TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
About thirty feet away, a freshly restored P-51 Mustang was coming to life after a four-year restoration by Airmotive Specialties in Salinas, CA. The Mustang, a former air racer once owned by Lefty Gardner, was having her legs stretched by Eliot Cross as an historic resemblance to WWII Ace, Charles E. ‘Chuck’ Weaver’s aircraft. Knowing both Lefty’s and Weaver’s history, standing alongside this aircraft was simply magical.
It was about that time my phone rang; how I heard it over the roar of the Mustang’s Rolls Royce engine, I’ll never know. On the other end was good friend, Scott Glover of the Mid America Flight Museum in Mt. Pleasant, TX.
“Wanna Photograph Air Force One?” He asked.
Only a few weeks earlier I had heard about the purchase and intent to restore the first Air Force One, a Lockheed Constellation named Columbine II that had become President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal transport. Needless to say, I was beyond excited to have been asked to document such an historic moment.
The aircraft was purchased as part of a lot of five Lockheed Constellations which were to eventually be heavily modified for low-level, high-acrage crop spraying. Three of the acquired Constellations were converted, one was used for parts and the fifth aircraft was denied certification by the FAA due to incorrect landing gear. Apparently the military chose to replace Columbine II’s stock landing gear with that of the more robust L-1049 variant and the FAA didn’t like that. Due to the cost of replacing the landing gear, the aircraft sat in the Arizona desert.
Fast-forward to March 18, 2016, nearly a year after that initial phone call, when the diligent work of Dynamic Aviation, with the assistance of the Mid America Flight Museum, came to fruition and Columbine II took to the skies once more.
For the rest of us, that was our cue to head to Marana, AZ, and begin the next phase. She was to embark on a cross-country trip to Bridgewater, VA, where she would undergo a thorough restoration and become a flying museum piece.
When I arrived in Marana, I was able to see first-hand the amount of work the two teams had put into getting the nearly 70-year old aircraft flying. Structurally, the aircraft is like new, but the years still took its toll on the aging aircraft and like most things her age, everything needed to proceed slowly and with extra caution.
The crew moved all of the aircraft closer to the runway the night before departure. On the apron sat Karl Stoltzfus’ King Air chase aircraft as well as his new pride and joy, Columbine II, in addition to Mid America Flight Museum’s immaculate B-25 ‘God and Country’, which would become the platform from which the flight would be documented.
The key word used throughout our briefing process and conversation was, ‘document’. Sure, I had high hopes of in-your-face dramatic formation positioning, precise lighting, stunning prop blur and every other image a photographer strives for when going on a photo mission. But, this was not that…it was not a photoshoot.
Typically, when flying with another aircraft being photographed, I’ll position them by asking for minute movements in relation to the photo platform; 5 feet forward…10 feet down…10 feet back, etc. The challenge lies with the subject aircraft’s pilot making fine adjustments to the throttle and yoke in order to accomplish those positions. Doing these types of maneuvers in a partially restored aircraft which still needs the input of a flight engineer in addition to the pilot and co-pilot, would put unnecessary strain on the already aging mechanics of this special aircraft.
Sitting in the back of the B-25, the Connie approached slowly and cautiously over the course of nearly an hour. As pilot, Lockie Christler; co-pilot, Scott McDonald and Flight Engineers, Tom Woodward and Tim Coons inched the aircraft closer to the B-25, I was able to provide some basic suggestions like, more to left, more to the right, stack high, stack low and scissor. Precise positioning was out of the question as was a change in our heading. Basically, what you see is what you get, and I was perfectly happy with that!
One of the biggest technical challenges was the focal length of the lens vs. the shutter speed required to get motion in the propellors. Most of the air-to-air work was shot with a Nikon D810 and 70-200 f/2.8, mainly used at the long end. Rule of thumb, (prop-blur aside) is that the shutter speed should be equivalent to the focal length being used, so at 200mm my shutter speed should have been no slower than 1/200 sec. to insure sharp images.
