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Category Archives: Photography Tips & Tricks

How’d You Get That Shot? Learning to Compromise

1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin C/N 237 and 1928 Curtiss-Wright Travel

It was our first shoot of the week for the Mid America Flight Museum. Departing Mt. Pleasant Airport almost one year to the day, the sun could not rise soon enough to cut through the chill of the Texas air.

1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin C/N 237

Scott Glover flies the 1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin C/N 237

Matt Bongers was at the control of the O-1 Bird Dog we were using as a photo ship when Scott Glover and Kelly Mahon joined up on our wing in the 1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin and a 1928 Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000 respectively. We did a few solo shoots first before having them join up together. The biggest challenge being the incredible amount of snot one can produce in the freezing air. Pretty sure no one will ever buy my camera now.

But I digress; Scott, Kelly and Matt quickly acclimated to the formation positioning, changes and lingo putting me at ease knowing the rest of the week will go smoothly. Once the sun began to peek over the light fog, steam also began to rise over Lake Bob Sandlin. Through the camera, it looked great, but my focus was on the two aircraft and how to get them to line up.

1928 Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000 C/N 416

Kelly Mahon flies the Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000 C/N 416 just after completing delivery of the aircraft from the state of Washington to Mt. Pleasant, TX.

You see, my Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) seems to be getting worse as I age. Two different aircraft types typically result in two different angles of attack (AOA). An angle of attack refers to the perceived pitch of the aircraft. Some aircraft types have a perceived higher or lower AOA due to the placement of the wing, fuselage design, center of balance, etc. When formating two completely different aircraft, it’s not uncommon for the AOA to be different between the two. And that’s where my OCD comes in.

When it came to editing the resulting images, the solo shots were great! Everyone did a spectacular job. But when it came to selecting two-ship images to edit, nothing was calling to me. My OCD was kicking in big time due to the difference in AOA and what appeared to be an awkward formation.

1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin C/N 237 and 1928 Curtiss-Wright Travel

Kelly Mahon in the Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000 and Scott Glover in the Curtiss-Wright Robin join Matt Bongers and me in the O-1 Bird Dog photo ship over Mt. Pleasant, TX.

Kelly Mahon wasn’t having any of that. He wanted to see formation shots so I compromised. I found an image that seemed surreal and majestic even though to me it was imperfect. The wings didn’t line up, it looks as though the aircraft are headed in slightly different directions, it just didn’t speak to me. Regardless, my issues shouldn’t get in the way of pilots and aircraft owners taking joy in their accomplishments. And let’s face it, flying these 80+ year-old aircraft in formation on a freezing morning is no easy task. They deserve every ounce of recognition for what they do!

So, I put my OCD aside and tried to approach it from another perspective. As someone who loves history and even going so far as to recreate historic moments, that was what I saw. The more I finessed the image, the more respect I had for our early aviators. This became a brief glimpse into the early days of aviation when pilots arose before dawn and began their cross-country journeys low over the countryside. They didn’t always fly in perfect formation, as a matter of fact, they hardly ever flew perfect formation. It was about getting from point A to point B and enjoying the smaller points in between.

To me, this image became more about drawing an end to the birth of aviation and ushering in the 1930’s with air racing, endurance and speed, improving commercial travel and making this world a little smaller. I didn’t feel it at first, but this has become my tribute to the pioneers of aviation; a good compromise!

Thank you to Scott Glover, Kelly Mahon and Matt Bongers from the Mid America Flight Museum for allowing me to document their collection. And thank you to Aviation Week Space Technology for awarding me 2016 Best of Show for this image.


No, you may not have my RAW files, and here’s why…


It doesn’t happen too often, but every now and then I’ll get a request for my RAW files. Usually it goes something like this:
I understand these 20 are your best shots, but I want to see everything!
How about I edit them and save you the time?
I don’t understand this editing fee. Aren’t you going to send me all the files anyway?

The RAW portion of the file on the left looks muddy and flat compared to the edited and more accurate version to the right.

The RAW portion of the file on the left looks muddy and flat compared to the edited and more accurate version to the right.

