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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.


When a Photoshoot isn’t a Photoshoot

Connie Header


The first Air Force One which flew Dwight D. Eisenhower, returned to flight on March 19, 2016, taking off from Marana airport in Marana, Arizona. On March 22nd, Columbine II began the cross-country journey to Bridgewater, Virginia to undergo a complete restoration.

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.


Ironically, landing gear may have saved the Lockheed Constellation from becoming an agricultural sprayer. Gear from a L-1049 model was placed on this earlier version preventing the FAA from allowing it to continue operation.

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.

TVR16_lockheed_constellation_columbine_9314Fast-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.


Flight Engineer station onboard the Columbine II

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 former location of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s desk onboard the Lockheed Constellation ‘Columbine II’, better known as the first Air Force One.

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.

TVR16_lockheed_constellation_columbine_4854Get to Virginia in one piece…that was our goal. However, photos would be nice, but far from the primary mission.

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.

TVR16_lockheed_constellation_columbine_8617Over 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!

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

Careful What You Wish For…

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…

Peter Kline gets spun around in the 'Puke Chair' by Physiologist Lt. Schwerdtfeger during flight training.

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!

An iPhone shot of the Centrifuge. So intricate is this machine that the foundation reaches deep into the ground and hundred's of feet in diameter.

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.

Lt. Alex "Stranger" Wright and I stand beside Rhino 143 from VFA-122 "Flying Eagles" following our flight.

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.

While in the #2 position, Lt. Alex "Stranger" Wright pulled hard keeping up with Lt. Patrick "Hashbrown" O'Conner during the 'Banana Pass' over NAS Lemoore. A subtle amount of vapor on the lead Rhino only hints to the G-forces incurred resulting in the camera weighing nearly 45-pounds.

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.

Capt. Mark "Mutha" Hubbard pilots the F-6F Hellcat with Lt. Matt "11" Lowe in the F/A-18E and Lt. Erik "Dookie" Kenny in the F/A-18F.

“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.

Air-to-air Photography with the new Avenger UAV

It started with a phone call one could only dream of receiving. “We need you to shoot a UAV. Can’t tell you what kind or where, but we need it done by the end of the week. Are you in?” Next thing I knew I was on flight to Southern California.

After picking up the rental car it was a quick hop over the San Bernadino Mountain Range to Apple Valley Airport. There I met UAV pilot and aerobatic competitor Tim Just along with legendary air show performer Wayne Handley. Just prior to dinner our roundhouse briefing enabled me to meet other members of the team like Mark Sutherlin, and Scott Berry of General Atomics.

The next morning, Just, Handley and I flew a modified Cessna 210 to a little known airport in the Antelope Valley, the same basin where aviation history had been made at Edwards Air Force Base and Palmdale’s Skunk Works.

As rumors ran wild on technology forums about what the 3rd generation Predator would look like, the very aircraft in question lie in front of me waiting to be unveiled to the world.

With operations beginning in 1942, Grey Butte Airfield was established as a satellite airport for Victorville AAF and was used to train more than 30,000 pilots, eventually becoming a bombardier school. Marine crews based at MCAS Mojave would later use Grey Butte #4, as it was referred to on the Los Angeles sectionals of that time period, for carrier landing practice from 1944-45. By 1950, the airfield was abandoned by the military and briefly utilized as a civilian airfield. At some point between 1950 and 1960, the Los Angeles sectional charts finally acknowledged the airport as abandoned.

At some point in the early 1960’s two pilots, Al Adolph and Harry Bernier along with a mechanic operated a Borate air tanker operation from Grey Butte flying a converted TBM. Bored during the downtime, they devised a means of waterskiing along a nearby man-made reservoir using a station wagon. By 1964 Grey Butte was once again marked as being an active airfield with three runways, the longest being 3,740’.

Around 1968, McDonnel Douglas Aircraft Company chose Grey Butte as an aircraft radar cross-section testing range. Working with the Rosamond Dry Lake outdoor radar test range operated by the USAF, Douglas chose to move its Microwave Lab operations to Grey Butte, which would be under 100% Douglas control.

By 1971, the USAF Tactical Pilotage Chart listed the airfield as “Abandoned” despite continued RCS use. In 1975 it was reportedly used to test the cross-section of a full-scale model of the Lockheed F-117 Stealth Fighter. The RCS range was closed in the 1990’s and turned over to General Atomics in 2001 for unmanned aerial vehicle flight-testing.

With Wayne Handley at the controls of a Cessna 210 and Tim Just safely on the ground piloting the "Avenger", both aircraft performed a criss-cross pattern in order to obtain head-on imagery.