That simply wasn’t going to happen. The RPM of Columbine II’s radial engines were significantly slower than that of a P-51 or aerobatic Extra 300. In order to get full rotation of the three-bladed assembly, a shutter speed of 1/40 was needed. In the freezing cold tail of windy B-25, the Kenyon Labs gyro saved the day. Had it not been for the improved stabilization of the gyro, many of the images would have been unusable.
Over the course of the 4.5hr flight to Mt. Pleasant, TX, I was able to get in some Yoga courtesy of crawling over the bomb bay and under the flight deck to get to the nose. Although it had probably been some ten years since I’ve had to do that, it was a stunning reminder of what these 20-something year olds were faced with on a daily basis flying B-25’s into combat zones during WWII. The big difference, we didn’t have anyone shooting at us and the temperature at 9500ft was far more bearable than their high-altitude missions.
With Scott Glover at the controls of the B-25 and Matt Bongers sitting right seat, they managed to position the twin-engine bomber to reveal the Constellation’s beautiful lines from the rear-quarter view. Add the sprawling American countryside to the equation and you have your photoshoot-esque images of an American icon coming back to life.
The complete restoration is estimated to take 3-4 years and will take place in Bridgeport, VA. Once finished, Columbine II will be the only civilian-owned Air Force One and will travel across the country educating people on the history of presidential aircraft as well as how Columbine II changed the course of history regarding all aircraft that would eventually transport the President of the United States.
Special thanks to Karl Stoltzfus and his incredible crew at Dynamic Aviation for making the impossible possible along with his aircrew, Lockie Christler, Scott McDonald, Tom Woodward and Tim Coons. Without the incredible friendship and enthusiasm of Scott Glover and his crew at Mid America Flight Museum; Matt Bongers, Gregg Williams, Erik Johnston, Frank Glover, Jr., Linda Cortelyou and many others, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. Thank you for this incredible opportunity!
There’s no denying that those with a remote fascination of aviation would donate any given body part to fly in a state of the art US Navy fighter. What they don’t tell you is the metamorphosis one needs to embrace in order to enjoy the thrill.
Perhaps you’ve read articles or listened to comedians describe their nauseating experience of an incentive ride in a military jet followed by weeks of therapy. Apparently they seemed to have skipped the part where they had to squeeze into an outfit purposefully designed to be four sizes too small and become a human origami project in order to slip on everything else. But I digress…
While working with VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” during the historic “Tailhook Legacy Flight” training program, I along with the attending warbird pilots, had the great honor of being allowed to fly in an F/A-18F Super Hornet.
It all began with our mock physiology training. Instead of being shot out of a canon or subjected to the swirling t-cup ride at Disneyland, we were taught the miracle of the “Hik Maneuver”. Not to be confused with the complexities of a “Red Neck” tractor pull, the “Hik Maneuver” involved the rapid and specifically timed process of exchanging air in the lungs combined with muscle tension to prevent loss of consciousness during high g-load. It used to be called the “Hook Maneuver”, but grunting “Hik” while popping a forehead vein sounded better.
Along with the brief training we were also shown what the various yellow handles, buttons and knobs with black stripes were for. This was of course not to be confused with the black handles, buttons and knobs with yellow stripes. You don’t want to touch those…I think. One was to arm the ejection seat, one was to eject, one was to make the pilot eject, one made expresso and another was for the windshield wipers. This was one cool seat!
Following our short introduction to the Rhino’s WSO Chair, Lt. Schwerdtfeger showed us around the Flight Physiology compound at NAS Lemoore. The tour included checking out the twirl-a-hurl centrifuge machine, the braincell-killing altitude chamber and every Aquaphobiac’s vacation destination, the dunk-tank.
My scheduled hop in the Super Hornet followed all the other warbird pilots’ opportunities. I had the joy of sharing their experiences and fears vicariously through them. What was once a dream soon to come true turned into a fear similar to being called next at a talent show.
When it was my turn to prepare for flight, I was sent to the paraloft where I would get sized up…in gear that is. This big dude who obviously works out gave me a quick look over and compared me in size to pilot similar in stature i.e., short. He then opened a locker belonging to a Commander of the unit and instructed me on how to look my best in olive drab.
