This Friday and Saturday I took part in the Historic Flight Foundations first 'Air 2 Air' photography class. The Air 2 Air class is designed to give aviation enthusiasts a chance to learn about techniques, equipment and skills needed to take part in air-to-air photography for fun and possibly profit. The course included instruction from air-to-air photographers as well as trade magazines. I had a blast in the class, but the high point of the experience takes place on June 4, when I get to fly in the HFF's B-25 bomber and shoot air-to-air photographs of their P-51 and Spitfire, or their Tigercat and Bearcat. I'm very excited, but I am also a bit apprehensive. The techniques involved are challenging, and I really have only one shot at this (it's not every day one gets to fly in a B-25 and photograph war birds in formation). 


Prop Blur

The real key to air-to-air photos, in addition to standard photographic techniques of composition, is the great white whale: prop blur. Prop blur is the slight or full-circle blurring of the propeller which gives a natural, organic sense to the photo, which matches what the human eye sees. A frozen, sharp propeller on a airplane in flight does not look natural. 

The human eye mimics a shutter speed of 1/60th a second. Photographing an airplane in flight, even from the ground, at 1/60th is a huge challenge in itself. Shooting it in the air from one moving, buffeting airplane to another is an entirely different challenge.

Typically a ground-to-air shot, which I do fairly regularly, involves a single axis of movement (in the 'x' direction, left to right), which means you need to keep a steady pan. With concentration and proper shooting technique, you can manage around one in ten photos being acceptable sharp with prop blur (1/60th to 1/250th of a second).

Shooting air-to-air involves movement in all three axes, the platform aircraft and subject aircraft are both moving up, down, away and together, and at different rates of speed relative to each other!

I spent most of the midday break experimenting with settings shooting the various warbirds in flight and am closer to finding the recipe that works, but I still have a long way to go before I am confident in shooting propeller aircraft.

A few of the things I tried, some of it to combat the overcast:

  • Shutter priority - locked in at 1/125-1/250, Manual ISO (100-400), center-weighted focus
  • Shutter priority - locked in at 1/200, Auto ISO (seemed to give decent f stops, f6-f/8ish)
  • Aperture priority - f/6.7-f/8, fixed ISO

Some photos that worked from Saturday:

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Being a Realist

It wasn't hard to get very exciting about air-to-air photography when listening to the experts and the pros talk about it, and show slideshows of their work, but I had to continually remind myself that these guys are extremely lucky and work in a very vertical niche market. Like anything, the niche is powered by networking, and requires a lot of sweat equity and personal investment to get any sort of profitability down the road. I have to treat this opportunity as a once in a lifetime event as opposed to a stepping stone to further sessions. However, that does not mean I won't continue to nurture those relationships which I have in the area around aviation and photograph!y! 

AoA Access

If I had only taken the ground school portion of the class and had opted out of the flight portion, I still would have found great reward in the whole experience. One huge bonus from taking the class was getting future access to their Airport Operations Area (AOA) as a photographer. In past visits to the Historic Flight Foundation ramp I've had the opportunity to shoot from their viewing berm, which gives great, unobstructed views of the entire runway at KPAE. Having access to this area during daily operations should provide some excellent shooting of heavies out of Boeing and HFF fly days. This access was above and beyond any expectations I had from the Air 2 Air course and really shows the HFF's committment to aviation enthusiasts and photographers.

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The Day of the Flight

I was late to register for the Air 2 Air class, so my flight on the B-25 is June 4. 2 sets of photographers flew on Friday and Saturday, which were both overcast days, so I'm hoping June 4 has better skies. I was offered a slot on the Saturday flight, but I deferred to June 4. Sadly, June in Seattle is notorious for overcast (see this story from Prof. Cliff Mass on the subject of June Gloom). In any case, it will be a great experience. I just have to manage my expectations on both the weather and my actual photographic results. 

I am worried that I may not have the right range in my telephoto lenses. Right now, I've got 17-40, 70-200, and 100-400mm. The sweet spot, as reported by participants on Friday, was 28-105mm. I'd prefer not to have to use my 1.6x TC, which adds 2 stops. I may have to borrow a 28-135mm non-IS lens, or find someone willing to loan me a 135mm prime. 

Gyros and Gizmos

Some of the instructors talked about the use of strobes for ground photography, which is a subject that greatly interested me. I figure I have more of a shot at ground-to-ground work than I do air-to-air, and even if nothing materializes in that realm, I'll have the gear (radio-triggers and battery-powered strobes) for portrait work. 

Another amazing gizmo that was talked about for air-to-air photography was a camera gyroscope that is used to offset the platform aircraft movement. Unfortunately, the rig is prohibitively expensive. When they talked about rental costs of $500-1000, you know the actual unit is going to be a large outlay of cash. (Turns out, around $3500-6000!!). I have some DIY ideas I'd like to try. I'll keep you updated.