It was this little bit of history that gave me a subtle hint as to what was in store. Upon landing at Grey Butte, the folks at General Atomics were already hard at work on various Predator A and B platforms lined up on the taxiway. I kept thinking how cool this was gonna be. Do I get to shoot the slightly larger turbine model or what has become the icon of the UAV world, the original Predator, better known as the MQ-1?

We were escorted over to a remote part of the airfield where under a cloak of secrecy lie the most incredible sight, the new Predator ‘C’, unofficially dubbed the ‘Avenger’. Almost twice as large as the turbine-powered Predator B, technically known as the MQ-9 ‘Reaper’, the new Avenger boasted an internal weapons bay, retractable landing gear and a more stealthy design. Simply put, this thing was cooler than anything Hollywood could dream of, as was attempted in the 2007 blockbuster, “Transformers” where an MQ-9 was given the jet-powered treatment.

The Predator-C was designed with stealth characteristics such as the chine nose, upper-fuselage mounted intake, blended wing design, shielded exhaust, internal weapons bay and sharp trailing-edge angles.

With temperatures in the low-50’s, brought lower by the high-desert wind chill, we hovered around the unmanned aircraft as crews worked on a mechanical anomaly. Unfortunately flying was not in the cards. The next day I boarded a plane departing Ontario and returned home.

A couple days later I received word the photo mission was back on. In the early morning hours I met Wayne Handley in King City where we would fly back down to Grey Butte in his yellow Cessna 180. The flying banana we called it, an airframe I had many hours in prior to this trip. Upon landing at Grey Butte, we were immediately approached and questioned by security. Note to the wise, heed the big words written along the various runways at Grey Butte: “No Trespassing – Unsafe For Landing”. Fortunately, we had been cleared, though the memo hadn’t reached everyone quite yet.

Handley and I were escorted to the briefing room where we met with key members of the entire Predator C team, about twenty or so individuals. It was at this point I began feeling the pressure. This was kind of a big deal. We were handed a paper detailing the various points of view to be photographed, all of it relatively straight forward, but the views needed to be precise, yet more pressure. And of course this was a UAV, no pilot to look at and give hand signals to. Pressure gave way to queasiness.

With our checklist completed, I climbed into the back of the 210, sans-baggage door, with Wayne Handley at the helm and Jason McDermott in the copilot’s seat. At the time I was so busy fidgeting with camera gear and safety equipment I hadn’t even noticed we were now airborne. Looking down onto the airfield, I could see the Avenger taxiing into position at the end of RWY37, a truly freaky site knowing the pilot, Tim Just, was located in the confines of a distant trailer.

Crossing overhead shows the angular design of the wings along with the blended contours of the fuselage as the aircraft flies above the Southern California desert.

For an aircraft intended to fly relatively straight, it reached altitude and position in no time. With a flight envelope designed around a 160kt cruising speed and the 210 having a 160kt max speed, formation flying and positioning proved quite interesting. To make positioning and visibility easier, both Handley and I made sure to be on the same side of the aircraft, as opposed to using the ‘Banana’. This is where the baggage door of the 210 came into play.

Positioning was similar to that of a manned aircraft calling for a variable turn to the left or the right keeping in mind usable airspace around the airfield. Following a requested angle of bank, Handley would position the 210 high or low, forward or back based on the pre-briefed angle to be photographed. Little had I known, Handley’s experience in flying with UAV’s was quite vast and between him and Tim Just piloting the Avenger, I found myself amongst rock stars of the UAV world.

Obtaining a precise head-on profile followed by an exacting rear profile proved to be the most challenging. With Tim banking the Avenger to either the left or the right, Handley would lead the UAV and bank sharply in the opposite direction. While hanging out the baggage door, I had only a split second to capture the profile before overshooting to the left or right. It had to be done with minimal attempts, as repositioning at the same airspeed was a very time-consuming option. Shooting the aft portion of the Avenger was even more challenging as Handley needed to put 210 in a high-speed slip forcing the aircraft to shutter violently and placing me in direct line of 100+mph winds.

The next day we were able to fly at a higher altitude in much smoother air as we utilized Clay Lacy's Lear Jet for a second round of photography.

Despite the rush of adrenaline and intense concentration, there were moments of restful awe as the sound of the 4,800-lb. thrust Pratt & Whitney Canada’s PW545B engine overpowered our own wind and engine noise. Just taking a moment to comprehend there were no eyes staring back at us completely changed how I’d come to learn aviation photography. As much as I live my life staring through a small square in a camera, I was sure to take a moment and enjoy the view of the this new technology flying only feet away with my own two unaided eyes.