All perfectly reasonable requests for those who are unfamiliar with the editing process. But once the process is explained, it tends to make a little more sense why giving clients RAW files is a bad idea.

My simple explanation is that the client hired me for a reason; to supply them with the best images possible. A RAW file is not a finished product, not even close!

The most successful analogy I have been able to come up with is to that of a master painter. One wouldn’t expect Michelangelo or Leonardo daVinci to hand over an outline of a painting thinking the recipient is going to finish it. (Not that I am in any way comparing myself to these amazing artists and thinkers!) But could you imagine an unfinished Mona Lisa? A half-carved statue of David? Inaccurate coloring of The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel?

A photographer’s imagery and vision shouldn’t be treated any differently. Often times I will sit down with a client and share all of my files with the warning that these are incomplete and not representative of the finished product. They’ll pick out a few and I’ll begin the editing process, but I never turn over the RAW files.

Remember, your portfolio is only as good as your worst image. The same goes for your reputation. Should you cave in and hand over RAW files thinking they will never be seen by anyone else, those files may very well end up in the public eye without your finessing. And of course the one time you get proper credit for the image, it will be this image you get credit for.

To Enter, or Not to Enter Social Networking Photography Competitions

Social NetworkingIn an attempt to gain readership, or as one of the more popular social networking sites call it, Followers, many organizations are creating photography contests whereby the winners are those with the most votes. Viewer’s Choice, Popular Choice, Public Choice, all names given to the top photo awarded by these organizations.

Unfortunately there are more reasons not to avoid in these contests than there are to partake and hope for the best. Assuming the rules of the competition are agreeable to both parties and the organization isn’t planning on a rights grab from all entrants, most participants will have an uphill battle in securing the top spot regardless of how amazing their image may be.

The most common social networking site to conduct these popular vote contests is Facebook and the image with the most ‘Likes’ wins. But getting those ‘Likes’ is more about how many people you know and how much you can share your own image against others doing the same.

There are plenty of resources that describe Facebook’s algorithms and how they share posts with friends, fans and followers. Posts that include links are viewed far less frequently than posts with only an attached image. So, sharing a link to your image will garner fewer views than posting the image alone. Additionally, posts are distributed to viewers based on their most recent and relevant interests, which may not include your posts.

Along with finding ways to cheat Facebook’s algorithm, contestants will also have to compete against others who may have a larger following or be more adept to other social networking sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Google+ and more.

What it all comes down to is that Popular Choice contests really don’t focus on the ‘best’ image, but rather the most savvy social networker. Besides the individual who eventually gets the most ‘Likes’, the only real winner is the agency hosting the competition. After all, you worked very hard to send everyone to their page.

Taming a GoPro


Pictured above are two complete GoPro Hero 3+ Black systems and a range of accessories organized using three Cocoon Grid-it boards.

Pictured above are two complete GoPro Hero 3+ Black systems and a range of accessories organized using three Cocoon Grid-it boards.

Recently I ordered a bunch of GoPro stuff hoping to dive into video. Instead I ended up diving into a heap of random parts. As someone with a mild case of OCD, I needed to find a practical solution to not only organizing everything, but finding a system where I could account for each and every piece out in the field. I thought of old camera bags, Pelican cases, tool boxes, whatever, but none of those choices seemed like a solution to me.

Both GoPro kits are set up in an identical fashion so if only one set up is used, the other can provide reference insuring every piece is accounted for. Additionally, the pocket on the opposite side of the Grid-it board can hold a photo of the items and their placement for reference should both kits be needed.

Both GoPro kits are set up in an identical fashion so if only one set up is used, the other can provide reference insuring every piece is accounted for. Additionally, the pocket on the opposite side of the Grid-it board can hold a photo of the items and their placement for reference should both kits be needed.

Since I began photography back in the ’80’s, I’ve always had some sort of system. Making sure everything had a place and those places were occupied by everything meant that I should leave an event with the same number of items I arrived with. As aviation photography became more my forte, it became even more crucial that nothing gets left behind. If a random part were left on a tarmac or taxiway after a nighttime shoot, that part could easily get swallowed by the intake of an aircraft resulting in a very expensive mistake.

