Not So Show-y
I'm not a big air show shooter.
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!
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.
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.)
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.
Punch up the colors and you can really move the photo from "interesting" to "wow, that's interesting!"
The wing is angling up from left to right, while the less-important-in-this-photo fuselage/canopy are dipping down. A good start.
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…
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.
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 …
… 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
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.
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
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.
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."
Framing or otherwise juxtaposing a flying aircraft with non-flying ones makes for a more interesting composition. At least to me.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 — https://www.nikonusa.com/en/learn-and-explore/a/tips-and-techniques/taking-great-photographs-at-airshows.html
**Each of these terms is a slang label applied to the venerable F-4 Phantom II.
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