museum could be termed a target-rich environment for whatever the museum is dedicated to. It's why the darn things exist, of course, to put a lot of related things together so they can be viewed.

What is seldom accounted for in displaying a museum's collections is photography. That's understandable, but often frustrating to a person wishing to bring home their own image of what they saw.

To help bring back better photos, here are a few tips to go along with the challenges.

The Challenges

I think the most common challenge to photographing in an indoor museum is lighting, usually the lack of it. Especially when we're looking at aviation museums, that paucity of illumination is probably a mix of the expense of lighting large objects in a large volume and the degrading effects of light on paint and plastics and fabrics. Fortunately for musea, the solution to both problems is the same: throw less light.

Unfortunately for photographers, less light means more work for us. For this article, I wrote several short paragraphs on the basics of exposure, with the pros and cons of the various camera-based adjustments, but that was time away from showing examples, so I've decided to skip it. You can certainly find that information elsewhere in these AeroMark Images articles, and the web is full of it.The other challenges for museum photography include necessarily limited physical access to the items in the collection, items packed/parked cheek-by-jowl or displayed in cases, and believe it or not, sometimes too much light in some places.

In the photo at top, I decided to embrace the mess and construct a multi-frame panorama of the T.A. Wilson Great Gallery at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. It's a beautiful space which, in an exception that proves the rule(?), has plenty of light due to its walls and ceiling of glass. Still, you can appreciate the clutter of aircraft makes picking just one out of the crowd problematic.

High & Low

One approach is shown here — I moved to the floor level above where I was standing for the panorama, affixed a long focal length lens, and pointed it toward the aft end of that airplane dominating the space, a special version of the A-12 high-speed reconnaissance plane called an M-21. The thin-winged cigar atop the M-21 is a D-21 high-speed reconnaissance drone (which, when you put the latter on the former, the joined result is an MD-21). Despite all or parts of other airplanes appearing in the image, this composition makes clear my intended subject, with the drone and its mother ship sharing similar colors, textures, and the pointy noses on their engines.

It's a fine photo that won't be winning any awards, but lets me share the memory with a friend, showing enough detail so we can go, "oooh, aaah, coooool."

Another option for bringing, if not order from chaos, at least bringing aired-out chaos from chaos, if the location affords it, is to photograph from, yet again, a different vantage point. In this case, one that gives the aircraft more individual, visual, space. At the Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center, part of the Smithsonian, most of the early rotorcraft in their collection are clustered in one corner where, fortunately, a winding walkway to an upper viewing level has this overlook. This is not the be-all of views, but as a memento musea it can remind the viewer of the breadth of the collection. Believe me, from the ground floor, most of these aircraft are pretty well packed in there.

You ask for proof of that packing? Here it is. This little aircraft — no cabin, just a seat bolted to the three-legged frame, a tiny cluster of gauges between the pedals — despite my attempt to visually isolate it by shooting near and low, doesn't so much as pop off the page as lead our eyes into the rest of the skeletal structures of the other aircraft and the building. (This is a Hiller YROE-1 Rotorcycle, first flown in 1956.)

The winding walkway is the gray structure on the right edge of the frame; my perch for the top-down photo was along the handrail near the clock face.

Past the winding walkway structure, the elevated viewing level allowed this view of a more recent helicopter, the second generation of a concept flown by Sikorsky in the 1970s — twin, coaxial, main rotors, but instead of twin turbojets adding their thrust to forward speed, a pusher prop in the rear. In the '70s they proved the concept (go faster), but engines, structures, and computers were not sophisticated enough to develop into a viable craft. In 2008 this one-off X2 Technology Demonstrator* began its short life of testing, setting several (unofficial) speed records.

Anyway, the photographic factors are good and bad.

Good? The aircraft is clearly separated from its museum-mates. The fuzzy spotlight aimed at its forward section gives it some prominence. This view shows off the notable features of the aircraft and suggests its scale (not very large).

Bad? I'd say the power cord leading to the light pole is out of character compared to all the aeronautical shapes, which keeps drawing my eye. Also, the fuzzy spotlight is so bright the photo lacks detail in the brightest areas of the blades and fuselage. That spotlight also shows a challenge of lighting I've not yet mentioned: different color temperatures.

Much of the light in Udvar-Hazy comes through clearstory windows, which means the sky, which means blue. Additional lighting is provided by warmer light sources, such as tungsten filament bulbs (yellowish) or LEDs tuned to look the same as tungsten. Some locations might have various fluorescent light sources (potentially ugly green) and, maybe — hopefully not, but maybe — sodium vapor lamps in high or low pressure varieties (orange or extra orange). May the gods of photography help you if you are faced with sodium…

Note that I mention these, but don't really have a solution since as visitors we are not in control of the lighting. If this were paying work, there would be a lot more equipment, access, and control.

Back on the main level, I got down on the ground and framed this shot with bits of the other aircraft visible, but the intended subject is still obvious (remember the fuzzy spotlight helping). I also left plenty of blank foreground, over which text or graphics or inset photos could be positioned. If I wanted to restrict the view to mostly the X2, by having shot with a very high resolution camera and judicious post-processing, cropping still leaves plenty of pixels.

This is the same image, cropped, still good for the full width of a two-page spread (17 inches wide). Because of the distance to the subject, my camera's ground-level location provides only a subtle sense of that position.

The Angle Less Taken

Here's a more pronounced example of getting low to separate the subject from its milieu. Unlike the photo of the X2, I am very near the Huey, so the result is more of a hero shot, aggrandizing the aircraft in a photo as the helicopter appears to many in their memories. Yes, there's still clutter of adjacent aircraft, but the ceiling is obviously not another aircraft, so we not only hero-ize the Huey from down here, but we also better separate it from its surroundings.

I visited the main Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, on the National Mall in D.C., in 2005, but couldn't find an angle of the Spirit of St. Louis that I liked until I wandered toward its tail. There, I was drawn by the range of incongruous details, so this is the shot I made.

The open door suggests an interior, while our normal experience is entirely the exterior. The multiple cables and, especially, the shiny metal shackles are certainly, if understandably, out of place. The fabric skin is prominent from back here while, again, we normally envision the swirled metal nacelle behind the engine. And beyond the aircraft, there's a Ranger satellite and the structure of the building.As a photo of the Spirit of St. Louis, it is not very descriptive. But there are plenty of descriptive photos available elsewhere, so I opted for an angle on the ship that was unusual and placed Lucky Lindy's plane, circa 1927, in the same frame as a moon mission satellite launched less than 40 years later, well within Lindbergh's lifetime.**

A McDonnell F-4J/S Phantom II flown by famed U.S. Naval aviator "Duke" Cunningham is on display at the San Diego (California) Air & Space Museum. It is presented in a banking turn, a bank I further emphasized by slightly rolling my camera.

In the U.S. Navy's National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida, I was pleased to find a Vought F7U-3M Cutlass. What a sweet tail-end of an airplane, right? Sleek and smooth, with the engines snuggled into a flat fuselage and not one tail, but two! (Editor's note: the author remembers this aircraft for its looks, not for its stellar history — it was nicknamed "Gutless Cutlass" and you can learn more about it at

Where was I? Ah, yes — rolling the camera! By doing so I kept the information we see in the image — the shapes and colors — but added visual energy.

At the entrance to that same museum, a Grumman F-14 Tomcat has pride of place on a pylon. I put my on widest-angle lens and rolled, capturing an amazing amount of the aircraft, considering I'm nearly under the missiles in the upper left. The lens necessarily distorts objects/people at the edges, but near the center things look fairly normal. Lots of energy and fun.

Notes on the people: nearest my camera is my friend Gary Edwards, while another friend, John Sepp, is chatting with the man in yellow. The man in yellow — the man without a camera around his neck — is Russ Munson, a very successful aviation photographer, a nice and funny man, and the creator of the photos of seagulls that accompany the novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull. 

In Case of Case

A museum might have items of interest in glass or plexiglass cases, in which case (hah!) additional challenges must be met.

These mementos are displayed at the Louisiana Military Museum in Broussard, Louisiana. Such display cases are often poorly lighted, sometimes with the photographer blocking some of that poor lighting, so a wide aperture is a common, often automated, choice for a properly exposed image. But a wide aperture leads to a shallow depth of focus, so a slow shutter speed would be the better solution in order to keep more of the depth of items in focus. But a slow shutter speed is harder to hold steady and, thus, not blur the entire image from the tiny shaking of the camera during that longer exposure time.

The whole point of photographing items in a display case is to see the details, and yet the photographic constraints conspire to make this situation more demanding than it might appear. We need a small aperture (depth of focus) which needs a slow shutter speed, which needs a steady camera in a place that might not allow tripods.

Fine. In the above photo, I admit I had my monopod with me, and that let me keep a very small aperture for maximum depth of focus, as small as that lens allows (f/22), and a shutter speed slow enough for proper exposure without unwanted shake (1/13 of a sec).

This display case is not at a museum, but at the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office hangar outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. The case contains mementos and a model and, on top, a visitor logbook, this last item leading to an image that illustrates additional problems: defects in the glazing surface and reflections on same.

To keep the logbook in the shot, since I considered it part of the composition, I had to back away from the case, and apparently I couldn't get my camera more on top of the scene. I kept the depth of focus okay, and I was using my monopod again, but that scratched glass, emphasized by it reflecting the nearby fluorescent tube, really detracts. The mixed color temperatures don't help either — low pressure sodium light coming from behind me on the right, and the fluorescent, sure make a mess of the color accuracy, but the intent was not art but memory.

Back to Udvar-Hazy and a case full of rotary-wing aircraft models. I figured I'd make this shot to have the case placed in its environment, but what really drew me to this instant was the kids, on the far side, examining the display. It is hard to discern at this small size, but I love the interest I can see in their faces, and rightfully so because the range of aircraft in there is amazing.

And here's an angle to help support that contention and, believe me, if you are at the museum, this case is worth some of your time. Photographically, I have pushed the front of the lens flush against the glass, which both eliminates possible glare and defects and reflections of the camera and photographer, but also gives me a steady support for the necessary slow shutter speed (1/20 sec). No camera supports are allowed in the museum, so you find the support where you can.

Actually, I should call out that point: I believe every photo I made at Udvar-Hazy that day was made with the camera resting on something, such as the floor, a handrail, the seating or short railings that line the walkways (you can see them in the wide shot of the display case with the kids, which actually might make me a liar, in that the wide shot of the display case seems like I would have been standing to make it.)

Standing alone is another model in its very own, generously sized, case, and again I pressed my camera against the "glass" for the reasons mentioned above. I'm not sure why this model got its own display case, a frameless one at that, with just the clear panels on four sides and the top. I don't even recall what this aircraft is, which leads me to this tip…

Look For Labels

Although I still don't know how this model gained such isolation and prominence, I do know it is a one-sixth scale model of a Pennsylvania Aircraft Syndicate W.R.K. Gyroplane and, well, that's enough about it, but I know those things because I photographed the signage that accompanied it — facts I have at hand because I photographed the label.

And the value of bringing home the photo of the label might go beyond merely remembering the make and model; sometimes you read the label, or only part of the label, and miss a detail or later forget the interesting detail of the particular one on display. When did this fly? 1931. Why did this gyroplane have wings and ailerons? For control, though they were later removed and flown with just the rotors. Was it successful? Nope. On its second wing-less flight it crashed and killed the pilot.

Lots to learn later, as I certainly did not remember those details from my visit.

Plus, if you are visiting a museum with someone less enamored of the subject matter, they might easily tire of your pace, if your pace involves stopping to read each and every single itsy bitsy bit of information and, please, can we just go back to the hotel so I can get off my feet and maybe watch some TV?

You might be surprised to learn that this helicopter is a later version of the helicopters you see flying in the opening sequence of the television series M*A*S*H, the venerable Bell model 47. The military version of that aircraft, of which this is, was known as the H-13 and, starting with the 13J series it featured an elongated cabin and an enclosed tail boom. Nice. But you might not have known that this exact aircraft flew as Air Force One early in the Eisenhower administration, shuttling the then-president to and from destinations not far from the nation's capital.

If you'd not known that, and hadn't spent the time reading the placard at the museum but had captured the placard in pixels, you would be better informed later, in the comfort of the hotel room with your shoes off and the TV playing. Who knows? Maybe it was you who was tired of your pace!?

The Takeaway

Museums can be great places to visit, but are seldom great places for photography. Most often there are too many targets in not enough room, too much to see and not enough light to make great photos. But the best can be made of what's there.

The most common theme for enjoyable and more interesting museum photography, looking back at this piece, is making the photo from some other location than at eye level. By finding an angle to the subject, and possibly an angle to the camera, is both informative and visually satisfying.

Lighting is usually not your friend, so good support in the form of a tripod or monopod can be important. If those are not available, a nearby structures such as benches or poles — or even the ground — are useful alternatives.

Finally, do yourself, and possibly some poor friend/spouse who got dragged into visiting yet another big building full of machines, a big favor and bring back photos of the labels for everything you saw.

Musea may have aircraft that are difficult to see otherwise, or impossible to see if they are the only one made, or the only one left. You, and those who will view your images, will be better rewarded by making your memento musea more interesting and complete. Just a few more seconds behind the camera will give you minutes more pleasure.

* At the time, Sikorsky Aircraft was a client of my then-agency, and my business partner and I are responsible for the naming and branding graphics for the X2 Technology Demonstrator.

** My father was born two years after Charles Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight and, as I understand it, was named Charles in honor of the great airman. I can't say whether my father became a U.S. Air Force pilot because of that connection, but a pilot he did become.

(AeroMark Images) Air & Space Air and Space aircraft airplane aviation composition display flight lighting musea museum rotorcraft Smithsonian spacecraft Udvar-Hazy Mon, 12 Sep 2022 23:49:25 GMT
Background Players I have noted, several times in previous articles, that photographing people at work is a satisfying endeavor and the results are often particularly eye-catching because we, as humans, are drawn to watching other humans intent on their work.

Photographing objects without humans in the frame is usually less spontaneous, but has its own rewards and applications.

So let me speak to a sort-of combination of those two — photos of people, and photos without people. The distinction I'll be making is in the prepositions found in those two phrases: "of" and "without." The latter is a photograph with people but not of them; people serving, as would be termed in the film industry, more as background players (what many have called "extras"): they are there to add to the environment, not as the star.

Where's the Focus?

I'll try to keep this short, but no promises.

Let's start with this photo, to illustrate what I'm not going to be showing, and why. Notice how, despite there being plenty of other objects in the frame, putting the optical focus on the person makes this a photo of a person.

Instead, when I put the optical focus on the helicopter transmission in the foreground, we can still see the person, but it has become a photo about a transmission. We know there's a person there, somehow related to the transmission (they are testing it), but we also know the photo isn't about them.

It may be a subtle difference, but it is also an obvious one. (Can something be subtly obvious? I'm saying "yes.")

So, why not just show the whatever-it-is all by itself, if that's the focus of the photo? Well, including people in these images shows that humans are involved in the operation or maintenance of the whatever, or they give a sense of scale to the scene, or perhaps they just add life, metaphorically, by showing it literally.

That transmission is in the test stand at Schweizer in Fort Worth, Texas, by the way.

Because you're likely seeing this image rather small, the out-of-focusness of everything but the central monitor screen is not obvious, but everything except that monitor is, indeed, not in focus. Still, even when we don't perceive the out-of-focusness, we understand that the equipment is the star of this show and the man is there for some related purpose, but in a supporting role. The man's mask also help de-emphasize his importance.

And if only the image were larger, you'd figure out that the camera pushing the image to the monitor is beyond the man, under that blue poster in the background, looking back toward him. Plus, even smaller in that display can be seen yours truly pointing my camera toward that camera, which is looking at my camera, and … well, that's enough of that!

This is the drone shop (my term) at Helinet, in Van Nuys, California, a company that flies a lot of helicopters, but is not being left behind by remotely piloted vehicles either.

Where's the Face?

Details of rotor blade manufacturing at Erickson Incorporated’s facility in Medford, Oregon.

Here's a scene similar to the first one — techno-machinery stuff in the foreground, someone doing something to or with the machine in the background. That person is only a little out of focus, but by facing away from the camera, they don't demand our attention. We know what in the photo is the subject, but including a person, even from the back, breathes something into the photo that would not be there without them.

For your techno-information, this machine imparts a twist to tail rotor blades being made by Erickson, in Medford, Oregon, and — by the way — the guy is actually on his break and just trying to hook up his phone to a Bluetooth speaker. He asked if he should move, but I told him, "naw, just keep doing your thing," for exactly the reasons I'm describing.

Flight and ground crews discussing the coming day's work — lifting and delivering concrete in this big bucket — wherein by focusing on the bucket, I've put even what might have been considered the main attraction, the helicopter, into a mere supporting role, photographically. Technically, the "face" of the helicopter is toward us, though most of the people's are not.

Mountain Blade Runner, of Montrose, Colorado, would be doing the lifting with their K-MAX, helping build snow-making capabilities on the slopes of Telluride.

A wind-tunnel article front and center (well, front and off-center), in focus; airfoil designer and test engineer, out of focus. Subject understood, people adding life and context without hogging the limelight.

This is the wind tunnel at Penn State University, with Dan Somers, airfoil designer, in the green T-shirt, and Mark Maughmer in black. Notice how, in the previous examples, the people are not just out-of-focus, but relatively small in the frame compared to the intended subject. Showing the people small, in the frame, is another tool for reducing their importance in each image. What if we change that up a bit?

The people are not large in this photo, but they are at least as large as the helicopter. And they are in focus. And closer to the camera. And in high-viz clothing. So many elements of their presence would seem to support their being the subject, yet there is no question that they are not the subject. They are definitely part of the action; part of the scene; but the star is the helicopter.

Think of them as the waiter taking the hero's order in a restaurant scene: they are near and in focus, and might even have screen time all to themselves, but we know they are just there because the script called for "waiter," not because they figure into the plot.

Okay, that's not respectful of waiters, nor of these choker chasers, what with everyone playing their respective important roles, but we know who the crowds came to see. In this case, we are seeing ROTAK flying a K-MAX in Idaho. (Yes, I photograph a lot of K-MAXes in my travels, thanks mostly to Kaman and to some of the operators.)

Small Change, Big Difference

Sikorsky Aerospace Maintenance

I'll finish up with another pair of comparison images, which again tells the story of how adding a person makes a photo different.

It was well before dawn when I headed over to where I'd be spending the day photographing for Sikorsky at Chase Field in Beeville, Texas, and started with some exterior shots. I'd made the upper image and, though I don't see a person anywhere in the frame, off in the darkness somewhere, I must have become aware of them heading to the building, because I waited and, 20 seconds later, made the lower image.

And what a difference the addition of that person makes. The upper image is fine. Well done. A competently-captured architectural presentation.

But the lower image is so much more.

The person is not really the subject, but they are important to the image, which has gained a moodiness by that simple addition. They give the building scale which, without them, we could easily assume it to be smaller than it actually is. And they give the image life.

The Takeaway

People are often the reason we make photos, to show them at their work. But they can be important in images without them being the subject of those images. Keep that in mind, and make the decisions in composition and camera settings that allow people to play their proper role, even if it is a supporting one.

Of course, great thanks go out to all of the above people and organizations that asked me to come and make the images one, or both, of us needed.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace aviation B407 background Beeville Chase Field composition Erickson focus helicopter Helinet Kaman K-MAX Mountain Blade Runner Penn State photography ROTAK Schweizer Sikorsky Sat, 06 Aug 2022 00:17:02 GMT
Opening Wide Journalists live by six key questions when examining a subject or event: who, what, when, where, why, & how. (Apparently these are referenced in a Rudyard Kipling poem, so are sometimes labeled as the Kipling Method — I did not know that.)

Photography can be used to answer some or all of those questions, which is what a photojournalist is tasked with. But even commercial photographers must be cognizant of the questions and, as appropriate, their answers.

Plus, without my realizing the parallels earlier, I now see these questions can apply to the practice, not just the result, of photography. Who is making the photo, and why? What, when, and where are they making the photo? How are they making the photo?

Some of the answers to those questions might be simple: "Who is making the photo? Why, me, of course!"

Then again, you might be hiring a photographer, and "who" can be an important consideration. (One option illustrated just below.)

The other questions might have similarly simple or not-so-simple answers ("When am I taking the photo? Right now, while it's raining. Huh? It's not raining? Now what do we do?")

Halftone of the photographer as a young man.

That means there are two levels of the Kipling Method applied to photography — how does a photo provide journalistic answers to those questions, and what are the answers to those question when considering the creation of a photo?

But wait! There is a third level in which those same questions have relevance regarding the art, science, and practice of photography: Who is going to use which (what) photo, and for what purpose (that last one is actually the "why" question)? When, where, and how will the photo be used?

I often mention these third level questions in my discussions of the first two, though, again, without having recognized the parallels. What is the intent of the photo? Who is your audience? Where will the photo appear? Etcetera.

So, let's look at a particular "how" a photograph is used, with examples a'plenty!

An Introduction

In the nearly 4 years, as of this writing, over which I have been contributing to Helicopter Association International's ROTOR magazine, it has been my photography and a writing style that skews a bit from journalistic that has led to my continued association with them. These are not in-depth pieces, but higher-level looks at interesting topics, marrying that photography and writing with a third element, graphic design, wherein I also design and produce the final art, from opening image to final dingbat.*

These photo essays, as they are commonly labeled, share one nearly universal feature: a strong, two-page, opening image, with a headline and short introductory paragraph that previews the topic. This introductory spread is the answer to a third level Kipling Method question, "how will the photo be used?"

Actually, this first example is the only one that sports only my photography and design work, with the copy written by Gina Kvitkovich, HAI's Director of Publications and Media. Still, the key feature to note about the photograph is: it was made with plenty of room for the headline and deck.**

Not that I knew the headline when I was making this image, nor the hundreds of other images I made to support the essay, nor did I know how I would be laying out the essay. All of that was in the future. But in every photo shoot, I look to include compositions such that, should a two-pager be needed, with room for big and little text, I'll have appropriate images to choose from.

Multiple Elements & Multiple Purposes

A photo essay is not the only time a two-pager shows up. Brochures might need a large image with only a little text. Trade show graphics. Banners on web pages. Slide decks.

Rotor Fall 2018Rotor Fall 2018

Here is the opening spread of my essay that appeared in the next issue of the magazine. In addition to overlaid text, it has an additional photo and a tinted block of color, additions that can find value in those other applications (brochure, trade show, etc.).

As with the previous spread, this one places the visually small aircraft in the broad expanse of its environment. What I've noticed is, when we're in or near aircraft, they seem to fill up the space, but in reality they are tiny machines in a vast world, a vastness that helicopters and airplanes are designed to conquer. It can be good and effective to illustrate that reality.

Fair enough, but it's also not the only way to fit the subject into the environment, or into the essay.

There's nothing wrong with going large, aircraft-wise, and it makes sense here because the story is about this model of aircraft, whereas the previous examples were about broader topics that involved aircraft. The background still serves to put the aircraft in its environment, unsurprisingly water, based on the installed float systems, but there is no question about the subject.

To tell the story of helicopters working on or along powerlines, I used an image that is nearly 50% aircraft, yet the particular aircraft model was not the focus of the piece, as the composition and layout make clear. This also adds the sense of being in a helicopter, and those who have sat where I was sitting will recall the sound and the wind you feel there — a nice little extra for some readers.

This image takes both approaches, in a way — an aircraft that is shown small, engaged in its mission in a large world, but a portion of the camera ship pokes into the frame which, even though it represents a very small portion of that ship, visually consumes much more of the frame. (The people who have sat where I was sitting for this photo are, as I've mentioned in a previous article, a much smaller population.)

Notice the fun I've been having with the typography, by the way. Different typefaces, arrangements and alignments. Each time I'm developing a different character, fitting in with, and supporting, the story.

Again, a subject that is not about a particular aircraft, so the one illustrated is shown in its environment, while the typography is tightly integrated with the image. The development of the graphic is time-consuming, sure, but the results are also eye-catching, and that's your first task for a graphic.

I'll end with a particularly unusual opening spread — one with no aircraft. To really bring home the severity of the Arizona wildland fire situation in the summer of 2020, showing only one of the fires in the dwindling dusk made the stakes clear, and the following pages of photos put the urgency felt by the crews more meaningful.

The Takeaway

When photographing a singular product or a menagerie of equipment, if there is marketing to be done with the images, keep in mind the potential for large images that must accommodate large type, small type, perhaps even inset images. I am not suggesting you must know how such a design will play out in advance, but if all the images you, or your photographer, make are frame-filling product, you'll be cutting out an opportunity to tell the story of your product or service in a single, grand, image.

* A dingbat is a graphical piece of type that doesn't (usually) represent a letter or numeral. They can run from super simple, like a bullet (•) to highly decorative. In the case of ROTOR magazine, the text of each article ends with a stylized letter R.

** A deck is the blurb that follows the headline on these opening spreads. Its role is to help entice the reader to continue reading by teasing the tone and the merit of the words to follow.

*** There is no *** above, so I figured I'd just put one here and share this fact: asterisks are a form of dingbat.*

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
A generous serving of thank-you to HAI/ROTOR magazine for their continued support.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace aviation composition design double-truck graphics helicopter magazine photography ROTOR spread typography Tue, 14 Jun 2022 19:46:19 GMT
Up up up When you, as photographer, are planted on the ground while your quarry is in the air, one of the most dynamic images you can make is from directly below. Not from off to the side and below, but about as smack dab directly below as can be arranged, given the craft, its speed, and perhaps its mission. It can be surprisingly difficult to make a good image looking straight up, but there are applications where these compositions come into their own.

So, Why Up?

I've written about photographing from the ground, which almost always involves capturing a portion of the underside of an aircraft. There are ways of composing to add interest and tell the story. Photographing from the ground to show only the underside can be both more difficult and result in images that are less versatile. However, such images can also be very powerful.

Corporate jet coming out of McCarranCorporate jet coming out of McCarran

Looking literally up at an airplane or helicopter suggests a figurative appreciation for the same. There it is, defying gravity, winging its way to somewhere else, doing what can't be done down here on the ground, in the mud, on this tarmac, or relaxing on the beach with a rum in your hand. It may not be on a pedestal, but it is on high.

These images also tend toward graphical boldness. An aeronautic form framed against the dome of heaven, a stark shape against a background that might be solid or dappled, but seldom (never?) with details to rival the craft.

Examples, Please

First, a comparison.


A lovely photo of a Piaggio P-180, an unusual airplane that, from this angle, is a bit cluttered with those manifold flight surfaces (I count 9).


Imaging it from below, though, cleans up that impression by presenting 8 of those surfaces as matching pairs, mirror images of each other, and the 9th (the vertical stabilizer) not really sticking out, visually. The very plain, though vibrant, blue sky remains the same, but it feels more like a ho-hum nothing in the side view, and a visually important background, graphically, in the bottom-up view

An upside to looking up is simplifying shapes.

Another potential benefit might be not identifying the owner or operator of the aircraft. In the upper P-180 photo, the N-number and, perhaps, the swash graphic on the vertical stabilizer, point to the then-current owner/operator. In the lower photo, those identifiers are not visible.

Cessna Citation Service Center

Then again, markings on the Allegiant MD-80 are still visible, above, and even without visible lettering, most people might recognize the distinctive livery of the Southwest Airlines B737, below.

Each of the above has the major axis of the aircraft running diagonally across the frame, which adds energy to the composition. 

Then again, images can be shot or, subsequently, cropped to align that axis with an edge.

The DA-42 image had the aircraft oriented square to the frame to begin with, and you can feel how it feels different from those diagonal ones. (Full disclosure: I had to rotate the original capture 0.5 degrees. There. Now you know the truth.) This composition is suggestive of an eagle spreading its patriotic wings rather than a hawk streaking across the sky. More static, but also more formal.

Helicopters Too, Of Course

Helicopters are typically easier to capture looking up at their bellies, since even if they are not at your disposal for the photography, they might be tasked with working over a fixed spot on the ground, and you might (safety first) be able to work beneath, or nearly beneath, them as they work.

An S-76 departing its helipad after our shoot. This shot wasn't required for the project, but you can bet I captured it when it presented itself. I will go ahead and call it more than luck that I caught it with the beacon illuminated, since in the 20-or-so seconds that the Sikorsky was overflying me, I caught 6 frames with the red light on. I don't always remember, but when I do, I try to time my shots to have that bit of extra zing.

I will ascribe to luck that this, the best of the lot, also has the two white lights illuminated on either side, just forward of the beacon. Those lights were not synchronized to each other and, including this image, they only appeared "on," together, 7 times. So, to get the red and the double-white…score!

Still, while this is a fine and potentially useful image, it isn't clear what the aircraft's mission would be.

This is better — an MD 500E picking something up on a cargo line. This sky is quite active, unlike any of the previous ones, though not distractingly so. There's lots to see, but no doubt about the subject. (Well, except it would be nice to know what was on that line…)

Ah! Not a what, but a who; a lineman heading up to check on a pull the helicopter had just completed.

This K-MAX was descending toward ground crews who would attach a concrete bucket. Nice.

Not so nice, because the hook basket is blocking the aircraft. If the basket had been the thing in focus, it might work, though even then it would probably be better to have it not shield our view of the aircraft.

A bold portrait of a firefighting Air Crane that had just filled from a pond and was returning to the fire. A strong shape, clearly captured — you never know if/when such an image could find an application.*

The Challenges

If the target is a fixed-wing aircraft, you have to work quickly to compose the image as it saunters or glides or flashes by, so you really need to know your camera and lens. A zoom lens is probably the right choice, and be ready to avail yourself of its various focal lengths since, often, you can capture bottom-up images before and after it is directly overhead, zooming in and out to adjust the apparent size of the aircraft in each image.

If possible, test your exposure settings before the capture event, since a bright sky can lead to the camera darkening the aircraft as it attempts to even out the scene, brightness-wise. Depending on the environment and the lighting, it might even be preferable to set the exposure values completely manually, not allowing the camera to change them on the fly — sometimes a bright cloud might appear in some of the compositions, which could further darken the exposure, or even a reflection of the sun off the paint or the windows, again leading to darker than desired results if the camera is changing things for you.

It is critical to set your shutter speed appropriately for the aircraft type. A jet aircraft can use as fast a speed as you care to set, assuming there is otherwise sufficient light. Prop-driven planes will benefit from shutter speeds in the 1/320 or even 1/500 second if need be. Slower will provide more prop blur, but don't sacrifice overall sharpness — lost if the camera doesn't smoothly track the passing plane during the exposure — for extra blur in the props if you don't need to.

Finally, if what is overhead is a helicopter, shutter speeds need to keep notching down even slower. Then again, the aircraft might not be moving against the sky as quickly as a plane, so usually you can comfortably capture blurred rotor blades without sacrificing overall sharpness. Still, that can be a challenge under the noisy, pounding, knock-you-over downwash.

(FYI: The top-most image, of the biz-jet, was shot on film, so I don't have the shutter speed handy. The Piaggio images were made at 1/320s, while the MD-80 was captured at 1/640s, and the Southwest 737 at a lazy 1/200. The Diamond image came in 1/400s, the S-76 at 1/80s, the MD 500E shots at 1/40s (plenty of rotor blur). The K-MAX images were at my fairly normal, for helicopters, 1/160s, while that Air Crane was not stationary, but moving on past, so I flicked the speed up to 1/320s — enough for some blur, not so slow that the fuselage lost its sharpness.)


Wrapping Up

Photographing an aircraft while looking up at it can lead to strong images. The visual complexity can be reduced, due to the symmetry inherent in aircraft of all propulsion types, and the background is usually simple and clear.

Note, however, the similarities among the above images. Yes, these belly-up images can be useful, but if you shoot a million of a single subject, don't expect to find a million-and-one uses for them. Yes, make these images and, yes, make more than these images.

* ROTOR magazine was suddenly putting a story about Erickson Aircraft, makers of the Air Crane, on the cover of one of their issues. The story was about Erickson's 50th anniversary, and the company had provided photography to accompany the writing. Still, I thought I might have a photo to contribute for the cover, one I had made while on assignment for them several years prior.

And sure enough! I pitched it to the magazine, they loved it, and ran just what you see, with not just my photography, but also my design and production of the cover art.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Thanks go out to the people and organizations that were instrumental in my making these images: ISAP; Coolidge Municipal Airport; Town of Gilbert, Arizona; Falcon Field Airport; Children's Health, Dallas; Rotor Power; Kaman Aviation; HAI/ROTOR magazine.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace airplane aviation belly below beneath composition helicopter photography sky Thu, 02 Jun 2022 03:53:06 GMT
Not So Show-y Not So Show-y

I'm not a big air show shooter.

Chino Air Show 2012

I enjoy wandering around under a baking sun, trudging from static display to overpriced hot-dog vendor to never-near-enough-to the aerial demonstrations, as much as the next guy or gal, but pointing my camera skyward at the passing panoply of performing planes doesn't usually stir my digital soul. There are photographers who relish the challenges and return with stunning photos, which I am happy to enjoy, but I'd rather walk the show with a friend and talk aviation while, sure, watching the flying, but also peering at the stuff on the ground.*

So that's what I'm (mostly) going to share today — those less-usual images. If you enjoy the results of photographing the aircraft in the air, let me not dissuade you; but if you've not considered the visual satisfaction of more ground-based subjects, and would like some examples to spur your vision at the show, read on!

Chino 2012

I've made the pilgrimage to Chino, California, for the Planes of Fame Air Show only once, a decade ago. It was a great show, with a heavy emphasis on WW II warbirds. It was, actually, a bit thin on static displays because most of the aircraft there would be roaring by some time during the day. The field was one of the best I've visited for photographing the aerial activities because the crowd is nestled between two runways angled 50° apart, and thus the warbirds pass by in a banking arc, showing the upper surfaces much more than at shows where the flying is done along a single runway and the view is mostly from the side and bottom. Good stuff, and I did capture many decent photos (like the one above) — but, they are just photos of airplanes flying by, mostly singly, against a clear blue sky. Ho hum.

So, cue the futzing around on the ground!

The First Challenge

At an air show with static displays, people become something either to incorporate or to avoid in your photography.

Chino Air Show 2012

This beautiful polished aluminum XP-40, one of the developmental aircraft of the P-40 Warhawk line, reminds me that not only people, but ropes and stanchions in the foreground, and aircraft or fencing — or even a motorhome — can clutter up the background. If people and motorhomes are not something you want in a photo, shoot to disclude them. (I just made up that word, disclude, so don't fret if it doesn't appear in your dictionary.)

Chino Air Show 2012

Yes, of course, find a way to show all of the aircraft if you want that, people and motorhome included, but here's the approach I'm drawn to: details presented in a graphically interesting composition.

Chino Air Show 2012

Punch up the colors and you can really move the photo from "interesting" to "wow, that's interesting!"

Chino Air Show 2012

The wing is angling up from left to right, while the less-important-in-this-photo fuselage/canopy are dipping down. A good start.

Chino Air Show 2012

And maybe good enough, but by removing the colors, which were fairly monochromatic to begin with, more emphasis is given to the machine gun muzzles (or the apertures for the muzzles, anyway). And going achromatic suggests it's a vintage photo, so there's that…

Chino Air Show 2012

An image that is similar to, yet different from, the previous — fairly monochromatic, but the reflections of people and more in the background have distracting colors and details.

Applying some bold retro toning with scratches, and even a little discoloration on the left and right edges, works to remove any recognizability from the reflections. This treatment really screams "vintage," possibly more vintage than would be expected for the late '30s, but that doesn't make it wrong — we're talking art, not documentation.

