TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!
How’d you get that shot – Rare Bear
Let me first start by saying, I have never witnessed harder working aircrews than those who toil over air racers. Months before the Reno Air Races, air racing crews are diligently working on their aircraft tweaking and modifying every square inch for that one extra mile per hour. And as race day nears, they become sleepless masters of aeronautics and duct tape. It was this very essence of commitment I was tasked with capturing for Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine.
Arriving at Stead Field in mid-July is fairly anticlimactic if you’ve ever been to Reno during the height of the air races. The hot ramp is void of horsepower, the spectators are nowhere to be found and the track is deafeningly silent. However, hidden in a nearby hangar a ferocious racer is being prepped for race day only three short months away.
It had been twenty years since I first saw this aircraft rounding the pylons at Stead Field. My first time attending the races in 1991, Lyle Shelton pushed the radial engine hard beating out the inlines, Skip Holm in Tsunami and Bill DeStefani in Strega, for the win. I was in love. Forever more this would be the aircraft for which I would push to win.
When I came upon the ‘Bear Cave’, chief mechanics, Keith Gary and Rob Grovesnor were deep in concentration running through a rather long checklist. Team Lead, Alby Redick, was tending to other tasks in preparation for Crew Chief, Dave Cornell’s short visit. For a brief moment, they all stopped for a quick greeting and introduction, then it was right back to work.
I was grateful for the brief moment of attention, but even more grateful for their ability to focus on their duties despite my presence. There is nothing more annoying than posed photos. These guys had no doubt been in this situation before; a photographer sticking a camera in their face while they do their best to troubleshoot a problem that if not addressed, could jeopardize the life of a pilot, at the very least. However, as a photographer, knowing the circumstances and the main purpose of why they are doing what they are doing, remains a fundamental responsibility that every photographer must embrace.
With that mutual understanding, the team quickly came to trust me…at least I think they did.
When Cornell arrived, the tools were put down and the list came out. I have no experience as an aerodynamicist, none whatsoever in aviation circuitry, nada when it comes to high-pressure and low-pressure airflow, zip with composites, fuel flow, ventilation, compression, not even paint. Everything these guys talked about was complete Greek to me, with the exception of the word airframe. I know what an airframe is and I know I heard that word a couple times, so I must still be in the right place.
I followed the guys around during their checklist tour and relevant minor tweaks. I never butted in, only captured what light was available to me as they made their rounds and did my best to capture expressions and juxtapositions as they occurred. As quickly as Cornell arrived, he was gone. And back to work went the team.
It was already known this was to be a cover story and we needed to get a cover shot. A short time earlier I had completed a shoot with the General Atomics Predator C ‘Avenger’ in Southern California. I figured I’d apply what I learned from the late night photoshoot to capture the vibrancy of Rare Bear under controlled lighting conditions.
When nightfall came, the crew pulled Rare Bear out of the hangar and headed toward the run-up area at the end of RWY26. Although it took about an hour, we managed to get the old scissor lift next to the hangar out to the run-up area as well. This enabled me to get the camera onto a raised platform for a much better overview of the historic racer.
One of the initial factors on this night was that there was a near full moon. At any other time, this would have been great. A timed exposure with a full moon present will bathe the subject in ambient light at a fairly controllable rate. Unfortunately, due to the direction we needed to shoot, the moon threatened to cast a huge complex shadow of the scissor lift over the tarmac and eventually the aircraft. When we initially set up the shot, this wasn’t going to be an issue, but as the moon moved across the sky, we came to the realization there was a time frame we needed to work within. If we took too long, the scissor lift’s shadow would ruin the image.
The image had already been preconceived on a pad of paper. Space needed to be provided for the magazine cover’s masthead, contents and bar code. Angling the aircraft in such a way, and providing plenty of background would do the trick. Once the Bear was positioned, I went up in the lift to compose the shot, mount the camera to the scissor lift’s railing and attach all the necessary cables in order to remotely operate the camera from the ground. The lift was lowered, I exited and sent the lift back up with just the camera. Connected to my laptop, I could now see what the camera was seeing and began working on lighting the aircraft.
Once the images had been captured, I made some minor tweaks and sent it off to the magazine. The next morning I got a call from Caroline Sheen critiquing the image. Although we were on the right track, it just wasn’t cover-worthy material, and I agreed. The image itself was strong and technically perfect, but it lacked the human element. It was just a plane.
Caroline asked for what I thought was the impossible however, I didn’t realize the level of efficiency and dedication air racing teams posses. She asked, “How difficult would it be to make the aircraft appear as it should on race day?” There were no control surfaces, no canopy, no prop, missing panels, missing fairings, no spinner and a host of other things an aircraft must have in order to fly. I laughed a little, the team did not. They simply responded, “No problem, we’ll get right on that!”
They spent the day putting the aircraft back together. This would be the most complete Rare Bear had been since concluding last year’s races. While I did my best to stay out of the way and document their progress, I continuously racked my brain on how we were going to utilize the same lighting method, but with people. I hadn’t done that before with a long exposure lighting technique.
Once nightfall came, everyone jumped into action repeating exactly as we had done the night before. Since we hadn’t planned on a remake, there were no markers or place cards denoting where everything should go. We had to do our best to compare the existing photo with where everything had to be. And of course there was the moon. That constant nagging reminder that we had to remain on our toes and not waste any time.
With everything in place, we briefed the shot once more. Since the guys had all been there the night prior, they were all familiar with the lighting technique and understood the fundamentals of what needed to be accomplished. Essentially, they needed to assume a comfortable pose and maintain that exact position for two to three minutes. If you’re wondering why the long exposure instead of a quick pop of portable strobes, certain elements such as the dimly lit taxi lights, distant mountain range and its separation from the sky, could only be accomplished with a long exposure using the moon’s ambient light.
With the conclusion of each exposure, a giddiness looms over as the guys leave their respective positions and head for the computer to see what progress has been made. It reminds me of why I do what I do. Here are a group of guys I would trade anything for to experience a mere fraction of what they have, and yet a simple picture is enough to ignite a sense of genuine excitement.
Just before 1am on July 9th, it was a wrap! The moon had moved westward making the scissor lift’s shadow too dominant to continue. Not to mention we were all working to the point of exhaustion and still had to move everything back to the hangar.
Each member of the crew took responsibility for hauling a vehicle back to the hangar leaving me all alone on the ramp with one last machine, Rare Bear. With only the moonlight and a flashlight, I set out for one last shot. Knowing the guys would be back in a few minutes, I rested the camera on my camera bag angling it upward at the sleeping beast.
Back lit by the moon, I lit the aircraft with the flashlight for a near 3-minute exposure. The lights in the immediate background are those of the Lemmon Valley residents with the horizon being lit by the nearby Reno cityscape.
After nearly 20 years of watching and cheering on the Bear, I’ll never forget the surreal feeling of being on the ramp at Stead all alone with this magnificent aircraft.
Special thanks to the Rare Bear team for their passion and dedication not only for their assistance with this shoot, but for all the years of work they’ve poured into the Bear to keep her in the skies. Rare Bear Team Lead, Alby Redick; Crew Chief, Dave Cornell; Lead Mechanics, Keith Geary and Rob Grosvenor; Public Relations, Lisa Snow and aircraft owner, Rod Lewis. Of course the shoot would not have been possible without those at Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine, Linda Shiner and Caroline Sheen.
For more images from this shoot, follow the link here.
Camera: Canon 5D
Lens: 17-35mm f/2.8 @ 17mm
Exposure: 228 seconds – Manual
Image Created: 7/8/09 @ 11:08pm pst