Now, I had my own flight suit so I was certainly doing my best to look the part, but wearing blue jeans under that flight suit which were then covered by a blood-constricting G-Suit, might not have been the smartest thing. It took me nearly thirty-minutes to zip up those damn military leg warmers! Then came the harness. I was too exhausted to put on a harness, but alas, somehow I did it. And after that was the 216-pound survival vest consisting of the inflatable horse collar, oxygen mask and filter, flares, a Vietnam-era flashlight, a Jenny Craig meal for four including place settings, and a bunch of other stuff I was really hoping not to use. Oh yeah! I looked sexy…kinda like an Oompa-Loompa that was being cast as Rambo.
By this time I was all suited up and ready to go. I hobbled down the stairs and toward the hangar door before one of the guys in the paraloft noticed my bright white tennis shoes peaking out from my all green garb. Apparently tenny’s aren’t the in-thing. Off came all the gear and on went some loaner boots. If getting the G-Suit on before was hard, strapping them around the added circumference of a boot-neck was impossible.
I’ll spare you with the excitement of flight-suit deja vu, but let it be known it involved sweat, blood (literally) and my pilot to help get the crap back on. I had a new found respect for pilots everywhere, and I hadn’t even climbed into the plane.
Speaking of my pilot, Lieutenant Alex “Stranger” Wright was awesome! He had the patience of a saint and was willing to carry me out to the plane. Well, maybe not that last part.
With all my gear on, sensation in my limbs was disappearing fast. Fortunately we were assigned an aircraft that was parked furthest away on the ramp. That was by no means comforting. Even better, I was told we were to do a “Hot-Swap”, a process where the aircraft would remain running as we swapped pilot and crew. I really should have listened…was it the yellow and black striped handle or the black and yellow striped handle?
Once strapped into the seat, by my pilot, because I had no strength to do it, I checked the oxygen flow. There was none. Inhaling simply caused the O2 mask to adhere to my face like a plastic bag. Nothing to worry about there. I asked “Stranger”, who was now comfortably strapped into his seat, how to adjust the O2. He made me aware of a knob by my left butt-cheek that needed to be rotated 90-degrees. I couldn’t see past my knees let alone over my shoulder and down by my side. Of course he chuckled, “Oh, you may need to feel your way around to find it.” Oh sure, I’m sitting on a friggin’ rocket and you want me to start feeling around? The last person who asked, “What does this button do?” didn’t fare so well. Nervousness aside, I found it. I could now breathe. That was a good thing.
We launched as a flight of four consisting of an F-6F Hellcat, Helldiver and another Super Hornet. I had brought with me a loaner D3x from Nikon and a 24-120mm to record this glorious moment. Though every time I raised the camera to my face, my O2 mask would leak slightly forcing a steady flow of oxygen directly into my right eye. I quickly learned how to hold the camera with my left hand, position my right hand on the shutter with my thumb awkwardly jamming my right eyelid shut. I’m sure I looked perfectly normal to everyone in the flight.
It wasn’t until the group of aircraft broke formation and the two Super Hornets were left to play that things got really interesting. “Stranger” pulled hard back on the stick enabling the G-meter to reach 7.5 and I decided to try out that “Hik Maneuver” thing. While holding a camera now weighing nearly 45-pounds up to my face, I nearly knocked myself out keeping too much blood in my head. Apparently I am G-tolerant far beyond the 7-G range. I resulted to giggling like a schoolgirl instead. Any remnants of masculinity were long gone. All the while my G-suit was painfully contracting forcing my spleen to tickle my tonsils.
It had always been my dream to get that over-the-shoulder shot of the aircraft engulfed in vapor. As we pulled hard to the left for the “Banana-Pass” followed by an abrupt break to the right, all I could think about was how I got in the position of resting my head on my shoes. The last thought on my mind was how to raise this insanely heavy camera above my head. Nonetheless, I did my best to capture the moment and am proud to say I never incurred any sign of losing the G-war. I think I even managed to get a picture or two.