Chino Air Show 2012

Again we have shapes and lines going at different angles, with even more attention on the smaller details. But rather than just punch or pull the colors …

Chino Air Show 2012

… I emboldened the contrast, darkened and deepened the colors, and slipped in a complementary background. The clouds are not only appropriate to the subject matter, but contrast their soft colors and shapes against the hardness of the aircraft. Can't you just see this in a man-cave? [Makes grunting noises of appreciation.]

Enough with the XP-40!

Shoot for Scale

Chino Air Show 2012

Grumman Avengers were, I believe, the largest single-engine planes of WW II, and their size is highlighted by them posing behind human-sized humans.

Chino Air Show 2012

Notice how important it was to have the man in the orange shirt guiding your eye to the man standing at (and in this photo, leaning against) the main landing gear. Be honest — if you'd seen only the second of these photos, you'd only eventually notice the human, right? He blends into the shadowy area, in tone and hue, and our eyes went for the cowl and prop of the tri-color model first. It's an informative detail, the man, but it works better when he's pointed to, rather than "oh, there's a man leaning there."

Careful with the Clutter

Chino Air Show 2012

I've taken advantage of the accumulation of recognizable shapes, with a wide palette of colors, to give a sense of the range of aircraft at the show. You can't see any of them in the whole, but there's a sweet sense of nostalgia evoked by framing these all together.

Chino Air Show 2012

However, sorting through the images I made, I prefer this one because it omits the fencing that keeps us, the viewer, from being closer to the aircraft. With the fence, it's "look at those airplanes over there." Without the fence, "wow, we're in among the airplanes."

Looking Different(ly)

Chino Air Show 2012

Framing or otherwise juxtaposing a flying aircraft with non-flying ones makes for a more interesting composition. At least to me.

Chino Air Show 2012

See? Yes, airplane with wing walker. But also Mustangs. And mountains and a power line and trees. These last three elements are not eye-catching features, thankfully, but they add depth and a sense of environment. The airplane in the air is among other airplanes at some place in the world.

Chino Air Show 2012

Seven seconds later I did capture the aircraft, um, seven seconds larger, but with only the aircraft in the frame, there's less reason to spend more than a brief time looking at it. (That out-of-focus thingie in the bottom left does catch the eye, but in a distractive way — if I cared about this photo (I processed it only to share in this article) I would clone that bit out.)

Chino Air Show 2012

You could call it luck, and the appearance of the vulture certainly was, but photographing it how I did, when I did, was a product of being aware of more than the airplane. The vulture first appeared, heading away from me, just above the right wing of the Lightning. I must have guessed that it might make a return, so 15 seconds later, as it came in from the left, I shot three frames and chose the middle one as the best.

Chino Air Show 2012  

Speaking of the right timing! This QF-4E did some solo flying, as well as some flaps-down and nose-up work in a heritage flight that featured a P-38 and a P-51. During one of its solo circuits, I followed it as it passed behind the crowd and picked up this interesting collection of shapes. Frankly, I wish I'd waited another, what? Maybe a tenth-of-a-second, to pull the trigger, so the nose of the plane didn't poke into that antenna, but it's still a fun and less-usual photo.

Chino Air Show 2012

I mentioned, at the top [checks — doesn't find that he mentioned it at the top], one approach to including people in a photo is to let them be the subject, and not just photographing a person standing, hands in pockets, squinting into the camera with the sun streaming into their eyes from over the photographer's shoulders! People interacting with the static or, in this case, the flying displays. Keeping that aircraft out of focus makes clear (no pun intended) that the person is the prime subject. If you were to title the piece, it might be: Person watching a plane fly by.

Chino Air Show 2012

If you would rather feature the aircraft, but show them being viewed by people, then focus on the aircraft and let the people go soft. Either way, the viewer understands your intent. This piece could be: Plane flies by while watched by people.

Whichever you choose, in each photo we understand the story is "people looking at airplanes," with just a slight shift in emphasis between them.

(Sadly, the airplane in these two photos, the sole remaining Northrop N-9M, crashed in April 2019, 74 years after it was built.)

Putting the Phantom into Shape

Long-time readers of my articles on the AeroMark Images web site know I'm a fan of the venerable McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. Besides being a kick-ass looking aircraft, my father flew them in the U.S. Air Force, so my attraction was baked in from a young age.

So, if you're not yet ready to return to more productive activities, I will briefly take you through the basic steps of converting a photo of the QF-4E from capture to a finished image.

Chino Air Show 2012

This is the original capture, the image gathered by my camera, untouched. The Phantom is pointing just above, and to the right, of the sun, so there is very little light striking any of the painted surfaces — we're seeing mostly the shadow side of the aircraft. 

Each of the symbols indicates a dust spot I removed from the image. The spots aren't highly visible in the un-processed image, but I was shooting at the end of day 2 of the air show, with lenses coming off and swapping and going onto my cameras during that time, and when the lens is off the dust can get in on the sensor. Ugh. (I darkened the screen shot of the image to better illuminate the symbols.) With the dust banished, I made my first preparation of the raw image. 

Chino Air Show 2012

Here's how I first processed it. It's a bit hard to see the differences, from the original to this version, so I'll give you a close-up.

Chino Air Show 2012

Original on the left, processed on the right. More punch and more color in the airplane, plus greater visibility in the darker areas. The sky is a bit paler, but that lets the aircraft stand out more. Although I had captured the image with my "longest" lens, because of the distance from me to the F-4, the aircraft was small in the frame. So, time to do what I seldom do — crop the image. (As a matter of fact, only the very first image at the top of this article, another flying shot, was cropped from its original capture.

Chino Air Show 2012

I've put old Double-Ugly** toward the upper right (think: rule-of-thirds!) and left what I could of the condensation streamers in the image. There's some good here, but I make one more change.

Chino Air Show 2012

I think it was that somewhat dull blue sky that was bothering me. Blue sky, blue highlights on the airplane, blueness of the airplane in general, since it is the blue sky that is illuminating the shaded side of the Rhino**. By going with a warm monochrome I have washed away all that blueness and the image becomes more about the shape in the sky. I could try to claim the warm monochrome is also a nod to the final days of the Lead Sled**, and here we see it flying into the sunset, but that event was four years in the future, and certainly not on my mind when I made the shot.

Then again, preparing the image now, years after the Flying Brick** was retired from USAF service, it is fair to apply the monochrome and make the connection as presented here, in the sunset of its years. We're allowed to revisit and remake our photography when we see and feel differently about the subject or its place in the world.

The Takeaway

Air shows are great sources for great photography, and I encourage you to look not only at the roaring, screaming, thundering aircraft in the air, but also at them or their brethren on the ground. Bring home not just darkened skin and a lightened wallet, but images of the details, the visual arrangements, the beauty of what you experienced. Look wide, look narrow, look near, look far.

There's a lot to see when you're there — make sure there's a lot to see when you get home.

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* I stumbled on a very short article by Moose Peterson wherein he shares tips for shooting the aerial activities at a show, plus more formal views of aircraft on the ground —

**Each of these terms is a slang label applied to the venerable F-4 Phantom II.

(AeroMark Images) airshow aviation Chino composition photography Planes of Fame Sun, 03 Apr 2022 19:12:58 GMT
Shooting the Hero Shooting the Hero

he·ro | noun : A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

That definition explains why we look at a hero in a certain way, and that way is up. We put them on a pedestal, at least metaphorically, so we necessarily (if not literally) look up at our heroes.

And that explanation explains the composition we have developed for portraying a person in a heroic manner. A composition that’s called “the hero shot.”

Heroic People

A simple description of such a composition calls for locating the camera below the person and pointing it up at them.


Hunter French, chief helicopter pilot with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, was flying to refuel during search-and-rescue training near Tucson when I captured this, an exemplar of the intended result: an image that communicates reverence. Camera low, looking up, easy peasy!

Or is it…?

Well, we're looking up, but in addition to the man's expression being non-heroic smiling, the wide-angle lens combined with the distance from the man reveals too much else going on, visually — lots of stairs, an orange helicopter in the background, the handles of a stroller(?), all of which draw attention away from the subject. (I do not know this man, as he was merely one of the hundreds of attendees at an airport open house I'd been engaged to cover.)

Here I'm, again, using wide-angle lens, but much closer to our hero. The camera is pointed toward the horizon, rather than up at our subject, but the resultant view is up-looking in regards to his face. However, because Bristow SAR OPS crewmember Chuck Holcome is leaning back, away from the camera, the difference in distance from the camera to his feet, compared to the distance from the camera to his face, optically stretches his legs and, likewise his feet, to appear comically long. Plus, his mischievous expression skews our feelings toward comradeship; he might be our buddy but not necessarily our hero.

The camera is low, and again not technically pointing up, but the lens is wide-angle enough to capture, heroically, Ms. Nichols, a Schweizer employee inspecting components. Surely, inspecting parts so they fit and function is a heroic action. And yet, there's something about this image that doesn't really communicate that lofty ideal. It's a very good photo, but I think because she is looking down, concentrating on her task, it feels more intimate than heroic.

So, what needs to change? The wide-angle lens is not actually the root of the problems in the above images, but let's switch to a "longer" lens and see what we get.

USAF Colonel "Elvis" King is briefing members of the media in advance of the Air Force retiring the F-4 Phantom II from its service. I'm seated and using a "long" lens, looking up at him, so the angle is right. But since he is listening to a question from another seated member of the media, his gaze is a bit lowered — looking out at the horizon would be better.

We're getting there.

Holloman AFB

Another USAF Colonel, Joe Latham, coincidentally at the same Air Force Base (Holloman) but four years earlier. Colonel Latham is standing next to an F-4, in the base's Heritage Park, that is painted to represent the one he flew in Vietnam, that star on the intake splitter explaining why the aircraft is so memorialized.

I got low and pointed my camera up, then backed away so the star would also be in frame, and he is gazing at the horizon — a good photo of a good man.*

HeliQwest Bell 205++ at Heaps Peak Helitac Fire Base

Pilot Greg Heuchert gazes at the Bell 205 he landed 20 minutes prior to this photo. For the Colonel Latham photo I was using a somewhat long lens, so moved back to include important details. Here, with a lens of nearly the same focal length, I moved in closer for a more compact and forceful portrait.

Heroic Homes/HQs/Hetcetera (because "skyscraper" doesn't start with "H")

People are not the only subjects worthy of the hero treatment, photographically at least.

This view of NAS Whidbey Island's headquarters works as a hero shot because the HQ is elevated above the flight line, where I'm standing. Including the anchor adds strength and a bit of grandeur — not bad for a big hunk of iron painted gold. (Note: the photo is from 2013, which explains the no-longer-authorized uniform on the sailor.)

Hines Peoria front vertical

These are not aviation images, but show the basic technique — looking up at the structure. In each case I put the camera low, almost to the ground, in order to look more "up" at the structures. If I'd put the camera at a standing eye level, the viewer would inherently understand that positioning, and nothing beyond "beautiful" would be conveyed. By going low, these imply a greater reverence is due (whether that's true or not).

But be careful to maintain the vertical elements of the structures as vertical in the image.

In this pair of images of the IBM building in Atlanta, fronted by "The Original" J.R. Crickets, I didn't need to put the camera near the ground in order to have the buildings tower over the viewer. On the left, however, using a normal wide-angle lens required me to point the camera above the horizon to capture all the height, with the result being the edges of the buildings optically converging toward the vertical center of the image. That convergence robs the image of heroicism, as it distorts rather than exalts their shape and stature.

So I switched to a special wide-angle lens, one that can shift its optical elements, to create the image on the right. The camera body is actually level, as if pointing directly at the horizon, but the lens is shifted up at the buildings, projecting the vertical edges of the buildings vertically onto the camera sensor. The result obviously looks different, but it also feels different.

I used the same, special, lens for the two "home" photos, but not to capture the Whidbey Island HQ — the verticals are vertical in that image because the building wasn't so tall that I had to tilt the camera up at it.

The point is, the basic approach to a hero shot can be applied to architecture, but it can go awry if you're not careful with optical convergence.

Or, if convergence is okey-dokey, a hero shot can be made of a simple, multi-stickered, sign! It's all good (and it brought us back to aviation, so, win-win!).

Heroic Hardware

Sliding in between people and buildings are vehicles that take to the air. Get low, point up, and heroism awaits.

Except, not always. This Papillon Helicopters AS350 B3 posed for my camera, but the result is not so much heroic as almost comical. It could be the Dutch angle (where I've tilted the horizon) or the exaggerated nose caused by using a wide-angle lens so close to the aircraft. It's a potentially useful image, since heroism is not the only characteristic needed in communications, but let's try something else.

A level horizon and a greater distance from the aircraft, here an NA-64, solve those problems. Let's crop out some of the background, since I don't need it for this article (though it might be used for text or graphics in a brochure, etc.) …

… and here you go! A solid hero shot of a static subject.

Subject in the air? Sure.

I'm crouched in a descending stairway on this offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico, which would have me pointing at least a little bit up at this Bristow AW139, but the aircraft's attitude on arrival adds even more punch to the composition.

This Children's Health Dallas Sikorsky S-76 is departing, but the result is the same — we're looking up and the aircraft is looking good. (Another image from this photo shoot appeared as the Last Look feature in the December 2021 issue of ROTOR magazine (

Krassel Helitack was conducting HEC training with this AStar near a wildland fire in Utah. The angle is good on the aircraft, and we have a bit of unintentionally heroic posing by a crew member.

I even managed it with an MMC A6 drone outside Reno, Nevada. Not all of my shots looking up at the craft work heroically, but this example shows it can be done, relying on both pitch and roll to impart the characteristic qualities we're looking for.

Here's a hero shot that runs a bit counter to any of the others — we're viewing this F-4 Phantom II from the rear! This composition might not have worked, save for the sunbeams bestowing their blessings, visually at least, on our aging warbird. The point here is, if you can break the "rules" and make a hero out of the subject, break away!

I'll wrap up with some true heroes — a project to help the Navajo Nation fight and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. For more than a year, a helicopter, manned and paid for by its manufacturer, MD Helicopters, delivered cleaning supplies and PPE that were donated by the non-profit Native American Sustainability for Veterans and Those In Uniform, which were distributed across the reservation by volunteer members of the community. This image is from Monument Valley Airport where, as with every such delivery, the supplies were photographed in front of the people and aircraft, before being loaded into trucks and SUVs for distribution to those in need.

That's a lot of good being done, so I, naturally, kneeled to raise the people and the aircraft in the view and, deservedly, in our estimation.

(NOTE: MD Helicopters was recognized with the Helicopter Association International Salute to Excellence Humanitarian Service Award for their efforts.)

The Takeaway

The need for hero shot comes up occasionally and you should be familiar with it, whether you're behind the camera or behind directing a photographer (or videographer) to create it. It's not as easy as it might seem at first, but the above dos and don'ts will set you on the path to, at least, understand how to communicate the respect due the subject.

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* I spent time with Colonel Latham just a few years ago and, among other topics, we spoke of our experiences with the F-4. His experiences were in the front seat, mine were as the son of a Phantom pilot. When I was 10 to 12 years old my dad was stationed at Shaw AFB in South Carolina, and twice during our time there we attended an event called Brass Strike at Pope AFB/Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The complete experience is worth its own retelling, but I'll just recount that the finale to the live fire demonstration was a Phantom rocketing over the grandstands, approaching from behind those grandstands, 150 feet above the spectators at Mach 1.1. The Phantom would suddenly appear out in front, afterburners blazing, and only then would the sonic boom reach your ears. Talk about exciting, right?!? Guess who was piloting that supersonic Phantom? None other than Joe Latham. So, we may not have been introduced until 2011, but we had somewhat met 42 years earlier.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace Airbus airplanes Atlanta aviation AzDPS Bell Flight Bristow composition El Centro helicopters hero Huey Leonardo MD Helicopters MDHI NA64 people Phantom photography rotorcraft Schweizer Sikorsky USAF USN Mon, 21 Feb 2022 19:41:15 GMT
The Long and Short of It My previous article, and even the one before that, extolls the virtues of wide-angle lenses for capturing images that capture more of the story and put the viewer closer to the action. That's all well and good, but how about narrower-angle (AKA "long") lenses? Are they good for aviation photography?

Why, of course they are. That's why a photographer needs a variety of lenses. And more than owning them, a photographer should use them for all they're worth. Let's see how.

By the way, all of the images in this article were made in service of a photo essay I was producing for the December 2021 issue of ROTOR magazine, though none of these particular images will appear therein.

Some Numbers

It will help if I lay out some very superficial specifications of lenses. Fear not — I will be brief.

What is considered standard equipment for a professional photographer, one who deals with what I'll call everyday subjects, is a set of three zoom lenses. Each lens covers a not-particularly wide range of what are called focal lengths, are usually built very sturdily, are sealed against light applications of rain and dust, and are considered optically good.

The three lenses cover the focal lengths of 14–24 mm, 24–70 mm, and 70–200 mm, each allowing the same maximum amount of light as the others, denoted by an aperture setting of f/2.8. Their other similarity is price, as they are each somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000.

Let me be clear that owning this trio is not requisite to being considered a professional, nor even to be a good photographer. It just plays out that many professionals find the combination of qualities in these lenses make for a solid set of tools. Your mileage is entirely free to vary.

Xtra Wide

Many of the images in "Move Close and Say Aaah," that most recent article, were made with a lens capable of forming an image with a field of view of 114° — if you put the camera in the corner of a room and shoot toward the middle of that room, the image will include the walls that make up that corner. It's a great capability when you're very close to your subject, or want to put the subject in the wide world, or if the subject is a broad landscape.

I won't show a bunch of those xtra-wide-angle images, since I covered them so recently, but here are some examples to get us started:

It is a 14 mm lens that captures that 114° field of view. In this instance I'm not jammed into a corner of a room, but sitting half out of an MD 530F, piloted by Wilson Construction's Darin Sturdevant, over the desert east of Apple Valley, California. Like the convex rear-view mirror on the side opposite the driver of a car, with a wide-angle lens objects are typically nearer than they appear. Meaning, we're probably 30 feet from the lineman, if that, though based on his "size," he would appear to be twice that distance.

In this case, that wide view puts an awful lot in one frame: a part of the cabin floor on which I'm (half) sitting, the pilot, the skid (with an actual convex mirror!), the transmission tower and lineman, and a wide swath of the rising terrain in the near distance.

This is looking out from a Bell 429 owned by Salt River Project, a public utility in Arizona. They were hunting for a fault in one of their transmission lines, and I tagged along hunting for an image I needed. Gaze in wonder at how much of the interior I was able to put in one shot, from the audio system at the bottom to the rotor brake at top, from SRP Senior Engineer Daryl Chipman, on the left, to Senior Pilot Nick Quevedo, well, the back of Nick's head, on the right. That plus the beautiful scenery, of course.

In the back of the 429, where I was sitting, EHV Inspector Mike Deubler would be looking for the fault through the open door, though it's closed while we are en route to the requisite segment. This focal length, while not super wide, allowed for a pleasant portrait of Mike that includes both the aircraft and the scenery.


The previous three images were shot with my 14-24 mm lens. Next we'll see images from my 24–70, all capturing scenes related to helisawing, starting with this one.

Using a 24 mm lens allowed me to both show the landing zone, with its variety of equipment and vehicles, and to connect the business end of the helisaw with the aircraft that would loft it, an MD 500D, seen here idling during its fuel stop.

Notice the anti-collision light illuminated on the belly of the aircraft? It is not an accident that I have images with that light visible — by pressing the shutter release when I know the light will be on, I help the viewer notice the aircraft and visually connect it to the saw. That was especially helpful in this image, since the aircraft is small in the frame, out of focus, and doesn't particularly stand out against those trees.

The more aviation-savvy among you will also understand that the collision light being "on" means the aircraft is, at least to some degree, powered up. And though it's not clear that the blades are turning, it is fairly clear that they're not sitting still, either. Otherwise, we'd see them as lines drooping from the rotor head.

Those small details add energy to the scene because without them, nothing in the scene is in motion. It would be a still life with jagged teeth: a slight breeze, maybe birds chirping? But knowing the helicopter is powered up means activity; blades are whirring, gears are meshing, the smell of jet fuel exhaust is in the air — something is happening!

Soon enough, the aircraft picks up the 27-foot-long helisaw on the end of a 90-foot-long cable/conduit, which presents a lot of action and a lot of length to keep in the frame.

At my 24 mm focal length, the image spans 84° of height. I would have preferred an even wider lens, but this was as wide as I had mounted on this camera (with an even narrower-angle lens on my other camera). I judge it plenty good enough, and the right compromise. To add some "air," at the top or bottom of the image, I would have needed to be farther from the action, or closer. Moving in either direction would have taken too much time — things were happening fast — so I made the best of it, with the gear in my hands.

That's helicopter operator Rotor Blade's Jeremy D'Hondt manhandling the helisaw from the MD 500D, by the way.

Notice the difference between the image of the blue helicopter, lifting off with the saw, and this white-and-yellow one: the anti-collision light adds just a bit of energy, of liveliness, to what is an otherwise perfectly good photo, except now it's perfectly better! This MD 500D is owned by Aerial Solutions, and hacking away at the powerline right-of-way is pilot Andrew Hansen.

That Aerial Solutions aircraft was busy moving back and forth, trimming and trimming some more. That allowed me time to move around and capture different compositions, despite my being stuck to the ground. At first glance this image and the one just prior are quite similar (down to the anti-collision light, I'll note), containing the same basic building blocks of: aircraft, helisaw, the connection between them, trees, and the power lines for which the helisaw is doing its thing.

Yes, the helisaw is a smidgen truncated in this image, but it's clear what's going on. Notice, though, how by using a focal length that is twice as long we see the aircraft much larger in the frame. Not frame-filling, but larger. This doesn't make the second photo better, in and of itself, since that comparative requires an answer to the question, "better for what?" But same aircraft in the same setting, yet different photos by dint of turning the zoom ring on the lens — which means more options to apply those photos as you might need.

With the aircraft working much farther away from me, I stretch to the long end of the 24–70 mm lens and necessarily include more of the environment. I had to carefully time my shot to frame the 500D, and the saw, against the sky. If I had captured them against the trees, as small as they are in the frame, they would have been quickly swallowed up by the visual clutter.

Back to the Rotor Blade ship, now air-to-air. To witness the action from a bit above it, I again face a cluster of clutter, so timing is again crucial. In this case, I was alert for views that let me frame the aircraft against smoother, lower-contrast, ground. And since I don't have direct control of the aircraft in which I'm riding, and the helisawing aircraft is doing its thing, to come home with this one, I shot a lot in the brief time that this swath of open ground was available — 8 shots in 11 seconds.

(FYI: I'm not one to set the camera to shoot-shoot-shoot, in a continuous mode. I bring home enough raw images as it is without, perhaps, trebling that number by selecting 10-frames-per-second (or higher, depending on the camera), then holding down the shutter button. Some shooters do shoot in continuous mode, and if that's what works for them, or for you, have at it.)

Going Long

One image I hoped to bring home, though, would include a "larger" aircraft along with the helisaw. And that means getting more on-top of the action; tough to do as the helisaw-slinging aircraft was constantly in motion.

Here's one! And you'll note I opted for a really slow shutter speed (the subject of yet another recent article), to help separate the aircraft from the visually busy background, which definitely works by putting a smooth, circular element among what are otherwise angular mechanical or random natural ones.

With this one done, I asked my pilot to get us ahead of the other aircraft's nose, and even more directly above it.

He got me where I asked, but, dang it! We got so much on top that I picked up our own skid in the frame. I would have preferred to have been half-out-sitting, like I was doing near Apple Valley, since that allowed me to lean out away from the landing gear, but due to circumstances, I was riding shotgun in the front of another MD 500D, strapped in tight.

(Could the pilot have leaned our aircraft over a bit, to roll the skid away from the view? Unfortunately not. A fixed-wing aircraft can fly straight while not being level, flying out of trim in a roll, but a rotary-winged one can't do that — the direction it leans is the direction it goes!)

When Rotor Blade groundsman Travis Warren entered the scene, I switched to my other camera, the one with the longer lens, and put together this shot. The long lens compressed the elements of the scene, still tying together the saw and the aircraft, while simplifying the composition with none of that wider collection of machinery and vehicles.

The focus, both literal and figurative, is on Travis, which was obviously my intent. Our eyes might start with the red can, then switch to the in-focus Travis when we realize the fuel can is not the main point of the image. Then our gaze slides up to the aircraft, follows the cable/conduit down to the saw, which by running off the bottom of the image might lead us to leave, but we lose interest in following that path since the nearest saw blade's teeth are severely out of focus, and our attention jumps back to Travis.

There had been many opportunities to have made this shot earlier, but I just wasn't drawn to doing so when it was just "helicopter against trees." But now, stretching my zoom out to nearly the limit on this lens, I have found a reason to feature the helicopter: something was happening over there.

In addition to having a person in the frame, there are subtleties that give it a boost: the aircraft is crisp against the blurry background and viewed rather formally from the nose; Travis' arm calls attention to his action; the cable/conduit gives us a clue to the mission without distracting us with actual saw blades, and the dark shady trees to the left, with the ground shadows cast by other, out-of-frame, trees, form a dark triangle that points to the groundsman and the aircraft.

Do I claim to have "seen" all those elements at the moment I was pressing the shutter button? Honestly, no, but that doesn't mean I didn't "feel" the goodness of the composition. I'll call it intuition, which is nothing magic — it comes from doing a thing so much that we understand and react to situations seemingly faster than we could have perceived all of the conditions on which we drew a conclusion or took some action. For a working photographer, a composition is captured with adjustments to camera and lens settings, plus the timing of the shutter release, such that good things are, indeed, captured without the benefit of point-by-point evaluation.

Back to the photography!

Perhaps a bit paradoxically, I'm using the longest end of that 70–200 mm lens to create a wide view of the mission. Putting the subject aircraft against the sky, rather than against those visually busy trees, means there's no competition for distinguishing it. The cable/conduit points straight down to the saw, so even that isn't lost against the foliage, and the activity is in place along the right-of-way through the forest among the mountains of northeastern Georgia, USA. We see a complete story and get a view of the world as seen by a helisaw pilot.

Or, using the same focal length but capturing the other helisawing operation, from the ground, and this one is (almost) all about the aircraft. "Almost" because we see Andrew Hansen peering down toward the saw, and we see the growth he is tasked with trimming. So, while this is not as complete a story as the preceding image, it is much more than "photo of helicopter against sky."

Pulling Out the Really Long One

I usually bring along another lens when the project will have me photographing from the ground. It picks up where the longest of the standard three leaves off — 200–500 mm. It is larger, of course, than the other lenses (basically, it looks like a chunkier version of the 70–200), so it's less handy to use, but it comes in, well, okay, it comes in handy when I need to really reach out.

The result, here, is indeed "helicopter against sky," though it shows off the framework for the helisaw carriage. Lots of good detail, actually, including of Jeremy D'Hondt eying his work in progress.

And for our final image, at the very end of the long-lens focal length, we again see Andrew watching what he's doing with 27 feet of angry, whirling saw blades. (And I got the red light on the tail!)

Really, though, I include this shot mostly for completeness: I would have preferred the aircraft not be visually tangled in the trees — "just a little bit higher" I was probably yelling in my head — but I brought it home anyway, 'cuz you never know when an image will have value. Maybe the value here is purely educational, but it's something…

The Wrap

I know there was some jumping back and forth between operators and timeframes, but I wanted to keep the flow of focal lengths going in order, so you could see the variety of applications. The lesson here is that focal lengths are not always tied to what might seem their obvious applications: wide-angle lenses used only for nearby subjects, and long-focal-length lenses to bring far things visually close. The lenses do work in those situations, but can also be wide-angle shots of far-away subjects and long-focal-length shots that show a wide vista.

In short, you should not only choose wisely, but choose widely, using a variety of lenses and zooming in or out to bring back more options for yourself or for your client.

Thank You

Thanks to the many operators, and the fine people working for them, that generously allowed me to visit and photograph their ops in action. Again and more specifically, from the top, I thank Ron Stewart of Wilson Construction, Mark Wegele at Salt River Project, Rotor Blade's Ashley D'Attilio, and Cleve Cox from Aerial Solutions. Everyone was kind and accommodating, and I couldn't visually tell these stories without their cooperation.

And a big thank-you to Gina Kvitkovich at Helicopter Association International for again entrusting me to show the rotorcraft world the important work done by the people and companies in this industry.

Fun Fact!

Not including this last paragraph, the above article runs a bit over 2,900 words. The photo essay that resulted from the above, plus the other photography I produced for it, has only 798 words. Even including photo captions it is only 1,200 — how fun is that?!

(AeroMark Images) aerial solutions aerospace air-to-air angle of view Apple Valley Arizona aviation Bell 429 Bell Flight California composition environment framing Georgia helicopter helisaw lens lenses MD Helicopters MDHI photography power line powerline rotor blade Salt River Project SRP story technique wide-angle zoom Mon, 27 Dec 2021 04:57:56 GMT
Move Close and Say Aaah My previous article was about photographing mosquito control helicopters in Florida. My current efforts have me crisscrossing the country in search of powerline helicopters — the action is more varied than battling mosquitos, and carried out at slower speeds, which combine for more opportunities in a variety of activities and locations.

Actually, at this moment, I have been to but a single location, near Belen, New Mexico, and there flew with the company Rotor Power, but I'll soon be off to wherever else I can capture the stories and images needed for my upcoming photo essay in ROTOR magazine.

But enough about the the future — what about the (very recent) past?

Setting the Stage

If you're selling a widget, photos of widgets sitting on a table would be a bare minimum, and a widget in action is even better. Of course, sometimes the widget is inside other widgets when the action is happening.

If your widget works inside of, or applied from, a helicopter, and especially if you're selling helicopters, it's definitely best to show the helicopter in action. The above shows a lineman installing vibration dampeners on a combination fiber-optic/static line. Nothing wrong with this shot, and it might make it into the essay (though there are still thousands of shots for me to take!).

For a photo essay — or for a longer marketing piece like a brochure or as part of a web presentation — you need a story, and stories work better if there is a setting for the action. One plus (among several) for the above photo is it tells a story by including the objects and the action, and also the setting, near (towers) and far (plains and mountains). To accomplish this, I relied on a nimble aircraft, good piloting, an idea of what I wanted to show, and the appropriate camera gear — namely, a wide-angle* lens.

* Another term for "wide-angle" is "short focal length." I will use the former, but the meaning is the same.

Let's see how a wide-angle lens helped tell this story.

hangar Rotor Blade Belen 20211007 01hangar Rotor Blade Belen 20211007 01

When I arrived at the Belen Regional Airport about an hour before sunrise, one of the pilots had already opened the hangar door and, seeing an interesting scene, made a photo of it. He had just finished that when I got out of my car. He showed me the photo and I, being no fool (well, not as much of a fool as I could be), wanted such a shot of my own. Down to the ground I went, where I composed and made this long-exposure shot with my iPhone.

As you're aware, smartphones have wide-angle lenses, which was good because I was up against a wall of hangars and, thus, a narrow-angle lens could not have captured the full scene.

We flew to the landing zone for the day's work before the sun was up, and a bit later I captured that location, including the reason we were there (transmission towers) and the general setting of expansive plains with mountains on the horizon. Those clouds and contrails were a nice touch, too.

I made this image with a wide-angle lens which, because I aimed it slightly above the horizon — to include more of the helicopter's vertical/horizontal stabilizer — resulted in vertical features (that vertical stabilizer, the towers on the far left) leaning in toward the center of the frame. See how the towers in the middle point straight up? That's because they are already in the center.

You can "fix" the distortion with software, but doing so crops out some of the scene. Like this:

I prefer the leaning one, at least in this case. Your mileage may differ.

Wide Angle Action

One of the benefits of spending time with helicopter crews who are doing their thing is capturing them doing their thing on the ground or in the air.

Sure, in the above image the "thing" they are doing is just chatting, but people do that, and by including the interior of this helicopter, with gloves and D-ring lying there, we see more than either "people chating" or "aircraft with stuff in it." It's all part of the story of the work they do. (That D-ring was removed to put, instead, the more usual step on that side of the cabin — I would soon be sitting with my legs out that door, one foot on that step, the other on the step protruding from the rear strut.)

Using the same basic compositional elements, there's a little more action happening in this image: a lineman loading those vibration dampeners, mentioned at the top, into the cabin.

In each case, the sense we get in those two photos is that you, the viewer, are standing right there. In the scene. You can put your hand down on the floor of the helicopter and touch that bare spot; or reach out and feel those dampeners, like springy PVC cup-o'-noodles noodles! The same is true of the image from the tail end of the aircraft; you can almost reach out and grab that fin.

This immediacy is not commonly present when a longer lens is used because the narrower view of the longer lens is usually chosen when the subject is farther from the camera.

How about in the air? What does going wide do up there? 

Flying Wide

In the air, shooting wide is more about including a broader view of the action in its setting, though in the case of human external cargo operations, it can be about just getting the aircraft and the "cargo" in the same shot.

Shooting tall with a wide-angle lens led to a portrait of just another day on the job, right? Frankly, for some of these men and women, it pretty much is.

Or, go wide when shooting wide to show more of the location, more of the project. This morning they were pulling rope across eight spans, so I included some of the expanse of the scenery and the work.

Here's a wide-angle shot aimed to connect the aircraft more directly to the structure — I like how the tower reaches up toward the aircraft, and how the shadow of the tower reaches diagonally toward the shadow of the aircraft. (Sharp-eyed viewers will note the needle hanging from the tower crossarm, in the midst of it being repositioned to thread the rope through that central, suspended, traveler.)

Because of the distance from the camera to the subject(s), these images lose the immediacy of those on-the-ground shots. Some immediacy can be reclaimed while in the air, if the situation supports it.

Back to early in the day when the sun was on the far mountains but not, yet, on the landing zone. By thrusting my camera outside the cabin and pointing it, blindly, toward the front of the ship, I capture both us (a bit), them, the landing zone, and the entire landscape to the southwest of us. Immediacy preserved.

Back on the Ground

A couple of dramatic ground-based images that, again, rely on a wide view of this world for their effectiveness. 

I've been known to crawl on the ground to grab a really low angle, looking thus up at the world. Then again, I'm not as young as I used to be and, unlike the hangar shot, the ground here is dusty, dirty, and full of prickly plants, so I merely held the camera on the ground, tilted its gaze up, and used the aircraft's shadow to assure a dramatic composition. Shoot once, check the result on the camera's screen, down to the ground again for another shot. The aircraft is nearly silhouetted, but not entirely, while the crew works on the side-pull rigging. And those contrails? Spectacular, right? You can't ask for 'em in advance, but you can certainly use 'em!

This lineman is headed out to check the rope pulls and, just as he was being whisked off his feet and into the clear air, I snagged a frame capturing obvious action and dramatic lighting.

(Note: you don't have to be afraid of including the sun in your shots, though perhaps don't keep your camera, especially a mirrorless one, pointed aimlessly at it. I expect the lens would act like a magnifying lens burning ants — but instead might be burning sensors.)

The Wrap

We use wide-angle lenses to encompass more area, more width or height, in a shot. Landscape photos are often made with wide-angle lenses for that reason. But working around helicopters, with their spinning blades, whipping winds, and dusting dirts (dirtying dusts?), the photographer is often at a distance from the machinery. It is one of the benefits of working with crews, like these, that are used to operating in close proximity to people, structures, and to each other. Being close allows wide-angle lenses to bring both broad vistas and the immediacy of putting the viewer closer to the action.

So, if you have the opportunity to work this close, or can provide that opportunity to a photographer, make sure you or they bring along a wide-angle eye and a wide-angle lens to go with it.

Tech Notes

Glancing at the metadata for these images, the behind-the-scenes information about the camera and lens and their settings, here are some relevant facts to consider for future work:

The two cameras I shot have sensors the same physical dimensions as traditional 35 mm film; they are termed full-frame sensors.