Back on the ground in the standing-room only briefing room, a quick download of images enabled an impromptu slideshow followed by applause. The incredible flying skills of Wayne Handley and Tim Just allowed for some wonderful points of view designers, technicians and engineers could look forward to dissecting.

Before day’s end, I was flown to Van Nuys where I would join Clay Lacy and his video crew along with photographer Chad Slattery early the next morning. Knowing what views needed to be accomplished, I was to play the role of art director in the back of Lacy’s Lear. Unlike the 210, we would join up on the Avenger at a much higher altitude enjoying the slightly warmer confines of the small jet.

Seeing the Avenger piloted by Justin McDermott alongside us in the Lear was like déjà vu. Lacy’s crew displayed their amazement with oohs and ahhs while switching back and forth from video to still imagery. The confines of the Lear along with the ‘poetry in motion’ of all aboard drew the same kind of oohs and ahhs from me.

Throughout the rest of the day the desert winds howled through the Valley reaching speeds of nearly 50mph. The Avenger was safely tucked away in hopes of bringing her out for some nighttime static photography. As the evening hours approached, the wind showed no hopes of dying down with the temperature plummeting fast.

Nighttime photography in the high desert presented its own challenges with 30mph winds and freezing temperatures.

Hoping for the best, we returned to Grey Butte Airfield around 7pm and waited. Around 10pm, the winds began to subside enough to safely bring the UAV out of hiding though the prevailing winds would still prove a worthy obstacle for the purposes of photography. Regardless, we began putting everything in place from the tow vehicles to the mechanical lift. Despite the near freezing temperatures, the shoot was wrapped up around 1am.

It took about a dozen General Atomics employees to pull off the night shots and many more to coordinate the aerials. Many thanks to Tim Just and Julie Mangold for bringing me into this project along with Wayne Handley for making it easy. Additional thanks to Scott Berry, Mark Sutherlin, and Jason McDermott along with all the other General Atomics workers for their generous assistance during the intense week-long effort. Thanks also to Clay Lacy and his crew for allowing me aboard the Lear enabling me a behind the scenes look at how much of the aerial footage seen today was created.

More images of the Predator-C can be found here.

So, You Want to be a Photographer?

There’s no doubting I have one of the best jobs in the world. I’ve met and worked with people most will only get to know through history books. I’ve traveled the country experiencing more than what most people will in a lifetime. I’ve seen sights and participated in things most people never will. So who wouldn’t want to do what I do?

Here comes the hardcore reality: Everyone is a photographer.

There used to be a time when photographers were easily distinguished and their talents soared above those with a Kodak InstaMatic or a pocket size Disc camera. They spent many years learning the intricacies of their craft and how to get the most out of a roll of film. They knew the reciprocity characteristics of Kodachrome 64 and the saturation qualities of the emerging Ektachrome and Fujichrome transparency film. Tri-X and Plus-X were the only black and white films of choice.

But in those days, photography was still a science and photographers were relied upon to have mastered that science. Camera manufacturers even tried to pump up the popularity and ease of photography with the APS (Advanced Photographic System) series of cameras and film. While the concept of cartridge film seemed appealing, it was the advent and eventual mainstream availability of digital photography that put cameras in the hands of nearly every human being.

When APS was launched, cell phones were just beginning to evolve from their brick-form into something more portable. With digital, there’s a camera in every phone. Anyone can capture an image.

So what about the argument of “quality”? In today’s fast-paced disposable world, quality comes second to cost. The reality of publications today is that, in most cases, quality is not nearly as important as saving a few bucks. If a magazine can avoid paying a professional photographer for a photo when they can get one for free from someone who captured an incident with their cell phone, they will. Next time you browse through a magazine, count how many images are pixelated, slightly fuzzy, overly cropped, etc. We’ve become a disposable society where just capturing an image is good enough; quality is secondary.

For example, even though film was far superior to the emerging digital technology, people were willing to spend small fortunes on the “I gotta have it now!” digital cameras. And where they had once protected and cherished negatives, images were being deleted, and sometimes inadvertently erased, by the push of a button.

Ironically, as historic as digital imaging technology is, it’s also become the demise of recording our history. Next time you’re at a special event, be it a concert, parade, awards presentation, whatever, count the number of people holding a cell phone at arms length as compared to a camera. I bet the phones will outnumber cameras four-to-one. And that begs the question, what are the chances those cell phone images will ever see the light of day?

It’s because of this mentality that being a professional photographer in this day an age will prove to be a non-stop uphill battle. Not only will you compete against your peers for a piece of a diminishing budget, but you will also compete against anyone who has a camera and is willing to hand over their images for free.