“Stranger” put the Hornet on the deck effortlessly and we taxied back to the same spot we started and were again to exercise a “Hot Swap”. Once pried from the rear seat of the Super Hornet, I made my way down the ladder and waited for “Stranger” to accompany me on the ramp. While waiting, Lt. Erik “Dookie” Kenny informed me that the back seat would be empty for this next hop and asked if I wanted to join him for a second flight. Amazed at the incredible offer bestowed upon me, I politely and quickly responded, “No.” The look on “Dookie’s” face was priceless.
Earlier in the morning I had briefed with Peter Kline, pilot of the T-2 “Buckeye” also participating in the Legacy Flight Program, regarding an aerial photoshoot. Time simply did not allow for another Hornet hop. But rest assured, this would be the only time I’d pass up an opportunity like this.
“Stranger” and I walked…or rather he walked, I waddled back to the paraloft and we removed our gear. I quickly rushed back to the T-2 and we immediately fired up and got into the air. The shoot was amazing for many reasons. Mostly due to the fact that Capt. Mark “Mutha” Hubbard, Commodore for the Strike Fighter Wing Pacific (SFWP) was at the controls of the F-6F Bearcat with two Rhino’s in trail. The other amazing fact was that holding the #3 position was “Dookie” flying “143”, the SuperHornet I had just crawled out of.
Although I mock my experience, the fact is I can’t thank the folks at VFA-122 enough for hosting the entire Legacy crew and enabling all of us to see first hand what our Naval Aviators endure. It goes without saying I have a new found respect for our military pilots. Additional thanks to Dr. Rich Sugden and Peter Kline for including me in the Legacy Program and enabling me to document such an incredible joining of the past and present. Putting commemorative aircraft in the air that were not scheduled to fly was due to the amazing efforts of Demo Coordinator, Lt. Erin “Eeyore” Flint. The passion of Capt. “Mutha” Hubbard is without a doubt a critical element to insuring the success of the Legacy Program. His unwavering desire to see the history of Naval Aviation celebrated in front of millions of aviation enthusiasts and air show spectators is an invaluable asset. The Legacy Program is truly honored to have such a great representative. And of course the program would not be what it is without all of the Legacy Pilots, warbird owners and Navy demo pilots who choose to participate and remain involved in such a historic program.
Above my desk lies a shelf full of various camera bodies. These tools have been instrumental in sharing my experiences and memories over the years. My very first camera, a Kodak Instamatic 126 rests alongside my first SLR, a Pentax K1000 and my first medium format camera, my 501C/M Hasselblad. The first automated camera I owned was a Ricoh KR-10M and sits next to my first pro-camera body, a Canon EOS-1V/HS. Two digital cameras also reside with my antiquated collection, a Canon 10D and a 5D.
Some equipment I had once used is no longer with me such as my Pentax Super Program bodies, Pentax ME, my Nikonos V bodies, Canon EOS-1 and others. The point being, I’ve had the pleasure of utilizing the technology provided by many camera brands.
It was tough moving from Pentax to Canon in the late 1980’s, but Canon had some very impressive AF technology at the time. For the next 20 years, I had moved through the Canon professional line until digital became the norm. In the late ’90’s I owned an EOS-1 and an EOS-1N which performed incredibly…until they were stolen. They were then replaced with two EOS-1V High-Speed bodies which performed well until 2003 when digital could no longer be ignored.
The switch to digital would not be an easy one. At the time, each EOS-1V body cost about $2,200. A professional digital SLR couldn’t be touched for under $5,000…and actually closer to $8,000. A compromise had to be made.
I ditched the pro-level bodies and ventured back to the pro-sumer category. After all, digital technology was changing practically by the minute. A 6-megapixel Canon 10D was about $1,500 at the time and served me very well. In 2003, the camera was put to good use covering the 100th Anniversary of Powered Flight and images from that camera were first published in Air & Space Smithsonian’s issue covering the Dayton Air Show. It was clear digital was not going away. In 2007, the 10D was retired in favor of the $3,000 Canon 5D full-frame camera.