I used two zoom lenses, each covering a different zoom range; one from 14 to 24 mm, the other from 24 to 70 mm. On a full-frame sensor, 50 mm is considered to yield an image that nearly matches what a human would perceive with their eyeballs.

Almost all of the images, above, were made with focal lengths from 14 to 28 mm, with a single 36 mm example, and one (the HEC image with the lineman reaching out to a traveler) at 48 mm. Even that, though, is comparatively wide-angle for an air-to-air shot.

Thank You

I had the great pleasure of being the guest of Phillip Smith and his Rotor Power crews. Everyone was enthusiastic and accommodating of my intrusions, and it shows in the range of great photos I came back with. I'll be shooting in Georgia in a few days, where two operators will be slinging around some of the most exciting bits of machinery every attached to a helicopter — helisaws!

(AeroMark Images) aerospace air-to-air aviation composition context environment framing helicopter MD Helicopters MDHI New Mexico photography Rotor Blade Rotor Power story technique Tue, 26 Oct 2021 23:10:11 GMT
Shoot Small to Make Big I recently spent a week driving across much of the state of Florida in order to fly with a passel of governmental mosquito control organizations. I've whittled down the thousands of frames I shot to just 18 that will appear in a photo essay I wrote and laid out for the trade magazine ROTOR. Let me add that it was well worth the effort.

Those thousands of images also provide me the opportunity to share a lesson or two about aviation photography. In this article, that lesson is about shooting small to tell a bigger story.

Big is Big

You know what makes a great photo? How about big, bold, right-in-your-face, lots of color and action? That'll work, right?

Absolutely that'll work. And if you're needing to grab some attention, that is a good way to do it.

There's something kinda small about filling the frame with aircraft, though. In making the aircraft so large, the story — the application, the environment, the world — are made unimportant. Or just plain absent.

So, How is Small Big?

Grabbing attention is not the only function of photography, so coming back from an air-to-air mission with only right-in-your-face photos leaves some functions out of the running. Sometimes, you need to show the subject small so you can tell the bigger story.

By widening the view, we're seeing more in this shot, but it's not quite doing all it should. Yes, we see more of the aircraft and more of the sky, but we're not seeing more of the story. The first image was "aircraft against sky." This second image is "aircraft against (more) sky." Not much different.

Ah! Here's more of the story.

Don't get me wrong — the first two photos are good, and can have their place depending on how they are used. But adhering to the adage of, "a picture is worth a thousand words," I could argue the first two won't measure up to that math. This third image, essentially, adds more words: "aircraft against sky, over woods and smoke and towers."

Here's a coincidentally convenient example of how showing the ground (or, in this case, the bay) provides useful context; I photographed the green Bell 206B barely an hour before photographing the orange-and-black AStar. The difference in context is provided by the ground/bay, with the Pasco County AStar flying over a wooded wilderness area 30 miles north of where the Hillsborough County Jet Ranger is banking over Tampa Bay before beginning its next run over MacDill AFB.

Much is similar between the two photos, but the differences are obvious and meaningful.

(A little behind-the-scenes credit where it is due: I was in the orange-and-black Pasco County helo when photographing the green Hillsborough County ship. The folks from these adjoining counties very kindly worked together so I could get these images.)

An example with ground and sky, but reversing their respective proportions compared to the previous examples. The aircraft, Volusia County's Bell 206L-4, is clearly delineated against the water; water that can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes, thus water the aircraft could be tasked to treat if an inspector, previously delivered by the aircraft, determines such a need. The scale of their responsibilities starts making sense when the aircraft is framed against the expanse of the territory.

Another shot that's mostly ground, this time of a Lee County H125 coming around for another run at an island (out of frame). The white aircraft stands out well against the dark band of foliage, which is just one of several bands of color or brightness — sky, far horizon, mid-ground, bright foliage foreground, water foreground. So much going on; so much to look at.

Showing just helicopter and sky, like the second photo way at the top, is a rather thin story, since there are clouds and sky everywhere in the world. But showing just helicopter and ground is not so thin; the viewer gets a sense of the environment. This Anastasia Mosquito Control Jet Ranger is calibrating its liquid spray system over a swampy woodland (using mineral oil rather than the pesticide they would use to actually fight mosquitoes). The slow shutter speed allows for a lot of rotor blur, and also blurs the passing trees, both blurrinesses bringing plenty of attention to the aircraft, despite it being relatively small in the frame. The blurry treetops can also better provide a background for text.

And since I made both types of images, here's what it looks like without all that buttery blurriness. It tells the same story, but tells it with a different character.

Still, you have to be careful with the background. See the aircraft in the above shot? Takes you a second or two to find it. There are too many details to grab your attention, and the mostly white Collier County Bell 407 is positioned against the nearly white standing water. In this instance, the environment overwhelmed the aircraft.

Much better! I'll admit — I mean, I just showed it to you — I'll admit that I made that first shot, even though I probably foresaw its uselessness as a photo. It works as an example for this article, so there's that, but I probably made that shot mostly for getting the composition going, the autofocus going, and tracking where the aircraft was going.

In reviewing those two photos, I noticed the first one seemed to be against a background that nearly, very nearly, abutted the background of the second one. Because I'm a curious guy, I opened them both in the computer and created this composite shot, with the grayish band between them showing a made-up swath to span the slight gap between the actual shots. The two frames were shot 6 seconds apart and, in that time, the aircraft's path described a lazy S nearer the ground before pulling up. Perhaps it's an overstatement, but I'll go ahead and quote Spock: "Fascinating."

Like most of Florida, Flagler County is a mix of water, wetlands, and (if you ask me) always-moist ground. The East Flagler Bell 206B-3 shows off well in blue metallic against the yellows, greens, and browns of water and wetlands common in the eastern part of the county, near the Atlantic Ocean. It is a beautiful aircraft, and I photographed it to put that beauty in its milieu.

(Another acknowledgement: my camera ship for photographing East Flagler was Volusia County's 206L-4, and my camera ship for Volusia was East Flagler's. Their cooperation is much appreciated.)

More water, but I took advantage of our flying directly over it to make use of its reflective qualities. We're looking down at the Charlotte County mosquito control Huey and the terrain, but thanks to the potentially mosquito-infested standing water, we're also seeing the clouds in the sky. Nice! (Plus, something just splashed or dunked or plopped, as evidenced by the rings in the water just to the right of center. I, myself, was looking for a 'gator…)

Finally, a truly gorgeous (if I do say so) scene, captured mere minutes after sunrise: mists clinging among the lowlands and trees, broad swaths of pastels filling the frame. Yet our eyes are drawn to the helicopter. Its colors are bluer, its details are crisper, its contrast is greater. It is tiny in the composition but big in our minds. We scan the mist, we peer through the trees, we gaze at the far horizon, but we keep coming back to that aircraft.

And by looking wide and then focusing small, back and forth, we see the bigger picture.

The Wrap

If helicopter porn is the goal, then filling the frame with nothing but stressed skin and whirling blades, crisp rivets and jutting antennae, bare metal and glossy paint is absolutely the way to go. The approach to take. The images to make. Fill the frame and background be damned. (The same holds true for subsets of aircraft — visible features or details or options.)

But for people who are making buying decisions, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the true beauty of an aircraft or its accessories is in seeing them in the world, doing the thing they do. It is natural to want to pack the aircraft tightly into the composition, but take care when making the photos, or instructing the photographer, to also make the aircraft small. It's a big world out there.

(Thanks go out to the dozens of people who worked with me to make these images possible. To recap, from the top, with their units' full names: Pasco County Mosquito Control District; Hillsborough County Mosquito Management; Volusia County Mosquito Control; Lee County Mosquito Control District; Anastasia Mosquito Control District of St. Johns County; Collier Mosquito Control District; East Flagler Mosquito Control District; Charlotte County Mosquito and Aquatic Weed Control; and above the morning mist, an MD 500D with, again, Collier Mosquito Control District.)

(AeroMark Images) aerospace Airbus air-to-air aviation Bell composition context environment Eurocop Florida framing helicopter MD Helicopters MDHI mosquito control photography story ter Sun, 05 Sep 2021 14:41:50 GMT
The Magical, Mystical, Full-Rotor-Disk Shot One of the toughest shots to make in air-to-air photography, when the subject is an airplane with propellers, or a helicopter, is capturing the aircraft's propulsive components such that they visually form an unbroken disk. Prop-driven airplanes and helicopters share the same issues and challenges in this mystical quest, but my specialty is helicopters, so I'll use them to illustrate the why and how of full-disk photography.

(If your eyes start fluttering closed in the middle of the forthcoming, there is a TL;DR near the end — feel free to jump ahead.)

Helicopters are magic, as evidenced by this MD Explorer cruising through Monument Valley, in northern Arizona, on a thin disk of spinning composites. This particular aspect of the magic was revealed with a shutter speed of 1/30 second.

Why Full-Disk Photos?

One reason for creating full-disk photos of helicopters or airplanes is: it looks pretty. Define "pretty?" I'd say it's pretty because a circle is a complete shape, a simple one that doesn't require our brains to figure things out. They are easy to look at and we understand instinctively what the circle represents.

It can imbue a photo of a machine, one that is in actuality madly beating the air into submission, with a sense of calm. In our minds, the "sound" of a rotor system that is forming a smooth disk is a smooth sound. If individual blades are seen, sweeping through just a part of their circular path around the hub, we feel those blades clawing through the air. There's a whomp or growl to seeing individual blades, and that's fine. With a complete disk, there's a whoosh.

Images of aircraft with full-disk rotors, thus, convey a different character to the action, a different emotion. Other elements of an image, that are brought along with the techniques required to achieve these effects, might also be desired, and I'll touch on those later.

Another reason might be: such images are less common because they are more difficult to achieve. Being less common, viewers are less accustomed to seeing them, thus are more interested in seeing them and, as always, keeping a viewer's attention is part of good communications.

Feel Free to Skip the Math

Several factors figure into capturing an image in which the rotor blades are rendered as an unbroken disk. In terms of the aircraft, those factors are the number of blades and how quickly the blades are spinning. Fortunately, an image showing a full disk doesn't require each blade to make an entire revolution — from the moment the camera shutter is opened to the moment it closes, each blade must merely spin far enough to reach the position where the next blade was when the shutter opened.

In general, that means an aircraft with more blades (prop or rotary) is typically easier to capture, full-disk-ish, than one with fewer blades. I've prepared a totally uninspired illustration of the requisite rotational angles for your viewing pleasure. (Note: I am not aware of any helicopter with nine blades, but MT-Propeller is working on a nine-bladed prop for possible electric propulsion aircraft, so you never know…)

This handy illustration would have to be combined with additional data to calculate a shutter speed that would yield full-disk photos. That additional data is: how fast is the rotor system turning? Should you perform those calculations? Um, not really, unless you've got a hankering.

The MD Explorer has a five-blade main rotor, while this Sikorsky S-92 has but four. Notice the slight gaps in the disk occasioned by the blades not having moved quite far enough during the exposure to visually blend into a single circular shape. My camera was set to expose for a third-again longer here than for the Explorer photo, 1/20 second, but even that wasn't quite slow enough.

Different helicopter models spin their rotor heads at different speeds, different revolutions per minute (RPM), but no matter which helicopter model you look at, they each spin so the tips of their blades are moving at a speed that is similar to other helicopters. It's an aerodynamics thing that is affected, in large part, by the diameter of the rotor system — the larger the diameter, the slower it must rotate in order to keep the tips at their optimum speed.

Therefore (don't you just hate hearing that word? It's so stuffy), while having more blades in a system would, all other factors being equal, allow higher shutter speeds in rendering a full disk, the helicopters with a larger number of blades also tend to be the ones with larger rotor diameters, which means they turn more slowly. It's like aeronautical engineers are conspiring against us.

To figure out the shutter speed needed to render a full disk for any helicopter, all you have to do is take the rotational speed of the main rotor system, calculate how many degrees of rotation the blades are sweeping per second, then account for the blade-to-blade angle, based on the number of blades (see the uninspired illustration), and … sheesh … I've run out of energy just typing that!

Fortunately, while this number stuff might actually be straightforward, it's not required if you're shooting digitally and can review images on the fly. (Get it? On the fly?) I've not photographed every model of helicopter out there (yet), but if you're zipping along with a helo or prop-driven airplane in your sights, dial your shutter speed down pretty low and pop off a few shots. Review, and adjust your speed accordingly.

That's all there is to it!

Sort of.

A Guimbal Cabri G2 hovering above the ramp at Middle Georgia State University's Eastman Campus allows a simple example of how shutter speed affects the visible sweep of a rotor system.

Why Can't We All Just Get Along … Slowly?

First up, in the challenges, is: slow shutter speeds require a steady camera during the length of time the shutter is open. A venerated rule of thumb for non-blurry photos, when hand-holding a camera, is to shoot no slower than the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens. To wit, in the photos of the Cabri, above, since I am definitely hand-holding the camera, the shutter speeds indicated would pair nicely with a 40 millimeter lens for the image on the left, and with a 13 millimeter lens on the right. However, my zoom lens was not set at those focal lengths. On the left, the lens was at 135 millimeters, on the right it was 165. That venerated rule suggests I should have left the shutter open for less than a tenth of the time I did.

(My article "Shootin' Steady" details how best to keep your camera steady.)

Fortunately, of course, many camera/lens systems have built-in stabilization features. Unfortunately, those systems are optimized for hand-holding a camera on otherwise solid ground, not for countering the ups and downs and buzzes and jiggles of a helicopter in flight. That's why I attach my camera/lens to a hefty, high-power gyroscopic stabilizer, and even that is no guarantee of sharp images at these lackadaisical shutter speeds with long lenses. Why not? Because sometimes the failure is not at my end of the image-making.

Here's a close-up of the full-disk Cabri photo. Notice how the front of the helicopter is reasonably sharp. Now, look at that tail — horrid. Why? Because the aircraft was yawing during the 1/13 of a second that I was making this image. Not my fault, man!

For this segment of the air-to-air mission with the Cabri, I was aided by having both the target aircraft and the chase merely hovering. When both aircraft are pushing along at cruising speeds, there's more airflow over and into the chase aircraft, which makes for more vibrations and perturbations, and that makes capturing full-disk shots much less likely. The solution? Shoot a lot.

How much "a lot?" A lot, a lot!

28 frames, shown as shot, with a single frame (highlighted in blue) yielding a definitely sharp image of an MD Helicopters MD 530F with its high-visibility rotor blades in full disk mode.

Air-to-air images of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Police Department helicopter, in and around Mesa, Arizona.

And here's that winning image. Why so few good ones for all that shooting? If you'll look at that full disk, you can actually see the blades are not just meeting, but are overlapping themselves. My shutter speed, I see in the image metadata, was 1/15 second, yet this aircraft can display a full disk at 1/40. By going even slower, shutter-speed-wise, the aircraft is not just the only sharp thing in the image, the background is not just a little blurry, but very blurry with motion, adding energy and interest to the shot.

Also, in defense of one-out-of-twenty-eight, we were moving along at, probably, 60 knots, and speed always lends itself to more speed bumps, if you catch my meaning. More burbles and jiggles, which cuts down on the success rate. Thus — shoot a lot, a lot.

This Airbus EC135 doesn't have high-viz rotor blades, but they are white with yellow tips, so we can see the disk. Again, shot at 1/15 second, so a little overlap of the blades and a very motion-blurred background.

What Could Go Wrong?

One oddity I noticed in a recent shoot, with another MD 530F, is visible in the following image.

Rather, perhaps I should characterize the oddity as what is not visible: the rotor disk! Some combination of blade color (black?), lighting, and the background have conspired to render all but their roots invisible.

See? I knew it wasn't zipping along on just rotorblade roots — we can see the yellow tips arcing against the water (though only barely against that bit of land on the right). I saw the (in)visible problem in that first photo when I checked what I was capturing while we were flying along, so I didn't bother further pursuing the full disk against that background.

What that lesson teaches is: sometimes it doesn't work out.

Another issue that can arise, in the confluence of camera and background, is dirt. What dirt, you ask? Camera dirt, I reply.

On the left is a screen shot of the image as I was converting it from its RAW state to a TIFF. Each arrowhead is pointing to a speck of dirt that had to be cleaned off the image. On the right is the cleaned version.

I was shooting at 1/50 second so, even though this Airbus AS350 doesn't exhibit a full rotor disk, to achieve the proper exposure my camera constricted the iris in the lens to f/22. Also called the aperture, a setting of f/22 is great for putting as much of a scene as possible, from near to far, in focus. Cool.

Not cool is how a tiny aperture (f/22 is tiny) also brings into visibility the tiny flecks of dirt that can end up on the sensor inside your digital camera. And if the image contains areas of little detail, like a blank sky or snow or a smooth lake, those areas are prone to show the need for a little housecleaning.

To forestall collecting such flecks, you would avoid swapping lenses — say, from a wide-angle to a long zoom, then to some intermediate lens, perhaps to an extra-long one, then back to the wide-angle — especially in environments that might have swirling dust. Or smoke. Or ash. This photo, however, was made near the end of a week of traveling the western United States, capturing images of aircraft involved in firefighting. I shot thousands of frames using a variety of lenses, swapped on and off 3 different cameras, which offered numerous opportunities for dust/smoke/ash to wander into the sensor area.

Even if you start with a clean sensor, swapping lenses in a helicopter can expose the sensor to new flecks, and it's not unusual to be swapping lenses during air-to-air missions, in the quest for a variety of compositions. High shutter speeds are matched with large apertures, where sensor dirt might be unnoticeable. But when you slow the shutter speed on a camera, for proper exposure the aperture must constrict, and when it constricts … well, fleck happens.

In and around Rotors of the Rockies of Broomfield, just outside Denver.

Another consequence of a small aperture enabling things near and far to be in focus, is seeing things in focus, near and far.

Wait! Is that a bad thing? It can, at least, be a less-than-great thing.

In this shot of a Schweizer 300C, I got the full disk (thanks to the white tips), but the background is also a bit distractingly in focus, especially along the right half of the image. It's not terrible, but whereas the photo of the blue MD 530F zipping over the green field has motion blur helping visually separate the aircraft from the scenery, this 300C is much farther from its scenery, and we are viewing the aircraft more from its nose, so that scenery isn't so much zipping by as it is, kinda, just sitting there in reasonable focus.

That doesn't preclude this from being a useful image, but just know that not all full-disk photos are the same. In this image, I can almost imagine the Schweizer is resting its left skid on the rocky ridge.

Enough with the lecture. Let's wrap this thing up!

What We Learned (AKA TL;DR)

Images of aircraft with full disks, whether of an airplane's or a helicopter's, are possible when the shutter speed of the camera is slow enough such that the propeller/rotor blades move far enough during the exposure time that each blade visually merges with the next.

The maximum shutter speed at which that occurs depends on the number of blades and the speed at which the blade system is turning.

Rotor systems with more blades tend to allow faster shutter speeds while still forming a single, visual, disk. Rotor systems that are larger in diameter tend to turn more slowly, requiring slower shutter speeds. Simple math can be used to calculate the required shutter speed for each model of helicopter or airplane.

My experience with helicopters, so far, shows shutter speeds of between 1/10 second and 1/40 second are required to achieve a full disk. Skip the math and start in that range, check the results, adjust as necessary, and shoot a lot, a lot.

Practice good shootmanship regarding keeping a stable camera, as the slow shutter speeds easily produce images blurred by camera motion (and sometimes even subject motion, though there's basically nothing you can do about the latter).

Bonus Images

C-2A(R) at El CentroC-2A(R) at El CentroPhoto call at NAF El Centro

I figured I'd throw in one image that shows both an airplane and a helicopter, so I can at least send any prop-driven-airplane photographers on the right path. The shutter speed for this image is 1/80 second. As would be expected from all of the writing up above, the main rotor blades of the Bell AH-1Z in the background are blurred, but still distinctively, individually, visible. The Grumman C-2A(R) Greyhound in the foreground shows blades that are easily overlapping other blades.

My point is, shooting airplanes with full-disk can be accomplished with much higher shutter speeds. Just look at this next shot:

T-45C on or above NAF El CentroT-45C on or above NAF El CentroPhoto call at NAF El Centro

That same Greyhound, landing at Naval Air Facility El Centro (you can see the burned-rubber smoke where his main gear touched down), and my shutter speed was 1/160 second. That is my go-to shutter speed for photographing helicopters such that their main rotor blades are obviously in motion; for this C-2, the blades have made a delightful disk o' gray.

An Airbus H145 at 1/160 second. Plenty of blade blur, but nowhere near filling out a full disk.

'Nuf said.

(AeroMark Images) action aerospace Airbus aviation blades disk Eurocopter Grumman Guimbal helicopter Kaman MD Helicopters MDHI photography propeller rotor Schweizer shutter speed Sikorsky technique Thu, 01 Jul 2021 23:40:37 GMT
Into the Woods In my article Looking Up, the topic was ground-to-air photography and the location was Las Vegas; the aircraft was a Kaman K-MAX operated by ROTAK Helicopter Services. I recently traveled to Idaho for the same client (ROTAK), where the general mission was the same — move stuff by picking it up from one place and putting it down in a different place — but the stuff was no longer large exhaust fans carried from parking lot to rooftop, but felled trees, from where they were bundled to where they'd be trucked out.

The difference in location and mission particulars made for a few differences in the photography, so I figured I'd revisit the general topic on how to make good use of both what is available and what is in the way.

The Same-old Same-old

Aircraft configured to carry things on a line present a photographic challenge: how to show the aircraft and the load when their combined dimensions are two-hundred-and-fifty feet tall, but only forty* wide. The compositional choices revolve around how much, or how little, to show in a single image. Those choices might be restricted by the environment or safety considerations, so I'll share a usable, if suboptimal, approach right up front.

This approach has merit, composed with the energy of the aircraft angling across the frame, and a taut line signaling the viewer that there's something at the other end. Then again, while that something might be hewn tree trunks, it could be a crash-landed airplane or a worker with a tool belt around their waist and a breeze in their hair. The viewer can't tell, so this doesn't tell much of a story.

Indeed, it was safety considerations that prevented me from being nearer the airborne load and, thus, looking up at both the load and the aircraft in the same frame — the tree trunks shed branches and bark, they flop around like a loosely-tied bundle of mismatched chopsticks, and you never know when a major chunk might break free, or a choker cable break. A two-thousand-pound hunk of the forest falling on me would definitely trigger a call to my insurance company, at least to replace a camera, and perhaps to replace a husband.

If we want to see the aircraft and the trees, we need to rearrange things.

Getting Away From It All

To see it all, aircraft and load, you must either move farther away or equip your camera with a wider-angle lens. Or both, as needed.

In this case I drove away from the area where the aircraft was depositing its loads, an area called the "landing," to catch the action using a long (narrow-angle) lens. Those intervening trees posed the challenge of photographing the aircraft as it played hide-and-seek through them, but they also lent a useful sense of context. On the left, above, notice how confining the environment feels — representative of the standing trees out of which the pilot must pluck each load — compared to my (for illustrative purposes only) sloppily prepared version of the same photo, sans nearby trees, on the right.

The client also needs horizontal, landscape-oriented, images, so from this distant vantage point I zoomed out a bit to keep aircraft-and-load within the smaller vertical dimension.

Notice, though, how small the aircraft is in these shots. To see it all means to see it small. (I just totally made up that rhyme!) Fortunately, the forest that separates me from the aircraft can be used to suggest the operations without showing the aircraft and its load in the same frame, which allowed me to switch to an even longer, zoomier, lens. 

The aircraft still doesn't fill the frame, but we see it two-and-a-half times larger than in the previous shot.

Going Wide

That was the longer-distance, narrow-angle lens, approach; here's the wider-angle lens one.

Being close to the action means more opportunities to adjust the composition, using the other objects and people. 

At the landing, my movement was restricted by safety concerns beyond the helicopter and its load. There are large machines twisting and grasping and tracking back and forth. There are 33-foot tree trunks, indelicately placed one atop the other by operators of those machines, which result in massive stacks that are not necessarily stable. Everyone has a job to do, and watching out for a wandering photographer is not one they want added to their list.

The above is one of my first shots at that location, and it certainly shows the action. It is also a bit bland. Yes, there's a machine (the Caterpillar), and yes there's a stack of logs, but I was mostly trying to shoot around them to get a clean view of my intended target. I got ertainly I can do better, right?

Of course I can! I did that by widening the view of my lens, thus including more of the logs on the right (more context) and taking advantage of the Caterpillar articulating its grabber/stripper thing (more action), and including the logs laid out in front of me to point at the helicopter (more pointy). The aircraft appears smaller, due to the wider lens, but the overall effect is greater.

This wide shot includes even more of the foreground, incorporating even more context and action in the scene.

It took a little wrangling (addressing safety issues), but on the second day of flying I was able to move to a different location of the landing, to gain a different view of the action. The lighting is from behind me, rather than from from the right, and we see the aircraft from the side as it drags the timber toward its release.

Landscape orientation? Check. We've also regained a view of the ground machines plus a different stack o' logs, and by backing up I've included the choker chasers. These men run out to the logs that have just been released by the aircraft to disconnect and collect the cables, the chokers, that had fastened the logs to the cargo line.

As we saw when I was shooting through the trees, the landscape orientation, especially, reduces the apparent size of the aircraft. Also as before, using a longer lens while including appropriate environmental elements can increase emphasis on the helicopter while still implying the specific activities.

There are plenty (plenty!) more images for ROTAK to choose from, to fit the story they need to tell, the space they need to fill — or fit in — whether it's a calendar, a catalog, an ad, or a social media posting. And because the people are critical to every mission…

…I always keep an eye out for them doing their thing. Thanks, guys.

What We Learned

Unlike the Las Vegas job, my views of the action were restricted by the presence of logs and machinery, and my movements constrained by the dangers they presented. In Vegas I often had eyes on the aircraft from the parking lot, where it was picking up the fans, all the way to gently lowering those fans into place. In Idaho, well, it was a forest, so there were trees, like, everywhere — standing or in big piles. Thus, the aircraft would often spring into view, dump its load, and speed off again, with little warning that it was coming and little chance to catch it as it left. The pace was also quicker for the helicopter than it was in Vegas, with less time spent picking and dropping, which gave me less time to capture interesting, descriptive, images of the action.

When that's the situation, figure out your most advantageous locations, move as much as you can to include more or less of the environment, vary your lens and exposure settings to provide a range of visual approaches, and work your camera quickly and surely. That last part can't be stressed enough — know your camera; what it can do and how you make it do it!

Bonus Image

I mentioned, above, "the second day of flying," by which I really mean "the second day of flying while I was there to photograph things." I mentioned this because the first and second days of flying were separated by a day of waiting for a tiny part to arrive. The mechanic had discovered a failed component on flying-day 1, so the aircraft was grounded until the following day when the replacement part arrived and was installed in the early afternoon. It was decided to forego operations that day, after the install, but that didn't mean I couldn't photograph activity, and the aircraft, at their landing zone (not to be confused with the landing, where the logs were dropped off).

I had plenty of room to move about the LZ, so for this photo I positioned myself about 100 feet away from the K-MAX, equipped my camera with a relatively long lens, and climbed into the back of a pickup truck for a higher angle on the aircraft to create this stylish image. A clean aircraft (they keep it that way all the time), beautiful lighting, the long lens doing for the aircraft what it does for portraits of people (not prone to emphasizing the nose), and depth of focus carefully controlled so the subject is crisply rendered but the background foliage is not.

* Depending on the viewing angle of the aircraft, and the nature and viewing angle of the load, excepting the main rotor disk, the width of the subject might be as few as six feet!

Thanks go, of course, to ROTAK Helicopter Services of Anchorage, for trusting me to capture the action (and more).

(AeroMark Images) action aerospace aviation composition forest forestry helicopter helilogging heli-logging Idaho Kaman KMAX K-MAX lighting logging lumber photography ROTAK technique Wed, 16 Jun 2021 18:14:39 GMT
Where's The Horizon? Landscape photography is often concerned with placement of the horizon in a composition. Aerospace photography might not seem much akin to landscapes, but horizons are an important compositional element even there, so let's look at some of the "where" and "why" of horizons in aerospace imagery.

(I'll mostly use terms like photo or image, but the same observations apply in videography, though with the addition of motion, including horizons that can move, change their orientation, or appear/disappear.)

What The Horizon Does

In its simplest role, the horizon divides the ground from the sky and, as it does in life, so it does in photography, giving the image an up and down. That distinction seems so obvious we don't really think about it, but how and where the horizon appears in an image affects how we relate to to the subject, and how the subject relates to the world.

Standing on an offshore platform, I've neatly cut the scene into sea and sky, each of equal importance which, in the world of offshore helicopter operations, seems about right. "What about the rule of thirds?" some of you are yelling at your computer monitor. To which I say, "tough luck, rule of thirds."

Or, actually, the rule of thirds is still at play, just not in the position of the horizon. The S-92 is one-third of the frame down from the top and (roughly) one third in from the left. The crew on the platform are one-third up and one-third from the right. Thus, the two subjects (aircraft and crew) form a diagonal of activity, emphasized by the standing crewmember looking toward the helicopter, and accented by the slanting sunlight, to capture the environment and the activity. In this case, the horizon's role is to set the stage yet stay out of the way.

Staying with the offshore platform location, this scene is more about the aircraft and its place in the sky, so I've minimized the foreground — without excising it completely — to create this formal portrait of helicopter, hoisting crewmember, to platform. Three elements, clearly delineated, but shot from a low position to emphasize each appropriately. The horizon is still separating the sky from, well, not obviously the sea, but from the surface, and placed to put the emphasis on sky.

If my camera had been at standing height, I would have needed to make the shot while the crewmember was nearer the aircraft in order to show them against only sky, as the platform would have consumed more of the foreground. The result would have been less dramatic and, thus, less effective.

Got it? I slid the horizon through the middle when that suited the scene, and pushed it quite low in the composition when that was the right thing to do.

What if the Horizon is Missing?

Showing a horizon is, of course, not required. Plenty of great photographs have been created with nary a ground/sky divider in sight. For example:

Beautiful, right? The background colors are a mostly muted greens with pale stripes of tree trunks, which let the vibrant and crisp H130 pop off the page. Our reward for having our attention grabbed is, the pleasure of seeing a beautiful aircraft above beautiful nature, beautifully shot. Our attention is definitely on the aircraft.

By widening the view and including a horizon, the message expands with the scenery.

While the landscape in the first H130 photo was beautiful, this second image places the aircraft amid the grandeur of mountains. Cruising 'neath snow-capped peaks. Each image is good, each can play a role; but they are definitely different and should be shot and chosen accordingly. Showing the horizon is part of how the second one works the way it does, and by framing the aircraft against the ground, the image is communicating "aircraft among the mountains." It is almost part of the scenery.

The reason I emphasized "aircraft among the mountains" is to contrast it with this image of the H130. In neither image is the horizon a flat line, dissecting the composition, but they are the same in how the mountains divvy up image. What's different is, by framing the aircraft against the sky, this image communicates, "aircraft over the mountains." It is not part of the scenery, it is taking it in. Commanding the heights.

The horizon didn't move, but where the aircraft appeared, against which of the two parts of the background, made a meaningful difference in the character of the scene; in how we perceive the role of the helicopter in the world.

The Skewed Horizon

If you want some energy in a scene, showing the aircraft in a bank is a useful technique.

The horizon is not really visible, beyond this H145 over the Gulf of Mexico coast, but we perceive it is back there, nice and level (about a third of the way down from the top of the frame, so, yay rule-of-thirds?). The point is, the aircraft is canted over, which adds a bit of energy to the composition. I kinda wish it had more energy …

… so I rolled my camera to the right and let the horizon roll left. We're not head-on, and the aircraft is actually more level to that invisible horizon than it was in the previous image, but there's definitely more energy here.

And even if the aircraft is adding visual energy on its own, a tilt of the camera — even when it visibly tilts the horizon — can be a powerful, additive, technique.

Super Skew!

I wrote an article, in late 2019, about a feature I create for each issue of ROTOR magazine, called FlyOver, wherein I shoot through the cockpit to include both the interior and the environment (which you can read here). As one element of those images is apropos to today's topic, I will add an image from a more recent such flight (though not the image that appeared in the magazine).

We are in a Bell 505 over the Santa Ana River in Anaheim, California, where I kept my camera level with the helicopter and had the pilot bank the aircraft. I just love the feeling of "we are really cranking this sucker around" that is induced by the level instrument panel contrasting with the tilted horizon.

I see two two-component elements in this image: the people and the cockpit, the ground and the horizon. Each of these is interesting in its own way, and by drawing the viewer's eye around the image, inside to outside and back again and again, that viewer spends quality time with the image. That's a good thing.

The Photography Lessons

Sometimes the horizon is there to give stability. Sometimes it, instead, adds energy. So, what's a photographer to do with a horizon? The best advice is: put it where it makes sense in the image. Put it where it best conveys the relationship of the subject to the environment, and of the viewer to the subject. Place it where it best supports the message that is intended.

Bonus Metaphysical Rambling

The funny thing about the horizon, that divider between land and sky, is that, as a “thing,” it doesn’t exist. Similar to how a hole is defined as a lack of earth in the ground (the hole, itself, is not a manifest object), a horizon is the mere visual connection between the ground and the sky, not some collection of atoms that can be poked or stroked. And unless you are standing in a hole, where the edge of that hole is where your view of the sky meets your view of the ground, you can never actually reach the horizon. For a thing that doesn't exist, it can be pretty darn important.


Thanks go out to, from the top, Bristow Group, Cirque Lodge, PHI, and Bell Flight, for their cooperation in the making of these images.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace aviation Bell Bell Flight Bristow Bristow Group Cirque Cirque Lodge composition helicopter horizon horizontal landscape PHI photography technique Wed, 28 Apr 2021 15:41:55 GMT
Shootin' Steady The number one challenge in making great images during air-to-air photography is stability of the camera during that split second the photons are being recorded onto the sensor (or imprinting the latent image onto film if that's your preference). There are interrelated issues and unrelated ones, and thus multiple techniques toward attaining that steady moment.

An MD 530F from my first air-to-air mission; shot on film during a very short flight that I snagged rather than wait for the next day. Good thing, too, because when I called the next day to confirm the time for the longer photo mission, I was told, "oh, that aircraft's being packed up to ship to Canada."

Let me excuse from this lesson photographers who photograph military jets from other military jets, or practically anyone who shoots any jets from whatever platform works for them. Jets don't have the slowly revolving motive elements of propeller-driven airplanes or helicopters. Jets streak through the sky and, usually, the faster the shutter speed of the camera, the sharper the results. Yay! But when shooting prop planes and rotorcraft, which is what the following is about, attractive photography (vis-à-vis, recording the motion of those whirling blades) requires slow shutter speeds, and that's where our troubles begin.

(C) Chris J Price

As a reminder of the importance of slow shutter speeds for prop-powered airplanes & helicopters, the F-16D on the left was captured at 1/4000 second, as was the AS350 on the right. On the left? Looks good. On the right? Looks like the Coyote just after he ran off the cliff chasing the Roadrunner, poised mid-air, before the inevitable plummet. (The helo photo is not mine, and you can read my article in which it features here.) 

Let me also acknowledge there are issues of safety and of comfort that I am not addressing in this article. Air-to-air photo work is not the most dangerous flying, but it has a few less-common risks that should be addressed. And, frankly, I find that whatever discomfort arises is hardly noticed when the shooting starts. Still, fly safe and dress and secure yourself as comfortably as you can.

With those out of the way…

If you are photographing propeller-driven aircraft or helicopters, and need to improve your good-vs-bad image ratio, read on.