Of course it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a way to climb above the masses and become successful with your vocation. The key is to simply have a plan. If you intend on college, don’t major in photography. Instead, plan on getting a four-year degree in business. Most photographers insist on learning everything possible about their trade, but neglect the business aspect. As artists, we tend to be very “right brained” where as analytical individuals are very “left brained”. If you are very strong in the arts, chances are the business side of things may need a bit of work. And the best part is, if photography doesn’t work out, having a business degree to fall back on might actually make you more money in the long run.

Suppose you don’t have a plan, what then will you do? Artists are a determined bunch and can be quite passionate in their beliefs. I for one believe that a levelheaded amount of passion can get you closer to your goals. I’d like to think I’m an example of this, but as I’m learning, it will only get you so far. And from that, no matter how much passion I have, I’m still going to need a plan. Without that plan, an artist is destined to plateau until the next step can be enacted.

A final means to becoming a successful photographer is to work from the ground up. This may mean working at a camera store to better learn your craft or assisting for an already established photographer sweeping floors or archiving digital files. If you’re really passionate about being successful, you can do both…and work on your business degree.

Unfortunately, working your way toward becoming a professional photographer means choosing vocations that will result in fairly low pay, but if photography is something you really want to do, low pay is something you’re just going to have to get used to.

Depending on your subject of choice, photography may involve more than just taking photos. Fine Art and Still Life photographers have the option of setting their own pace and attitude. They have the pleasure of solitude and the ability to make their own decisions with very little input from others. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the commercial and high-profile portrait photographers, like those who deal with celebrities or Fortune 500 CEO’s need to balance hundreds of tasks at the same time. They need to be actors themselves in that no matter how bad their day, they still need to make their subject look good. So, besides being up on technology, techniques and business skills, many aspects of photography require good people skills, expert task management and the ability to deal with the inevitable stress that almost every photoshoot brings.

The point of this entire piece is that although photography is an incredible career choice, it must be one of desire, not necessity. Very few photographers will ever experience wealth of the monetary kind, but if they are able to live within their means, they will experience a wealth far greater than any millionaire.

Steppin’ Out

Jenny Forsythe and I fly our first Double Trouble routine at Avon Park Airport. It was at this point I gathered my IQ may not be as high as I previously thought it was.

I remember an old adage, be careful what you wish for. But at the same time, I was also told to live every day as if it were my last. I’m not sure if stepping out on the wing of an airplane while in flight would qualify as a sane decision, though it did justify both suggestions!

As a kid, I don’t recall wanting to be a wing walker. As a young adult, it never crossed my mind. Even working in the air show industry I never gave it any thought. A friend who was most likely kidding made the suggestion to me and I took it as just that, a joke. After a few months passed, the notion was revisited over hamburgers at an airport restaurant with famed aviator Wayne Handley. A phone call was placed to Eddie Andrieni who had trained wing walkers in the past and he agreed it would be a good idea. We played phone tag for nearly a year with the intent of beginning training. Unfortunately it just wasn’t meant to be and I was ready to retire the thought.

My full time profession is that of an aviation photographer. I have the pleasure of flying in a variety of aircraft most aviation die-hards could only dream of experiencing. From blimps to helicopters, warbirds to modern military jets, I’ve already lived an amazing life. In order to perform the duties of a photographer from some of these aircraft, various panels, windows, doors and hatches often needed to be removed. Because of this, I’ve been given the dubious job description of one who hangs out of airplanes for a living. I guess that would be exciting enough. Why push it and pursue wing walking? I must have been out of my mind.

Each year members of the air show industry gather in Las Vegas around the first week in December to discuss what worked and what would need to be improved upon. Additionally, performers and air show coordinators work out who is going to perform at the more than 500 air shows across North America in the upcoming season. My life would change dramatically shortly after this gathering. Thanks to the wonders of networking and internet relations, I found myself as one of those being considered to join Stearman pilot Walt Pierce and wing walker Jenny Forsythe for the ‘Double Trouble’ act as part of American Barnstormers.

There wouldn’t be much time to train due to the fact I live in California, Mr. Pierce resides in Florida and the first air show of the season was only a month away. A seasoned veteran, Jenny took on the task of training me, having come from Ohio to the warmer Floridian weather. Fortunately they had more confidence than I did and convinced me it isn’t as difficult as it may look. And I’m sure being the target of a knife-hurling circus freak isn’t anything to worry about either?

Following my venture from the front cockpit to the center of the right wing, Walt Pierce makes a low pass over Avon Park Aiport as I enjoy my first time on the wing of a plane in flight.