The third Grid-it board is used for random or one-off accessories such as spare backs, miscellaneous clamps and extensions as well as the touch display and charger.

The third Grid-it board is used for random or one-off accessories such as spare backs, miscellaneous clamps and extensions as well as the touch display and charger.

I had heard of a company called Cocoon and these boards with webbing aptly named ‘Grid-it’. On one side was a random series of straps used to secure small items and on the other side was a pocket perfectly sized for an iPad…or perhaps, instruction manuals, pens, lens cleaning tissues or whatever else you could fit. I ended up purchasing three of these for $25 each; one for each GoPro set up and one for the remaining oddball clamps, housings and other components.

An unexpected benefit to the system is the ability to cover the lens of each GoPro with the webbing meaning no scratches. Once all three boards are set, they can be stacked and placed in any bag safely. Removing a single board enables a complete set up to be used without messing up everything else.

Once everything is organized on each board, they can be stacked and placed in just about any bag.

Once everything is organized on each board, they can be stacked and placed in just about any bag.

There are no doubt other ways of organizing your system, hopefully this will just be another tool in your belt. And if this system ends up not being the best solution, the Grid-it boards can be used for just about anything.

As for a useful bag or carrying case, check out Sporty’s or PilotMall’s collection of flight bags. These bags are specifically designed to carry books, charts and other paperwork where the Grid-it boards will fit perfectly. Additionally, the exterior pockets will provide plenty of additional room for larger accessories and components that wouldn’t otherwise fit on the Grid-it boards.

Sporty’s Flight Bags

Cocoon Grid-it

Archiving Can Be Fun! Ok, not really….

Untitled-1It’s that thing we do when we’d rather be out shooting. First you dive into the really cool shots you created editing the best of the best to share with the world. Then you take a wee bit more time to scour through the thousands of rejects to find the obvious winners only to go through them all one more time to single out those with potential. Once everything has been separated, the editing and archiving process begins. But it shouldn’t end there.

All those supposed rejects that we hold onto for that ‘just in case’ scenario still need a little love. This is where I hope I can help.

Everyone’s archiving techniques are different and none of them are wrong so long as you are able to find what you’re looking for quickly and efficiently. If that’s not the case, maybe my system can offer a few ideas.

My system is very simple. I archive my digital images the same way I archive my slides and negatives. I never lose touch of the original file or frame number. A photo of an A380 taken at Airventure in 2011 will look just like this:


It denotes the location; Oshkosh, the year; 2011, the subject; A380, and the original file name assigned to it by the camera; 1234. I can even add a few more descriptive notes to the file name such as manufacturer or another aircraft that may also be in the image, such as an Airbus A330. It would look something like this:


Why might I choose to be more descriptive with a file name? A little thing called SEO is reason enough for me. Search Engine Optimization is the core tool used by Google, Yahoo, Bing and other companies to find appropriate images, links, websites and more. The more descriptive I can be in the file name, the better chance I have of my images showing up in a consumer search. It goes without saying Metadata and Keywording is also extremely important, but I’ll save that for later.

Now that you have a library of edited images with keywords built right into the file name, searching for the appropriate shot should go a lot quicker.

But what about all those rejects? Same thing. Before I even begin editing photos, I batch rename everything! I personally use Adobe Bridge, but this can be done in Lightroom as well as Aperture. Batch renaming will allow you to search your entire hard drive, whether the images have been edited or not, for that perfect image for which the client is seeking but may have not seemed relevant at the time.

Think Different

I don’t often share my Apple Store experiences with anyone outside Apple even though I regularly have some pretty amazing interactions with customers. Quite frankly, with Apple’s intense secrecy I’m not sure I’m allowed to, but it would be a shame not tell this story.

Although this may seem like another Apple Feel-good saga, and in a way it is, if you’re reading this blog for photography related material, you’re still in the right place. Hang in there, it will all come together.