In late 2009, Canon introduced the EOS-1DmkIV with an unprecedented ISO range and a terrific frame rate all in a solid body. With resolution reaching a steady and versatile range, it was now time to think about reentering the pro-level of camera bodies. With my 5D showing age and my lenses all reaching their 10-year age, it wasn’t just the body that needed to be replaced, but my whole camera bag. Now would be the time for me to take a look at what the ‘other guys’ were up to.
Canon is and has no doubt been an incredible company and their products have served me well. I had candid conversations with Nikon representatives, Bill Pekala and Bill Fortney along with other Nikon photographers. They, along with Canon, allowed me to make use of their products in order to come to a more educated decision.
Just like buying a home, one needs to consider where the community is headed and what level of resources are available. When comparing the variables, the product quality, long-term support, ease of transition and ease of communication, Nikon squeezed ahead of Canon.
It’s going to be a long journey for me to relearn the basic camera functions and differences between Nikon and Canon. From component compatibility and accessory part numbers to zooming, focusing and menu functions, the two companies couldn’t be more different. But, a camera is a tool and an investment and needs to best suit the photographer and their needs. For that, I feel Nikon has best filled the criteria and I look forward to what they have to offer in the future.
Many thanks to Nikon’s Bill Pekala, Bill Fortney, Jose Ramos, Deborah McQuade, Melissa DiBartolo and many others for assisting in the acquisition and future relationship. And of course a big thank you to Dave Carlson from Canon for his continued friendship.
I get asked all the time what equipment I use to create the images that grace my website or client publications. The simple answer is, a camera and a bunch of applicable lenses. Of course it’s a rather vague answer, but would a more precise one make a difference in someone else’s photographic results? Most likely not.
Now I’m not trying to sound sarcastic or mean, but usually the question is asked in this way: “Wow! Cool shot. What camera did you use?” While the question itself is a valid one, the implication it provides is rather demeaning. In other words, it wasn’t really me who conceptualized the image, coordinated the players, organized the formation, visualized the proper lighting and positioning and selected the right tool for the job, it was the camera that did all the work.
Would it really have mattered if I used a Nikon instead of a Canon, or the other way around? Would it have made a difference if I used a 28-200 instead of a 70-200 when the focal length needed was 135mm? Probably not. So does it really matter what equipment a photographer uses? In most cases, no it doesn’t.
Just like choosing a certain brand of hammer won’t make your house last longer, a photographer’s job is to use what he or she already knows about photography and apply it to the specific tool of their trade. If you hand me a camera that is missing certain features of a more expensive model, it’s my job to find a way around those limitations. If you put me in a Formula One racing car and Michael Schumacher in a Pinto, chances are he’ll still beat me on the track. The tool only assists in achieving the desired outcome. If one does not know how to use that tool, it’s useless.
I once heard a great quote; “It is not the arrow that hit the target, but rather the archer’s skill that put it there.”
When I was in high school I recall building a pinhole camera out of a shoebox. When asked what type of camera created that image, I took pleasure in noticing the looks on everyone’s faces. My challenge to you is to put to work a basic manual camera and apply your magic. The fundamentals of photography apply to any camera no matter how few or how many features that camera may have.
Have fun, and remember it’s you who creates the image, the camera is simply a tool.
Edit: To be fair, many think being a professional requires professional equipment, therefore who am I to talk. In an optimal world, that would be the correct logic and it would only be fair to my clients that I have professional, reliable gear. But, this is the real world where my camera gear reflects the conditions of the market and what it will bear.
To answer the pending question literally, at this moment I use a consumer-level Canon 5D and a used 28-135 I found on Ebay for the majority of my photos. The rest of my lenses, though considered high-end are all from the pre image-stabilization days. A 400 2.8 Series II, an original 70-200 2.8 and a 17-35 2.8 from the days of film.
The real eye-opener came when I borrowed a $6,000 camera body and a few $2,000 pro lenses from a competing manufacturer. While the equipment itself was quite spectacular and a pleasure to use, the photos from my 4 year-old 5D came out superior not because it was a better camera, but rather I was unfamiliar with the tools presented to me.