I watched the sun rise as we drove to Avon Park Airport. My nerves were already tense with fear. Not the kind of deathly fear one would associate with an adrenaline junky desire to venture out on the wing of a plane, but more a fear of failure. So much preparation had already been invested; there really was no looking back. As the hangar doors slid open and the morning light bathed the red Stearman named ‘Ol Smokey’, the lump in my throat just got bigger.

The first thing I learned were the various components of the aircraft. Cabane struts, those girthy bars that seem to attach the upper wing to the fuselage, would soon become my savior and ultimate goal being the last thing I grab as I make my way back into the safe confines of the cockpit. The guide wires would become known for actually keeping me on the wing and making their mark all over my body in the form of black and blue lines. They crisscross the distance between the upper and lower wings keeping everything together. At the point at which the majority of the guide wires cross, a three-foot long wooden javelin strut runs parallel to the fuselage, so named because of its appearance being similar to that of the much longer stick thrown great distances at sporting events. Finally, towards the tips of the wings are the ‘N’ struts shaped similarly in size to the cabanes but arranged to resemble the letter ‘N’. I’ve always thought the ‘N’ meant ‘No Man’s Land!’

That morning Jenny took me through the steps and how to properly walk on the wing of an aircraft. Had humans been designed to actually perform some of the twisting and contorting needed to make their way around the guide wires, we would have looked more like spaghetti. Each and every step had to be perfect. If one step were off, positioning for each subsequent move would become more and more difficult. I found my body encountering moves only advanced Yoga instructors would feel comfortable with. She had me hanging, standing, twisting, stretching, crawling, reaching and aching.

Although we had every intention of flying and getting that first wing walk out of the way that afternoon, circumstances deemed otherwise. I was in complete agreement with the unintentional procrastination. In fact, I was ready to put it off for another week! Meanwhile, Jenny and I continued to train on the ground with a surprise appearance by Nicole, the other half of the original ‘Double Trouble’ team. Both of them insisted repeatedly, “It’s really not that hard.” I began to feel sick.

Wednesday, February 11th, it was inevitable, I would be flying at some point today, and I felt even more nauseous. Jenny and I continued with ground training. I was so intimately familiar with the right wing that by this point I could tell a spider had been there from the little footprints crossing the thin no-skid strip. Walt continued to work on a nagging brake issue while I tried to calm my nausea by lying in the bed of the truck. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the brake problem was fixed, however it was also time for lunch. The delays were killing me! My heart rate cannot sustain 180 for more than 48 hours straight! Let’s get this over with already.

Back from lunch it was straight to business. I had flown in Stearman’s before, so hopping into the front seat was nothing new to me. It was the series of events to follow I couldn’t get off my mind.

As instructed, my ears were honed in to the tune of the motor. As we reached altitude, Walt would begin to pull back on the throttle. Once the manifold pressure reaches a low enough number that would be my cue. This process kept circling in my head until the magical time came.

Clinging to the Javelin Strut, I feel near zero 'G' while inverted over Punta Gorda, Florida during the 2009 Florida International Airshow. Special Thanks to Dave Carlson for his assistance in obtaining this image.

As I had practiced nearly a hundred times, I reached for the right upper-wing hand-hold knowing the wind speed would make it’s best attempt at thwarting my goal to grab. I fought it with the realization that the rest of my body would have to endure this. With a firm grab of the wing I pulled myself from the cockpit making quick work of getting outside the prop-wash. Right leg over and down, left arm around the cabane, right arm reaching for the nearest guide wire, left leg in front of the next guide wire, left arm grasping for the forward most dual guide wire, right leg swinging in front of the guide wire followed by a brisk tiptoe ending with a swing of the right leg over the javelin strut. I was just about there.

I got in the rest position, which is about as streamlined as one could be on the javelin strut and gave Walt the thumbs-up. I was halfway through my first flight.

As Walt flew around enabling me to get accustomed to the subtle breeze, I felt a shiver of accomplishment flow through my body, well a shiver of something anyway. Am I really standing on the wing of an airplane? What the hell am I doing out here? As I tried to convince myself that I’m simply taking on the role of an indecisive skydiver, I relaxed and took time to look around at the unobstructed view in front of me and below me. I felt like a bird, my arms spread along the length of the guide wires brought me back to my childhood dreams of yearning to fly. Oh how naïve I was.