The Challenges

Most blurred images are the result of unintentional camera movement. The causes of such movement start with the aircraft you are in. Most air-to-air shooting is done from relatively small aircraft, which are more subject to the vagaries of the air through which they are flying. A little burst of crosswind on a Antonov AN-124? "Так, я хотів би трохи бубліка та квасу." ("Yes, I would love some bublik and kvass.")

Crosswind gust on a Robinson R22? "Dang it! How long before we can get back to where we were?" Typically, though, the problems related to air movements are less about the large displacements than the small burbles and slips, the slight bumps and jiggles, caused by a pocket of turbulence.

The AN-124 could carry 375 empty R22 helicopters, at least weight-wise.

Another potential source of camera movement is the machinery of the aircraft itself. There's an engine running, gears meshing and, the air-to-air photography of prop- and rotary-powered aircraft is accomplished from prop- and rotary-powered aircraft, so you have the chase aircraft's propellers or rotors (main and, usually, tail) spinning in that not-always-smooth air. Each of those elements of propulsion can add its own little buzz or rumble or thump.

Third is the air rushing past the aircraft, just outside the open window or the removed-for-the-flight door. Also, some of the air rushing past might enter the aircraft, some distance back from the leading edge of that aperture. The moving air can impinge on the photographer, their restraints or, most commonly, the lens pointed out toward the target.

The Solutions

Blurry images happen. That's a fact. One way to bring home sharp ones is to shoot a lot. Blurry, blurry, blurry, sharp, blurry, blurry, blurry, sharp. What's the matter with that?

Shooting more means coming back with more; just look at these two images, made a mere one second apart. Good thing I pressed the shutter release a lot, right? Yes, but …

… even the image on the right is not sharp. I think I was having to sneak out into slipstream because of the distance and angle between the two aircraft. I was definitely capturing more blurry shots than steady ones, but I knew that was the situation, so I shot a lot. Not ideal, but I got what I needed.

 See? Nice and sharp. How sharp?

Sharp enough to read the words around the door handles ("EXIT. LIFT HANDLE TO OPEN.")

Well, pixels are free, so you can just keep on shooting and shooting. It's a valid approach, but while pixels might be free, aircraft (at least two for air-to-air, of course) are not, so making more usable images in the time you have is the efficient thing to do. Plus, capturing fewer blurry images not only saves time in the air, but sorting out those blurry ones back at your computer is also time you can't get back. Do what you must, but be as efficient as you can.

You Are Your First Line of Defense

To counter the vagaries of the craft moving through the air, start by holding your camera on a large shock absorber, namely the shock absorber that is as much of your anatomy as can be applied in that role. From your buttocks to your wrists, hold the camera as still as you can, as though it is floating stationary in the air, absorbing the perturbations of your shooting platform with your body. Core muscles (abdominals and lower back) come into play, as do your shoulders and elbows.

If you can be on your knees, use them too, though you might need some padding since aircraft floors are usually hard surfaces. Or, if you are shooting out the back of a cargo plane, and are standing, go ahead and substitute "from your buttocks" with "from your toes" in the above. Feet, ankles, knees, hips — use 'em all.

Of course, the advice to use all of those musculoskeletal elements is tempered if you are fastened in a seat and your safety restraints take, typically, your lower body out of play. Often, though, a pilot-approved loosening of an upper-body restraint can help bring more muscles and joints to the task.

Here's a tip about reducing the effect of aircraft motions: if possible, interior-wise and seeing-the-target-wise, position yourself nearer the center of the cabin to reduce the magnitude of some of those motions. If the entire aircraft lurches up, well, up you go. But for slight rolls or pitches or yaws, which are rotations about an axis, being nearer the center of that axis lowers their affect on you.

Yes, there's only so much you can do, but you have to start somewhere, so start with your body.

The Airframe is Your Enemy

Sure, the aircraft is how you're in the air, and that's magical and all, but its structures can work against sharp imagery. I mentioned how the propulsion system can introduce vibrations into the airframe, so if you steady some part of your body against some part of the interior, those vibrations can make it to your camera. While you're absorbing the bumps and jiggles of the flight with your body, don't then introduce buzzes and shakes by resting your tired arm, or easing your aching back, by leaning against a door frame. At least not while you're pushing shutter buttons.

Resting a forearm or shoulder on a door frame is a sure way to add a little excitement, if excitement for you means blurry photos.

AAR in Melbourne, Florida.

I've not flown often in Hueys, but since I'm showing a few shots of me demonstrating the topic sitting in one, I figured I'd at least share an image from one of those flights — AAR facilities in Melbourne, Florida.

One overlooked jiggle risk is leaning a shoulder against a door frame, or an elbow on a seat bottom (if you're sitting on the floor). Your shoulder is soft, as is that cushion, so you might not notice your contact, or you might think either softness prevents a vibration from being transmitted. That has not been my experience.

Even just sitting in a seat can be problematic, as the bottom and the back are transmitting movements to your, well, to your bottom and your back (and your arm).

Even pressing your head against a low ceiling for "stability" can translate those high-frequency vibrations from your low-tech head-bone to your high-tech sensor. Yes, hold your head high because you're pursuing a noble venture…just don't hold it against the headliner.

What is This Invisible Force?

Avoiding the wind can be tricky because you can't see it. (Duh.) And even when you don't feel it on your face or hands, it can induce tiny, very rapid, jitters when it is tickling the front of your lens.

I have noticed, out in the world, that most people with a camera don't use their lens hoods. I use mine 100% of the time. Except when some of that "100% of the time" is shooting air-to-air. The lens hood, then, is off and the front element of the lens is for-sure clean. I might cover the upside of lens hoods in another article, but the chance that a hood will be the victim of passing breezes (40-, 70-, 100-mph breezes, at that), and thus blur the capture, is far greater — and more deleterious — than a lens flare would be.

Left to right, things are going from horrible to less horrible, but that lens hood has refused to get out of the wind.

Even without a hood, lenses used in air-to-air photography are often longer, optically, and thus longer physically. To both bring a target aircraft "closer," if it is some distance away (for safety or just pilot comfort), or to really fill the frame with the target, I often shoot with a 70-200 mm zoom lens which protrudes from the body of my camera by 8.5 inches (22 cm). That distance is enough to encounter the passing slipstream without my fingers enjoying/detecting that breeze. And like I said, the vibrations induced by that passing air can be just enough to have the image come out, "hmm, let me look closer…yep," not in focus.

If the aircraft is hovering, having a bit of non-lens-hooded lens out the door of this MD 500E is probably okay, but in flight you've got to pull everything in. It can get uncomfortable, but it's the price you pay for greatness, right? (Note how I'm resting an arm on the seat, which I've declared a no-no, but I'm pulling my upper body in as much as I can, and during an actual shoot I would try to minimize that connection.)

As with the photo from a Huey, I wanted to bring in an image I made from the front seat of an MD 500E, in this case an MD 530F flown by Wilson Construction.

If the cabin is large, stay back from the window or door. If it is small, and you can't position your entire body more deeply into it, lean away from the aperture. ("You really should get to the gym more often," your abdominal muscles will be reminding you.) Take care, though, that your leaning in doesn't interfere with the pilot operating the aircraft — you might bump, or a camera strap snag, something. Move slowly, both leaning back and straightening up.

If you are near the open window or non-existent door, also take care to not let one of your appendages become a source of camera shake by that appendage meeting the slipstream. A stray elbow, perhaps? (Has that happened to me? Of course — that's why I mention it.)

That elbow in the slipstream, exaggerated a bit for illustrative purposes, might be steadied a bit by leaning against the door frame, but you know what leaning against the door frame does, right? (If not, go back a couple of paragraphs.)

A technique that might work, if you are in the cockpit and the target can be seen, in an orientation you can use, looking across the pilot, is to shoot across the pilot. I've done that in helicopters and in fixed-wing aircraft, when the window in the pilot's door is not too dirty or distorting, or the door is not in place to begin with. Even if you can shoot out your side, shooting out the other side can add photos of the target from its other side.

If the action and the airframe and the pilot are amenable, shooting from one side of the cockpit, across the pilot (not shown) and out the pilot's side of the aircraft, can keep you and your equipment totally out of the wind.

This K-MAX, operated by ROTAK Helicopter Services, is seen in Puerto Rico, captured by me shooting across the cockpit of an MD 600N. The pilot obliged by staying tucked into his seat back, and keeping his arms low.

Can You Just Use a Gyro?

Yes, you can use a gyro, but you should not use just a gyro. A gyroscopic stabilizer is no panacea, so the preceding guidance is still valid and should be employed. For me, even adding a gyro — which I do for every air-to-air shoot — does not guarantee each click of the shutter will render a sharp image. A gyro smooths out the smaller movements of the aircraft and the, likewise, smaller instabilities of hand-holding a camera with a long lens being triggered at slow shutter speeds, but bumps still happen.

(Normally, a pilot or passenger can't predict the small burbles or bumps caused by, say, a pocket of turbulent air. I can. The moment after I decide to press the shutter button, thus the instant I am pressing that button, then will the aircraft suddenly lurch up, down, or sideways. It's a gift, I guess…)

If you do choose to use a gyro, just know they are not light — ranging from a bit less than 2 pounds (about 0.8 kilos) to more than 10 pounds (4.5 kilos). Add that weight to your camera/lens combo, then hold everything up to your face as the aircraft dips down ("hey, that weighs a bit less") or jerks up on a thermal ("uuuuuggggghhhhh") over and over for an hour. A gyro is an important tool for bringing back more good images, a great addition to an air-to-air gear set, but not free of effort or cost.*

Here's the rig I'm holding in the photos — this camera weighs three-and-a-half pounds, the gyro weighs four-and-a-half, the lens clocks in at five-and-a-half. All together, we're looking at 13+ pounds (6+ kg) that needs to be held in your shock-absorbing arms while the aircraft in which you're riding bounces and jiggles and sways.

If the aircraft can safely accept a bungie cord to suspend your complete rig, in a position that facilitates your photography, that can relieve much of that weight from your arms and back. More complicated suspensions systems are also available. Just be sure the pilot agrees to where and how any such support is attached.

Red Sky In Morning?

All of the above can be applied whenever you are flying for photography (even air-to-ground), but one factor that is best applied in advance is to choose the time of day more favorable to smooth air — the morning. Before the sun has heated the ground, before thermals rise and winds scurry across the sky. And not only is shooting in the a.m. usually less active, atmospherically speaking, the slanting light can be very attractive — softer light can mean prettier colors, and that light glancing off the target can highlight edges and shapes, while the ground is rendered darker by the abundance of long shadows, letting the target really pop off the page/screen.

Evenings can bring the same benefits to the lighting, though usually in a warmer tone. The air is more likely to be livelier, from the day's heating, but that usually tapers off as the sun retreats. With less experienced formation fliers, I usually prefer the late afternoon flights, as it lets the flight crews build confidence while it is brighter, a confidence that holds over to when the light is fading. In morning flights, launching when the light is dim and the confidence to fly closer to each other hasn't yet built, the distance to the target is farther, which means a longer lens setting and, thus, a greater chance that atmospheric perturbations and airframe jiggles, and human frailty holding a camera, will manifest as blur.

And the Point Is…

Who knew there was so much to know about shooting non-blurry photos air-to-air!? And much of what there is to know is about what not to do! But if you are going up with sharp images as your goal, these are some tips to get what you need.

Of course, there are still issues of lighting and composition to consider, and camera settings that affect the amount of blur in the props or rotors. But great lighting, composition, and the perfect amount of rotor blur are for nought if the entire scene is blurry.

Thank-you to Rick Cobbold at Flight Trails Helicopters in Mesa, Arizona, for letting me climb around some aircraft to make the illustrative imagery.

Another thank-you, this one to Peter Gibson, my long-time assistant for wielding the camera to make the photos of me posing in the aircraft.

* I use a Kenyon Laboratories gyro, and they might be the only company in the world that actually makes such equipment. They offer a wide range of gyro-stabilizers and accessories. I have no business relationship with them, and I'm happy to give them a shout-out.


(AeroMark Images) A2A air-to-air blur blurry flying gyro gyroscopic photography stability stabilization technique Sun, 04 Apr 2021 20:40:04 GMT
Front and Center A common approach to composition, especially among less-experienced photographers, is to place the subject in the middle of the image. This is natural if little to no thought is put into composition beyond, "make sure you can see the object/person/scene."

Such a noobie mistake is worth growing out of, and requires only a little experience, a bit of self-critique, and perhaps some guidance. The most common corrective advice regarding placing the subject in the center is to adhere to the "rule of thirds" which, if you've not heard of, search the web for that phrase and prepare to spend some time — Google returned about 87,900,000 results. Go ahead…I'll wait.

Actually, I won't. That 88 million number is real.

But I'm not here today to explain the rule of thirds. I'm not here to denounce centering the subject in a composition. I am here, instead, to declare that sometimes you want the subject in the center. The reasons and the effects of putting it there are varied, so I'll show you a range of those effects; then you can make your choices based on your own reasoning.

What's Wrong with Centered?

A subject plopped, unthinkingly, into the middle of a photo is often decried for its lack of graphical energy. By putting the visual weight of the image squarely in the center, balanced, the subject is usually static. De-energized. Look at these two examples:

Phoenix Police Department Air Support Unit

The image on the left, number 1, has the aircraft centered. In number 2, the aircraft is definitely not centered. The "centered" version is not bad, but I trust you see the static nature of 1. It kinda just sits there. In 2, with all that weight on the left, there's built-in tension, energy. (There's also room to put a headline or body copy — not the point I am trying to make, but worth noting.)

Look how, in this next image, which is nearly identical to number one, something is different; something that makes it better.

Phoenix Police Department Air Support Unit

The aircraft in number 3 is more solidly in the middle, rather than being almost in the middle like number 1. And although I didn't catch this A119 exactly head-on, in 3 it's closer to head-on and that also makes a difference. Do you see it? Almost centered versus definitely centered, and not-quite head-on versus exactly (okay, more-exactly) head-on? I feel a big difference between them, a difference in power akin to the difference between "Oh, hi. Yoo-hoo," versus "I. Am. Here."

Solidly centered, facing the viewer, also indicates the subject is looking at you. Not some other person or place. It can feel confrontational, it can feel honest and, as importantly, by focusing the spotlight on the subject in this way, the subject is putting the spotlight on you.

And that is why you would purposefully and carefully center the subject: It brings the most attention to the subject and, in turn, to the viewer. If that is the right approach, though, you have to really shoot for it.

More Examples, More Observations

Here's another "I'm looking right at you, kid" composition. This electronics test bed Boeing 707 had just returned to Libby Army Airfield on Fort Huachuca, Arizona. It is bold, powerful, confrontational. If you want those qualities, this is one way to get them.

This Chinook on Fort Hood, Texas, is seen head-on, but with a couple of differences: I am very close to it, so the wide-angle lens is emphasizing the bulbous nose; I am low, looking up to it; there are soldiers working on it. Each of those factors changes the effect.

The overall change is one of softness. Yes, the aircraft is definitely the center (no pun intended) of attention, but this is more human. The aircraft is approachable yet heroic, capable yet it needs our involvement. Strong, but a team player.

This Lockheed L-1011 is owned by Orbital Sciences, which uses it to launch payloads into space. The importance of the aircraft is communicated by including the expanse of the ramp at Mojave Air & Space Port. The subject is still obviously the subject, but instead of it dominating us, the viewer, it is dominating its space.

Another image from Fort Hood. This head-on shot of one Bradley Fighting Vehicle is affected by it being amongst its brothers. The camera is low which, by diminishing the power of the viewer is often used to imply the power or goodness of the subject, but by being low in the midst of a bunch of Bradleys, it works mostly not to extol the virtue of the subject, but to subjugate the viewer.

If the point of view wasn't directly in front of the one, if we could see a path between them, we might feel we could escape, slip through a gap. But being in line, in that one vehicle's sights, we feel trapped!

One more vehicle and then I'll show some other subjects.

It might not be obvious at first glance, but this is an A-10 Thunderbolt II. Or, at least, it is some of an A-10. We have fuselage, engines, horizontal and vertical stabilizers. Missing is, most obviously, the wings, but also the big gun. (The gun is so big you can see the nose gear is offset to the starboard to accommodate its barrels.) The wings are elsewhere being reconditioned, modified, strengthened, in a service life extension program (thus the "SLEP" in the sign). I find there is something both noble and humbling about this image — the Warthog has served well, and is having its life extended so it can continue to do so. It's basically a formal portrait of a patient on the operating table, waiting for a new organ to be installed. Or something like that.

The boneyard.
Centering people in the frame can have any of the above effects: confrontational, honest, honored, aggressive, even playful. A person, with their posture and expression, can add emphasis to, or detract from, your message, so you need to watch those human actions carefully.

Of course, a big smile might be just the thing. Crossed arms can show defiance, but his smile counters that and, to me, suggests pride.

Sikorsky Aerospace Maintenance

A big smile with open arms is more, "welcome to Melbourne!"

AAR in Melbourne, Florida.

Maybe just a wry grin, surrounded by your work?

Or skip the grin, and show you mean business.

AAR in Melbourne, Florida.

In each of these images, we leave no confusion about what is important — it's the "who" in the picture — and they are looking at you!

Back to non-people images, here is a set of propellers in a memorial at Airbase Arizona, part of the Commemorative Air Force. Admittedly, the display is ready-made for centering the subject, and I did just that, but I've shot purposefully and worked a tiny bit of Photoshop on it.

Since I intended my photo to do justice in honoring the B-29 crews, I didn't just hoist my camera to my face and bang off a shot. This is actually the fourth of four frames I made, and with each click of the shutter button I was adjusting my position and framing: off-center just wasn't working; I wasn't quite straight enough; that streak of bright reflection on the left side of the pylon was running through the emblem.

The "little bit of Photoshop" was in service of keeping the attention on the memorial, though brief excursions to the American flag, or the building, or the masonry/concrete in the foreground, were all fine with me. But there was a drainage pipe on the berm and a small piece of paper, or something, littering the grass. Those were distracting so I excised them. No harm, no foul — this image isn't evidence in a trial.

If you've never been on the flight deck of a C-5 Galaxy, just know two things about it: it is a long ways off the ground, and you have to climb a long ladder to get there. Here's proof of the latter/ladder:

I don't recall my crouching to make this image, meaning there is another four feet, or so, of ladder out of frame at the bottom. You climb that just to get to this. As for the effect of centering the ladder in the frame, it invites you to climb. Off center, especially if the rails didn't converge, visually, as evenly as they do, the viewer is given the choice — climb, or maybe look over there (wherever there is). As shown, the climb is imperative. It is demanded. (If you're interested in the reward for hauling yourself up this ladder, the interior of the flight deck appears in my article about "bones.")

This final image is looking down the runway at a small, un-towered, airport near Phoenix, Arizona. Even more than the ladder, it demonstrates how the subject doesn't actually have to be upright and staring at the viewer. Even without the painted arrow, there is a strong implication of direction, of motion, of somewhere to go.

And The Point Is…?

Take with a grain of salt a critique of your photography that declares "you should never put the subject in the center." The center is a very important place as it pushes distractions aside, it balances the forces in the image, and demands attention. Remember, too, that it also puts attention on the viewer. That can be a good thing, so make sure you demand that attention with purpose.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace Airbus airplane alignment aviation Boeing CAF center centering composition detail formal formality helicopter Lockheed Mojave photography Stargazer symmetry technique Sun, 07 Feb 2021 21:12:27 GMT
Working Those Pixels It is true that photos are made, not just taken. Pressing the shutter button is the beginning, and a very important beginning, what with the multitude of settings to set and a composition to compose and picking the right time to press that button, but those merely comprise step one. Step two and step three and, perhaps, step 119 come later, and it's those subsequent steps that convert the collection of photons you captured when you pressed the shutter button into a photograph instead of a snapshot.*

What to Start With

Let's look at turning a good snapshot into a good photograph using a single image capture. (By the way, later I throw reality to the wolves — so, stick around for that!)

This is nice, right? A trio of F-16s from the Air National Guard in Tucson, Arizona, on a training flight over New Mexico. The settings on the camera have captured detail from the brightest to the darkest parts of the scene and the focus is good from near to far. Compositionally, I left twice as much sky as ground, giving the aircraft room to fly, visually, and I've chosen a moment that has the three aircraft attractively aligned. I'd say the first step was well taken.

What to Do

So, now what?

Rather than describe every step in turning the snapshot into a photograph, here are pairs of images that shows the basic changes:

There's the original, again, next to the result when I instructed the software I was using to automatically make a good photo. The result is less murky, that's for sure, but a bit overdone in my mind — too much contrast, too much color (saturation).

With version 1a, I returned to the original and began moving the post-processing controls around manually. More contrast, yes, plus sharpening (a must for the any digital photo) without overdoing that. I also used a tool to select what I hoped was a neutral-colored feature, something naturally gray, to shift the color of the image to be accurate.

Version 1b has a bit more contrast in the aircraft, making their shaded undersides dark. (I know it might be a little difficult to see the difference just glancing back and forth, but it's there.)

Version 1c actually lightens those undersides just a bit, countering the darkness that the additional contrast imbued them with. It's a subtle tweak, but I wanted to make sure we can see the details (which, again, I know are hard to see at this small size).

How did I like the result in 1c? Not well enough to let that be my final version. Frankly, what I had hoped to be a neutralizing of the color — even if technically accurate — looks too warm, too yellow, to me. So I actually went back to the original and went through some of the same steps but chose a different element on the nearest Viper as the neutral one, and I like the result, 2a, much better.

Why not just show the original and 2a, the final final? That would have less clearly explained that there can be a lot of work put into achieving a final final, including starting over. Sometimes the changes, step-to-step, are dramatic, sometimes they are subtle but meaningful. Notice above, actually, how 2a appears similar to the automated version. Why not just push AUTO and move on?

As I mentioned, the auto version was too contrasty and, on the undersides, too dark. Here's a close-up of the nearest F-16 to compare those results. It might be all those fluffy white clouds in the distance (even though we are actually over dull, dry, dim, desert), but I expect more light to be thrown up under the aircraft, and a random viewer of the image might feel the same. So, I tried to not let that viewer be disappointed.

This is a potentially versatile image, with plenty of room for copy to splash across the sky. Or, depending on the space available, cropping out some of the image is perfectly acceptable, too. Like:

I've reduced the amount of sky while retaining plenty of it in front of the aircraft. This wide offering would look right at home across a three-page spread in a brochure, or even on the big screen in SuperAeroVision (I just made that up, but I'll claim trademark on it 'cuz it's catchy).

Or square it up, à la Instagram, which fills up nicely with that stair-step composition.

Or just keep on cropping until you have two gals and a plane.

More to Do

Obviously this article isn't meant as an extensive how-to on preparing photography, but is only the briefest of overviews to bring home the point that pressing the shutter is just the start. Plus, once you believe you've arrived at a "final" image, just know that it doesn't have to be final. And not just by my preference for 2a over 1c.

For instance, here's some fun I had with that SuperAeroVision cropping:

I can make the aircraft speedy (which, for me, is meh but doable), or…

Give it sunset colors, or…

Turn day into a brightly moonlit night, or…

Simple black-and-white, or…


Push the colors to their extreme, or…

Throw the actual colors out the window, or…

Invert the original colors, creating a negative.

So many choices. But why do anything except the natural and attractive 2a? Because sometimes you have to grab eyeballs by the, well, you gotta grab 'em. Cropping, tweaking colors, and plenty more approaches are available to accomplish just that.

Short Wrap-up

I come to bury Caesar. I mean, the point is: while it's possible to fix a poorly captured image, it is much better, and you have far broader options in post-processing (what all of the above is called), when you start with a well-shot, well-composed, well-timed beginning. Then, take care, evaluate what you start with and where you end up, and don't be afraid to start again.

Long Footnote

* Unspoken, by me above, is an underlying technicality — when I press the shutter button and collect photons, I have instructed my camera to do nothing more than collect photons. Meaning, "Dear camera, do not be messing with the image. Sure, maybe the colors are wonky because the lighting is from a low-pressure sodium lamp, or the contrast is low, or high, or any number of other imperfections in the scene — just give it to me straight and I'll figure out what to do with it later."

In other words, my camera stores the data that forms the image in a "raw" format. That's why the original, way at the top, is a bit flat, contrast-wise. It's not how I remember the scene, and it's certainly not as eye-attracting as where it ended up, but by capturing the scene the way it did, I had the most information — dynamic range, color densities, and more — with which to achieve an image that looks more like what I recall, and is certainly more interesting to look at.

If your camera is set to save something besides a raw format, it is making many of the kinds of decisions I made later, about color and contrast and brightness and sharpness, in the instant after it captures the photons. That can often result in really nice photos, right out of the camera. It really can. And it's a lot easier than what I go through. But it also means those decisions, those results, are baked into the image, and now further changes are made on top of those original changes. And that means you are somewhat, or greatly, damaging the integrity of the image. Plus, since almost every camera that is not set to save raw image files is saving JPEG image files, they are being baked in with some level of damage caused by the JPEG compression scheme. I shan't go into that here, but you can read all about why JPEG sucks here.

Thanks to Arizona Air National Guard 162nd Wing and 161st Air Refueling Wing for letting me see and show their aircraft in action.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace airplane Arizona Arizona Air National Guard aviation composition detail F16 Fighting Falcon photography post-processing technique tweaks Viper Sun, 17 Jan 2021 21:52:51 GMT
Keeping Your Distance In this time of pandemic, with its new challenges and expectations, there are stories to tell not just about keeping our distance from one another, but also in spanning the distance between despair and hope. One such effort, to bring hope where it is desperately needed, takes flight nearly every week from a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, to the heart of the Navajo Nation at Chinle, in the northeast corner of the state.

To give credit where it is due and, more importantly, share some ways that people can help, I will report on the who and the how and the why in an upcoming issue of ROTOR magazine. In the article below, I share the simple techniques I practiced to capture the images to illustrate that story.

The Need

The Navajo live on reserved lands covering most of northeastern Arizona, plus adjacent lands in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. High rates of poverty and, for many, primitive living conditions — no running water for washing, showers, or toilets, no electricity for heat or lighting — plus a culture that values family and community gatherings, have combined with limited access to healthcare to ravage the population with COVID-19. In their efforts to reduce the spread of the disease, the tribal government has been restricting travel to and from the reservation, but the resurgence of the disease across the country in November led to a total lockdown, with not even truckloads of supplies allowed in.

One Response

One small but important mode of transportation has been allowed to continue; MD Helicopters, in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, began shuttling supplies to the reservation on a near-weekly basis during the summer of 2020, and continued to do so even during the strictest lockdown. (If the mode of their shuttling need mentioning, it is by helicopter.) These efforts are conducted through the auspices of Native American Sustainability for Veterans and Those in Uniform (NASVU)*, and most weeks the cargo consists of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, though in the first flights it included chainsaws (for cutting firewood).

I've been on site with MDHI quite a bit lately, as I'm producing a video for them, and noticed some stickers on the side of one of their aircraft denoting flights to Chinle. I asked about these markings and learned of this continuing effort. "Can I fly with you to capture the images to support a story?" "Absolutely," was the answer, and it happened within days.

The Photography

Keeping in mind the need for distancing, I made a couple of choices in photographing the activities. 

Both of the above photos were made using a wide-angle lens, with which I captured elements both near and far. On top we see about $2,000 worth of supplies, purchased in the Phoenix area with donations, and in the second image we see "WINSLOW" painted on the ramp at the FBO and, where the concrete strip ends, the MD 902 Explorer in which most of the supply runs are made. Supplies and people, aircraft and location.** Each time the story is illustrated more fully than if I had excluded all but a single feature. Notice too, for the wide-angle to be effective in these situations, I have to be fairly close to one of the elements, a closeness that should be minimized or eliminated with people during these times.

But what about at Chinle, where the aircraft was to be swarmed with eager hands to unload the load? Well, the swarm turned out to be three people, and I made sure to be away from the aircraft when they approached it. What we did was: the pilot called Chinle from Winslow and told the folks there to expect the aircraft to land, I would deplane (dehelo?), and after I was away from both them and the aircraft, the pilot would actually depart, only to return immediately. This allowed me to get an "arrival" shot. We see that below.

What you will notice, too, is that I am not standing near the aircraft with a wide-angle lens. I'm no dummy — those things throw up a lot of dirt 'n' stuff. Since the supplies are delivered to an open field adjacent to a church, to get a clean shot I'm using a narrow-angle, AKA "long," lens and standing a good 100 feet away. Yes, in this case the long lens is serving the concept of "distance" not for COVID safety, but for sticks-and-stones safety.

I moved around and around the aircraft as they unloaded, mostly staying 20 feet or more away. The image above was shot with a lens that fairly reflects how our eyes "see," and I used that to show a breadth of elements — aircraft, people, vehicles, dirt field, buildings — putting the people and equipment in context.

Then, remaining where I was standing, but switching back to my long lens, I isolate the efforts. Both approaches work, and shooting both ensures the right image will exist to support the words as might be written.

Moving farther around, and again with a wider-angle lens, the dirt road and the footprints lead our eye to the subject, as the road also suggests transportation away from the aircraft. It is a simple photo that tells a nuanced story.

With the supplies all transferred, the pilot chatted for just a couple of minutes with the folks on the ground. Notice that I've moved to yet another location, another angle on the activities, and have gone back to the long lens, which means I've also backed away from the people. The pilot is the obvious subject, but he is speaking with someone we can see, and the aircraft — and the stickers commemorating each of such assistance flights — are noticeable though out of focus.

Around to the other side of the group and, now, the wide-angle lens.

I never got much closer than this, never actually spoke to anyone, and I was always masked. It's kind of sad, missing that personal interaction, but the safety of the members of the Navajo Nation was paramount, so I did what was necessary to respect that, while also making the images that tell this one small story of hope delivered.

The Photography Lessons

Such a personal story, people helping people, often benefits from a wide-angle lens used close to the action. (I'm thinking of writing about that in an upcoming article, actually.) Since physical closeness poses extra risks during a pandemic, I used the wide-angle lens from a greater distance than normal, but composed with other elements of the scene to tell more of the story.

Take the image just above, with the pilot standing (distanced) with the three folks from the reservation. If I had not included the nose of the helicopter, using a wide-angle lens, it would be a photo of four people standing. Yes truck, and yes buildings in the background, but such an image would require more text to explain the situation.

And notice what is in focus in that image — the people in the midground. (The background is actually not in focus, though it is hard to tell in this low-resolution image.) What is obviously not in focus is the helicopter in the foreground. Why? Because the "meeting" is the story, so I kept the helo for context, but focused on what's important. Compare that to the very first photo, way above. There, the midground supplies are in focus, while the background people are not. The meeting of those two men is communicated, but the supplies take center stage. 

And don't forget your narrow-angle lens. As with the woman being handed a box from inside the helicopter, which I shot from behind the aircraft. It tells us to look at just one thing: that action. A long lens can also visually connect elements that are not necessarily near each other by bringing the background "closer" to the action, seen when the helicopter is arriving or when the pilot is framed against the aircraft while speaking.

This type of imagery could be destined for a company newsletter, social media, an annual report or, in this case, a trade magazine. You need a range of images to support those media, so if you use your equipment and use your feet, much of the story can be told without a word.

To Learn More or Help Out

In addition to NAVSU, help is coming to Native Americans through other channels, including the Native American Relief for Humanity Coalition, of which the Barry & Peggy Goldwater Foundation, led by granddaughter Alison Goldwater Ross, is a part. You can learn more about them at, and if you choose to make a donation through them, they ask that you designate it for Native American Relief.

* That single asterisk, way above, is there because, at the time of this writing, NAVSU is still awaiting its 503(c)(3) certification, so fundraising is being handled by the Veterans Medical Leadership Council Charities. You can learn more about them, and find out how you can help, at

** The double-asterisk is just to note that this is, indeed, the Winslow, Arizona, where Jackson Browne declared to have witnessed a fine sight to see, while standing on a corner. Whichever corner he might have meant, there is now a corner in town with a statue of him, and a statue of his co-writer, Glen Frey. You will, however, have to bring your own "girl, my Lord."

Thanks go out to MD Helicopters for allowing me to accompany their pilot, Bob Rappoport, on this trip. It's a great service the company is providing, which involves about 4 hours of flying, plus two fuel stops, and a mere 15 minutes of transferring the supplies from the aircraft to the waiting hands on the ground.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace aviation composition COVID detail distance distancing focus helicopter lens photography technique Sun, 27 Dec 2020 19:01:05 GMT
Reflecting gnitcelfeR Reflections are one way of seeing things differently, and when someone sees something differently, they want to see more.


By coincidence I was reading, just this morning, that the job of the headline of an ad is to entice the reader to read the first line of the ad. And the job of the first line is to entice the reader to read the second line. Etc., etc.

Fair enough, but before a reader reads, they first see — and if the image they see doesn't do its job of being noticed, the headline won't get to do its job. The opening photo, above, may not even be recognizable for what it is to many viewers, but it still attracts every eye that spies it. Step one? Done.

(The object in the center of the image is a venturi mounted to the side of a classic, polished aluminum, Cessna 172 — the air flowing through this device creates a vacuum which is used to drive, typically, a gyroscopic horizon on the instrument panel.)

This doesn't mean every photo has to be a masterpiece, a stark raving mad amalgam of color or detail. The photo in an ad, however, must at least cause a pause. Then the headline can take over. Etc., etc.

Even if the photo is not illustrating an ad, even if the intent is not to stop the reader from just turning the page, interesting photography is always better than non-interesting photography, and reflections are one way to make photography interesting.

What is it about reflections? They cause a pause because they pique our interest. We know what the world looks like normally, and we've experienced enough reflections to know they show the world in a new way, whether that reflection is a faithful but flopped reproduction of a scene, in an intentional mirror, perhaps, or distorted by the reflecting surface.

The mirror behind the smiling woman, above, reveals more of the room and also the people with whom she's interacting. Our attention snaps to her smile, then to the mirrored image of the room and people. The question of why, or at what or whom, she is smiling is automatic in our minds, so giving an immediate answer is the reward for pausing. It doesn't answer all our automatic questions, but we've gained the viewer's attention and now the text can take over.

This image of an Airbus H135, shot from quite near its nose, is attracting first because of the colors and shapes of the composition, followed immediately by recognizing there are people in the image. Reflected people. The interplay of elements in the image is important — the interesting exterior details and reflected people and, through the Plexiglas, interior details plus, if we glance around the image long enough, we'll notice a pair of legs in the bottom right, standing beyond the helicopter, that appear to be, maybe? Are they? No, they aren't, but they look sorta like the legs of the man on the right, whose upper body we see in the reflection. All of that examination takes only a little time, but it is time during which whatever the next step we intend for the viewer can be taken.

(You might have noticed the man on the right is me, looking at the camera that is capturing this image. By not having the camera plastered in front of my face, a viewer doesn't immediately identify this person as the picture-taker. Not an accident, that.) 

The image of the older gentleman sitting on the tire of what is actually a somewhat younger airplane, makes use of the reflection in the polished aluminum in a more subtle way. We are not immediately drawn to the reflections, but when our eye wanders away from his face to the polished fuselage and cowling, the spinner and propeller, and visible engine components, we also notice the reflections in that aluminum. As with the photo of the smiling woman in front of a mirror, this reflection gives more information; broadens the scene without directly showing it.

(There is so much good happening here, beyond even the bare photography. This gentleman was the crew chief on this exact PT-22 Recruit trainer during WW II, and his father worked for Ryan Aeronautical Company, the manufacturer of these aircraft, so would have made components that are on this exact aircraft, and one (or two) pilots who had trained during the war, in this exact aircraft, were known to live within a couple hours drive of where this Recruit is based.)