Wandering through a sea of aluminum computers and solid wood tables, an elderly couple attempted to interact with these relatively alien devices. The husband appeared a little more lost than his wife, but that was only because she was the one who had an interest in a new computer. He couldn’t care less.

She and I talked for a bit while her frail husband continued to meander around the store. Another staff member brought out the desktop computer she wanted along with all of her fun accessories. We unpacked the computer together and with the help of another Apple associate, began the process of setting up the basics and making the computer her own.

Her husband sat down at the same table but at a distance and alone, still appearing lost as he curiously watched other people in the store. I moved a bit closer to him and began a completely unrelated conversation so as to occupy a bit of his time and not make him feel ignored. We got onto the topic of how computer savvy younger kids are today and how quickly they pick up on technology. He asked if working at Apple was all I did. I told him my primary job was that of a photographer and I mainly photograph airplanes. He laughed a little.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “A plane is a plane, a car is a car and a cow is a cow. How can you make a living taking photos of these ordinary things?” To relay my best customer service, I agreed and told him that’s a very good question. “If the photos I create look just like the objects I photograph, I would no doubt have a very difficult time making a living,” I told him. “The challenge is to make every aircraft look unique but familiar and bring out the strongest feature of that plane.”

I could tell he was a very objective man and doubtful that a simple photograph could make an ordinary object look extraordinary.

On the table was a 15” MacBook Pro laptop. I navigated the web browser to my gallery of Reminisce black and white photographs and proceeded to show him some of my photography. What happened next was nothing short heartwarming.

The fragile older gentleman’s eyes began to water as he watched image after image flash before him. I asked if he was ok. He glanced over at his wife, then back to the screen followed by a simple nod. After a few more seconds and without provocation, he started to tell me a very powerful story. “I was at Normandy and remember seeing these planes. They didn’t look like this,” he said. “I have few words to describe what I saw and what I experienced. Come to think of it, it’s been nearly 30 years since I’ve even talked about Normandy.” Another lengthy pause followed as he watched the slideshow intently. “These are beautiful,” he said. “You’re right, a photograph of an airplane can look a lot different than just an airplane.”

I was speechless. Not only did I suddenly have a better understanding of his objectivity, to him at the time these aircraft were simply tools of war, but I had so many questions and was poised to listen intently to his stories if only he were willing to share them. At that moment however, I could sense the sight of these aircraft seemed a bit overwhelming. The fact that he was willing to open up to me and share a piece of his past that he hadn’t shared with anyone in three decades almost brought a tear to my eye.

He continued to surprise me as he named off the individual aircraft. “I jumped from quite a few of those C-47’s,” he recalled. “I also remember seeing those white stripes on the wings for the first time [referring to the D-Day invasion stripes applied to all allied aircraft]. They painted hundreds of them that way.” He went on to describe the actions of P-38’s and P-51’s in the European Theater. For someone who managed to distance himself for so long from such intense experiences, his memory was flawless.

Soon his wife was all set and her computer was back in the box. He and I both thanked each other for the shared stories and shook hands. I watched as they walked hand in hand toward of the front of the store and then out of sight. What really caught my attention was how his once frail shuffling steps turned into a more confident stride. Moments like these remind me of why I do what I do, both at Apple and as a photographer.

As an artist, it is my job to show an ordinary object in a way it has never been seen before. What I don’t expect are for the resulting photographs to convey an emotion, especially one that effects me just as much as the viewer. While Apple’s privacy policy prevents me from mentioning the gentleman’s name, it is one I’ll never forget. It is an experience I’ll never forget.

To some, winning a contest defines a good photo. To others, selling a print defines a good photo. To me, nothing could define a good photograph more than a single tear.

Be different, think different, make your mark.

Gyroscopically Speaking

An example of a Kenyon-Labs KS-6 gyroscope kit, sans Pelican carry case.

When most of us make large purchases aimed toward our craft, it’s difficult to justify the uncool things like tripods, batteries, strobes, filters and the like. So imagine how difficult it was when I plopped down $2800 for a gyroscopic egg thingy that will only make my camera heavier.