Walt descended and lined up ‘Ol Smokey’ with show center. I dropped my left foot onto the leading edge of the wing and brought my right foot up and forward over the wires ending up in a standing position straddling the javelin. It was then I learned that I must be the shortest male wingwalker in the biz, for if I were any shorter, the javelin would have induced a much higher tone in my voice. Ecstatic, I let go of the Javelin with my left arm and raised it high waving at the three people below who were witness to my first wingwalk. The velocity of the wind caused me to lean back against the crossing guide wires creating the first of many bruises to come. Walt added throttle and began to climb while I did my best to make myself aerodynamic by getting back into the resting position.

From that point, my job was to relax as Walt gained altitude. Once more I took in my surroundings. It was truly amazing, the closest I had ever come to actually flying. One might say I shed a tear over the feeling, but no, it was the wind blasting open my tear ducts. Despite wanting to take in this new feeling, my eyes remained glued on Walt awaiting the hand gesture signaling for me to return to the cockpit. The first hint was hearing the throttle come back. Shortly after, Walt gave me the sign, a finger pointing into the front seat. Once more my legs cautiously dropped to the leading edge of the wing and I repeated the steps taken to get out to the javelin, but in reverse. The final grasp of the upper wing’s handle and a swing of my left leg into the cockpit was one of the most comforting moments of my life! I was back in the safe confines of the 60+ year-old Stearman biplane.

As we returned to terra firma, my body and mind were so completely drained, I had almost fallen asleep. So much for the effects of adrenaline! However once out of the aircraft, it was official, I was a wing walker!

The experience was an exercise in nausea management. For the next two days, Walt, Jenny and I continued to work on the complete air show routine. Within five flights, I had experienced my first wing walk, walking out to the ‘N’ strut, enduring +4 G’s in a loop with 150mph winds, landing and taking off while on the wing of a plane and becoming the first known male wingwalker to hang upside down from the javelin. Most importantly, we were able to cover our entire air show routine just in time for our first show of the 2009 season in Punta Gorda, Florida.

By the 5th flight, Walt, Jenny and I ran through our entire air show routine. It was an exhausting yet exhilarating few days with absolutely no regrets. Image provided courtesy Adam Haley.

While I don’t intend on this ever becoming a full time profession for me, it was an experience I’ll never forget. It gave me the opportunity to see the world from a performer’s point of view and apply that towards my photography. Though when opportunity calls, I shall dutifully dawn my Spandex and sparkly gender-questioning outfit and take to the wing once more. After all, it was a recent flight to Las Vegas where the flight attendant announced, “Once the fasten seat belt sign has been turned off, you are free to move about the aircraft.” After a little giggle I thought to myself, I think I’m the only one on the plane who could take her literally.

I can’t begin to thank Walt and Jenny for their incredible efforts, trust and expertise in getting me trained quickly, efficiently and safely. Additionally, a big hug to Walt’s wife, Betty, for providing wonderful meals and hospitality during our Florida stay. Adam Haley also ventured out to Avon Park to record the event as well as provide new marketing imagery for the team and from one photographer to another; we owe him a great debt of gratitude. Dave Carlson from Canon assisted the team with remotely mounting a camera to the ‘N’ strut for an incredible point of view during our first air show…thank you Dave for all your help!

Is Net-30 a Thing of the Past?

There’s no question times are changing not only with photographers, but also with the goals of the printed publications with for which they work. With the development of the Kindle, the iPad, and other digital browsers, the printed media is having more and more difficulty acquiring advertisers and readers willing to flip through pages. Those publications that have debated the move to digital media are now desperately trying to keep up.

As a professional photographer, I owe my clients a debt of gratitude for their willingness to work with me and I am grateful for each day a new client joins the team. I understand that many of the obstacles faced by companies in today’s fast-paced market are not always their fault, however it’s usually the photographer, writer, graphics supplier or other media provider that gets the brunt of the financial punishment.

Photographers and content providers who have had works published in physical publications are often left wondering when their invoices are going to be honored. Even those clients who are thought of as reliable are now pushing their net-30 bills to 45 days, 60 days and sometimes longer. While it may be convenient for the client to hold off payment until they are in a comfortable position, content providers still need to pay their bills and put food on the table. Additionally, the time invested in marketing, editing, scheduling photoshoots and in general growing a business are now spent chasing after past due funds.