Aviation Day 15 April 2012 Here are two images in which the reflections are the only thing giving the aircraft their sense of place, since I've digitally replaced the "sky" in each with blended color fields. It is in those reflections, in the spinners and in the painted cowls, that we can place the airplanes in open areas (versus inside museums, perhaps) with people in attendance. So, here, the mirrored environments play decidedly secondary roles, but those roles are not without value. I've detailed some details about these aircraft, and my photography of them, at the bottom of this article.

EAA Airventure 2009 Here's another version of letting the spinner fill in the details, though in this case, most of what is interesting to see is the reflection, not the underlying object (a King Air, by the way). There is enough recognizable detail in the spinner to somewhat explain what we're seeing, but there's also the fun-house mirror aspect that works because accurately describing the details is not the point. It's just more fun, in this case, to smile at how the scene is visually distorted.

Fun is good.


There you have it. Reflections, whether in intentional mirrors or polished aluminum, Plexiglas or glossy paint, stop our eyes because we're often delighted by what we see there. Used skillfully, they reward the viewer by delivering on that expectation for delight, and they reward the advertiser/marketer/journalist by extracting at least a little bit of the viewer's attention. What you do next with that attention is up to you.

So, What About Those Two Airplanes?

The two aircraft — red/white and blue/white — are rarities. Early in World War II, one of the companies building the F4U Corsair "gull-wing" fighter under contract was Goodyear. Well, they got it into their heads that if the Corsair was good, it was bound to be better with a bigger engine. (The Corsair had an 18-cylinder engine, the engines in these bad boys had 28 cylinders and weighed twice as much as a fully-loaded PT-22.) So Goodyear got to tweaking and engineering and building, eventually presenting to the military what was badged the F2G, commonly referred to as the Super Corsair. The red/white airplane is an F2G-1, the blue one was an F2G-2. However, the orders for these two versions were cancelled with only five of each built. Several were purchased as war surplus, including these two, then modified and flown in air races.

I photographed the blue one, known as Race 74, a couple of times over the years, including this formal, detailed, profile in January 2012. I later got it into my head that I should photograph the red one, Race 57, in a complementary way, and did so when the opportunity presented itself a mere three months later. I then developed an idea for printing the two competitors very large and selling them as a pair. That concept might look like this:

Unfortunately, 8 months to the day after I made this photo of Race 74, it crashed while practicing aerobatics, destroying the aircraft and killing the pilot/owner, Bob Odegaard. That was a very sad turn of events and I felt pursuing the printing and selling at that time was in bad taste. So I didn't. I might just revive the plan though…

Pointless Bonus Image

If you just couldn't get enough of the very first image at the top of this article, here's a different view of the same object on the same airplane. Of course this image, and the first, have had their colors highly amplified.


(AeroMark Images) advertising aerospace airplane aviation composition detail distort focus helicopter marketing mirror photography reflect reflection shine shiny technique venturi Mon, 02 Nov 2020 00:48:04 GMT
Complete Coverage Telluride, Colorado. Beautiful scenery up in the mountains, yes, but when it comes to helicopter flying, the density altitude is also getting, well, up there. And though summer in the mountains isn't as warm as summer in the lowlands, combine even mountain-summer temperatures with high altitude and the amount of air feeding your engine and flowing over your rotor blades gets a double-whammy. Still, if you want to put in snow-making machinery, you don't wait until the cold weather arrives.

Thus it was in August that Mountain Blade Runner Helicopters, based in Montrose, Colorado, was hoisting buckets of concrete along the ski runs of Telluride. My job? Photograph the activity for Kaman Aerospace because the aircraft doing the hoisting was a K-MAX, their premier product.

Here are photos showing the aircraft and the activity. It was no accident that I captured this wide range of shots — it's what a photographer does. Read on to see what I did and learn why, so you, or a hired photographer, might do the same thorough job.

This wide composition places the K-MAX amid the other equipment and the scenery, from the concrete truck and ranks of snow-making machinery, to the trees and mountains of southwestern Colorado at 11,000 feet above sea level. Images that show only the aircraft have their place, but showing the aircraft and the environment tells the story.

Reversing the camera position let me put the people, briefing the morning's activities, front and center, and I used the semi-circle of their arrangement to frame the aircraft. (It's harder to see in a small version of the image, but it is the aircraft that is in focus, not the crew.) This is another view of the "story," showing the people more prominently without detracting from the product. With the aircraft still on the ground, I got down on the ground, too, to show the details of the business end of the K-MAX, the trolley that rides in that wide-U-shaped track, from which 6,000 pounds can be slung. No other aircraft is so designed to lift and deliver loads time after time after time. Photographically, note that only the lifting-related elements are in focus, keeping a viewer's attention where it is intended.

So I have wide shots, showing the environment, and a narrow shot showing a key feature. How about some action?


Sure, I have photos of the aircraft hovering above me, and you'll see those in a minute, but I also wanted to show more than "aircraft against sky," so I moved up one hill and shot wide to include the ground equipment as the K-MAX was bringing a now-empty bucket back to the base, where it would be traded for a filled one. I also moved up an adjacent hill and got down in the grasses/flowers to include something of the foreground environment as another option.

Here's a shot looking up at the aircraft as it was swinging the concrete bucket toward the waiting trucks, and one where we're gazing right at the belly of the bird, with its shrouded hook suspended between us. Yes, they are aircraft-against-sky, but more than that too. More to see and, thus, more interesting to see — on the left are clouds to enliven the image, on the right we have the pilot looking at us.

And speaking of the clouds, I'm just noticing how they came and went throughout the morning. At times it was overcast, at other times essentially cloud-free, with a range of appearances in between. Not something planned for, but it yielded photos with a wide variety of lighting conditions and graphical elements. Nice.

Moving to air-to-air photography, this angle shows off the shapes of the aircraft and its livery. A beauty shot, if you will, though the line draped from the belly shows this is a machine at work.
I also composed to include the work being done at the far end of the line: pouring concrete (well, about to pour concrete).

And finally, while it was a challenge to capture the action, air-to-air, due to the conditions and the limitations of the chase ship, I managed at least one strong close-up of the aircraft at work. This image went on to grace Kaman's 2020 marketing calendar (which I also designed and produced), as well as being featured, very large, in their trade show exhibit.

The Takeaway

If you have a dynamic event to capture — a helicopter running back and forth, hauling loads of concrete in the mountains, certainly qualifies — shoot to show the action from multiple angles with a range of camera lenses and settings, to include more than the single object of your photographic desire, so you and your downstream designers have plenty to choose from and, more importantly, so your viewers will be able to see the full story.

Even if you think the photography is destined for only a single application, like an ad, you don't want to be kicking yourself — or that hired photographer — for not capturing more, when the boss says, " hey, we need a photo for social media (or company newsletter or magazine article or annual report)." She will not happy if all she hears are crickets, shuffling feet, or excuses.

(You should not be surprised to learn that the photo at the top of this article, with TELLURIDE in the sky, was yet another image from that day — you never know when you even a non-aviation shot can be part of the story.)

Thanks to Mountain Blade Runner Helicopters for the opportunity to fly and shoot with them and, of course, to Kaman for allowing me to help them tell their story.

(AeroMark Images) action background cement Colorado composition concrete fly flying helicopter Kaman K-MAX photography ski run slope slopes story Telluride Fri, 09 Oct 2020 17:53:58 GMT
Catching the Wandering Eye In many of my articles I mention, often in passing, how the first job for a photograph is catching the eye of a reader. A browser. A passerby.

When you are communicating in your role as a marketer, and especially when you are enticing someone to be communicated with, the path to communication is something like, "Hey, look at me!" followed by "Ah, now you understand what I am," and then "See? It's good that you looked; now you appreciate the benefits available to you."

Put less conversationally, and from the perspective of the intended receiver, it is "Notice; Understand the topic and the offer; Imagine how the future will be better with the offered product/service/affiliation."

Simple, right? Notice how in each of these descriptions of the process, "Hey, look at me …" and "Notice; Understand …" the words that describe the steps become more numerous as the process unfolds. That correlation is not accidental. The attention-grabbing step happens, or doesn't happen, in as little as a half-second which, if the grab happens, you then have the reader's attention, a little more of their time, in which to attempt the next step, and then the next.

Today, I will delve only into catching that eye to stop its (and its owner's) wandering. (Note: I will often refer to advertisements, but these could just as likely be marketing materials calling out to be picked up, or graphics adorning a booth, calling out to be visited.)

To Start…

You can probably skip the rest of this article if you are able to choose appropriately from among these simple tips for creating and employing eyeball-grabbing imagery:

Show a very-well rendered image of something familiar;

Show something familiar rendered in an unusual way;

Show something unfamiliar in an interesting way;

Show people;

Make the image germane to the subject (which, by the way, does not require showing the subject);

Ideally, show whatever it is you're showing in such detail (or lack thereof) to lead the viewer to look for at least a little more information.

It is certainly possible to, technically, adhere to these tips and still not grab those eyeballs, but they are a start…

Danger! Danger! (Or not.)

Our brains are always on the lookout for, first, danger and then opportunity. Each of these, danger and opportunity, is most easily spotted if it stands out from its environment. The danger of a snake-in-the-grass? It doesn't stand out, so we might blunder into harm with no advance warning. But what if we're hunting for friendly snakes? Well, the snakes might not be a threat, but the environment is still working against our noticing them. And if that environment holds both harmful and friendly snakes, we must first notice a snake, then determine if it fits in one of those two categories, then act accordingly.

And, by the way, there is a third category of snake in the grass, which is neither harmful nor friendly. I mention this because ideally we don't want to disappoint a wandering eye by stopping it with a graphic, a snake, that promises to be an opportunity but is actually just a waste of time. That is annoying and you don't want to associate your brand with annoyance.

As marketers, how do you stand out from the grass that is a magazine, the internet, a trade show? The most effective tool for catching the eye of the beholder, in this dog-eat-dog world of getting your friendly-snake-in-the-grass company noticed in the bazaar of aerospace ideas, is an image. (Who doesn't love a mixed metaphor?) An assemblage of shapes, colors, contrasts, and textures, recognizable or intriguing, that causes a pause. A pause that suggests there might be an opportunity here, a pause that is your opportunity to make your case.

I'm a photographer, so that's where I would fit in, and step one for me is figuring out what to show and how to shoot it in order to get you to your step one: getting noticed. The second image above, the H145, grabbed your eye — probably as soon as some part of it entered your field of vision — by overfilling the frame with a boldly colored aircraft, pointed right at you, slightly tilted, and packed with aerospace components and construction details.

This box with its colorful background was an approach taken by a company that subsequently became a client of my then-agency. I don't have a copy of those ads, which were full-page buys, but this was the graphical approach — photograph the boxes on a colorfully lighted background. Add text and logo and done.

Remember how I cautioned against annoying a reader? Well, there is little chance of annoying a reader with this ad. It shows a box, the text of the ad spoke of the box. No surprises and, certainly, no miscommunication.

Then again, there wasn't much to enjoy about the ad, either. Reread those previous two sentences and savor that lack of joy. They paid a lot of money for those placements, but the ads performed only so-so.

I don't judge the box-on-bright-colors photo to be bad, as it was a fair attempt at achieving step one, but it has several weaknesses. First, it is, ultimately, just a photo of a box. The bright colors might stop a reader/surfer/attendee once, but there is little to hold the viewer's attention once the color has stopped their wandering eye. This box also looks very similar to other boxes offered by this company, and by its competitors. That similarity in appearance means another ad, though with different boxes but shot on the same colorful background, might not appear to represent a different product and, if the first ad was not of a product in which the viewer was interested, they might just flip to the next page or click on the next link or wander on to the next booth.

Relatedly, if a viewer didn't comprehend that the box was, indeed, a product in which they should be interested, the lack of depth in the presentation, of connections to the world or, best yet, a benefit to improve that imagined future, the next time they spot the ad they might, again, just flip/click/wander on by. It has happened more than once, to me, that in revisiting an ad in which there was at least an interesting graphic, I discovered the product/service was something that did interest me.

In considering how to improve things for the client, I had two immediate concerns: doing a better job of attracting attention and bringing at least something interesting to the ad. While I was at it, I also recommended we reduce the size of the ads. So what did I do instead of merely colorfully framing boxes, photo-wise? This:

I featured people. Actual aerospace people, not models or, ugh, stock photos of people. I then photographed those people staring directly into the camera, with a confident expression. As people ourselves, we are naturally drawn to returning the gaze. "What is this person thinking? What are they so sure of?" We created at least five of these ads, and likewise developed trade show graphics panels based on them, each with a different person and corresponding colored "frame." They looked alike yet different, and every one of the ads was pretty much guaranteed to get looked at. (The H145 photo also benefits, a bit, from this normal response to people looking at you.)

The ads did show the product, though not the "box" elements, but instead the human interface elements, and those product photos were quite small. The photos of these confident yet serious people — never haughty, not like they know something you don't — would grab the eyes of the reader who turned to this page because these eyes were already looking at them. Once grabbed, the text would do its thing and, before you know it, these now-2/3-page ads performed better than most of the other ads in a magazine.

Work better and cost less? Nice.

Working In Miniature

These three banner ads, which I screenshot off the web today, just happen to provide some exemplar approaches to catching a surfer's attention. At left, Bristow presents one of its aircraft, in its signature livery, photographed cleanly, with little else to the ad but a tag line and a logo. We know what to expect and it gives it to us.

Tech-Tool Plastics (another of my then-agency's clients) also shows an aircraft — a bright yellow one shot from a less-usual angle — but since their product offerings are, as stated here, "High-quality replacement windows," the composition puts the emphasis on the windows without indicating the owner/operator of the aircraft. That detail, the owner/operator, is immaterial since this is not positioned as a testimonial. I kinda wish they didn't consume 40% of the ad space with text and logo, but it works, so what am I complaining about!?

Intermountain Turbine takes a non-photo approach which substitutes strong graphics (step one) and just the words you need to understand what they are about. In this case, a photo of one or both of the enumerated engines might not have fared as well in such a small space, so I'd say it was a good decision to forgo them.

Each of these ads had to work at a small size on a page filled with competing content, both editorial and sponsored. Using a range of approaches I adjudge they succeeded and you can take whichever lessons to heart that fit your situation.

By the way, I commend you if you paused on the Bristow ad and thought to yourself, "Hey, didn't I see that photo in an earlier AeroMark Images blog article?" Not exactly, but close enough! I flew and photographed with Bristow in December and featured many of this ad's sibling images in a blog article about shooting air-to-air while flying a lazy orbit, "Going In Circles." Here's the photo from the shoot that they put into that tiny ad.

Doing More by Coloring Less

Understand that, in general, there are two distinct environments from which you need your image to stand out. One is the graphical one, all of the "grass" analogies I keep using, the other is the psychological environment, the experiences and expectations of the viewer. If a photo were to appear before them as part of an ad or booth graphic, displayed against a blank wall, would it stand out, mentally, as something about which they would want to know more?

Most readers/surfers/attendees expect color imagery, so one way to cause a pause is with a black-and-white image. Just as a zebra-striped snake would be more noticeable among the grass than a, well, than a green-striped one, so do black-and-white photos stand out among a thicket of color images whether the color images are actually present or are just expected.

Not only would this above image stand out among a sea of ordinary full-color ones, going black-and-white helps us stay focused on the Citation and the people, rather than mentally wandering off to the other aircraft, which includes at least one with a red stripe, and the green treeline, even though that is chromatically muted. The aircraft was about the most monochrome thing in the photo to begin with, so by pushing the color out of everything — and notice that the black-and-white version is much brighter and higher contrast than the original, inset, image — the bold elements and shapes of the Citation take center stage visually, not just geometrically. What a difference compared to the yellow H145, eh? But that would be the point — black-and-white images are not expected which, thus, draws the eye.

EA-18G Growler on or above NAF El CentroEA-18G Growler on or above NAF El CentroPhoto call at NAF El Centro

If the opportunity presents itself, we can further subvert a viewer's expectations by providing a bit of color to remain among an otherwise grayscale image. This Growler photo certainly benefits from this technique. Where the Citation photo was mostly gray to start, with some distracting colors in the non-important details, the Growler image was originally mostly bluish, from the horizon up, and tan below. Rather milquetoast, really. The afterburner flames are visible, but by dumping all of the colors except for those flames we give the viewer a bonus reward for stopping by.

And, whereas I had brightened the photo of the Citation, I darkened this E/A-18G, giving it a visual weight that works better for this military aircraft. That brightening led to a category of imagery known as high-key, while the darkening results in a low-key photo. Those categories are not dependent on photos being black-and-white, but figured I'd toss in that bit of photo jargon in case you come across it elsewhere.

Doing More with Color More!

People expect color images, and black-and-white upsets (in a good way) that expectation, but we can also grab those eyeballs by upsetting that expectation in the other direction. Punch those colors till they burn retinas!

(C) Chris J Price

The emboldened colors in this image of an F-16 are just that — bolder versions of the colors already present in the original image. I don't think there's much to add here: the recognizable shapes with the otherworldly colors will definitely cause a pause.

Try a Little Tenderness

I would be remiss if I did not share at least this one other approach to capturing a gaze: subtlety. 

Rather than poke a viewer in the eye — which is fine, by the way — a reduced presence, in size or detail or color or whatever other elements of an image or its presentation are screaming "look at me!", can also work. This H130 plies the skies near Salt Lake City in service to a drug rehabilitation center. Residents are shown around the mountains via this aircraft, which also delivers them to a remote ridge-top pasture to spend time away from the distractions of the urban areas. To support such a "story," I've framed the aircraft in subordination to the environment. The contrast in sizes, as well as in textures and colors, attracts the viewer. Rather than "look at me," the viewer's brain is thinking, "what is this?" with calm excitement. (Is that a thing, calm excitement?)

The Takeaway

With its first job being "get noticed," your photography needs to, first, be considered in terms of the graphical environment in which it will be encountered. Then, in coordination with the messaging, choose the subject that communicates that message, even if the "subject" is not the exact object or representation of your service. Photograph the subject, and prepare that photo post-facto, to attract attention and support the communication of your message. The tone of the photo must cohere with the tone of the copy and the layout of the ad, whether that is matching that tone or playing against it.

In short, give the passerby a reason to look, then don't disappoint them when they wonder, "what is this about?"

Bonus Image

Actually, the "bonus image" is the one at the top of the article. I bet you spent a little time checking it out, reading the text in the image, trying to understand what it represented. Is it aerospace-related? Yes. Do I expect you to know what it is, as in, on what aircraft it appears? No. Though if you do, count yourself among the very few. I, myself, was surprised with what I learned about the aircraft while preparing this article.

Here's the image again, so you don't have to scroll back to the top — I included it because it fits into the category of tips, "Show something unusual in an interesting way." It is a data plate on a World War II prototype stainless steel cargo aircraft, designed and built for the U.S. Navy by the Budd Company, maker of railroad cars. Here's a link to the Wikipedia article about it if you'd like to know more:

(AeroMark Images) aerospace airbus attention aviation black-and-white bristow cessna citation color composition E/A-18G EA18 environment F16 F-16 fighting falcon flying grayscale growler H130 H145 lockheed marketing phi photography S92 S-92 Sikorsky tech-tool plastics Thu, 10 Sep 2020 01:44:34 GMT
Capturing A Bumblebee My recent article A Lot In A Little presented the wide range of images I captured during a single air-to-air mission. In that piece I stressed the need for efficiency when aircraft are airborne — it's expensive to fly these things.

In this article, we'll see the wide range of images I captured during many hours of photography at an active firefighting helibase. In situations such as this, where the aircraft are not under your control but you have time and reasonable access to them, I stress variety rather than efficiency.

In case you're not familiar with the term, a helibase is, according to the U.S. Forest Service, "The main location within the general incident area for parking, fueling, maintaining, and loading helicopters." In this instance, the helibase was located in the Grand Canyon National Park and, though I photographed the gamut of aircraft operating there, for a photo essay I was crafting for a trade magazine, I'll illustrate my approach to ground-based image making with just one of those aircraft — the "Bumblebee!"

(Nick)Name that Helicopter!

Bumblebee is the affectionate appellation for an MD 900 helicopter, owned and operated by Papillon, on a 365-day lease to the National Park Service that has it marked as an NPS aircraft. Why Bumblebee? It's the livery — the rear half of the aircraft is glossy black, bisected by a broad, swooping, yellow stripe. Very jaunty. I have seen photos of the aircraft for many years, but this was my first time seeing it in person.

The above image presents both a clean portrait of the aircraft and an example of using the environment to make images that are more than "photo of helicopter," despite my being stuck to the earth. This is at the helibase, where the terrain is surprisingly hilly, so I took advantage of the hilliness in letting the foliage slightly occlude the aircraft. How hilly? Just take a look at the next shot, made shortly before this one.

The aircraft, at least what we can see of it, is spinning up on the ramp outside its hangar, and through the magic (well, through the intentional effect) of a "long" lens, I have definitely put the aircraft in its environment by blocking much of the fuselage with the grassy hill and framing it against its home.

And switching to a view from inside the hangar, shot through a "short" lens, I offer a totally different approach to showing the Bumblebee in its environment. Note how both of these images have the helicopter at its home, yet the emphasis in the first shot is the aircraft, while in the second shot it is the hangar. The choice of equipment and vantage point make all the difference while telling, essentially, the same story.

In the "hangar" shot, the pilot, Heather Saur, has her back to us in that cluster of folks in the center, so I moved in a bit, and switched to a different lens, to frame the aircraft, out of focus, through that cluster. They were planning for a medevac flight, which required not just loading some medical equipment…

…but also cleaning the interior of the cabin due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I chatted with Heather about the MD 900, also known as an MD Explorer, and she lauded its utility, versatility, safety, and low noise operation (those last two enhanced by its lack of a tail rotor). With it she can haul people and equipment in the cabin, carry gear or a firefighting bucket on a line, and if need be, fold up seats and lay in a stretcher. (A note on masking: while some of the crewmembers were sans mask, I was always wearing mine if I was near anyone, anywhere at the base.)

The Bumblebee departed on its medevac run and I prepared to move to another location (nearer the canyon). I figured they would pick up the patient and transport them to a local hospital, which would undoubtedly take a while. My car was parked near the ground equipment of another helicopter, a K-MAX, and I got to chatting with those folks (readers of my articles will know I have a lot of experience with that model aircraft (though you may not be aware that I have at least as much experience with MD Explorers, having flown many air-to-air missions with them)). And just like this paragraph, the chatting went on for a while when, suddenly, a ground ambulance pulled into the lot. "Hey! I bet the Bumblebee is bringing the patient here!"

Sure enough, a little later the Explorer came zipping in over the forest and settled onto the ramp where, once the rotors were stopped, the ambulance backed in through the gate (above) and picked up the patient (below), a firefighter who, I believehad injured her ankle. (I, of course, purposefully did not photograph the patient in an identifiable manner, in accordance with HIPAA regulations.)

With that bit of excitement captured, I did push on to a Grand Canyon overlook called The Abyss. Why? Because this deep canyon provides useful terrain for aircraft entering and exiting the canyon proper, and provided me a photogenic vantage point for photographing those aircraft. (It might also be preferable for operators by not being visible from the major tourist viewpoints, thus not disturbing visitors' reveries. That's just a guess, though.)

How photogenic? I thought you'd never ask! Here's the view from The Abyss. Notice the slightly yellower clouds near the horizon in the center, and the darker column of something-or-other at the left edge of that center section? Here. I'll zoom in for you.

That darker column is smoke rising from a wildfire on the north rim of the canyon. On the day I was there the helibase was active with aircraft working that fire. I never saw the Bumblebee head toward the fire, though it ran other errands in and out of the canyon, but Huey, K-MAX, and Air Crane helicopters came and went that way. (Look for those in the photo essay!) But we're here, today, for the jauntily-clad Explorer, so let's wrap up with a few images of it from this vantage point.

The wind had picked up, at least along the ridge where I was standing, blowing into the canyon, so Heather executed a single rising orbit to gain the altitude she needed to exit the canyon against that headwind. This image has her about 270 degrees through that maneuver.

Here she is rising out of the depths of the Grand Canyon, one of nature's most wondrous wonders.

The lighting this day was mostly cloudy, which is not always useful, but especially considering the subject — a black-and-white(-and yellow) helicopter already has extreme contrast, just in its paint — direct sunlight would have been a challenge. Then again, the overcast means less light overall, so shutter speeds might face their own challenges, in that they have to be slower to allow enough light to reach the sensor, while using a long-focal-length lens usually calls for faster speeds. As always, it's a balancing act.

A little bit closer and nearing the rim, the Bumblebee was not buzzing around for my photographic pleasure, but rocketing past as it climbed out of the gorge. In all of these images, my shutter speed is just a bit faster than I like it for helicopter photography, but even then, considering the very long lens I was using, even with vibration-reducing technology in the lens, it was a challenge to capture the aircraft crisply as it maneuvered.

She has cleared the steeply rising terrain and is headed back to base…

…and, on a separate evolution, heading back in for more.


Unlike the need-for-speed of an air-to-air mission, photographing on the ground allows not just more time, but more options for activities, angles, distances, compositions. A photographer should take advantage of those options to show the aircraft and its crews in multiple ways. From my first photo of the Bumblebee to the last on this day, over nine hours had passed. And I was hustling the entire time (remember, I was photographing other aircraft, too).

The result? Lots of images to choose from. Need a beauty shot for a full-page ad? Got it. Larger landscapes with the aircraft? Details of people working? Less-usual compositions? A collection of images suitable for telling a story in a magazine or annual report? It's all there.

Keep your eyes open, move your feet, and know and use your gear to the max.

Bonus Image

I have never seen an image like this, featuring a (bumble?)bee and the Bumblebee in one shot. I noticed the buzz of activity among these flowers and did what I could to make something interesting. The difference in distance between the camera and the bee, versus the camera and the helicopter, precluded my having both in focus. That was fine by me, though, because if everything were in focus, our eye would probably not notice the bee in flight. By putting only the flowers and the bee in focus, we notice them and then make the connection. "Oh. I get it. It's a bee and the Bumblebee. Ha. Ha." (This would be spoken deadpan, of course.)

A big "thank you" to Papillon and National Park Service for allowing me access to the helibase.

(AeroMark Images) action aerospace aviation color composition environment Explorer flying focus helicopter MD900 MDHI photography technique Wed, 05 Aug 2020 19:34:01 GMT
Framed I am, as I write this, deep into producing a photo essay for a trade magazine about firefighting helicopters in Arizona. Sorting through the thousands of images I've already shot (and I'm not done yet!), I saw a few that gave me the notion for this article — I had "framed" people or aircraft within other objects in the image. You might wonder, "Huh?" then "What? Why?," while I wondered, "Do I have enough examples to illustrate this approach?"

I'll answer my question first: "More than enough!"

As to your questions, well, I'm not quite sure what to do with "huh," but the "what" and "why" are answered below.

These first two images were made in Payson, Arizona, and involve an S-61N that was waiting to be called to a fire burning just a few miles to the west. Above, the fueler has climbed aboard the fuel truck, parked some distance from the helicopter, to check the level in one of the truck's tanks. This image illustrates the basic idea of framing — using elements in the composition to partially or totally surround the subject. In this case, I am looking through the open side door of the S-61, across the interior of the aircraft and through one of its windows. The exposure and focus are set for the man, the result being: the viewer knows exactly what the subject is, but is also treated to a bit of the environment. 

I don't contend that a viewer would know the "frame" is a particular helicopter, or even a helicopter at all (though the circular vent in the window pretty much says "aviation"), but this is still a more eye-catching and interesting photograph than would be one of just the man holding a stick. It has more depth, literally, yes, but cognitively also. There's more to think about, and time spent thinking means time spent with your messaging.

Using the same location and the same "framing" helicopter, the S-61N, I had noticed this AStar coming my way and prepared to capture it as it swept by. Rather than hustle out from behind the Sikorsky, I instead framed the AS350 within the 61's rotor blades. I may have other photos of the AStar isolated against the sky, but that approach yields "aircraft against sky," whereas this composition is about the broader story: aircraft in the foreground, fuel truck next to it, aircraft flying by, Mogollon Rim scenery beyond it all. Again, more depth, visually and conceptually.

Notice some differences in this example compared to the first — the subject is an object in motion (rather than a person), the frame is a visual confluence of elements in the composition, not an actual, fixed, aperture like the window through which we see the fueler, and all the elements in the frame are understood for what they are. Notice, too, a similarity — we know what the main subject is, despite that subject being relatively small in the frame, by how it is constrained within a larger composition.

This technician at Fort Hood, Texas, above, is testing communications gear in a Humvee. Most of us might not recognize this as a Humvee, but if that were important to a story it would be shown or explained elsewhere. For this article, the point is how I've framed the technician with elements of the vehicle and gear. Only his face and portions of his headset are in focus, and except for the yellow wire in the foreground, his face is the most colorful area in the photograph. We know he's the subject. Now compare that image to this next one.

The framing now includes far more of the equipment and some of our attention is drawn to it, but as what we see of those bits of gear are cabling and their backsides (in particular, no controls), we still understand where our attention is intended — the technician. Providing a range of similar-but-different compositions gives a writer or graphic designer more options to tell the "story" as best supports your goals.

I certainly have many photos of the airmedical EC135, above, air-to-air, air-to-ground, and with both of us on the ground. In these two renditions, though, I opted to give a nod to the hospital by framing its name through the aircraft. Each is more visually interesting than a simple photo of that University of Tennessee at Knoxville Trauma Center signage and, as with the previous two, a range of compositions offers a writer or designer options. By shooting through the aircraft, I also tie the hospital to its aviation connection. (I suspect every example in this article is one of the several, or many, shots I made of the same subject. Shoot a lot — options are good.)

The Chinook, above, was parked at the end of a day on call for firefighting near Tucson. I chose this image to illustrate using foliage as a "frame," which suggests being located in the wilds of wherever. The sharp-eyed among you might notice the green traffic light smack dab in the middle of the image, giving the lie to this being too remote, but the overall sense is, indeed, of an aircraft parked in the "boonies" rather than in a 200-foot x 300-foot parking lot adjacent to a six-lane highway.

By the way, just because it is near a highway doesn't mean it, or the several other helicopters, and their crews are living the high life — they are occupying an abandoned boy's school, devoid of any extant buildings, its past life evidenced only by broken tile floors and concrete pads among desert plants and animals, including rattlesnakes.

A different Chinook, a different location (northeast of Phoenix). This mechanic is securing the main rotor blades at the end of their day, also fighting fires. Like it was with the fueler, this person is framed by a helicopter, but in this case the framing is done by the aircraft on which the person is working. Also, unlike the fueler seen through the open door and the window of the S-61, most viewers in this industry would understand the aircraft type, even though it is mostly out of focus.

Once I'd captured a number of those "tighter" shots, I widened the composition to capture the woman holding the blade's tie-down rope but kept the guy on top in the shot as, basically, a little treat for someone who might notice him there. And if you didn't notice him then, well, the photo still works, even if the more obvious "frame" of rotor blade-rope-ramp-aircraft is enclosing just a bit of the scenery. I think when we first view this image, we are drawn to the woman smiling, but with his red helmet visible among all of those intricate shapes, our eyes are then drawn to the corner, despite it occupying but a small area of the image. Then our eyes dart back to the woman smiling, then back to the corner. Fun…and effective, by engaging the viewer for longer and, for some, a sense of satisfaction at "discovering" the guy in the helmet.

Akin to the maintainer securing the blades on the Chinook, this soldier inspecting a UH-60 tail rotor at Fort Hood, Texas, is framed by the aircraft on which he is working. In this example, though, we are closer, the person is visually larger, and the framing elements are at the tips of his fingers. The result is a more intimate feeling to the image.


In an exception that proves the rule, the Bell 206 that is framed through the windscreen of this S-76C++ is not the subject of the photo, but does play its role in  giving the photo context: an air-to-air shoot where, for the moment, the video crew is in the Bell as we both head for the Gulf of Mexico from Houma, Louisiana. The details of the interior of this Sikorsky attract our eyes, but seeing the other helicopter lets us know we're out here doing something, not just flying.

I'll wrap up the "images" portion of this piece by circling back to the story I'm working on; firefighting aircraft in Arizona. This is a pilot and his AStar, which is equipped for, and assigned to, helitack duties. They each sit awaiting a callout from the San Carlos Apache Airport near the mining town of Globe. The Cessna provides both shade for the pilot and, in this image, frames for the pilot (strut-shade-chain) and the helicopter (strut-wing-fuselage). A two-fer!


The "what" of framing is visually placing the subject in the confines formed by one or more elements in a composition.

A literal frame works, like a window (see the first image, above), as can a formation of objects and/or phenomena (the strut and the shadow being examples, respectively, in the final image). The frame can be large or small, the object within the frame can be large or small.

The "why" of framing is, usually, focus with context. The frame might consist of non-identifiable elements, clearly identifiable elements or, perhaps, elements that are identifiable but unimportant in their own right. A frame can allow you to communicate, in essence, the forest and the tree.

The S-61N through which we see the fueler in that first image is, as stated, not necessarily identifiable as such, yet the composition works because the subject is clear and the frame suggests an aviation environment. Showing just the fueler on his truck would not suggest aviation at all unless there were markings to make that connection.

In the close-up of the maintainer in the red helmet securing the rotor blade on top of the Chinook, he is obviously the subject while, despite being out of focus, the aircraft type is not in question.

The other Chinook is shown through trees and shrubs, which we understand to be trees and shrubs. The flora gives context while being, in terms of their particular species, unimportant.

There are other techniques or conditions at play in these photos — use of color, leading lines, depth of focus, where people in the photo are looking — that play into our understanding of the situations or actions above. The use of frames is, indeed, just one of the many tools at a photographer's disposal, one that works well with others.

The "trick," if we were to call it that, of creating a frame in photography is to remain open to seeing useful and appropriate ones, then acting on that recognition. Sometimes they come and go pretty quick, but they can give an image staying power.



(AeroMark Images) aerospace aviation composition environment focus frame framing light lighting photography technique Wed, 15 Jul 2020 04:39:39 GMT
A Lot In A Little When you are "burning dinosaur bones," as Chris Cornell put it, efficiency is important. The direct operating costs of a Robinson R22 helicopter might run $150-200/hour, while small turbine-powered helos can cost five times that amount. So, if you put up a good-size twin-engine turbine, like the Sikorsky S-76C++ you see in the following images, and a Eurocopter AS350 to carry the photographer, there's some real money being spent on beating the air. That photographer had better make good use of those burnt bones.*

The goal, as always, is to make eye-catching imagery that is maximally useful, making, also, the most of the time aloft.

There's a lot to see, so let's see how that photographer did. (Spoiler: The photographer was me, and I did a great job.) I'll touch on aesthetics and technique both, depending on the image. (Second Spoiler: The images get bolder the further you read.)

This first image, above, doesn't really grab a viewer, even if capturing the aircraft against that shadowed area certainly allows it to stand out. We appear to be in a wilderness area of no real grandeur, so why shoot and show this one?. To illustrate that I was just warming up, getting the focus dialed in and the exposure set, ready for this next shot.

We more than literally flew past the Hollywood Sign — it came and went in a mere 15 seconds, during which I shot 9 frames at 4 different zoom settings — so I made the first shot to prepare for what was going to be a short window. Then, no time to celebrate, but on to other locations, other backgrounds, other opportunities!

Not an iconic background like the Hollywood Sign, but indicative of an urban area, framing a beauty shot of the aircraft. There's actually a lot going on in this photo that keeps our attention on the aircraft. The S-76 is in direct sunlight, so is very bright. That direct sun, a setting sun actually, also means the aircraft is "warm," while most of each building and all of the streets are illuminated by the blue sky, so "cool." And notice how the background is soft, not crisply focused? I normally keep my ISO setting (the sensitivity of my camera's sensor) as low as practicable so I can keep the aperture of the lens (the size of the hole through which the light passes) large. That large aperture means less of the scene, from near to far, is in focus. Here, the helicopter is and the background isn't.