Kenyon-Labs, the most well known, and probably only manufacturer of portable cinema gyros, offers six different mainstream models; the KS-2, KS-4, KS-6, KS-8, KS-10 and KS-12. Photographers and DSLR videographers will most likely narrow this selection down to three, the KS-4, KS-6 or KS-8.

The KS-4 unit falls on the smaller end of the gyro scale and is designed to support a camera and lens combo weighing up to 4lbs. This may prove to be quite limiting and not allow for your gear to grow if not already using slightly heavier pro-level equipment. The KS-6 will support up to 6lbs which should fill the need of the average user. Even bigger is the KS-8 which can support a fairly heavy mass of 8-12lbs, but weighs over 5lbs by itself. With all that in mind, I chose the KS-6.

The Kenyon KS-6 gyro comes complete with a massive battery, AC and DC adapters and of course the gyro, all contained within a hard Pelican travel case. Lightweight, it’s not. At almost 3.5lbs for the gyro itself, it weighs more than most cameras like the Nikon D4 at 2.6lbs and the Canon EOS-1D MkIV weighing 2.7lbs. The battery is just slightly smaller than the one you’d find powering your car and comes with Scoliosis-inducing shoulder strap. Holding the entire unit can be a bit unwieldy with it’s combined weight, including a lens, reaching 8lbs or more.

Despite these rather small drawbacks, a gyro is an amazing tool and contrary to physics, it enables a camera to float in your hands.

Although you can certainly use your camera vertically with a gyro attached, a much better solution would be to take advantage of a camera-rotating flash bracket such as this and then cut off the grip, which will end up only getting in the way.

When you first attach the gyro to your camera you’ll find it a bit difficult due to the lever-type rod and its inability to rotate a full 360 degrees continuously. Add to it the slight fumbling of joining two bulky objects. A good solution is to add a quick release plate right off the bat so the gyro will simply snap on and off the camera.

Another limitation you’ll notice is that the gyro is intended to remain beneath the camera  aligned perpendicular with the lens. If you plan on shooting verticals, this could prove to be a little awkward. A simple solution is to add a rotating flash bracket and cut off the flash bracket part. A basic bracket that won’t set you back too much can be found here. A slightly more advanced bracket can be found here, but you may want to think twice before breaking out the hacksaw.

Now that everything is assembled and the gyro has been turned on, it will take about 20 minutes for the unit to spool up to its working speed of approximately 20,000 RPM. The first thing you’ll notice is the gyro wanting to fight you with every sharp movement you make. One of the most important little tidbits about using a gyro is its rate of turn limitation, in this case about 20 degrees per second. If you swing the camera with a gyro attached any faster than that, the spinning motion of the gyro will try to stop you. There will be a slight learning curve toward avoiding this effect.

An example of a Nikon D7000 video rig utilizing a stability grip with over sized focus ring, 7″ HD monitor, shoulder support and KS-6 gyro. The gyro alone doubles the overall weight of the set up, not including the external battery pack not seen in the image.

Another issue to be aware of is fatigue. As you’ve probably noticed, I repeatedly mention the combined weight of things. Holding a camera/lens/gyro combination may not be a big issue for the first 5 or 10 minutes, but eventually it will begin to weigh heavy on your mind, pun intended. If there is a means of supporting your rig through a series of bungee cables or other creative method, it may be worth giving a try.

And finally, bulk. While it’s an incredible tool and definitely makes a difference in the final product, it can be rather large and at times, impractical. Photographing from a tight cockpit or at an unusual angle, like in a contorted position, may illustrate its limitations. Photographing from a designated camera ship with a large door and a comfy seat, would be ideal.

Despite the limitations; price, bulk and weight, once you’ve used a gyro it’s difficult to imagine not using one. It’s a necessity for video work and can save the day during those turbulent evening aerial shoots. Undoubtedly one of the best investments in uncool things I have ever made.