I took a close look at my business to figure out what I was doing wrong. Why am I working 12 to 14 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week and still coming up short on my bills? There was actually an obvious answer, but one I hesitated to tackle. Three invoices having been dragging on unfulfilled for over a year, four invoices are past 90-days and another is entering 45-days. Despite my keeping in contact with these clients as well as an optimistic attitude, they’re simply not in a position to pay. And although there are means to collect, none of those options are pretty and will guarantee a falling out. Just because a client is unable to pay at the time doesn’t mean they’re a bad client and not worthy of working with in the future. We all go through tough times.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard a photographer works, in the scheme of things they will almost always be at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole. They are the last in a long line of transactions. Such as the case, publications have established a standard of not fulfilling invoices until at least 30-days after publication. This enables them to recoup most of their printing and mailing expenses before shelling out money to contributors. Though to the photographer, their job was completed anywhere from 2 to 6 months prior to publication. That’s a long time to wait for payment.

I tried comparing my business of photography to that of most other business using their logic. I couldn’t imagine asking my grocer to forgo payment on a loaf of bread until after I had finished eating it. Or informing the gas station that I’d be back to pay for fuel once I finish using it. Few realize a photograph is a product. Camera companies don’t allow postponement for payment on equipment, so why are photographers allowing postponement for the purchase of imagery?

I recently began moving my aviation archives over to a database-oriented website called Photoshelter. Contained within this site is the ability to license images online utilizing software that has become the market standard, PhotoQuote. In a perfect world, clients can scour the archive for that optimum image, fill in the licensing-appropriate questions and pay the resulting quote. Once funds have been transferred, they can then download the hi-resolution image for use. No more billing. No more waiting indefinitely for a check to arrive, no more chasing after past due invoices.

Is this the answer photographers have been looking for to warrant industry-wide change? For years Getty Images has utilized this business model with great success. Of course, as with anything, acceptance and understanding will take time. Publications may need to adjust their practice of accounts receivable and payable in order accommodate this transition, but if the sole photographer can do it, I’m confident a business can adjust.

I’m eager to hear the thoughts of other photographers and businesses alike.

Understanding Image Licensing

There’s no denying the business of photography is a complicated one as photographers would be the first to agree. There’s the hourly rate, the daily rate, rates for editing, rates for renting, but most confusing of all, licensing. Why in the world would a photographer want to license an image instead of simply selling the photo and calling it a day? How could this possibly be customer-friendly?

The concept of licensing is actually quite simple, “To provide as much versatility to the customer in the most cost efficient way”. So yes, licensing is customer-friendly so long as both the photographer and customer properly understand the concept.

Being on the photographer’s side of things, I’ll confess my appreciation of the licensing model may be a bit biased, but I hope for you non-photographers reading along, you’ll bear with me and have an open mind.

To understand the reasoning behind the licensing model, let’s first discuss the value of an image. According to legal precedence, an average image not cataloged through the Library of Congress has an estimated value of $5,000 (*1) over the image’s lifetime. That legal precedence also recognizes the lifetime of an image lasting about five years. The U.S. Federal Court devised these figures in order to create a level playing field concerning image theft cases. Of course, this is legal logic and not real world logic. Some images, depending on their branding ability, distribution and creativity can run well into the tens of thousands of dollars.

That being the case, the photographer simply can not charge a customer for the total worth of the image should it be used editorially or as a thumbnail on a website. This is where licensing comes in.

A customer who has hired a photographer may think they own whatever that photographer produces. On the contrary, unless the photographer is employed, the photographer maintains ownership and copyright of the image. The next thing typically heard from the customer is, “Well, how much would it cost me to buy the all the rights?” Considering the photographer will no longer have the ability to license the image(s), it will cost $5,000 or more for each image, as an example. Once the customer is helped off the floor, the licensing model can begin to show its appeal.

Say the customer wants to use an image on the aforementioned website for six months. The photographer licensing that image will run the usage through a licensing calculator that spits out an appropriate price depending on market fluctuations, say $60. The customer then finds that the image fits perfectly within the context of a brochure they’re developing. Again, the licensing calculator spits out another price based on image size, circulation, placement, etc., say $180. And finally the customer chooses to place a half-page ad in a trade magazine featuring that image. Again, the licensing model quotes a figure of let’s say, $240.

In total, the customer has paid $480 plus whatever the actual photoshoot may have cost instead of potentially thousands of dollars. Clearly a big savings to the customer.

Of course every situation is different and licensing totals can soar depending on the customer’s use. So how does one explain the difference between an image being used in a magazine for $200 and the same image in a different magazine for $800?

There really is no good analogy to the licensing model when it comes to photography applications. The licensing of software is only applicable to a point, but the rental car industry seems to hold the best comparison for ease of understanding.

Just like an image has a lifetime, so does a rental car. First there’s the type of car or quality. Photographs are marketed the same way. The cheapest and most mass produced images are those in the microstock industry available to license for as little as $1. These images are intended to be sold often to whomever wants them making a customer’s uniqueness and originality impossible. The higher quality cars, or images, are tailored to the customer and provide a better experience, or overall ‘image’, but they tend to cost a bit more.