In focus.

Bright versus dark, warm versus cool, in-focus versus not — the aircraft fairly pops out of the frame.

This image is much like the previous one — bright/dim, warm/cool, in/out-of-focus. The warm/cool thing is even more stark, though the in/out-of-focus is less pronounced because I left the camera's shutter open for a bit longer to capture more rotor blur (not that the previous shot was lacking in that regard). A slower shutter means a smaller aperture, and that means more is in focus, near to far. (Especially viewed smaller, as we do in this article, the background might appear in focus, but it's not.)

Something that further differentiates this second pair of images? They are in the vertical, also called portrait, orientation, compared to the horizontal/landscape orientation of the first pair. Each orientation lends itself to particular applications, and I point this out to emphasize the value of capturing images in both orientations during a shoot, unless you have zero need for one or the other. As an example, look at this next image, made 14 seconds after the preceding one.

I've left plenty of space around the aircraft, too, which might be useful in an ad or brochure, where text or inset graphics could find a home, or just to emphasize the environment in which the aircraft operates.

And if you like having space around the aircraft, you might love this next composition as it stretches out to the horizon where the setting sun is illuminating the haze, lowering the contrast and delivering an atmospheric look, while the aircraft flies nearby, bold and un-hazy. I expect there's a graphic designer looking at this right now and thinking, "ooh, I could put a great-looking headline right across that bare space!"

Of course, including all that background means the aircraft appears small, which might limit the utility of the shot if it seems there is too much not-aircraft in the photo for a particular application. Well, by capturing these images with a high-pixel-count camera, hefty cropping is possible while still retaining print-quality resolution. The following image is an 11 x 8.5-inch crop of the above, and the aircraft still more-than-fills the frame. Yay, pixels!

An additional point to make about the images I've shown so far: they are all from the right side of the aircraft. If the photographer's aircraft allows only access to shoot from one side, it's possible the images will be restricted to seeing the target from one side. Such was not the case on this mission, and I switched from left to right sides of my platform throughout the flight.

Here's one from the left side of the S-76, which shows even starker bright/dim and warm/cool contrasts; and thank goodness — if those buildings had also been lighted by the sun, the aircraft would have been fighting for visual dominance against their angles and facets.

Vertical/portrait orientations are a challenge when showing a helicopter from the side, since they are physically long objects. Still, you should try to capture such arrangements in case they are needed to show off the profile of the aircraft while also fitting, graphically, onto something like a full-page magazine ad or the cover of a report.

I'd had enough of the city, so we headed to the ocean with the Sikorsky leading the way. By this time, the sun was fast approaching the horizon, so the lighting keeps changing. There is still a bit of direct sun on a few buildings, while most are in shade, and it appears the sky is no longer blue overhead, so the light in the shadows has warmed up. We still have good contrast in brightness levels and sharpness, which keeps the aircraft definitely the focus of our attention — and get a load of the reflection of the horizon in the glass!

When we made the beach, our first destination was the Santa Monica Pier. There's no denying the pier is one stop in our visual appreciation of this composition, but by giving the aircraft and the pier each their own space in the image, we can enjoy them both without the former clashing on top of the latter.

We leave the pier behind and I capture a simple portrait of the aircraft against an energetic yet non-distracting background as we head northwest along the coast.

Back to the other side of my, and the target, aircraft, taking full advantage of that gorgeous sunset for both its lighting and for catching another reflection of that horizon. It appears, too, that the sky overhead has again gone blue. If we were pointed northwest a moment ago, and are now pointed southeast, we will again discover…

…the Santa Monica Pier. But this time, we maneuver around to its southern face and the entire scene is backlit, de-emphasizing the colors of the pier and the aircraft, letting the ocean, mountains, and sky take the front seat, color-wise. There are so many elements, yet we are not confused about the subject, despite it not occupying even one-tenth of the image area. Notice that our attention flits from aircraft to pier, then up to run along those indigo mountains to the left edge of the frame, then back to the aircraft, the pier, and finally back to the aircraft. Always back to the aircraft.

My aircraft skirts around to the shoreward side of the Sikorsky, putting that aircraft against nothing but ocean, in blue, contrasting with that gorgeous orange/yellow sky. I can't recall if I timed the shot to grab one with the red strobe flashing on, but sometimes I make that effort as it can really help with these otherwise backlighted compositions, bringing some extra "life" to the aircraft. Sometimes you just get lucky. Whichever it was, effort or luck, I'll take it!

We return to the city, but have one more stop to make before heading for home. This image is not that stop, but it grabbed my attention, what with the violet lighting on the background, left over from the deepening sky.

And this isn't it, either, but shows I've moved back to the other side of my aircraft, is a vertical shot showing high-rise buildings to really communicate "city," and that city is much less in focus than the aircraft, though we are again hampered in seeing that difference at this small size.

We were closing the gap between us and positioning the two aircraft for the final shot, but still I was watchful for interesting compositions and caught this one as it floated by.

So, where is that final destination? The last place we want to see? The coup de grâce? Why, it's the 405!


It might sound kinda funny that a mere road, the 405 Freeway, was our final destination, but we had in mind a truly stunning image with traffic on that road: Legendary traffic heading north from Los Angeles after sunset and, by gum, that's what we put together.**

It's not an easy shot, either. Hovering helicopters are not pinned to a point in the sky, immovable in the air. They are constantly shifting left and right, up and down, by usually small increments, which can help or hurt the pursuit of a composition. Still, thanks to the skill of the pilots in both aircraft, I was able to capture just the shot we had in mind. And in case you thought I might have forgotten…

…I shot it in landscape orientation, too.


In these 20 images (Really? 20? Yes.) we saw the aircraft large and small in the frame, the frame oriented tall and wide, the lighting direct and indirect, the backgrounds detailed and important or not. In other words, these 20 images provide a broad range of choices to show off an aircraft and its operations. And choice means having the right tools to communicate effectively. If a customer saw two images — one on the web and a totally different image in a brochure — they might not even suspect they were shot in the same 50-minute flight.

Wait! Did I just say the flight was only 50 minutes?

Yes, though I admit that's not the full story. From the first photo, above, to the last, only 38 minutes had transpired. The other few minutes were occupied in transiting from the Van Nuys Airport to the first shot, and from the last shot back to the airport.


When setting up an air-to-air shoot, make the most of everything at your disposal. Plan for the right time of day — very early or very late work well not only because the main light source is low in the sky, better revealing the dimensionality of the subject, but the light is usually less harsh, more colorful, and more changeable, as the sun rises or sets. Plan for a variety of locations or backgrounds, and approach them from different directions. Shoot a variety of compositions, not always filling the frame with the aircraft, and shoot in both vertical/portrait and horizontal/landscape orientations.

And, by the way, shoot a lot. I mean, a lot! These 20 were selected from nearly 900 frames I captured in those 38 minutes. If I had been shooting on 24-exposure rolls of 35 mm film, that would have been one roll through the camera every minute!

They say time is money, but when aircraft are running, it is truly money that is money. Make that money worth the most it can be.

A big "thank you" to Helinet Aviation in Van Nuys, California, for the very productive flying.

* I know that direct operating costs for helicopters comprise much more than just the fuel burn, but it's not as poetic to say, "when you are burning fuel, consuming oil, deteriorating seals, stressing rotors, eroding compressor blades, insuring machines and people, and just plain ol' spinning up the Hobbs meter," compared to "burning dinosaur bones." I recalled that line from a song, but couldn't remember who sang it. So, I checked around and discovered it was written by Chris Cornell of, at the time, Soundgarden, one of the leading "grunge" bands, though he was not referring to helicopter operations. As an added humorous note, I was actually familiar with the song as performed by Johnny Cash. Who knew Cash did grunge?

** You can see this image on the cover of the 2nd Quarter 2020 issue of ROTOR, the magazine of Helicopter Association International, by following this link. In addition to the photos populating that story, there are 11 more pages of content by yours truly!

(AeroMark Images) action aerospace air-to-air aviation color composition environment flying focus helicopter Helinet light lighting photography Sikorsky technique Wed, 24 Jun 2020 14:27:50 GMT
Picturing History In my years as an aerospace photographer, and as the son of a USAF fighter pilot and as just a plain ol' guy who likes airplanes, I have been around many vintage aircraft. Whether in museums, at airports, or even in the wild, those older machines have a certain appeal, born of nostalgia and, probably, a more easily seen and appreciated level of technology.

Here, I share a bit of what I've been drawn to and have captured on film or in digits and, in some cases, how I altered that original image.

And I'll do that with images of one of the all-time favorite vintage aircraft, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. I mean, who doesn't love the Flying Fortress?! (Don't worry if you don't actually love the it, perhaps because you've no idea what it is; the tips I'm sharing are applicable across the board.)

First I'll run through some variations on a theme, then I'll show a few more images and discuss them. Lots to see, so dig in!

I'll start with this beauty, the B-17G "Sentimental Journey," belonging to the Commemorative Air Force. I've taken advantage of the clouds and soft lighting to capture and create a very pleasant portrait of the aircraft in flight. It appears I liked both the "warm" clouds below and the "cool" ones above, so I split the difference and placed the aircraft across the middle. I did, however, not center the aircraft left-to-right in the frame. I left space on the left for the Fortress to fly into, a place for it to go.

Folks knowledgeable about the markings on this aircraft recognize it and understand this could not be a photo from the '40s. Still, that doesn't mean we can't play with it to suggest a 75-year-old image. I'll do that in a few different ways, to show some of what's possible.

One approach is to turn it into a black-and-white image, as that film type was the most common at the time. Merely converting to black-and-white isn't quite enough to send us back to the war, though, so I've also added what would have been film "grain," the small, gritty variations in brightness that you see best in the now-gray clouds. Notice, too, the vignetting in the corners of the frame, the darkening, simulating how most lenses don't project a uniform amount of light across the entire image. Even modern lenses can suffer from this, but especially in a camera that would have been carried onboard another aircraft of that era, this was a common optical defect.

For a final touch, I added a ragged frame to what would be this "print" of the image. It is just another little message that says, "hey, old photo here!" I would note, though, that this is still a fairly clean rendition, possibly representing a modern print of an old piece of film, so let's take a more ragged approach to aging the photo.

I've gone black-and-white again, but with much different settings. First, note the lower contrast and brightness. Details, especially in the shadowy areas of the aircraft, are much less distinct. The vignetting is less aggressive, but I've added streaks of paleness which, to my eye, suggest uneven chemical processing of the original 35 mm film (the proportions of the image, 3:2, suggest that film size). Then, for good measure in making this an old print of an old piece of film, I've added splotchy staining which could result from improper washing of the print when it was made all those years ago. Not all of the chemicals were removed when the print was made and, over the years, those chemicals have discolored the paper.

But color film did exist, so let's go for a color rendition and see what that could look like!

There were some good color films at the time, but their sensitivity wasn't as good as it is today, which means more graininess or slower shutter speeds — or both. And if you were in a war zone, keeping the film stored and shot within its preferred narrow range of temperatures was a problem, which can lead to even more graininess and detours from color accuracy. Plus, you know, war zone, so dirty camera and optics and iffy processing. In this image I've got the graininess, though I've not let the colors move too far from the original — plus flecks of dirt and that vignetting again, with some of that inconsistent chemical processing across the span of the frame.

Why "age" a modern photo? Without wandering into fooling a viewer for illegal or unethical reasons, in marketing, converting an obviously "new" product or scene to a vintage look can be eye-catching with its juxtaposition of vintage with modern. Maybe you are preparing images as a prop in a film or for the theater. Or, you might just want a photo that looks old; a print for your wall.

But let's move on, starting with an image I made many years ago, indeed, on actual film.

Luke AFB, west of Phoenix, Arizona, would host an annual air show back in the day. I had attended, this particular year (1990, maybe?), with my wife and my best friend, who is also an Air Force "Brat." When the show was over, we headed to my car where, just as we reached it and were putting away our gear, the B-17 from the show flew over on its way home, wherever that was. I lifted my camera to my eye and, clicking the shutter button on what turned out to be the last frame on that roll of film — and with a wide angle lens, no less — captured the aircraft. It was mere coincidence that one bit of lens flare neatly encircled the bomber, and that small, dark object toward the lower right is a P-51 Mustang, angling in to join up with the Fortress.

The lesson from this image is: be prepared, then shoot what you've got.

(By the way, notice the vignetting! That's all natural, in addition to the lens and its settings for this shot, I figure I must have had a polarizing filter fitted to the front of the lens which, by its nature, works to darken blue skies most effectively when pointing the lens 90 degrees away from the sun — thus, the sky near the sun experiences almost no darkening, while the wide-angle lens sees broadly enough that the farther from the sun, across the frame, the darker the effect.)

This B-17 is taxiing toward us, its low ground speed making it easier for me to balance competing blurs — one blur I want, the other I don't.

Keeping blur in the propeller blades is important, aesthetically, so keeping the shutter open a long time is how that is accomplished. Blurred blades show the engines are turning and, thus, the aircraft is being powered along. Keeping the shutter open for a long time while the aircraft is changing its distance to the photographer, however, could result in a blurry aircraft, which I don't want. So, to balance the two requirements I set the shutter speed for this frame at 1/400 sec. I know that doesn't sound like "a long time,' but photographically — in this scenario — it is.

Result: reasonably blurry blades but an un-blurry fuselage.

Notice the amount of blade blur in the series of photos at the start of this article — the shutter speed there was 1/250 sec., allowing even blurrier blades, but I was able to track the aircraft's motion and, thus, not bring home a blurry aircraft. (I saw a photo of former President Eisenhower's first Air Force One airplane, shot just a couple of years ago as it was floating in for a landing. The photographer must have used a very short shutter speed because the propeller blades appeared to be motionless, which gives a viewer the impression that all the engines were shut down. Yikes!)

This B-17 image has other attributes that commend it, though, so I don't want you to think about only blurs.

The camera is positioned low and, thus, is looking up at the aircraft, imparting both grandeur and menace. It gives the B-17 a real "presence."

We see elements of the near foreground, then the Fortress, the treeline and, finally, the mountains and clouds. Lots of depth to the image, lots of environment, but the B-17 is the obvious subject, literally and figuratively.

The same B-17 had, minutes before, actually lifted off that same runway, roaring over me for a quick flight. I'll convert it from color to black-and-white, intending not to appear vintage, but for its own aesthetic reasons. (Note the same 1/400 sec. shutter speed as the taxiing photo, though more blur to the blades due to the higher engine speed on take-off.) The full-color image has much to commend it — clarity, the thrill of being, essentially, overrun by a majestic machine, a slight tilt adding a bit of visual energy, and the contrasting colors of the sky and the ground, the latter reflected in the polished aluminum skin.

Unfortunately, that reflected ground also suggests a dinginess or griminess. By converting the image to black-and-white, though, we lose the reflected ground colors, the source of the apparent griminess, and can now better appreciate all the textures. Not just in the aircraft, either, as the overhead clouds now contrast in their softer swirls with the crisp details of the airframe.

Either might suit your needs, color or black-and-white, just keep in mind the possibilities of going black-and-white to calm unattractive or clashing colors, to bring attention to details that color might be overshadowing, to coordinate images from different sources which don't otherwise fit together stylistically, or just to be different and, thus, add a change of pace to a brochure, ad, annual report, or web site.

(You can read an article all about switching an image to black-and-white here.)

B-17 cockpit flag Chandler 20120415 01
Aviation Day 15 April 2012

I'll wrap up with this patriotic composition, which happens to work as black-and-white and color, both, in a single image.

I was covering an airport's open house, so visitors were allowed into some aircraft, a fact I wanted to show without bringing too much attention to the particulars of the person we see inside. Beyond that, it's a detail shot that plays with shapes and forms: the various diagonal lines seen through the cockpit, the soft curves of engine cowling (bottom right corner) and top turret (at left). And in the midst of those more rigid elements, a flag snapping in the breeze.

That American flag is the only colorful element in the image. Yes, a bit of one yellow propeller tip is visible, and the sky is blue and the paint along the fuselage ahead of the pilots is green, but those colors are all very muted, barely registering as colors in the viewer's eyes. It's the flag that really stands out.

Of course, I could remove all the color, even the muted ones, except for the flag. That could work, though it does bring attention to the manipulation. In this case, I took advantage of the nature of the scene to let the flag do its patriotic duty in the otherwise dull world in which it found itself. The flag stands proud, no manipulation required.

The Takeaway

We might be so overcome by seeing a true vintage airplane (or helicopter or fishing boat, for that matter) that we allow our emotions to short circuit our good sense of photography. Our memories or fantasies might lead us to think that just snapping a snap will yield an image that conveys all that we're feeling. Usually, it doesn't. So, yes, enjoy and fantasize, but when you put a camera to your eye, also put effort into making an image that might make, for someone else, a memory worth keeping.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace aging airplane aviation b&w B17 Boeing bomber color composition conversion convert environment Flying Fortress photography technique vintage Wed, 10 Jun 2020 18:17:53 GMT
Looking at Bones Over the past 15 years, I have spent many days with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group on Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. The facility is colloquially referred to as "the boneyard," a term I also use because it's recognized by most people, though boneyard is not a particularly apt descriptor of the function of the 309th AMARG. Most coverage of the boneyard shows off the fast movers — the fighters and bombers. I've photographed those also, but am often drawn, or hired, to photograph the less usual objects or scenes. I'll share a few of those photos and, of course, talk a bit about the photography. It's a bit of a behind-the-scenes tour that few people have, or could have, seen. Enjoy.

Helicopters don't get the kind of coverage the fixed-wing aircraft get, but I've shot the rotary-winged residents many times. The tan Cobra, above, had been there two years when, in 2006, I captured this image while shooting for an article in a trade magazine. The composition manages to emphasize the skeletal appearance of the protective coatings, shows there are more than one Cobra in storage — along with ranks of other aircraft, closer on the right, farther on the left — all in a desert environment. The sizes and positions of those various elements lead the eye through the composition, communicating a rich story without jumbling them up.

Purgatory is a better analog for the most visible elements of these 2,600 acres, the many thousands of aircraft* baking in the sun. However, these fighters, bombers, reconnaissance, cargo, and miscellaneous other, vehicles are most often not headed for the scrap heap, not rotting in a graveyard, but are being maintained at some level of readiness, pending a future need. That need might require a flyable aircraft, or it might be a spare part from one of these denizens of the desert, with "spare part" being anything from specialized hardware to hydraulics, avionics, or major structures. The Cobras were there in the role of parts donor.

This sad UH-34 Choctaw has been hanging around for quite a while, having arrived in 1973. It was one of at least three helicopters that served President Eisenhower as "Army One." It might yet be restored and displayed somewhere, but for now…

Notice how I positioned the camera below eye level for both this and the Cobra photo. It is often good compositional practice to not run the horizon across the middle of a photo, since that arrangement is usually less visually interesting, all things being equal. From below eye level, you aim the camera somewhat up at the subject, which puts the horizon lower in the image. In the Cobra photo, the low camera position also kept the distant aircraft from intruding as much on the subject. For the Choctaw, looking up from the low position imparts a grandeur to the subject, yielding what is called a "hero shot," which seemed appropriate for a former presidential transport.

Not every airframe gets such presidential treatment, though…

The preceding trio are a true rarity among photos from AMARG: destruction in action. These C-141 Starlifters were some of the last of their kind and we see, here, their final moments as recognizably Starlifters. The tracked Caterpillar is using its grapple to tear through a wing root of one, after which it dragged the disarticulated wing off to the side, then it chewed through another's fuselage, aft of the wing box — we see the empennage falling away — then, from the other side, chewed through forward of the wing box.

Witnessing the fuselage lifting a bit, then dropping, repeatedly, then rolling on its side, was oddly emotional to me. It honestly felt like watching a helpless animal being torn apart by a predator. I tried to capture some of that motion, most visible in the middle of the three images, by choosing a very slow shutter speed and, thus in that frame, recording the blur of the vertical and horizontal stabilizers as they fell.

The successor to the C-141 was the C-5 Galaxy, and that's what we see next.

This is the front office, the flight deck, of a Galaxy. They have subsequently applied opaque coatings over the windows, so you can no longer see both inside and out. The challenge in being able to see out is: the sun can come in. Thus, this image is a high dynamic range assemblage of five different photos, shot from the same spot (I think I had to jam my camera against the ceiling, since I wasn't equipped with a tripod), each shot made with different exposure settings to capture the full range of brightnesses.

Without this technique, the brightness levels are of such extreme difference, from direct sunlight on parts of the interior, to other areas in deep shade, no single shot from a camera can show everything clearly. (You can read more about the technique in a couple of earlier articles: Looking Inside HDR and Taming Dynamic Range. The latter explains the technique using yet another boneyard aircraft that is no longer available — the Boeing 747 that was outfitted to carry an ICBM-destroying laser. It was scrapped in 2014.)

At the other end of the C-5 is a passenger compartment with seating for 75 or so. The seats face the rear of the airplane, which is surely safer, though it must feel a bit odd compared to the forward-facing seats we're all used to. And don't think you can watch the world go by, albeit backwards, in flight — there are but two windows, one each in two emergency exits. The one in this photo is on the starboard side of the cabin, and that rope hanging on the right is how you are to make it to the ground which, I think, is 20+ feet below.

Behind that passenger compartment is the empennage of the massive aircraft, its interior visible through a pair of large circular panels on the back wall of the compartmnet. I've heard it told that the volume of this space, not used for anything but access to some of the mechanicals back there, is larger than the cargo compartment of the C-130 Hercules. I can't say that's true, but it is a fascinating sight nonetheless.

One of two Boeing YC-14 prototypes, this one stored with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group on Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Arizona.

Speaking of the C-130, there's one in the above image, but I figured I'd feature a far more rare aircraft, a Boeing YC-14, both enjoying a rare meteorological event for this desert town — fog. Only two of these Boeings were built, and I've photographed them before, but I was quick to take advantage of the fog to make this, and many other, images. The weather was not what I expected, and it cleared up soon after this, but you know what they say: "When life gives you lemons, take photos of the lemons!" (Or something like that.)

On the opposite end of the rarity scale is the F-4 Phantom II, which readers of mine will know I have a fondness for; my father was a Phantom pilot in the Air Force. While the aircraft was made by the thousands, they left USAF service in 2016 and are nearing the end of their service with a few of our allies (this is May of 2020, so they might all be retired when you're reading this in the future). I covered the last USAF flights at Holloman AFB, but there was a less spectacular milestone at the boneyard a couple years before that, and we see it below.

This RF-4C, 68-0599, is getting its final preflight, then taxiing out, for its final flight before being converted to a QF model. It had been resurrected and would be flown elsewhere to receive the remote control radios and actuators to function as a target drone. 0599 was the last Phantom pulled from the boneyard for such service.

I'll admit the taxiing photo suffers by the nose of the F-4 visually running into that A-10, but by the time the Rhino (a nickname for the type) rolled past the Warthog (a nickname for that type), the crew were not looking my way. You do the best you can in a dynamic environment, right?

Indeed, it was as high-speed target drones that the last Phantoms flew for the Air Force. But if that ended in 2016, what aircraft model has the service been targeting and, if planned and succeeded, shooting down? The answer is: the QF-16 Fighting Falcon. Yep, they've been pulling older Vipers out of the boneyard so the Air Force can put them back in the sky to track, target, and terminate. Of course, this means AMARG has been busy.


wanted a wide shot of this hangar, which housed not only F-16 work but, as evidenced by seeing a bit of a Warthog on the left, some work on the A-10. (In the past, AMARG had completed a service life extension program (SLEP) on the A-10, but I don't recall what they were doing with them here; I was there for a QF-16 story.)

This is yet another high dynamic range photo, required due to the image encompassing both outside, fully sunlit, and interior elements that I wanted to show together. I also used a bit of the building's structure, forming this wide, sideways, "V" at the right, to frame the workspace, adding more visual energy and immediacy than if I'd positioned my camera outside the structure.

The opposite of that wide view, I suppose, would be this inside view of an F-16 engine compartment, sans engine. It's not a common sight, and it helps illustrate two aspects of the aircraft's design: the serpentine shape of the intake, seen at the front and, centered on the left and right edges, those gray blocks are the mounting points for the engine. Two steel pins, one on each side bolted into a gray block, form the bulk of the structural, mechanical, connection of the engine to the airframe. All of the thrust of that engine is transmitted through just those two points. Amazing.

I'll end with my most recent photo, from a series I shot for a trade magazine. I flew over the boneyard, back and forth, at 300 feet, capturing the expanse of the place and the variety of aircraft. I won't name all the models visible in this one shot, but they include Sea Knight, Sea Stallion, Galaxy, Lancer, Eagle, Stratotanker, Stratofortress, Tweet, Hercules, Hornet, and Phantom.

Most people are amazed at what they see here, and rightly so, but they should also be proud that we have the foresight and wherewithal to maintain this critical stockpile of materiel that can be flown out or picked apart to support not only our own armed forces, but those of our allies, too. Around half-a-billion (that's billion with a "b") dollars of aircraft and components are reclaimed and returned to service every year. No, this is definitely not a boneyard — it's a treasure house of some of our greatest machines.

Of course, I must give a large "thank you" to the folks at AMARG. I've been interfacing with, and been hosted by, some of the same people this entire 15 years. They've always been super cooperative and I hope to keep working with them in the future.

* While it was heavier-than-air craft that were originally placed on ice (hah!) in Tucson, with the addition of some ICBM-related hardware in the 1980s, the facility changed its name from Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center to Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, then later to Group. Despite those rocket parts plus, unless it has gone elsewhere, a Navy blimp's gondola, I'll just use "aircraft" to take in the entire sweep of their inventory.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace airplane Arizona aviation bomber boneyard cargo composition environment environmental fighter HDR helicopter photography storage technique Mon, 18 May 2020 22:28:14 GMT
Fascinating Faces I am producing a series of books, with a very limited distributionon aerospace photography. They are heavy on example images and light on text, yet even if you are not lucky enough to receive one, the content is still worth sharing. And that's what we have below — book 2 of 4: Faces.

Faces are fascinating to us humans. They immediately draw our attention then, from observation and experience, we deduce personality, mood, intent. And from those deductions, we might adjust our expectations, consider our own mood, perhaps modify our own intentions. It’s complicated, and it’s automatic.

Sikorsky Aerospace Maintenance with LUH aircraftSikorsky Aerospace Maintenance with LUH aircraft

Photographs of faces are particularly interesting because the image freezes in time the expression that lets us ponder so much about the person. Here are examples of those frozen moments, along with a few notes about the how and why of a good photo.

Sikorsky Aerospace Maintenance

A smile is always appreciated, isn’t it? These men, above and below, appear calm, confident, and comfortable being photographed. That’s good whether you’re looking at the shop floor or mahogany row.

One trap to avoid when eliciting a smile is using a humorous comment or question that, while yielding a smile, brings with it a tension around the eyes. (Money, sex, politics — probably best to avoid those.)

Your subject need not look directly at the camera.

This slightly averted gaze can retain the energy of a face looking toward the viewer but, because they aren’t staring directly at us, the image communicates a larger story — there is some other person or activity in the vicinity.

Which brings us to one of my favorite subjects — people working.

They are intent on the task, focused on the details, solving the problems. The photographer’s job is to capture those faces (and bodies) showing their intensity, focus, cogitation.

We can’t see what these soldiers are looking at, but it must be important which, in addition to the eye-catching eyes, at right, and the vibrant color,* that mystery engages us in the image.

* By the way, the soldiers were not actually operating under red lighting — I put a red gel on a flash unit, which I located off-camera.

Sometimes it’s just paperwork.

Sometimes it’s being cramped in the belly of a jet fighter while a camera lens is poked through an access panel and the shutter tripped without the photographer seeing what the camera is about to capture.

A special challenge arises when you’re photographing a pilot, airborne at the controls. Many such photos end up looking like the inset below. Not good if the intent is to feature the person. Better to, without compromising safety, get the camera in front of the pilot.


Combining an intense gaze with those crossed arms denotes a seriousness demanding to be noticed. These men were posed for an ad in which their images would be composited together — they are serious about their work and we wanted to communicate that. Done!

Or, you just let a person’s personality come through when you briefly interrupt their day.

Sikorsky Aerospace Maintenance

Faces: so much communication in such a small space and tiny sliver of time. We are immediately drawn to look at them, to interrogate them for what they have to tell us.

Whether for advertising, marketing, shareholder communications, company morale, community relations, or however you need to tell your stories, using faces wisely and well can be a powerful tool.

Sikorsky Aerospace Maintenance

(AeroMark Images) action aerospace attention aviation composition employee environment environmental people person photography portrait portraiture pose posing technique worker Fri, 01 May 2020 15:01:10 GMT
Looking Up I have photographed one model of helicopter over the years that few people have seen, far fewer have piloted, and only a tiny number have flown on*. I speak of the absolutely unique K-MAX from Kaman. It looks different from any other helicopter**, and it acts different, differences that make it ideal for what it is designed to do: lift things.

Starting in 2005, those projects have taken me from Alaska to Puerto Rico, with many stops in between. Much of that photography has been from the ground, which presents challenges for any photographer charged with supporting the communications/marketing/etc. needs of their client. But that's my job, so here are some tips for making good images when the subject is in the sky and you ain't.

So Far Away…

I'll use photos from a recent multi-day shoot in Las Vegas, starting with a common challenge you face when photographing a helicopter from the ground: the aircraft is not near you.

So much could be better about this photo, not just that the aircraft is small, but also the bright sky leads to the aircraft being nearly a silhouette, devoid of color and surface detail, and with nothing but blank sky, the vignetting in the corners (a characteristic of most lenses, even pro-level ones like this, depending on the aperture setting) is obvious and unattractive. Not visible, because I went to the trouble of removing them, are the dust specks made noticeable by this being such an undetailed field of color.

Of course, I chose that image for demonstration purposes, and though I took the shot, and it might find usefulness if a designer wanted what it has (the vignetting can be repaired in the computer), the issues of the aircraft being far from the photographer and seen against a plain sky are common challenges when shooting aircraft at work.

Still, why make the shot at all?

Because that was the first image I made as the aircraft was arriving to its work site from a local airport. When it appeared in the sky, I got sighted on it, auto-focused the lens, and 5 seconds later made the following image.

Basically, that first image was just prepping for what might happen next which, in this case, was the K-MAX flying past the Wynn Encore hotel and casino in Las Vegas. I wasn't sure of the path it would take, that being dictated by air traffic control at McCarran International Airport, so I had to be vigilant for opportunities as it approached, and took advantage of this one.

Less than a minute later, the aircraft had half-circled around its landing zone and, as it approached, I framed it thus:

So, one tip for a far-away aircraft is to keep your eyes open to compositions that place it in its surroundings. Include the buildings or scenery or nearby celestial objects that give a sense of the environment. That tip is, of course, in addition to having and properly using a long focal length lens.

The In-Between Place

So far, I've not shown the aircraft doing what it does — lifting things — which it does on a long line hanging from its unique hook-on-a-trolley system. The challenge is making eye-catching photography of the aircraft when it might occupy only a small area of the image, as when you are some distance from the action. That's a challenge photographing any aircraft carrying a load on a line, and since that is the K-MAX's raison d'être, you'll get a lot of practice meeting that challenge.

This next one is a nice photo of the aircraft. A head-on shot with rim lighting and a formal composition: the aircraft laterally centered in the frame and the cargo line neatly splitting the image in two, leading right down to the, um, where's the load? The load is not even visible, yet see how small the aircraft has already become?

This next image shows the whole thing: aircraft, line, and load. Yet, something else is missing…

Missing, again, is the environment. We see nothing but aircraft with load, located anywhere in the world because it shows nothing but (vignetted!) sky. Below? A more complete story, with the rooftop and the ground crews muscling the load into place. The aircraft isn't doing much more in this image than it was above, hauling around a big something-or-other, but the image is doing so much more. (That something-or-other is one of 80+ exhaust fans, some in excess of 5,000 pounds, the K-MAX picked up and placed in one day.)

If the photographer can work near where the aircraft is working, other opportunities present themselves. One advantage of being closer to the load is, the line will appear visually shorter. That means the aircraft can appear larger. Of course, nothing comes for free, as yet other challenges can arise. One is demonstrated in this next image.

To capture the aircraft and its load, when working near the aircraft, a wide-angle lens is required, though the "leaning" buildings are the result of my necessarily pointing the camera up, leaving the horizon low in the frame. That geometric convergence might be attractive or distracting, depending on the application. If leaning buildings are acceptable, shoot away.

If not, a yet wider-angle lens, which would still need to be shot from just a bit farther away to capture all the action, might be the solution. That approach, however, further requires pointing the camera level at the horizon, which means also filling half the image with the whatever is in the foreground. Another solution could be the use of a lens capable of shifting its elements, allowing the "view" to be pointed up while keeping the camera aimed at the horizon. I have such a lens, but for a dynamic situation such as this, it would prove unwieldy — it is best suited to static situations, often when architecture is truly the subject.

A third, possible, solution that might come to mind is correcting the distortion in post-processing. That approach has merit in many instances, but is not a panacea. Just look at the following version of the preceding image, which "corrected" the leaning buildings with specialized software. I judge this cure to be worse than the disease; the buildings look natural but the aircraft is wildly distorted and the usable width of the image has narrowed considerably.

When you start getting this close, you also, typically, need to wear personal protective gear for vision and hearing, plus a hard hat. The vision thing might mean safety glasses, which can interfere with looking through the viewfinder; The hearing thing can be awkward, depending on how that is handled and, of course, can interfere with communications for coordination and safety; The hard hat can interfere with holding the camera up to your face, especially for shooting vertically oriented images like these. On this last point, I usually re-arrange the suspension system in my hard hat to put the bill of the hat at the back. That helps.

(Me? I have a forestry hard hat, which has a smaller bill and is fitted with integrated hearing protection, plus true safety glasses in my prescription. What I didn't know in advance was, I would need to wear boots on this job site. And wouldn't you know it? I had pulled my boots from my luggage in preparation for the trip. Why would I need boots in Las Vegas? So, a trip to the local department store and, presto! I now own two pairs of boots!)

Harking back to staying alert to opportunities for interesting photography, I noticed the shadow of the aircraft moving about the roof, so I ran to the shadow and made the following:

The pilot of the K-MAX was maneuvering the aircraft, aligning the load to the allotted locations on the roof, which had me scurrying around, trying to keep the sun behind the aircraft without my tripping over a rooftop protrusion. Sometimes I saw a silhouetted helicopter, and sometimes I got an eyeball full of sunshine. Still, the image was so stunning I repeated this composition on a couple of his placements, and shot at least one while ignoring the load!

Giants in the Sky

Lastly, a bit about image-making from very near the action. Photographically, the opportunities from nearly or precisely below the helicopter can be many, with concomitant, special, challenges.

Looks pretty good, right? Bold, frame-filling, with angular elements and composition adding energy to the image? If we zoom in, especially for smartphone viewers, the defects become (pardon the pun?) clear.

Blurriness a'poppin'! And if you notice how the blurry details are short lines (highlights on rivets are a good place to look), you'll understand this is motion blur. Is this defective image the result of poor camera technique? Improper control settings? Yes, I'll admit to some technique failing here, brought on by totally appropriate control settings.

You see, what might seem an obvious solution to motion blur is not the solution one might hope for: increasing the shutter speed should sharpen everything right up, right? In a sense, yes. But note the main rotor blades. If a shutter speed is chosen fast enough to assure zero motion blur in the fuselage, those rotor blades end up looking blur-less also, and that is not good for a helicopter. (Click here to see my article on that subject explicitly.)

And what if the motion blur is not entirely the result of bad camera handling? If you look at the blur apparent in the upper left corner, it appears less egregious than in the lower right corner. That's because the aircraft is turning to its left, thus twisting in the frame. It's one thing to accurately pan a camera with a moving subject, but this subject is moving not only laterally, but also reorienting itself rotationally.