When NOT to use HDR

There’s no doubt I’m not a huge fan of HDR, or High Dynamic Range, photography. While I think it’s a neat effect and a fun thing to do with photos that didn’t turn out quite right, I’m seeing this overused effect pop in places it never should have even been considered.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) typically involves the blending of multiple images taken at different exposures to create a single image with a broad exposure range. In this image, three exposures were made from a single image and then blended together to create an HDR image. The HDR edit can be seen on the left with the original image on the right.

Now before I begin my little diatribe, I have given HDR a try and I even own RC Concepcion’s book, “The HDR Book: Unlocking the Pros’ Hottest Post-Processing Techniques”. It’s a fantastic and thorough book detailing the process. However, this overly used effect is becoming common place in places where it shouldn’t be common.

So what exactly is HDR? The proper way of creating an HDR image requires the blending of multiple images, usually three to five photographs, shot at different exposures. Think of it as a bracketing burst all in one exposure. The results enable a wider range of exposure similar to what our natural vision can capture. Unfortunately, this effect also pulls out details that are unrealistic and over saturated. Essentially, HDR images take on a more painterly or illustrated look rather than appearing like a traditional photograph.

Now I’d like to think I’m relatively accepting of new technology and techniques. My workflow incorporates the latest in software and computer technology, my equipment is constantly being updated to keep up with the Jones’, I’ve even embraced the world of DSLR video and motion picture editing. But, when it comes to tweaking photos to the point of creating an unrealistic world and still calling it photography, I personally have to draw the line.

An example of before and after HDR image manipulation. The HDR edit can be seen on the upper left with the original image on the lower right.

Case in point, my wife and I have recently begun our search for a new home. Browsing the thousands of listings, I occasionally come across homes where the real estate agent has accepted images from a photographer employing HDR or the agent has tried HDR first hand themselves. As I mentioned earlier, HDR brings out details not visible to the human eye in a very unrealistic nature. This is an instant turn off for me. Any time the photographer or agent feels the need to manipulate photography of an item for sale, my trust for that agency disappears.

High Dynamic Range was used in this image to bring down the intensity of the lamp and light seeping in from the window. Moderate use of HDR also helps brighten up shadows without turning the image into an illustration.

Another example I recently came across was an aircraft for sale. This particular broker showcased numerous aircraft all featuring HDR as the photo technique of choice. The effect was so prominent I had difficulty telling what kind of plane it was. The sky ended up becoming more defined than the aircraft and the leather seats looked like a newly discovered material never seen before.

But is HDR completely out of the question? Absolutely not.  I offer my clients the option of using studio lighting to properly light a home for brokerage or architectural photography or, if they choose, I can apply a subtle use of HDR to brighten up shadows and dim down hot spots. To reduce the cost of the shoot, most clients prefer the latter. There is however a bit of an educational process when comforting photography-savvy clients about the subtle use of HDR. When used in moderation, HDR can provide a realistic and pleasing image that will not change the overall appeal and still provide a factual representation of the subject matter.

Very subtle use of HDR can assist to fill in shadows and balance highlights without harming the overall subject of the image.

The point is, be very careful when using HDR. If you enjoy the effects of HDR photography, great, but the resulting illustrations should remain outside the considerations of showcasing products for sale if the effect is not used in moderation. If you’re a photographer, do your clients a service and utilize your knowledge of photography and post processing techniques that provide a realistic perspective of the product you are photographing. While HDR may be fun, it’s not a solution for everyone and can end up being detrimental to your client.

How’d you get that shot – Rare Bear

An underside plan form layout of Rare Bear's new paint scheme lies on the work table along with dozens of engine parts soon to be added to the aircraft.

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.

Rare Bear Preparation 2009. (L-R) Mechanics Keith Geary and Rob Grosvenor discuss aircraft modifications with Team Lead Alby Redick and Crew Chief Dave Cornell.

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.

Crew Chief for the 2009 Rare Bear team, Dave Cornell, discusses improvements made to the highly modified F8f Bearcat prior to the Reno Air Racing Championship held at Stead Field near Reno, NV. Here he inspects the firewall just aft the engine.

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.

Rare Bear Team Manager, Alby Redick, listens to his teammates as they run through a maintenance checklist and appropriate solutions.

