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.
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.
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.)
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…
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.
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.
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?!