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.
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.
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.
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.
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.