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.

The tail fairing from a 2007 Rare Bear paint scheme lies discarded amongst other pieces of scrap metal in the fabrication shop. History lies everywhere in the 'Bear Cave'.

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.

Mechanic Keith Geary peers into an access port while assisting with the installation of Rare Bear's canopy.

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.

Although the original image was technically perfect, it lacked the human touch and the real essence of the Reno Air Races. It was a photo of a static aircraft, nothing more.

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.

The final published image shows Reno Air Racing champion Rare Bear, a highly modified F8f Bearcat resting on the tarmac at Stead Field while (clockwise from top) Keith Geary, Rob Grosvenor and Alby Redick work on preparing the aircraft.

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.

Using the moon, a flashlight and my camera bag as a tripod, this would be my closing shot following three days of documenting the hard working Rare Bear team at Stead Field.

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
Aperture: f/8
ISO: 100
Image Created: 7/8/09 @ 11:08pm pst

How’d you get that shot – Blue Angels over Big Sur

Michael Goulian with passenger Bill Whitaker from CBS News flies in formation with Ed Hamill behind a C-130J belonging to the 146th Airlift Wing of the Rhode Island Air National Guard.

At the risk of sounding cliche, it all started with a phone call. Make that two cliches. John Cudahy, President of the International Council of Airshows (ICAS), asked if I would have any interest in joining and assisting a news crew on various photoshoots during the weekend of the California International Airshow in Salinas. It didn’t take long to provide an answer.

It was Fall of 2009 and home foreclosures were at an all time high. The market had already crashed and the unemployment rate was not about to decline anytime soon. Due to the popularity of airshows during an otherwise miserable economic downturn, CBS contacted ICAS to find out the secret behind these entertaining venues. Because of time constraints and accessibility, Salinas would be chosen to host the news crew for their national story.

For 2009, Salinas had a stellar line up. Military demonstration teams included the A-10 Thunderbolt, USAF Heritage Flight, US Army Golden Knights and the USN Blue Angels. On the civilian roster was Michael Goulian, Ed Hamill, Bob Carlton, Gene Soucey and Teresa Stokes, John Collver and the ever popular Robosaurus and the Wall of Fire.

Major Paul "Harb" Brown of the West Coast A-10 Demo Team points the business end of his Thunderbolt II toward the open ramp of the C-130J.

The first photoshoot involved Michael Goulian with CBS news correspondent Bill Whitaker as his passenger. Flying Wayne Handley’s yellow and blue Extra, Goulian teamed up with Ed Hamill in his patriotic Pitts biplane. Assisting the news crew and the airshow throughout the weekend was the 143rd Airlift Wing of the Rhode Island Air National Guard (RIANG) with their extended body C-130J Hercules.

Once Goulian and Hamill completed their formation fun behind the C-130, it was time for Major Paul “Harb” Brown in the A-10 and Steve Hinton in his P-51D “Wee Willy II” to join the fun. Harb expertly approached the six o’clock position of the C-130 swaying from side to side providing the news crew with various bank angles followed by cautiously placing the business end of the A-10 within mere feet of the extended ramp. After a few brief minutes, Hinton joined Harb demonstrating the dissimilar formation of the USAF Heritage Flight. A quick glance at the CBS videographer revealed a grin from ear to ear. The news crew was no doubt getting what they wanted.

From the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California, Steve Hinton flies P-51D 'Wee Willy II' during a media flight at the 29th annual California International Airshow in Salinas.

As with just about every exhilarating air to air shoot, it was all over too soon. The ramp of the C-130 slowly closed until the last sliver of light glistening off the maze of pipes along the internal fuselage walls disappeared. A small bump a few minutes later indicated we were back on the ground.

Throughout the weekend the excitement of one of the country’s most successful civilian airshows drew oohs and ahhs from the crowd. The news crew could be found hard at work at every corner of the airfield capturing these magical moments. All the while, Commander Greg McWhirter lead the precision Blue Angles demonstration team through three flawless performances giving us a hint of what was to come at the conclusion of the show.