Another challenge when working close to a working helicopter is rotor downwash, which can not only rock you and your camera about — not good — but can potentially knock you over, so be careful.

And then there's the issue of pointing your camera skyward, as required for the above shot, and trying to keep it steady, downwash or no. Keep in mind, when pointing a camera somewhat level to the ground, your arms and torso can flex to steady your shot. When pointing up, craning your neck and putting your eye to the viewfinder, your body is less equipped to counter the up-and-down motions.

Can it be done, getting a sharp shot with all of the above working against you? Of course. (Why else would I pose the question?) This next image was made less than one second after the preceding one.

Further, when an aircraft is working overhead, the distance is probably not great — a hundred feet? Two hundred? This means their motion, as an angle compared to your static position, is conversely greater. For instance, imagine tracking the motion of a helicopter moving at 30 knots, 300 horizontal feet away, over there, above that electrical tower. That's fairly easy to track, right? Now put the aircraft over your head, a mere 150 feet away, doing 30 knots. You've craned your neck, stretched your arms up to control the camera and lens, are wearing safety glasses and are being buffeted by downwash. Now, track and shoot! Hurry, because things are changing fast.

The difference between the blurry version, above, and the sharp one? Sometimes it's a matter of just shoot, shoot, shoot because you know some will be blurry. Or sometimes you sense your camera or the subject moved during an exposure and you shoot again. You seldom have time to stop and "chimp"*** during a dynamic shooting situation, so pressing the shutter release many times can be your best insurance for coming back with sharp images.

Here is another, good, example of shooting up at a working helicopter. Blurry blades, sharp aircraft, and a load slung in view. (Most of the fans they placed were the large gray cylinders, but a few were these square boxy things.)

Here, There, and Everywhere

There were so many images to choose from in putting together this article. So many. And in those images are so many opportunities to teach and learn. But rather than blather on about what I did, and what you could do, should do, here are a few more images. Look at what I included in the frame. See where the light was coming from. Check out the compositions. In other words, learn what you can from them, and happy shooting! (And don't forget the footnotes — *** — following these images.)

* This operator, ROTAK Helicopter Services, has at least one K-MAX that can be outfitted with an external chair. It's just a tubular metal frame with some flat metal panels for a seat bottom and a seat back which, when installed, has the rider with their back against the fuselage, just forward of the main landing gear beam. Your author is one of the tiny number of people who have flown on that seat. Twice. In Puerto Rico. Images from that project appeared in ROTOR magazine.

** During World War II the German designer Anton Flettner developed helicopters for the German armed forces that featured twin, counter-rotating main rotors similar to what the K-MAX sports. Is it a coincidence the K-MAX has them? Industrial theft? Neither. After the war, Flettner emigrated to the U.S. and eventually became chief designer at Kaman Aircraft.

*** Chimping is the practice of immediately reviewing the images just collected, holding your camera against your chest with the screen pointing up, and your head tilted down; apparently something about this posture reminded someone of a chimpanzee, so, "chimp" it became.

A big thank-you to ROTAK Helicopter Services for inviting me to capture their people and machines in action.

(AeroMark Images) action background cargo composition construction flying helicopter install installation Kaman K-MAX Las lifting long-line photography ROTAK Vegas working Tue, 24 Mar 2020 21:59:20 GMT
Working Details People are endlessly fascinating to look at, and we are instantly drawn to seeing them. In a previous article I addressed looking at them looking at us, while today I will look at them more obliquely. This approach can serve a different purpose than portraiture, showing what they are doing rather than who they are, but even without seeing their eyes, our eyes stop and look.

Here are a smattering of examples.

Sikorsky Aerospace Maintenance with LUH aircraftSikorsky Aerospace Maintenance with LUH aircraft

I'll start with a favorite subject, and an effective one for telling the story of people doing things — hands. They are expressive, capable of both fine control and heavy work. We can immediately relate to the texture or temperature or effort, or any of myriad sensations of the hands we see in photos, because we've touched or wrangled or demonstrated the same, or something similar, with our own hands. This means hands are a particularly effective tool for engaging a viewer. (This is my earlier article on hands.)

The grippiness of the knurled knobs, above, and the stickiness of the adhesive patches, below, are examples that we, having touched knurling and stickiness, can relate to. Are there aromas associated with electronics and chemicals? There are for me. If we take that next step and recall those aromas, that's a bonus connection.

I like this next one because we see more of the man whose hand is gripping the antenna, and we surmise by what little we see that the man is examining the other side of the panel. In fact, he is installing that antenna, though I don't contend that his action is completely illustrated by this photo. A tiny caption is all that would be required to fill in that gap. Which I just provided!

By using a slow shutter speed, below, I allow the hands turning the speed wrench to illustrate that motion. In all of these, my own hands almost sense the positions of the fingers, the reach of the arms, the work that is being done.

Okay, enough with hands.

Another partial view of a person that grabs our eyes are legs which, while not as expressive as hands, are still potentially active appendages. With this guy's upper body bent into the helicopter, out of our sight, I'd consider this next photo almost comical because while it's not rip-roaring funny, it is unusual enough to grab our attention. Visually humorous without being disrespectful. There's plenty going on, with mostly angular shapes (human legs, landing gear legs, that expanded steel cage-thing) plus the wavy/circular elements of the fuselage and dangling wires. And it is the human's legs we are drawn to, time and again, as our eyes scan the photo. This same image but no legs? Not much reason to keep looking.

Above, only legs and we don't know what the guy is doing. Below, no legs and we see exactly what this guy is doing — driving rivets. You can feel the effort, the energy, possibly even hear the sound. The mechanic's focus is right where he's working, and our focus is the same. Every time I look at this image, I want to assume the same manly pose, tense my muscles, drive that rivet. I've never even driven a rivet, but I'm sure the one in this photo has no chance, right?
AAR in Melbourne, Florida.

Next we go for the whole shebang. The entire enchilada. The complete caboodle. Full-body shot, sans face. (Well, we see the face of the guy in the back with the hose…but work with me here!) We get action, in this case again bordering on the humorous without being disrespectful. We'd just flown an air-to-air mission over the Gulf of Mexico and now the crew is washing the aircraft down. All that activity offers many opportunities for interesting compositions, including this arrangement.

But notice how more energetic the one on the left is compared to the one on the right, which was taken less than a second later. The stretched arms, the craned neck, the pointed toes. Even there, on the left, I was probably a fraction-of-a-second late which, if I'd shot a smidgen earlier, would have shown more of that pilot in the back with the hose. Still, better than the one on the right. The Takeaway

Even without showing a face, we are drawn to images of people doing things. And as I often stress, after the first job of a photograph in service of marketing — grabbing a viewer's attention — the second job is to keep that attention. Showing people at work can keep viewers looking, which gives your messaging time to do its job.

To get these photos, much has to be juggled. The guy riveting was probably in that position for many seconds, especially if he was driving multiple rivets. That means I could probably alter my vantage point and take more care in focus and exposure settings, perhaps trying multiple combinations. Or, like the helicopter washing image, you must move quickly and surely to capture a fleeting scene.

Keep your eyes open for opportunities and, even if you can't see the expression on the face of a person in the photo, you can put a smile on the face, and understanding in the mind, of the person looking at it.


(AeroMark Images) action activity aerospace aviation composition face hands legs people person photography work working Sat, 25 Jan 2020 18:40:42 GMT
Going in Circles I was recently in the Gulf of Mexico for a week of photography and story-gathering. One of the photo shoots was mostly air-to-air with one of the larger aircraft types that carry oil & gas crews from shore to offshore and back again, a Sikorsky S-92. In this case, though, the operator (Bristow Group) has configured one of these aircraft as a full-time search and rescue asset.

The flight plan was for us to transit to one of those offshore platforms, shooting air-to-air on the way, then deposit me and one of their rescue personnel on the platform and capture shots of that Sikorsky crew training in hoist operations. With that completed, pick up me and their other crewman from the platform and capture more air-to-air over the Gulf as we return to base. Here's a photo from the platform with the crews in training.

I'll point out that the sun is already heading toward the end of the day — see the shadow cast onto the surface of the helideck? Well, that is a shadow of only my head and my forearms holding the camera, poking up from where I'm hunkered down in a stairwell, shielding myself from the considerable downwash of the S-92. (Although this article isn't about the platform photography, it's still worth sharing, as it includes the aircraft that had dropped us off, a Leonardo AW139, also flown by Bristow and also in SAR configuration.)

What I am writing about is using a simple maneuver to capture, in a short span of time, a wide range of imagery for future use. That maneuver? A circle.

More specifically, after the platform crew training photography, I again boarded the AW139 and took to the air with the S-92 in trail. The camera ship then went into a gentle turn to the left while the target ship did the same, keeping itself in position outside the camera ship's right side while I captured image after image. Thanks to the sun being low in the sky (the time of day for the flight was not an accident), this circle results in the light striking the target aircraft from every angle. It also results in the background changing in lighting and content, from open water to marshlands and back.

There's not much more to say about this maneuver and its results that you can't glean from the following images. I did make slight modifications to the composition over the course of the maneuver, and as the lighting changed I would make adjustments to the exposure settings, so in the course of two minutes I made over 100 shots.

Some things to look for, shot to shot, is how the changing angle of the light reveals or diminishes details of the aircraft, from windows to rivets, and how the "color" of the ship and the background are affected by the angle of the sun, relative to the camera. I'll let these images, thus, stand by themselves, then offer some thoughts at the end. (Don't worry — I didn't share 100 shots; just 9.)

The Takeaway

Air-to-air photography presents a host of challenges for the photographer, many of them technical in nature (cameras, lenses, stabilization, settings), some of them aesthetic, and definitely there are safety issues. One I keep in mind is financial. Even if I'm not paying for the two (or more) aircraft to be in the air, I remain cognizant of the high price of rotary-wing flight, and do my best to work efficiently. This circular maneuver is one technique to get back on the ground sooner with a higher percentage of useful, and visually different, images.


(AeroMark Images) air-to-air aviation background color composition helicopter helo lighting photography scenery technique Tue, 31 Dec 2019 17:31:33 GMT
Making a Masterpiece A short story that illustrates how thinking ahead and showing your work can help you and your client when the time is suddenly right. Let me explain. (I'll also show some images, in the order they were captured, so you'll see how I made it to the final one.)

I contribute to a major helicopter trade magazine and, by my nature, think about ways to improve not just what I do, but what they offer to their readers. One idea came to me about making the last page, facing the inside back cover, something that readers would seek out. I envisioned the content to be visually interesting without a lot of verbiage. Just a little dessert at the end of the magazine's main course.

Mike Tragarz’s Hiller on the ramp at his home.Mike Tragarz’s Hiller on the ramp at his home. The Hiller UH-12E4/5 as we positioned it just before sundown. The shadow of a shipping container, out of frame on the left, is just moving up the landing gear. That white trailer in the background was a challenge, and required careful compositing to avoid.

The magazine editor was supportive of this idea, especially when we landed on making the image about a small operator. The next two issues had their last pages already planned out, so we would wait to implement this new feature. Fine.

Unrelated to that idea, I had previously been asked by the editor about photographing helicopters using lighting techniques for really stunning "portraits" of aircraft. I was actually already considering the same pursuit, so our desires melded perfectly and I combined the portrait approach with the idea of that last page feature. Since the next two issues already had last-page content scheduled, I would have time to work on both aspects of the new feature, which I called LastLook.

Mike Tragarz’s Hiller on the ramp at his home.Mike Tragarz’s Hiller on the ramp at his home. These three frames illustrate a technique called high dynamic range (HDR) photography, which I would be using for the final image. Three images are captured, at prescribed exposure levels, and the images would later be merged using specialized software. (You can read more about HDR here and here.) 

Mike TragarzÕs Hiller on the ramp at his home.Mike TragarzÕs Hiller on the ramp at his home. This is the image that resulted from combining the three previous ones. Much better, but something was still missing. Note, too, that a change in camera position has hidden the white trailer behind the aircraft.

By chance, at the annual picnic of an aviation group I volunteer with, I met a man with an interesting helicopter and asked him if I could use his aircraft for a trial run of a "portrait." He agreed and we set a date and time — that being about 90 minutes before sundown. This would allow enough time to prepare and place the aircraft, then place it a little bit to the right. No, back to the left and at a greater angle. Well, now that I see it, a little less angle. Nope. Make it a little more. (The owner was very patient and accommodating, especially since the resultant image was not intended to appear in the magazine.)

Michael TragarzÕs Hiller on the ramp at his home. What was missing, besides waiting a few more minutes for the sky to go gorgeous, and repositioning to keep all of the main rotor blade in frame, was light inside the cockpit. I positioned four separate lights to illuminate the interior, which combined with HDR to really punch things up!

I'll admit that "masterpiece" might be an overstatement, but the final image is pretty sweet, right?

Plus, I sent not just the image to the editor, but an idea for how such an image would work on that final page, complete with the magazine's standard footer elements and a caption. When I called to discuss, the editor had not yet viewed the art, which was great because when she did, her response was "wow!" And I know she meant it.

What happened just a day or two later wraps up the story.

The content that had been planned for the last page of the next issue, due to go to press one day hence, was suddenly pulled and they needed a replacement. Well, the editor had a replacement in hand — this photo and a page designed to show it off!


(AeroMark Images) Arizona aviation background color composition focus helicopter helo lighting photography scenery technique Sat, 07 Dec 2019 23:45:44 GMT
Showing Less to Engage More When a photographer presses the shutter release, they are making myriad decisions how to capture the scene before them. The most obvious decision is: what is to be visible in the photo.

Scores of books and hundreds of online articles discuss composition, and there's plenty to think about on that subject. But most advice about composition concerns where to put the elements within the frame. An important, but often overlooked, corollary is what to leave out of the photo altogether.

Why leave something out?

So that what you leave in has more power.

For example, here is a perfectly useful photo of an AStar at Reno-Stead Airport. I was on assignment for a magazine and this was one of many, many locations I visited to capture aircraft involved in wildland firefighting. This AStar was just waiting for a call.

Notice anything unusual about the aircraft? Sure, it has a cargo basket and some mirrors on the nose, but unless you're particularly eagle-eyed, and familiar with it, you may not realize it is equipped with the FastFin system from BLR Aerospace. Maybe cropping will help? Do you see it now? Maybe? Cropping — leaving out the forward half of the helicopter — helps if you know what you're looking for, but even here the features that yield the benefits of the system are merely visible without helping a viewer understand the workings. Also, this is not a very "attractive" composition, whether for attracting views or concerning aesthetics.

Are the FastFin components recognizable now? Yes they are. From this angle you need not only be less of an AStar expert to notice the new shape of the tail boom forward of the horizontal stabilizer, but the major features of the system are represented and their functions easily described. We are not including, in this view, much of the aircraft, but we don't need to show the entire aircraft to know what it is. We're showing less but communicating more.

That's a straightforward illustration of this concept. Here's another example, from another assignment (this story is, at the time of this writing, not yet on press).

I'm up in the Wasatch Range southeast of Salt Lake City and have captured another perfectly useful photo of a helicopter, this time an EC130. I've included much of the scenery in this photo, including foreground and background. That's good. And though the image below is similar in composition to the close-up of the AStar, it was composed this way for a different reason.

Compared to the first shot, this one also shows the aircraft in the mountain environment, but in a way that emphasizes the aircraft. (I also liked how the trees, out of frame to the right, are reflected in the glass of the aircraft.) Notice that I cut off the EC130's nose — which otherwise would result in the aircraft taking up almost the entire composition — without reducing the importance of the aircraft or the scenery. Win-win!

This F4U Corsair is neatly cut in half, yet viewers are not confused about what the other half looks like. They understand it is a mirror image of this half. By not showing both we might, thus, accomplish a couple of things.

Right off the bat the image catches a viewer's eye. It's unusual to see an aircraft cut, photographically, in half. 

Thus, the aircraft is also larger on a page or on a screen. It has more "presence." To fit the full width of the aircraft would mean, essentially, reducing its "size" by 50%. (For example, the diameter of the engine would be only half of what it is here.)

And in conjuring up the other half, mentally, a viewer is spending more time with the image. More time with what you're communicating. (This was at Sun 'N' Fun, by the way, where I was gathering images for my various stock collections.)

Next is an aircraft I encountered at a fly-in at a remote airport in Arizona: an Adam A500, serial number 009. _MSB7534

I for-sure wanted to capture this high-angle shot to show off the unique layout of the engines and airframe — a low-wing push-pull with that high horizontal spanning the tops of verticals that rise from twin tail booms. I got the shot, but with bits of adjacent aircraft and distracting imperfections on the ramp. So, time to crop. _MSB7534

This is better, but the composition is a bit dull and there are still those stains and repairs on the ramp. How to show less without losing sight of the key features of this aircraft? _MBP3153 Like this. Lots of improvements here. Twin tail booms with a horizontal stabilizer connecting the tops of the vertical stabilizers? Check. Push-pull propulsion? Yes, though only the tips of the aft propeller are visible. All that's missing are the winglets, which are not an unusual feature these days.

Not only does this composition entirely avoid the ramp, it naturally, graphically, grabs your attention. Plus, the sky now plays a more important role here, bisecting the frame and, ever so slightly, suggesting potential flight better than seeing the aircraft parked solidly on the ground and the sky untouched by the aircraft.

Once stopped by the graphics of the composition, the image naturally prompts the question, "What is this?" while revealing enough of the plane to answer that question. It's a bit of a puzzle, which people appreciate, with an easy payoff. "Oh! It's an Adam! You sure don't see those very often." Again, more time spent thinking about the aircraft is more time to communicate your message.

You can, however, make the puzzle too hard. Here's an example. This is the spinner of the rear engine of the Adam. Without knowing the type of airplane, seeing the spinner pointing to the right but the wing/winglet obviously pointing left, might be interesting to ponder, but might not pay off in the viewer's mind with a solution to the quandary, "What's going on here? Are these parts of different airplanes?" As a supporting image, in a brochure about the airplane, perhaps, this might be fine. But as the single representation of it, it's too obscure.

What's The Point?

The goal of communication is to impart knowledge to a viewer. That process starts by first attracting their attention, then providing information in a manner that satisfies the viewer's curiosity, a curiosity created by that initial attraction.

Those myriad choices made by a photographer should include the ability to see when "all" is too much. Sometimes showing all of something means also showing competing or, at least, distracting features or objects. Showing too much, at first, might not attract a viewer's attention or elicit the curiosity that leads to learning.

A complete series of photos should encompass a full range of coverage to allow maximum creative employment of the series. Keep in mind, photographer and client, that the full story might best be told by showing less.

(AeroMark Images) airplane aviation background composition crop cropping focus helicopter helo marketing photography reduce reduction scenery technique Tue, 19 Nov 2019 19:36:49 GMT
Killing Color I'm planning a marketing video for a client and have decided to create it in black-and-white, rather than full color. There are practical reasons and aesthetic ones, both, that can inform such a decision, and exploring those reasons and showing examples, using still photography, is what I'll do today.

These examples, by the way, are heavy in the "space" portion of aerospace, and start with this: one of the radio telescope antennas at the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in western New Mexico.

VLA dish P1159

Rendering this image in b&w was a choice based simply on the aesthetics. The stark white structure silhouetted against the storm clouds is bolder and brings more attention to the antenna than the original, color, image did. (See the grass bent over in the foreground? The wind was howling a solid 30+ knots from the west, making a tripod an important tool that day.)

Unlike the following images, the VLA scene was shot on 35 mm transparency film and scanned into the computer, where the conversion to b&w was handled. No matter how they started, it is during that computer-based conversion that improvements can be made beyond simply converting the colors to shades of gray. But sometimes, a simple conversion is all that is necessary.

This next image, of launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex in Florida, is a "simple" example with a deeper reason for the change. 

The photo is clear enough, considering it was shot from inside a bus (yeah, I didn't have any special access at KSC), but the tinted windows have played hell with the colors. Neutralizing the color of the structures leaves the foliage a sickly yellow green. Killing the color completely, though, rendering everything in shades of gray, takes care of that annoying color cast and lets us think less about some awful mutant virus attacking all the shrubs and grass, and more about the historic Saturn V/Apollo missions that launched from here.

Below, 39A without mutant viruses. Seriously — my eye was always drawn to the mustardy-green shrubbery in the bottom left of the color image, while in b&w I bounce back and forth between the liquid hydrogen sphere and the launch tower and water tower, and that means I'm thinking about the real subject of the photo. That's good.

As World War II was ending in Europe, the U.S. snagged many of the people, and 30 boxcars full of matériel, related to German rocket programs. Their expertise and equipment were then incorporated into our own efforts. One item still extant from that original haul is this timer for a V-2 rocket. I'll note there is nothing wrong with the above photo of that timer, being clear and well composed, but a b&w rendition, shown below, might be preferred. Or not. By removing the colors, the grayscale (another term for black-and-white) image has our eyes glancing more at the piano-key switches and the screw heads, while in color we spend some time eyeing the orange wiring harness that connects them to the rest of the machine and occasionally the blue fields in the background.

The wiring harness, especially, might be distracting or it might be important to whatever story is being told by the image, unlike the ugly foliage at 39A, which is just plain annoying. For this photo, the photographer or designer might choose according to their desires or the requirements of the application, so it's nice to realize a choice can be made.

The conversion of the timer image, from color to grayscale, was made in a straightforward manner. But we can be not straightforward and punch things up if we want. This next graphic shows doing just that: punching things up.

This is a guidance system used in Minuteman III missiles, called an Advanced Inertial Reference Sphere (AIRS). It looks plenty techy, even in natural colors, shown in the upper left, above. In the upper right is a version where I highly emphasized the colors that are actually contained in the image, while the largest version is in b&w with heightened contrast. Some of the darker details have been lost, as have some of the fine details in the brightest areas, resulting in a more aggressive presentation than either of the other two versions, emphasizing the shapes and bringing, perhaps, a bit of the menace of the weapon it guides.

I emboldened that AIRS image during the transition from color to grayscale without reference to the colors in the original, choosing only to increase the contrast. But the colors can be useful in making the transition, using a technique that harkens to the days of b&w film — color filters! To demonstrate, here are four versions of a portion of a Saturn V main engine, known as an F-1. Screenshot

If you were not aware, placing a color filter in front of a camera lens when shooting b&w affects the intensity of light from objects or fields of color reaching the film, based on their color. A common combination is to put on a red filter when shooting a landscape, since that will reduce the intensity of the blue light reaching the film and, thus, yield a darker sky. (Red and blue are opposites on a color wheel, so a filter of one blocks the colors of other.) Red elements in such an image would be, conversely, brightened, as the filter preferentially lets red light through to the film.

In the above foursome we see the results of converting with no filtration, in the upper right, and the results as filtered through a red or through a blue filter. The most obvious difference between those three versions is, indeed, the appearance of the sky, but notice how blue reflections on some of the metal are also darkened or lightened, depending on the filter. The same goes for the warm colors, darker or lighter.

Isn't this great? Computers give us the ability to retroactively apply the effect of a color filter on a color image when converting to grayscale, with the same effects as a filter over a lens if shot on black-and-white film, yet the color and intensity of the "filter" can be manipulated at will, post-facto!

Wrapping It Up

Photography, and videography, are such malleable media, allowing us — photo/videographer, journalist, marketer, artist — to manipulate imagery to better explain a concept or tell a story. And despite all the great advances in color photography brought about by modern digital cameras, and color reproduction in print or on screen, sometimes simplifying an image by removing the colors is the most effective course.

Knowing this option exists is an important first step in taking advantage of the technique. Knowing that further choices are available, to be even more communicative, makes that knowledge even more powerful.

(AeroMark Images) aerospace aviation background control controls detail engine filter filters photography rocket rocketry scene scenery space technique Thu, 07 Nov 2019 03:49:34 GMT
Looking Forward To It Beginning last year (which would make it 2018), I have been photographing from inside helicopters looking forward through their cockpits for the trade magazine Rotor. The chosen image from each flight appears as a two-page spread with a minimal caption. These are relatively simple projects, but bring challenges that are not often encountered otherwise. I'll start with the first image that has run in the series, as it touches on those challenges. On 26 June 2018 the Arizona Department of Public Safety Bell 429 helicopter flew over Sedona, Arizona, providing this wide-angle view of the iconic location. Piloting the aircraft is DPS Officer Darrel Detty (right seat), accompanied by Systems Operator Officer Craig Bremer (left seat) and Rescue Specialist Officer Edgar Bissonnette (not shown, in cabin).

I am in the cabin of a Bell 429 flown by the Arizona Department of Public Safety. It's a fairly new aircraft model and, for Az DPS, a new addition to their fleet. Also, being a law enforcement aircraft, it is loaded with avionics including a camera under the nose with its controls and display seen on the left. So, check off "interesting aircraft."

The Bell is based in Phoenix but for this photo mission we headed up to Sedona. Why? So I could satisfy my second desire for these photos: interesting scenery. That might mean beautiful, as here, or it might mean unusual (we'll see that in the following example).

With those two desires met, what else does this photo reveal?

It reveals the challenge of showing both the interior, often in a mix of light and shade: a plethora of dark instruments hiding under a glare shield and a well-lighted exterior. And those are not just two challenges, those are four! I want the interior and the exterior both properly exposed, and I want them both well focused.

The scenery is in broad daylight, streaming in from the right, and the same daylight is streaming into the cockpit, but some of it is blocked from striking the black instrument panel while some of it is not. That's a lot of what's termed dynamic range, so judicious camera settings, a camera with the ability to capture a wide range, and the proper post-processing software and adjustments all play into taming those lighting challenges.

As for focus, I'll admit, even at the small size of the photos in this article we can see the helmets and shoulders of this fine flight crew are a bit blurry. But by the time we reach the radio panel we're good, focus-wise, as is the scenery. Depth of field, how much is in focus from near to far, is a function of the camera lens setting called aperture which, in order to capture focus near to far, requires the other camera setting, shutter speed, to be conversely slow, increasing the chances for blur induced by vibrations or bobbles of the airframe through the air.

"Dude! That's a lot of writing. Show more pics!"

I hear you and here they are.

Welcome to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group on Davis-Monthan AFB. Colloquially called "the boneyard," it is temporary home or final resting place for thousands of aircraft from our military or other government operators. Airplanes, helicopters, a few rockets and, if I recall correctly, even a blimp's gondola. They store them, they might keep 'em ready to be flown out on short notice, or maybe it'll take longer but they can still get 'em flying, or they might strip 'em to use the parts on their still-active brethren. I've photographed there many times including, if you can find it, an article I shot and wrote several years ago for another trade magazine, Vertical. Nowadays, only bus-bound tours are allowed and there's a bunch of security you have to go through even for that.

Here, though, we get a view that very few people can muster — from 300 feet above the ground. I'm in the back of a Bell 206L3, courtesy of Southwest Heliservices, shooting through where a front-seat headrest would normally be. There's a structure called a "broom closet" between the front seats, so I couldn't shoot from the center of the cockpit, but the view is still great and, in this frame, I timed a shot through the chin window to capture a massive C-5 Galaxy.

On the topics of aircraft and scenery, I admit the aircraft is not particularly noteworthy. It is clean and well maintained, but otherwise nothing to write home about. So it's the scenery that makes this image. A view of a place that many find very interesting and, now, few can experience.

This shot is from an Airbus H135 over downtown Atlanta, Georgia. We arranged with Airbus for a flight during the annual helicopter trade show, Heli-Expo, knowing we could tie this photo, as its own standalone feature, to other coverage of the trade show in the magazine. ROTAK Helicopter Services K-MAX operations at or near Jose Aponte Airport, Ceiba, PRROTAK Helicopter Services K-MAX operations at or near Jose Aponte Airport, Ceiba, PRROTAK Helicopter Services K-MAX operations at or near Jose Aponte Airport, Ceiba, PRROTAK Helicopter Services K-MAX operations at or near Jose Aponte Airport, Ceiba, PRROTAK Helicopter Services K-MAX operations at or near Jose Aponte Airport, Ceiba, PR

A bit farther south, and east, is the American territory of Puerto Rico, a victim of Hurricane Maria. Helicopters were one of the critical tools in repairing and rebuilding their electrical grid, and I've been there twice (as of this writing) to photograph those activities. One of the less usual aircraft in the world is also one of the best for much of that work, the K-MAX from Kaman Aerosystems, flown here by ROTAK Helicopter Services.

For this photo, though, you have to understand something about the K-MAX — it has but a single seat. So we rigged my camera behind the pilot, balancing security (first) with a desire to limit the vibrations and bumps from the airframe affecting the images, and attached a remote shutter release to the collective for the pilot to trigger during flight. Of more than 700 frames he triggered, just shy of 100 were not blurry — good job! Seriously. The aircraft has a surprisingly lively ride and choosing from among 100 is not a bad thing.

Lastly (so far), I was in Palm Springs, California, flying with the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation to capture the most recent image in the series. Unlike the K-MAX, this former US Army AH-1F Cobra has two seats but, like the K-MAX, we needed to mount the camera for remote shooting — the seating is in tandem and there's not much room behind the pilot. So we used a similar approach to mounting the camera and, in the front seat, I had the remote shutter release with me. We made a quick jaunt out to the wind turbines that dot the landscape and I came back with 100+ options. (Just in case the remote failed or the camera drooped, unnoticed, I carried another camera and shot from my seat, too.)

What Else?

Notice how all except the K-MAX photo have a markedly angled horizon. That big diagonal adds visual energy to the image, plus I often find a delicious sense of vertigo when I look at these images.

Each image was shot with a camera sporting lots of pixels. The Az DPS/Sedona image is the only one captured with a mere 36 megapixels; the others gathered 42 megapixels! I mention this because you need a lot of pixels to create a high quality image that will be printed 17 inches wide in a magazine, and raw pixel count is one of the factors in obtaining quality.

Each image was also shot with a very wide-angle lens, in these cases, 14 millimeters on cameras with sensors the size of 35 mm film. I want to capture as much of the interior and the terrain as I can, to give the viewer a sense of being there, of experiencing that magic of rotary-wing flight.

As I stated early on, these are fairly simple projects. They are not, however, slam dunk easy — use the appropriate equipment, techniques, and post-processing prowess, to capture your own visions of life from the air.

(AeroMark Images) aircraft aviation background cockpit composition detail flight focus helicopter lighting magazine photography scene scenery technique Mon, 14 Oct 2019 16:37:32 GMT
Up. Down. All Around. What do you get when you put a photographer — especially an aviation photographer — at or near an airport with a camera and time on their hands? You get photos of airports is what you get. This photographer, in particular, has an affinity for a graphic approach to what appears before him so, for your viewing enjoyment (and a bit of insight into what catches my eye), here are some of what I've captured over the years.

I was on a client assignment for two days at the Libby Army Airfield on Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Sometimes lots was happening, sometimes nothing — which, for me during the latter situations, meant "time to see and capture some interesting views." Here are three photos of the same ramp.

The early morning of August 16, looking northwest.

That same day, a late-afternoon summer storm blew in. There are mountains out there somewhere!

The next morning, there's a bit of water left standing in the tie-downs and the mountains are back!

Notice how I used three different lens focal lengths to capture each scene; a slightly "long" lens the first morning, a "normal" lens in the afternoon, then a wide-angle lens on day two. Each was chosen to include or emphasize elements in each scene.

On the ground at a different airport, this one near Phoenix, Arizona, I happened upon a Cessna that had assumed an unnatural parking attitude. Letting the other aircraft clearly contrast with their skyward-pointed neighbor, I focused on the odd one and let it go at that. (I see tie-down chains descending from his wings, so I'm not sure what allowed a wind to upend him. Too much slack?)

Naval Air Station Pensacola, in Florida, was drizzly the day I was there. That kind of cloud cover, and sometimes the cleansing effect of a little water on things, can embolden colors and contrasts. Even out of focus, it's impossible to miss these military water towers which, for no more reason than "I wanted to," I've focused instead on the fence.

This is Grand Prairie, Texas, at their municipal airport. If you have some familiarity with aviation windsocks, you'll recognize a stiff breeze when you see it. Actually (and I had to look this up), to be fully extended like this, the wind must be at least 15 knots — let me tell you, it was at least 15 knots that day! I suspect the helos I was there to photograph had their work cut out for them. AAR in Melbourne, Florida.

We're in the air now, looking at the airport in Melbourne, Florida. We made a few trips around this side of the airport to capture shots of the client's facility where, to give this image context, I made sure to include a view right out to the Atlantic. Air Logistics

Houma, Louisiana, en route to some air-to-air with one of the offshore helicopter operators. This Cessna was taxiing as I was flying and, well, I took advantage of the opportunity to make a bit of art. ROTAK Helicopter Services K-MAX operations at or near Jose Aponte Airport, Ceiba, PRROTAK Helicopter Services K-MAX operations at or near Jose Aponte Airport, Ceiba, PR Ceiba, Puerto Rico, is on the east coast of the main island and, despite my being there 17 months after Hurricane Maria, as we were lifting off from Aeropuerto Jose Aponte de la Torre for some air-to-air work, I was struck by how much damage was still visible at an otherwise fully functioning airport. Notable here? That tall hangar building does not have transparent siding!

Lastly, here is Detroit's Metro Airport. A clean composition of a cluttered terminal area that visually contrasts with the empty taxiways and green spaces.


What can we take away from this short "what I did on my summer vacation" collection of images?

I suggest they show that opportunities for strong, aviation-related imagery might arise at any time and a good photographer will notice and take advantage of those opportunities. Even if the client is not an airport (though I have those, too), these more environmental images can find value for broader stories that might develop, in a slide deck or an annual report.

Don't let good imagery slip by, even if it's not part of the assignment — you never know when it will come in handy.

(AeroMark Images) airport aviation background composition detail photography scene scenery story technique Tue, 17 Sep 2019 15:10:30 GMT
No Gyro? No Problem. How do you get 1,200 sharp air-to-air images? Apparently, you press the shutter button 2,535 times then, back in your hotel room, throw out the 1,335 blurry ones. At least that’s what I had to do on a recent photo flight. You see, my gyro stabilizer was suddenly inoperative so, to make up for not being able to depend on up-front quality, I increased the quantity.

This screen shot of my cataloging application displaying 33 images per row which, times nine rows, reveals a mere 297 of the 2,535 original captures. I didn’t bother counting up the highlighted ones visible here, but those are the blurry ones. It’s a lot.

Actually, I see frame number 480 needs a check-mark too. Why is it yet unmarked? Well, the first step in my process for reviewing and choosing images has me examining each frame for sharpness which, to make sure I am being ruthless, I perform while zoomed in to just the important portion of each frame. I suppose I was zoomed into that edge of the frame and found the aircraft to be sufficiently sharp and moved to the next frame.

(Looks again.)

Well, not only is it not sharp but, more obviously, the target is mostly out of frame. I must have accidentally skipped over that one. Rest assured, it won’t be the last image I decide, upon further examination, to consign to the trash heap.

I always shoot more, plenty more, than I would ever use because of the vagaries of air-to-air photography. The other aircraft is moving, my aircraft is moving, the background is changing, the lighting is changing, the air is seldom still, and rotor blades appear wherever the hell they feel like it, sometimes obscuring a feature on the aircraft or background, or just looking awkward. This split image shows two frames shot within one second of each other. On the left, my camera was in motion relative to the target. Bad. On the right, my camera was steady on the target even though, if you look carefully, you'll note we are both moving relative to the background. Extra good. Why extra good? Because a blurry background helps the sharp target stand out against it.

As an example of wayward rotor blades, these three shots were made in barely two seconds and, believe me, I am not so skilled as to press the shutter button only when the blade is not blocking the cockpit. Any of these would be technically fine, but visually the rightmost is the most attractive.

