The view from the ground

Look at any magazine rack. You’ll see that editors of publications about flying are in love with air-to-air photographs – the kind you make while aloft in an airplane. If you don’t have reasonable access to a “ride,” or if you don’t have a big budget for a rental, you may believe you are already “shot down in flames” when it comes to producing interesting, salable aircraft photos. Not so!

For years, most of my aviation photos have been made on terra firma. During those years, I have sold photographs to various publications for covers (a kingfisher photography tips big ego trip), calendars and books. Images have been sold from stock. Some slides have been consistently accepted in international salons. So, how do I get these photos without leaving the ground? Let’s consider the opportunities available.

The military may be a source of photos in your area. Some Air Force base near you and inquire if such an graphers’ days,” or something similar, from time-to-time. These events are usually closed to the general public. Photographers will probably be herded and bused from site to site. There will be static displays (aircraft parked on the ramp) and maybe some flying demonstrations. You will undoubtedly encounter military hardware up close to which you would normally not have access. However, you will have to stay with the group and ;may not get that “great” shot you envisioned. Call the public relations officer at the base near you and inquire if such an event occurs. If so, you may have to write a letter, citing your “credentials” as an aviation photographer. Don’t worry. Usually, the desire to make photographs and your assurances of responsible behavior are all that is required.

Air shows, either military or civilian take place regularly throughout the country and provide many photo opportunities. Military air shows generally have the same type static hardware displays mentioned above. The difference is that these well-attended gatherings have mobs of people everywhere – great for people shots, but rather cluttered for aircraft photos. In the civilian sector, air shows tend to be real spectacles, offering a great diversity of airplane types, parachute teams, aerobatics and fly-bys. Shows at air bases are usually free. Civilian air shows charge entrance and parking fees – about the same cost as attending a movie. Air shows usually occur in the summer. So think “hot” and prepare yourself and your equipment and film accordingly.

You may wish to apply for press credentials from the air show management. They will want to know, and you will have to be prepared to tell them, why they should grant you this privilege. You might cite your previous published pictures and point out the publicity value to the air show. You might promise them prints (and deliver as promised).

The press pass has a couple of advantages. First, you may escape an admission charge (but not always). Second, you will have access to areas off-limits to the crowd. This means you can get closer to the parked aircraft. You can walk around and get the best “angle,” something not always possible if you must remain behind the cordons. Most of the time the press will also be given a special area from which to view the aerial displays. The only real advantage to this is that fewer people are in your way at a well-attended affair. As far as photographing aerobatics from a vantage point a few hundred feet one way or the other, nothing is really gained.

An often overlooked source of spectacular aircraft photos is a gliderport. Most areas of the country have one, or at least a glider club which conducts its activities at a local site. Training gliders tend to be colorful. High performance fiberglass sailplanes tend to be beautiful. Generally speaking, glider operation are somewhat more informal than their engine-powered counterparts. This really puts an additional safety burden on you. If there is an FBO (fixed-base operator) on the field, check in with it. The person in charge will indicate what is and is not allowed on the field and will acquaint you with any special safety regulations which might effect your on-field conduct. If things in your area are “looser,” without formal guidelines, then let your conscience be your guide. It behooves you, of course, to stay out of everyone’s way, for your safety and theirs. If you are familiar with glider operations and know what will occur at any given instant, then you may be somewhat more adventurous. If not, the old caveat, “Better safe than sorry,” applies.

Sailplanes are put in the air with a fascinating array of launching devices which could include airplane tows, winch launches and automobile tows. They stay aloft by judicious use of rising air columns (thermals) or mechanical lift (ridge soaring). Sometimes, nothing works. In those cases, the glider that has just taken off may be landing a few minutes later. The Soaring Society of America conducts contests throughout the United States. These can be major spectacles.

Finally there is your local airport. Most people get so used to it (unless final approach goes over their house) that they take it for granted. Go on out there with your camera. I’ll bet you find something of interest. Small community airports customarily have some interesting relics of a bygone age (no, not people, airplanes!). Larger metropolitan venues offer studies of airline operations, cargo loading, ticketing personnel and so forth. Most centers of general aviation are a little more organized than gliderports. You may be denied close-up access to many areas. That’s OK. You’ll still find a lot to interest you. Photos of take-offs and landings are usually better served by positioning off the property to get a good angle. It may take a few tries to get the best combination of angle, position and lens focal length.

The equipment you use is really up to you, depending on what you’re after for an image. Some people merely want to record interesting and rare aircraft. If that is your aim, then you will want to use a standard focal length to document the subject’s front, rear and profile. The idea here is to provide sharp detail of characteristics and markings. Of course, depending on circumstances and room, you may have to utilize a moderate wide-angle or telephoto lens. These photos can be very useful to historians, collectors and model-builders, but they do tend to be somewhat boring.

To add drama to your static shots, try varying the angle of view. Shooting from the ground up can give the impression that the airplane is in flight. It can also eliminate confusing backgrounds and crowds. I have “framed” my shots by using the undercarriage of an airplane or by shooting through the space between a biplanes wing. Don’t forget close-ups of interesting features. How about a picture of the cockpit interior? A telephoto can sometimes render the subject with more pleasing perspective (just like portraits), but the hands-down winner for adding impact to static displays is to use an extreme wide-angle in close – not always pleasing; guaranteed dramatic!

To photograph the air work, lenses equivalent to the 35mm lenses of 200 through 500mm should work about right. Although I don’t use one, a zoom in this range would be handy. As a rule you should pan the camera with the action. If you’re lucky, this will render the airplanes tack-sharp and slightly blur the background, eliminating clutter and suggesting speed. I have tried the reverse, blurred subject and sharp background, with less success. A fast film is not really necessary and may actually hurt your endeavor. Slow-speed films (I still like Kodachrome 25) are fast enough, at least on a sunny day. I would shoot 25 ASA film at 1/250 second at f5.6 or 1/500 second at f4.

Why not use those new superfast speeds now appearing on new cameras? If you’re subject is propeller-driven plane, though, even 1/500 second is sometimes too fast. If the propeller is “stopped,” your photo will lack realism because we are used to seeing a moving propeller as a blur. Try it both ways and you’ll see what I mean. Cloudy days may signify a move to faster films and maybe filtration or other gimmicks to add interest to a gray and barren sky.

You can probably hand hold your telephoto down to 1/250 second and get a high percentage of acceptable results. Maybe not. There are two good alternatives to assist you. One is the lowly monopod, which doesn’t impede movement too much, but lends just enough stability to vastly increase your percentage of crisp pictures. The other is photography tips examples a gunstock device, available for most brands and combinations of lens/camera. The mobility with this device is very good, indeed. Don’t use a tripod. The action will pass you by before you’ve figured out whether to pan or tilt!

I hope you’re now convinced that it is worthwhile pounding the ground and pointing your camera skyward. While you’re having fun on the ground, I’m going aloft in a T-28 to photograph all types of airplanes at an air show. But that, my friend, is yet another story.

Richard Thornton has always been involved in graphic concepts. He was a photographer for three years while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. Early in his career he practiced commercial art and technical illustration.

Richard divides his time between his commercial photography business and electrical estimating and project management. The Thornton’s, Richard, Carol, and their six-year-old daughter, Leslie, live in Bakers-field, California.

The recipient of many local and international awards for photographic excellence, Richard is working on his third star rating for Photojournalism. He also is a current member of the Professional Photographers of America.