High over the cloudy California coastline, the 2009 Blue Angels Demonstration Team flies their famous six-ship formation behind a RIANG C-130J at the conclusion of the California International Airshow in Salinas.

Early Monday morning, absent of crowds, aircraft were being closely inspected by their aircrews in preparation of heading home. Vendors were disassembling booths and temporary stanchions were being collected. The airport was still however, far from looking like an airport.

Proudly sitting on the flightline were the six primary Blue Angel aircraft, their canopies freshly cleared of morning dew. Looking on was the RIANG C-130J complete with aircrew and passengers, but without one major entity…CBS. Unfortunately the news crew was on deadline and was forced to head back to New York in order to prepare the piece.

Just as we had done before the airshow started, we received our brief, buckled in and watched from the rear of the aircraft as we taxied toward the runway. Slowly the ramp began to close and we were airborne.

Tilting and tightening in on a singular subject adds to the variety of a shoot.

As soon as we were ‘feet wet’ over the Monterey Bay, the cargo door came down revealing the thick marine layer covering the Central Coast. In the distance a dot could be seen, followed by another dot, and yet another two dots…pretty soon seven random dots could be seen closing in on our aircraft. In no time at all those seven dots became a tightly knit formation of gold and blue F-18’s with the seventh aircraft, F-18B #7 hanging just outside the formation.

By this time we were about five miles off the coast of Pebble Beach, California rounding to the south to follow the Big Sur coastline. The surrealistic view of six F/A-18A Hornets being flown by perhaps the best pilots in the world warranted a few moments of contemplation without a camera in front of my face. Fortunately that didn’t last long and I got back to shooting.

Clearly this wasn’t the first time the Blue Angels had pulled up behind a C-130 full of camera-wielding photographers. The six pilots were as one as they swayed from side to side, smoke on then smoke off.

Just seconds before the six-ship formation broke away from the C-130, the skies opened up over the Point Sur Lighthouse. This was literally the last image shot before the shoot came to an end.

Not that any ‘impact’ needed to be added to illustrate the sheer power and agility of of today’s front line fighter, let alone six, but I did attempt various angles and isolating individual aircraft. A tilt to the left or a tilt to the right managed to fill the frame and add a sense of dynamics. Zooming in on individual aircraft revealed unique views and perspectives, especially with multiple aircraft and multiple angles from which to choose.

During the entire eighty-mile flight down the Big Sur coastline, the marine layer was ever prevalent with no sign of revealing the breathtaking cliffs. But as all hope seemed lost, a break in the clouds appeared just as we approached the Point Sur Lighthouse, made famous by the USS Macon (ZRS-5) which crashed just off shore. A small trough of warm air carved an angular wedge out of the persistent coastal gloom revealing a beachhead and a hint of the lighthouse. Seconds later the six-ship plus one departed in search of an awaiting KC-135. Once topped off, they would be on their way home to Pensacola, Florida.

It was an incredible honor to have been the first civilian photographer to have an image featured as the official team litho for 2010. Thank you to everyone on the team who made it happen!

Special thanks to John Cudahy of ICAS for the special invite along with the entire Board of the California International Airshow for creating the logistics to make this reality. An enormous debt of gratitude is owed to the USN Blue Angels Demonstration Squadron as well as Col. Larry Gallogly and his crew of the 143rd Airlift Wing Air National Guard. Additional thanks to Blue Angels CDR Greg McWherter and Public Affairs Officer, CAPT Tyson Dunkelberger for selecting the resulting image as the official 2010 Blue Angels Lithograph.

For more images from this shoot and the 2009 California International Airshow, Salinas, click here or pick up a copy of the 2009 California International Airshow – Salinas Pictorial.

Camera: Canon 5D
Lens: 28-135mm f/3.5 @ f/5.6
Exposure: 1/500 – Aperture Priority
Aperture: f/5.6
ISO: 100
Image Created: 8/10/09 @ 9:10am pst

For more images from the Blue Angels photoshoot, including additional photography and details of each performer, check out the "California International Airshow" book by clicking on the above image.