Tyson V. Rininger's Blog

TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!

How’d You Get That Shot? – Zeppelin Passenger

What ended up becoming an award winning image was the result of a series of events that just happened to come together. The image provided a unique panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay along with the ehtereal feel of lighter than air flight.

The challenge was to not only describe the sheer size of the only flying Zeppelin in the United States, but to also illustrate the serenity and awe one feels floating above the earth. When I think of an airship, I think back to the carefree days of the 1930’s when people adorned their best attire for air travel and took in the amazement of flight. The gondola of the airship resembled a floating restaurant, the gentlemen grasping a glass of Jack on the rocks, the women competitively showing off their uniquely designed dresses and over the top hats. While the austere of aviation has subdued slightly and the attire somewhat less formal, some facets of aviation will never change.

Oracle's enormous campus is one of many tech firms dotted across the Silicon Valley. The slow speed of the Zeppelin allows for plenty of time to compose images.

At Moffett Airfield in Palo Alto, California, a rare Zeppelin named “Eureka” and owned by Airship Ventures offers the unique experience of slow speed, low level flight over the San Francisco Bay area for a tidy sum of $400 and change. It truly is an incredible experience for those wishing to know what flight in a glass elevator is really like. With the exception of take off and landing, passengers are free to move about the gondola and even chat with the pilots as they’re doing their thing. The airship’s seating can accommodate 12 people including the pilot and copilot so intimacy and getting to know your fellow passenger is expected. But, unlike the Hollywood scenes of past, there is no bar or balcony, no waiter, no coat check and no need to load or unload that big bulky trunk. There is however still no smoking.

Katherine Board has the honor of being the world's only Zeppelin pilot. She and a select few pilots fly the airship not only around the Bay Area, but across the United States.

Our trip was to be the typical Bay cruise departing from Moffett Air Field, over-flying Google, Oracle and other iconic tech business dotted across Silicon Valley on our way to the San Francisco Airport. Continuing north to the Golden Gate followed by a brief turn to the East over Alcatraz, then to the south down the length of the Bay ending up back at Moffett Field. Before we departed, it was necessary to photograph Kate Board, the world’s only female Zeppelin pilot. After all, that’s who the story was about. While all the other publications did a great job covering the airship, PilotMag was looking for something a bit different.

En route to Ecuador, the 741-ft oil tanker, Overseas Cleliamar, lost power and nearly ran aground just outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Fortunately the tanker had offloaded its oil prior to leaving the Bay.

I concentrated on Kate knowing there were paying passengers on board deserving of a unique experience. At times, even though the light was perfect, a passenger would remain hovered over the cockpit area asking endless questions. No pressure, the time would come and eventually it did. Fortunately Kate is quite photogenic and capturing her at work was the easy part.

As we approached the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands, I continued to take advantage of the light and the scenic vistas adding to the backdrop. I briefly looked down to see where we were when I noticed a tanker had come dangerously close to the rocky coast just outside the Golden Gate. It was learned later the ship had lost power shortly after leaving the Bay and was victim to the tide bringing her back in. Fortunately the tanker was empty and with the help of a tug managed to get clear of the coastline. She was brought back to the shipyard and the problem eventually fixed.

Following those few minutes of excitement, my mind returned to creating that iconic image of the 1930’s and how it could possibly be done. The gondola’s interior consisted of leather FAA approved airline seats, grey carpet, state of the art instrument panel and lot’s of rounded, blended, modern surfaces. What I was looking for was clearly not inside the Zeppelin, so I had to look outside.

Airships and Blimps transport passengers via a gondola. Similar to an aircraft cabin, the gondola hangs beneath the larger structure of the airship.

The Zeppelin flies at a speed of about 30mph so it’s not too incredibly windy when you stick your head out of one of the many window openings. Sticking a camera out isn’t any more difficult. The challenge came from the diminishing light as it was already 30 minutes past sunset. The shimmer on the Bay was incredible and the reflection off the side of the gondola was simply breathtaking. Only problem was the empty seat that could be seen through the window from the outside. Coincidentally, right next to me was a gentleman dressed in casual suit, minus the jacket. I asked if he wouldn’t mind having a seat for a moment while I reached outside the gondola with my Canon 5D and a 15mm lens. Without being able to look through the viewfinder, I took three quick photos attempting to keep it as perceivable level as possible before bringing the camera back inside. What I hadn’t expected to capture was the outboard engine far above the gondola giving me that sense of size. Between it, the appropriately dressed passenger and his thought-provoking gaze, along with the vastness and color of the Bay, I think I got my shot.

A passenger aboard Airship Ventures "Eureka" Zeppelin gets a closer view of San Francisco with a pair of binoculars.

There is something magical about a balloon ride. Albeit the Zeppelin is far from a balloon, it’s the closest some will ever get, especially when it comes to hovering over Northern California’s busiest aerial real estate. Somehow the photo also managed to capture the eye of Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine judges during their 2009 photography contest garnering a first place win in its category. At the time of this writing, Airship Ventures is currently touring the Zeppelin across the United States. Its most recent stop was in Oshkosh, Wisconsin for EAA’s 2011 Airventure Fly-In. For more information on Airship Ventures, visit their website. For more images from this shoot, check out the Gallery.

Camera: Canon 5D
Lens: 15mm f/2.8 @ f/3.2
Exposure: 1/40 – Program
Aperture: f/13
ISO: 320
Image Created: 1/27/09 @ 5:55pm pst

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5 responses to “How’d You Get That Shot? – Zeppelin Passenger

  1. Matt M. August 11, 2011 at 7:42 PM

    Great write-up & fantastic shot, Tyson. love this series too.

  2. Bjorne Moerman August 12, 2011 at 12:11 PM

    A side of aviation photography not often documented… Great job!

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