With an operative gyro I could probably have shot fewer than half this number to yield plenty more images than I will use. But either way, gyro or not, I would shoot a lot and throw away all the bad ones. You should do the same.

The point of this little bit of prose is to give you permission, if you weren’t already comfortable doing so, to shoot, shoot, shoot.

Pixels are free, right?

(Shall I detail all the expenses involved in capturing those free pixels? I shall not (but you are welcome to imagine what those expenses are).)

Extra Credit Image

This is the view from the chase ship, to give you a sense of the scenery we were working in.

Thanks go to Wilson Construction for the opportunity to fly and shoot with them.

(AeroMark Images) fly flying gyro gyro-stabilizer hec helicopter human lineman linemen md530f photography power line power lines story technique Wed, 14 Aug 2019 01:26:43 GMT
Balling It Up There's a category of helicopter operations called human external cargo in which a human, or humans, are carried in a somewhat unrestrained manner. They aren't just hanging onto a flying helicopter sipping a drink with an umbrella stuck in it, but aren't belted into a seat, either. They have a job to do that requires some freedom of movement outside the aircraft.

Installing aerial marker balls along major highway crossings.

And sometimes "outside" means "suspended on a rope 100 feet below." Cool! One such job is attaching those large spheres to power lines that alert passing aircraft to the presence of the line. The spheres are known as aerial marker balls and, well, somebody's gotta get 'em up there, so call in a helo and a couple of people with balls. In this case, the electric utility called in Wilson Construction of Aurora, Oregon.*

I was working on a story about human external cargo, so my job was to capture these guys doing theirs.

Thus, at 4 a.m., when the alarm went off, my assistant and I sprang out of bed (if by "sprang" I mean "dragged ourselves"), freshened up, gathered our gear and headed to the first site of the day. We arrived at the appointed time, pulling into the dirt lot along with the linemen and various support personnel in their small fleet of trucks. The sun was still an hour below the horizon, and the helicopter wasn't due until daylight, but already they were laying out their gear. Installing aerial marker balls along major highway crossings.

My story was focusing more on the human elements of human external cargo, HEC as it is initialized, rather than, say, the aircraft. Which is why we were there in the chilly pre-dawn dark, photographing the men going about their business. The orange metal seats were laid out, strung from a series of spreader bars, straps and carabiners sprouting everywhere. Installing aerial marker balls along major highway crossings.

The helicopter arrived, the human-rated line was laid out and attached to the belly hook, the tailboard briefing was held, documents signed, and all was made ready to fly. But they didn't fly right away. These marker balls were to be hung above a freeway, so the linemen laid back in their rigging, cradling a ball, the helicopter sat spinning, and everyone waited. And waited. And waited for the highway patrol to close and clear a section of freeway over which two balls were to be installed.

Then, boom! The freeway was clear and off they went! Installing aerial marker balls along major highway crossings.

Five minutes later the linemen were snatching another ball, held aloft by their boss, and five minutes later their feet were finding the ground again — two balls installed and it was time to unhook, pack up, and head out to the next location. Installing aerial marker balls along major highway crossings.

That sequence repeated three times, twice in dusty fields, once in a gravel quarry. Set up…wait…wait…wait…go!

Installing aerial marker balls along major highway crossings. Installing aerial marker balls along major highway crossings. Installing aerial marker balls along major highway crossings.

After the eighth ball was installed and the aircraft was back on the ground, we packed up my now-dusty gear and traipsed back to the hotel. It was only 8 a.m. and the free breakfast was calling us. Installing aerial marker balls along major highway crossings. Notice the range of situations I sought out and captured; groupings of people and equipment and, especially, action (even if the action was lying on your back waiting for "go") that convey the human side of the operations. In barely three hours of work, some of it driving and much of it waiting with the crew for that "go," I captured over a thousand frames.

That number doesn't guarantee good images — you still have to be a good photographer — but the results show I chose various vantage points and camera/lens settings, moving my feet and adjusting my camera to make images that show the coordination, the connections, the humanity of the work in visually interesting ways. Take heed to do the same when it's your turn.

* Note that the operations shown here were completed prior to the availability of a certified double-hook system for this aircraft type, thus these flights were conducted under an exemption from the FAA. When such systems became available, Wilson Construction configured their aircraft accordingly.

(AeroMark Images) composition fly flying helicopter human lineman linemen marketing MD530F people person photography power line power lines story technique timing Sat, 03 Aug 2019 01:00:44 GMT
Calendrically Shot For many in business, wall calendars have lost their value as scheduling tools — a working professional’s daily schedule is often too cluttered to fit into a 2-by-2-inch square, and a piece of paper on the wall won’t beep to remind you it’s time for another staff meeting (ugh). Still, we use wall calendars for more than a quick glance at the month; they give us a glimpse, a reminder if you will, of the machines, people and, hopefully, the beauty in the world, even the beauty in our industry.

Here are some thoughts on capturing and incorporating images for your calendar.

One approach is to feature the subject (I'll be using aircraft, but it could be armor or trucks or boats or those annoying scooters millennials hop on, burly-man beards flying, man-buns not-flying. (Actually, I don't mind the scooters, and my son sports one of those burly-man beards though, sadly, a man-bun is out of his, um, reach?)) Where was I? Photographing the aircraft coming your way is a powerful approach.

Then again, you can also place your subject in a larger view of its environment, if that environment or the composition warrant it.

If you are shooting air-to-air, plan to take advantage of as many backgrounds, lighting directions, and camera settings as you can. All of these came from fewer than 90 minutes — plenty to choose from, for the calendar and beyond. If you are stuck shooting from the ground, a good vantage point and spot-on timing are your best friends (and a dynamic sky doesn't hurt).

If your subject is on the ground with you, do your best to make the composition and lighting work for you. The first job of an image is to make people stop and look, so give them something more enticing than "aircraft on ground." Boeing 747-8F at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, 24 June 2010.

Of course, if you can get in the air while the subject is on the ground, go on up — bold, graphical, eye-catching results are there to be found and captured.

Whether making the image or fitting it into the calendar, don't be afraid to put the subject off-center. Such a layout can add energy to an otherwise static image, or allow space for other elements — like text or inset images. (But don't, please, don't feel you must fill such space with something else — just sayin'…)

Another approach to adding visual energy is rolling the camera along the lens' axis. You might think the view from a KC-135 is the view from a KC-135, but by rolling the camera left, there is more oomph in this shot. It's a simple technique that can be employed almost anywhere.

Another example of rolling the camera, this time while capturing an aircraft just sitting on the ramp. Combined with a low angle to exclude the background and, perhaps, hide the fact there's no pilot in the cockpit, I've made something useful from almost nothing.

This barely scratches the surface of the challenges and opportunities for photography in service of a marketing calendar. I think an important concept to grasp is how a calendar is like a book, with the need to both draw and keep a reader's attention, then to tell the story of your company, your products, your people.

If yours is a good story, be sure to tell it well. 5.0.2

(AeroMark Images) advertisement advertising airplane aviation calendar composition helicopter marketing photography sales technique timing Fri, 12 Jul 2019 14:43:19 GMT
Show Different I am not an avid air show shooter, one of those many, many fine photographers who capture the aircraft that ply the skies above fascinated fans. I enjoy a good air show, but I find I'm not really drawn to making photos of the planes in flight. So, if I'm not a great show shooter (I didn't say that; it's just not something I do a lot), what have I to offer?

Well, shooting different is my differentiating approach, so here are some samples to illustrate what I do and how you, too, might shoot the show different.

One way to bring some zing to an image of a flying airplane is to get it when it's low. Here, Skip Stewart's Prometheus is airborne, but not by much, and has just clipped some streamers strung between those poles with the black-and-white-checked flags. I was crossing a taxiway, obviously not near the action, but saw him making a run so I pivoted and shot. Bang — it's a good photo that shows both the energy and the environment of his performance (and the exposure before this one appeared in news coverage of the event).

Here is more low-flying action, Margaret Stivers of Silver Wings Wingwalking, approaching show center and framed between P-51 Mustangs. Again, this puts the action in a place, not just against a blue sky or even a distant horizon.

Chino Air Show 2012

Another approach to less-usual, and thus more interesting, photography is to put something besides the airplane in focus. A guy in a hat holding a camera pointing, obviously, at the yellow airplane. We don't need the Northrop N-9MB in focus to know what the photographer is focusing on. There was only one of these iconic aircraft flying in the world and people who know airplanes know this one.* Chino Air Show 2012

If you are going to make photos of the airplanes in the air, how can those photos look better than just photos of airplanes in the air? Perhaps more strongly than the above examples, it comes down to timing and composition. Take this diamond formation of the USAF Thunderbirds demonstration team. They are just about to pass over the crowd, but coming from behind the crowd. I knew they had circled around to behind, but were then hidden beyond the building just behind the crowd-holding bleachers on Nellis AFB. I was standing in the gap between building and bleachers, so I waited, which didn't take long, and as they flashed overhead I pointed and shot, creating a clean, formal portrait. By the time someone in the stands would have seen and shot, they would be getting a rear view — this is better. ThunderbirdsThunderbirds Or how about this one from the same day? Rather than put the Vipers smack dab in the middle of the frame, I kept some of the formality in the composition, by centering the group along the bottom, while also giving them space above to fly into. This is one of my all-time favorite photos of the Thunderbirds.

If an aircraft shows its top, rather than just its side and bottom, shoot for that! Most air shows' flight paths runs from one side to the other, left-to-right or right-to-left, thus the dynamics of flight usually present just the side or bottom of the subject. Those can be nice, but seeing the upper surfaces is usually more satisfying, so be sure to fire away if they come in banked or rolling or whatever. The image, below, of a rare Temco TT-1 Pinto, was made in a pretty small window of time. In the course of 14 minutes from its arrival on the scene, airborne, until it landed, the pilot showed its topside for fewer than 5 seconds!

One technique that might not be available to you, or it might, depending on your connections and savvy, is to position yourself where others haven't or can't. This B-17G is just lifting off the runway and there I was, at the end of the runway, firing off just a few frames before it roared overhead and banked away. Head-on shots can be quite dramatic and, especially in the case of propellor-driven aircraft, a balancing act regarding the shutter speed to adequately capture the airframe crisply while allowing sufficient prop blur. In this frame, the shutter speed of 1/400 second made a pretty good compromise. (If you're shooting jets, you can probably crank that speed to as fast as your camera will allow, unless you've got some intentional blurring in mind — which can be a good thing.)

Air shows are full of photographic opportunities. Although you don't have to spend every moment taking photos — you can also stop and smell the cotton candy, hot dogs, and lemonade (okay, and the porta-potties) — when you do decide to capture some memories or make some art, here's some advice: plan for what might happen, keep your eyes open for possibilities, and act quickly when something interesting appears in your viewfinder.

(*Sadly, the N-9MB was destroyed in a crash just two months ago (at the time of this writing, mid-June 2019), fatally injuring the pilot, David Vopat.) 

(AeroMark Images) action air show airplane airshow aviation composition photography technique Tue, 18 Jun 2019 23:20:26 GMT
Motion in the Movies One of the strongest arguments for using video is signalled in another, more descriptive, term for the medium: motion pictures. The power of motion to catch our attention and lead us through a story is unmatched.

One effective approach, when choosing then editing a collection of clips, is to tie the motion in one clip to the motion in another, whether that motion is the subject moving through the frame, the camera moving relative to the subject, or their combination.

stack o screen shots Illustrated here are 24 screen shots taken from a marketing video I created for AeroMark Images. These represent most of the clips incorporated into the video, with a total runtime of one minute.

Some quick math will tell you that each clip runs, on average, barely two seconds, but because the opening sequence — the time lapse of roiling clouds diagonally bisected by an Airbus airliner speeding through the frame — is on-screen for 8 seconds, and the ending sequence — an MD 530F helicopter peeling away into a fade-to-black plus logo — occupies another 9, you'll not be surprised to see a number of clips appearing for but a half-second.

There is plenty to discuss and dissect, but I'll limit today's examination to movement within and between the clips. The red arrows should help illustrate my decisions.

Notice how the motion in clips 1 and 2 runs along a similar diagonal, while clip 3 — a Southwest Airlines B737 on approach, reflected in the windows of an office building — flattens that left-to-right vector while also providing an interesting graphic effect. That clip actually ends with the airliner in the middle of the frame, which is where the Black Hawk (4) starts. The Black Hawk is a new "target" for our attention, but it appears on screen where the previous target was, so we don't have to hunt for where to look next.

The Black Hawk is indicated as moving right-to-left, but the camera is panning with that movement so clip 4 ends with the H-60 still pretty much in the middle of the frame, the same area of the frame where we pick up the V-22 in clip 5. Again, a new target we don't have to hunt for, and another change of direction, clip-to-clip.

We don't want everything moving in the same direction, which would be monotonous, yet too much back-and-forthing is aggravating. We want energy in the editing, but not too much.

Clips 6 and 7 are but two of the nine clips that run a total of five seconds, so there's some pretty brisk cutting into a sequence that tell its own condensed story. Then, bang! Clip 8 is nothing but billowing late afternoon clouds. Glorious, powerful, mountains of clouds.

Suddenly, we're back to aircraft when a T-34 blurs across the frame, right to left, an MD 600N lifts up to a hover, a Citation Latitude taxis left-to-right, nearby, then an Airbus A320 taxis right-to-left, far away through shimmering heat waves.

So, that was left-up-right-left, but then I calm things down with an Airbus departing Puerto Rico (13) and a Boeing arriving (14). These are an interesting pair, motion-wise, because although I've indicated a left-to-right motion, that is the motion of the aircraft/camera — the background is actually moving right-to-left, which means the change from heat-wave airliner to getting-airborne airliner doesn't feel as back-and-forth as my arrows might suggest. The C-130s that follow Puerto Rico are also stationary, but the camera is on the move and we get the same motion effect but now it's the aircraft standing still while we pass by. So much fun!

At 16 we have another helicopter lifting off, a K-MAX, moving up and out through the top left, then a Bell 407 pointing down left, followed by the shadow of a different 407 moving left across the near canyon wall, capped off by an F/A-18D departing to the left, afterburners on, in clip 19.

Clips 20 through 22 are a subset of the actual seven clips in the video. Each is of people, all but number 22 are still frames that blend from one to another. The final "people" clip is live video of a smiling pilot who moves left in the frame, then leans back to the right, followed by clip 23, the MD 530F that is, at first, traveling to the right, then peels away and heads to the left as we fade to black. Then up pops the logo.

That is a lot going on in 60 seconds, isn't it? But I make the most of it by incorporating a range of aircraft and scenarios, inside and out, with varying cinematic styles, and motion of the subject or the camera or both. And not just motion within the clips, but with energy I impart in the editing. This use of motion, of action, attracts the eye, but by not overwhelming the video with excess or ill-considered edits, the viewer is rewarded without my overstaying my welcome. (In case you missed the hyperlink above, click here to view the video: AMI Reel No 01.)

Music, color, wild audio, transitions, and more are just some of the other factors to be considered and crafted. And believe me, you spend more time editing than shooting. But the result can be the thing you strive for in any medium: you move people.

(AeroMark Images) action aerial airliners airplane aviation background composition edit editing helicopter helo marketing motion movement movie placement scenery technique timing transitions video window Fri, 31 May 2019 19:46:41 GMT
Skew Not The Scenery Among the several challenges you face when photographing the interior of an aircraft is the small space. Not much room for photographer and lights, so you often mount the lighting equipment outside the aircraft, sending the illumination in through the windows.

That means you're working on the ground. On the ramp or in a hangar. And what you see through those windows is, thus, not the scenery that would be passing by in flight.

Not a problem — shoot the aircraft on the ground then digitally insert an exterior scene as though seen through the windows of the aircraft.

However, an error I've seen repeatedly in images of aircraft cabins is distortion of that exterior scene, as though it is a poster taped to the window outside the aircraft. You've bound to have seen this yourself, in ads or marketing materials, even if you didn't understand why it looked wrong.

Typically, it looks wrong because the image of the world that is visible through the windows, as seen by the camera, should be the same as if you saw the world from that same location, floating in the air, with no aircraft present. But some presumption of what the occupants would be seeing (even if no occupants are present) apparently leads some photographers or production artists to skew things up.

Here are an aerial scenic and an interior of an aircraft. The scenery is what is known as the East Valley, in the Phoenix, Arizona, area. The aircraft is an MD Explorer. (I'd not realized until after I put together this article that, coincidentally, the MD Explorer is made in Phoenix's East Valley — nice!)

To properly combine the two images, drop the aircraft onto the scenery and cut out the windows. That's about it, and here's what it looks like when done properly.

If I cut away half of the aircraft, you'll see the background is unchanged (and you'll also note that I lowered the background so its horizon cuts through the scene where we expect it, relative to the aircraft in flight).

But if the background is skewed like a poster taped to the glass, this is the result.

I had to duplicate and flop the background image because the skewing caused it to contract, using up nearly the entire width of the background image to fit into the window as I've seen it done. I could have worked harder to avoid or hide that dupe/flop, but showing it this way helps you compare the scenery on both sides of the following cutaway.

The proper technique is simple enough, right? Whatever your background image, if it is suitable to be seen through the windows of an aircraft, leave the background alone and merely place the aircraft over it with the horizon running through the image as appropriate to the aircraft and the setting.

To really drive the lesson home, let me tee up and hack this Mulligan into the rough for your slow-clapping pleasure. (I don't know golf, obviously.) What I mean is, here is a direct comparison of the wrong (left) and the right (right) scenic treatments.

Bonus Round

On the topic of background appropriateness, don't let the beauty of the background overshadow the subject of the photo — the aircraft. Also, choose a background that has lighting which reasonably matches the lighting inside the aircraft. You can get away with some imperfection, but if the two are way out of whack, people's attention is disturbed by the mismatch. Here's an example of a bold background that demands its own attention, with lighting on the outside that is unrelated to the lighting on the inside. Doesn't your attention keep wandering to the scenery? Mine does. That's not what you're selling, so don't let it be what your viewer is looking at.

I'll conclude by observing that these types of digital constructions are prone to being both overthought (skewed scenery) and under-evaluated (lighting). My advice is: think carefully but not too much.

(AeroMark Images) aerial airliners airplane aviation background cabin composition helicopter helo interior lighting photography Photoshop scenery technique window Wed, 15 May 2019 22:23:57 GMT
Why Engines? Over my years of aerospace photography I've noticed that my eye, and camera, often turns to engines. I wonder why that is? And even if I had a succinct answer to that question, why would you care?

The "why" of my photography is answered by my appreciation for the graphic opportunities offered by the machinery, tied to my understanding, as limited as it might be, of the wonders contained within and the wonders made possible without. Not succinct enough? Okay, the short version of the answer is: they look cool and do neat stuff.

Boeing 747-8F at PMGA for hot-weather testing

As for why you would care, I suggest that seeing some examples of my infatuation might spur your own photographic exploration in search of interesting and useful imagery, or lead you to expect more from a photographer you engage to those same ends.

Above is exhibit A, a General Electric GEnx engine hanging on the wing of a Boeing 747-8F. Boeing had the aircraft in Arizona for hot weather testing and, among the many images from a couple days of shooting, I brought back many featuring the engines. This shot is straightforward and includes enough of the aircraft to identify it without requiring a fuller portrait.

Boeing 747-8F at PMGA for hot-weather testing Here is the same engine, seen from a location not far from the previous one. Now a bit inboard, this was shot with a wide angle lens which, admittedly, optically distorts objects towards the edges of the frame. Intake stretched out and misshapen? Done! Then again, the engine is now ready to suck in the unobstructed sky, while we've retained a view of the markings on the vertical stabilizer. This is a more eye-catching rendition because of the distortion, and catching eyes is job one for advertising/marketing photography.


A different 747, with a different engine, undergoing maintenance. A very graphic representation of the complexity of the nacelle panels without cluttering the composition with the myriad details that would have appeared if shot from an oblique angle. I can just imagine the headline or caption, something like "open for business" or "see what's inside" or "we give you wings!" (Maybe that last one's taken?)

This engine mounted mid-wing on a B.2 Canberra is in need of some maintenance, sure, but made for an interesting still life — faded paint, complex mechanicals, and sky. And notice how the wing, and the engine, and the fuselage are related in shape, shifting from narrowing with rounded leading edge, to narrowing with blunt intake, to barely narrowing fuselage, each with an orange underside. A respectful rendition of an aged machine that invites the viewer to spend some time wandering around the textures and details.

aircraft parked and stored If I'm talking "mechanicals," I'd disappoint myself if I didn't include this detail of a breakthrough engine from the 1950s — the J79 that powered the F-4 Phantom II and B-58 Hustler, among others. The breakthrough was variable stators actuated by those dog-leg arms. It was a great engine that, with tweaks, continues to serve with foreign militaries' F-4 Phantoms. Not bad for a sixty-year-old design. There's a lot going on in this image, so I've composed the shot to clearly show the arrangement of parts and plumbing. If you are communicating an important feature of your product, a bold, smart approach can bring visual interest and clarity to back up your story.

Holloman AFB Even with no engine in the engine, there are ways to incorporate them. This maintainer is shown through just a smidgen of a T-38 Talon trainer fuselage, where the engine should be. Here I've brought people into the mix without focusing (no pun intended) on the person.

Speaking of putting people in the shot, this Boeing technician is inspecting the Rolls-Royce engine on a Boeing 787. Including a person gives the image scale, revealing how large these engines are without resorting to a "stand here, in front of this engine, and look at the camera" or "stand here and pretend to be looking at something" approach. (BTW, the engine is not running — the fan blades are being driven by wind blowing across the ramp.)

Those familiar with my work will not be surprised to see an image like this. An E/A-18G Growler was just sitting there in a hangar on Whidbey Island, Washington, minding its own business, when I walked up and brazenly poked my camera into its tail feathers. (Tail feathers is slang for these panels nearest the camera that contract and expand to adjust the dimensions of the conical exhaust nozzle.) What we see is the rear of the engine and the afterburner section in all their gritty glory. Often I strongly emphasize the latent colors, but not here — it's naturally dim in there so I upped the contrast, but that's about it. Boom! Attention grabbed.

I'll wrap up with a panoramic assemblage. This is an H-1 rocket engine on display at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. I was attracted to the textures and details of the engine contrasted to those of the concrete ground and wall. So, 26 frames later I had the beginnings of a formal portrait that could be easily printed 14 feet wide for an exhibit, which would make this larger than life size.

It doesn't have to be engines

The point of all this has been to, perhaps, expand your thinking about ways to look at propulsion units, or whatever products or processes are your business. Keep in mind what you are trying to accomplish and how the images will be employed, but also be aware of the opportunities afforded by the particulars of your subject and its environment.

(AeroMark Images) airliners airplane aviation Boeing composition engine exhaust fighter General Electric intake nacelle photography powerplant Rolls-Royce technique thrust Thu, 02 May 2019 22:29:07 GMT
For Whom the Sun Sets There is oft-given advice that a photographer should have the sun behind them, streaming in over their shoulder and smashing right into the subject's face (or whatever surface is facing the camera). That is seldom good advice — most subjects look more interesting when lighted from the side.

Other times, schedule or aesthetic considerations allow you to put the sun behind the subject. Whether it's early morning, late in the day, or both the subject and the sun are overhead, having the light source beyond the subject, perhaps even showing the light source in the shot, can lead to powerful, eye-catching imagery.

While photographing for Cessna a few years ago I caught this Embraer 135ER taxiing at the same airport. I rue the construction fence, but I knew there was something worth seeing and sharing. One thing about aerospace products: they often photograph well with backlighting like this, revealing their shapes with crisp bright edges.

Take care, with such lighting scenarios, to not let the exposure, as determined by the camera, become too bright. If you let it, the camera's meter will push the image to be a pale, pastel, blah — when shooting into the light, go dark.

If instead of hazy, golden early-morning light, as in the above, we see an airplane in clear, cool early-morning light, the crisp edges still do their thing, as we see on this QF-4E. There's no haze to lighten the sky, so the dark aircraft tries to blend into the blue, while having the sun below and beyond the aircraft yields a less usual rendition of the mighty Phantom.

Holloman AFB Later in the day, photo opportunities can still present themselves and be worthy of your attention. This CH-54A had just picked up water to fight a wildfire when it roared overhead. Like most of the 1,000+ photos I made that day, of various aircraft and people fighting the fire, this one didn't make it into print, but it's one of my favorites and shows the energy you can capture if you're not afraid to let the sun shine in. Right into your lens, no less.

Here, another challenge of exposure is to keep the shutter speed slow enough to render sufficient blur in the rotor blades or propellers. All that bright sun will push your camera to speed up the shutter but, as I've declared previously, especially with helicopters, no blur means no fly. Keep your ISO low so your shutter speed can be likewise.

Here is an MD Explorer framed against a sunset sky that is both warm and cool, heading for home after a successful air-to-air photo mission. The colors are relatively muted but, being near opposites on the color wheel, demand attention. Note, too, how I've left room — sky — in the composition behind the aircraft. This arrangement helps communicate that the day is past. If there was still work ahead, I would have left space in front.

MD 902 FlightCare Another sunset, another MDHI aircraft, in this case an MD 530F silhouetted against a sunset sky quite different from the one above. See all the sky I've left ahead of the aircraft? We're still flying and shooting, so I've left room in the composition to tell that story. (Humorous side note: the 530F's pilot's wife turned this image into their shower curtain! Who knew!?) _MBP9099 I'lll end back on the ground, just after sunup at Sun 'N' Fun in Lakeland, Florida. The crew of this Nanchang CJ-6 are prepping for the day's flight demonstrations. More than any of the previous images, I've let the shapes go almost completely black against the background. There's a lot to see in a photo that is basically black-and-oranges with the sun smack-dab in the middle of the shot.

I warned, earlier, to keep the shutter speed slow so rotors and props show up blurred. In this image, where you might think shutter speed is immaterial, I suggest you keep it fast so the aperture will open up and you'll blur, not motion, but the background by reducing the depth of field.

Don't be afraid to seize the dawning or dying light to make bold statements about your subject. Arcing through the sky or resting on the turf, there are stories to tell.


(AeroMark Images) airplane aviation back lighting composition dawn dusk edge edge lighting helicopter photography rim light silhouette sun sunlight sunrise sunset technique Tue, 16 Apr 2019 22:43:01 GMT
Putting the Muse in Museum Whether for business or pleasure, museums and other densely packed collections of aircraft present not only a target-rich environment, but also a couple of challenges to capturing useful or interesting imagery. Here are some suggestions for overcoming those challenges.

One benefit to photographing in a museum, among static aircraft at an air show, or at a so-called "boneyard," is the aircraft are not moving. This obviates the need to react to rapid changes in composition, lighting, etc., but it also means there is more on your shoulders in terms of your chosen composition, lighting, camera settings, etc. If you just show up and start pressing your shutter button, you can expect your images to look like the next guy or gal's. Here's an example, sort-of.

This is the Great Gallery of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. The aircraft at the center is the one-of-a-kind M-21, a version of the SR-71/A-12 family of spy planes, and carrier of the drone perched on its back. This photo actually focuses more on the D-21 drone by putting only it in focus and pushing the scenery outside the windows nearly to white, while keeping some of the M-21 in frame for context. The result works well enough, but the other aircraft still draw attention to themselves. (Note: the small size of the image, here, would suggest other aircraft are in focus, but in the high-resolution image it is clear (hah!) that even the drone, itself, is not fully in focus from nose to tail.)

Here's another approach — a four-frame panorama that features the entire M-21 but puts it in the context of the space. This perspective, the breadth of the image, really gives a sense of being there, which might be your task on behalf of a museum.

First medium, then wide, and here I present a close-up of one of the engines out of the M-21. I like the controlled chaos of all the wiring and plumbing. While the image is reasonably decorative on its own, ones like this might also serve as an adjunct to a larger story about a product or technology. But even in that role, there's every reason to approach the subject with an eye toward interesting beauty.

The Arado 234 B-2 Blitz is another one-of-a-kind aircraft, this one housed at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington, D.C. And like the M-21 it is inside a building, positioned amid other aircraft. And so, again, I used selective focus and detail shots to keep our attention on the subject.

This head-on shot of the nose canopy doesn't show the entire aircraft, but suggests an evil grin among the structure and wiring of this 75-year-old jet. The museum already has great photos of the aircraft using controlled lighting, so I didn't need to recreate those.

I also took care to capture this angle of one of its engines because, beyond the visual interest of the shapes and colors, I know the thin band of metal visible in that hole of the inner cone is actually a pull handle, like on a lawn mower, that cranks up a small piston engine which then acts as the starter for the jet engine. So cool! (Plus, what is it with me and engines?)

At Pinal Airpark, in south-central Arizona, a bevy of Boeing 747s are among the dozens of aircraft awaiting their respective futures. This wide-angle shot uses the near empennage to attract your eye by dominating the frame, then the fuselage pulls you forward, then the left wing points you to the other aircraft. It's an unusual composition that, nonetheless, tells an unambiguous story.

Perhaps it's not obvious, but for this shot I've positioned myself on the ground under what, in the preceding image, is that nearest 747. A truly unusual view of this "Queen of the Skies" draws your eye into the frame, and the aircraft on the horizon fill out the story. Plus, bonus, I captured an Apache helicopter headed to the Army National Guard heliport on the same airport and, though too small to recognize, those are parachutists under canopy in the upper left — and, for the truly eagle-eyed, on the right side, more parachutists strung out above the tip of the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer. Whew! So much to see.

Chino Air Show 2012 At the Planes of Fame Air Show in Chino there are planes galore — and they're famous! It's great fun to wander and gawk, but for this shot I narrowed my composition to take in just part of an XP-40 Warhawk. I was intrigued by the shapes and textures and the polished aluminum skin. Not so interesting was the sky. So…

Chino Air Show 2012 …I brought in a sky from elsewhere and exaggerated the aircraft's colors that were there but muted. Much, much better, yes? (I discuss skies in "The Sky's (Not) The Limit.") Finally, if you don't like adding skies, just wait for more interesting weather and then take your shot. Or, at least, when interesting weather arrives, take advantage of it.

I arrived early one morning at the Air Power Reservoir (as it is now labeled by the Air Force) on Davis-Monthan AFB where I was greeted by fog. I was not there specifically for the Boeing YC-14, but when light gives you lemons, you make — in this case — lemonade in the form of a forlorn portrait of a long-cancelled program. And I made that lemonade using eight overlapping frames, stitched into a panorama, to include the C-130s in the foggy distance while keeping the foreground sharper and in higher contrast. All of that to emphasize the fogginess and the sadness of a very interesting airplane resting in a very uninteresting field. I left the YC-14 small in the frame, too, to diminish its impact, visually, thus piling on the feeling of abandonment.

In Summary

When faced with a crowd of other aircraft (or it could be buildings or other, non-aviation, vehicles), consider how to either present the subject in a more interesting fashion or to isolate elements that can still tell the story. Be thoughtful with your camera settings and technique, keeping in mind that selective focus can be used when you must, or choose to, show those other aircraft. Be creative and, in all seriousness, have fun.

(AeroMark Images) airplane aviation background boneyard composition focus helicopter lighting photography scenery static storage technique Sat, 30 Mar 2019 04:34:09 GMT
Double-Trucking In "Rigged to Jiggle," my article about mounting a camera inside a single-seat helicopter to capture a behind-the-scenes, I mean, a from-behind-the-pilot view looking out onto, in that case Puerto Rico, I mentioned a couple of issues that such mounting tried to accommodate in lieu of a human holding the camera. Here's what to do if a human is available and carriageable.

Don Hooper of Cochise County Sheriff's Department Where are we in the above? I'm in the back row of an Airbus H130 flown by the Cochise County Sheriff's Office out of Sierra Vista, Arizona, and the pilot is orbiting a spot in the Dragoon Mountains, not far from the town of Cochise, population 50 (or so).

To make this image, I'm using a 14 millimeter lens on a full-frame-sensor digital camera with a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. I'm not expecting to see a rotor blade in the image, swishing by overhead, but though this is a shorter exposure time than I use for air-to-air photography, in the few frames in which a rotor blade makes an appearance, it is plenty blurry. And that's a good thing.

I'm holding the camera with both hands and keeping it as level as I can, relative to the airframe, because I want the banking turn to be registered as a tilted horizon, not a tilted fuselage. The sense of almost vertigo I find in these images is delicious, if you ask me.

In addition to holding on with two hands, I'm also positioned so my body is touching the aircraft as little as practical. These machines are abuzz with vibrations large and small, so I reduce the contact area between my body and the airframe, then use that very same body to dampen out what vibrations I can. Of course, I'm also altering the composition throughout the shoot, tilting up and down to include more or less of the interior, and positioning the camera nearer or farther from the instrument panel.

We're banking not just for a tilted horizon, but also I'm hunting for the right mix of scenery and lighting. Here, the sun is off to the left side, softened by high clouds but directional, giving the scenery noticeable three-dimensionality without blinding us.

Still, even with proper camera settings and good technique, not every shot will be a winner. It's best to shoot a lot. During the Cochise County flight I captured about 700 frames in a 45-minute flight.

H135 Atlanta How about this shot from another Airbus, an H135, this time over Atlanta? Lots of problems here, mostly aesthetic.

Notice how dull the composition is with a level horizon? "Ho-hum, we're in a helicopter." The sun is glaring, literally and figuratively, into our faces and the lens. Lens flare is a reasonable choice in some images, but not for this one. We are seeing the shade side of the high-rise buildings, which renders them bluish and low in contrast. The instrument panel is, likewise, low in contrast, and thus low in detail. So much not to like about this shot.

But don't worry, I made 300 images in the 13-minute flight during Heli-Expo 2019, held in Atlantaand a great one should appear in an issue of Rotor magazine, so I'll reserve that version for later.

B429 Phoenix[filenamebase}

If light from the front is potentially problematic, what about from behind? This shot from a flight over Phoenix in the Arizona Department of Public Safety Bell 429 has the sun pretty much from our six. This gives us the potential for seeing great detail in the interior of the aircraft, with no sunlight in our eyes, but the city is rendered a bit dull with all that straight-in-its-face brilliance. So, better than being blinded ourselves, but not as good as it could be. (You can see the image that did go to print from this photo mission as a two-page — what's called a double-truck — image in the Fall 2018 issue of Rotor magazine.)

B206L3 over Boneyard

In this final example the sun was mostly hidden by high clouds, yielding a softer level of contrast that probably works well for the subject, the Air Power Reservoir on Davis-Monthan AFB, in Tucson. Colloquially referred to as "the boneyard," Southwest Heliservices flew their Bell 206L-3 low and slow on a few zig-zaggy passes over the collection of helicopters, cargo planes, bombers and fighters while I clicked off 600 images in fewer than 20 minutes.

The lower light levels on this morning led me to lower my shutter speed, to 1/200th of a second, to maintain an aperture setting capable of capturing clearly both the interior of the aircraft and the passing parade of planes below. That slower speed meant I had to be extra careful with what I touched and how I worked to keep the images sharp. With that many shots, you'd think I'd get a good one, right? I got several, including this one, and you can see another in — you'll never guess — the Winter 2019 issue of Rotor magazine.

So there you have it — float like a butterfly within the aircraft, set your shutter speed slow enough to blur a blade if one appears and, coincidentally, provide sufficient depth of focus so as much is in focus as you can get, put an interesting subject in front of the aircraft and orient the light source for attractiveness plus inside-and-outside visibility, all with a wide-angle lens on a camera capturing sufficient resolution to print large. And shoot a lot.

Many thanks to the Cochise County Sheriff's Office, Airbus Helicopters, Arizona Department of Public Safety, and Southwest Heliservices for their cooperation in making these images possible.

(AeroMark Images) Airbus Atlanta aviation background Bell