Suppose the customer wants to use one image for 90 days and another for 6 months. Back to the rental car theory, if you want to rent a car for one day as compared to a week, there will be a price difference even if the customer plans on driving the car on the same freeway, or use the images in the same place.

Most rental car companies even have varying price scales depending on how far one plans on driving. Similarly, image licensing has a variable scale based on the circulation of the item with which the image will be used. The more miles, or higher quantity of printings, the higher the licensing price will be.

And finally, say the customer chooses to buy the car outright similar to how one would want to purchase an image outright. Renting a car, or licensing an image, for the amount of time and purpose the car or image is to be used, would prove to be much more economical in the long run.

Essentially the goal of the rental car company and that of the photographer are one in the same. Both are trying to fulfill the total worth of their product before the end of its useful life. The more a car is used, the lesser it’s market value, however they’ve succeeded in potentially paying off their investment. Just the same, the more an image is used, the lesser it’s value and such are the hopes that the photographer has managed to recoup their investment in the creation of that image.

Licensing has never been an easy model to explain, but I do hope I’ve laid out enough of the basics to make it easier to grasp.

1. Unfortunately placing a price on an image isn’t that simple. For example a copyright owner undergoing copyright infringement litigation may elect to receive an award of statutory damages of up to $30,000 per infringed work—and up to $150,000 per work in cases of willful infringement—in lieu of actual damages and profits.

How to capture stunning lightning photos

Lightning is one of the most unpredictable and awe inspiring creations of nature one can photograph, but it can be the most unforgiving and dangerous as well.

In the blink of an eye, Nature can turn the night skies into day. Just in case you were blinking, she’ll let you know of her powers with an ominous roar. Everyone is affected by lightning in some way, be it the child who can’t be pried from the windowsill or the little brother stuck under the bed. Perhaps it is the mother consoling her 6-year-old daughter after the power was knocked out or the firefighter on his way to a new brush fire.

Living in California, not many of these storms arise, but when they do, their power and animated life become the talk of the town the next morning. The best part of these mysterious creations is that no one is able to agree on how those spectacular bolts looked. Some say they streaked across the sky from one cloud to another. Others insist these strings of light rose from the ground disappearing into the clouds and then there are those who simply saw the clouds light up and nothing more. I have to agree with all of them.

Lightning appears as a series of jagged bolts. Despite the desire to use a high ISO, lightning is bright and the details are fine. Use a low ISO whenever possible.

Lightning bolts are remembered as bright streaks of jagged light yet, there is so much more to them as only a photograph could show. Working in a camera store for many years, I see numerous valiant efforts in trying to capture lightning on film, but few know how.

In the world of photography, lightning is unique. On any given morning, you can rise before the sun and choose to photograph a flower that blooms this time of year. Or perhaps, try to capture the morning mist rising from the pond nearby, for the fourteenth time. With very few exceptions, can you decide to photograph lightning when you feel like it. It just happens. Be ready. Be prepared. Be smart.

I think back to one particular time when I was photographing lightning and always laugh at the memory. There I was, standing on the shore of the Elkhorn Slough, a marshy estuary half way between Monterey and Santa Cruz, California. I had my trusty aluminum tripod with my camera atop and cable release in hand. The cell phone rings, “You getting all this?” asks a friend. Not only should I have been struck by lightning – repeatedly, but also my odds of winning the lottery must have improved ten fold.


Rule #1 (through however many you can think of): Never stand next to a large body of water surrounded by trees grasping an aluminum ‘lightning rod’ while talking on a cell phone during a thunder storm. Since that time, I have been turned down by six life insurance providers and have undergone intense mental studies. I’m better now.

Wooden tripods have become my best friends along with lengthy cable releases. No longer do I wear steel-toed shoes or metal belt buckles. Both of those are good conductors of electricity. They may not be the cause of getting struck, but heaven forbid that should happen, any metal on the body might result in serious additional burns. I have also learned to sit in the truck when photographing. The rubber tires prevent the vehicle from becoming a direct conductor to the ground. Most importantly, no matter how strong the desire may be to keep dry, never stand beneath a tree. Besides, the branches will get the way of an otherwise great photograph.

These are just some of the tips I have learned to adhere to over time without becoming too paranoid. Although some may say that I’m the first to take a risk in an effort to obtain that perfect photo, I’ll never lose sight of the fact that I’m still around to do so.

So let’s get to the fun stuff already!!!

Despite the advent of the digital camera, long exposure images still don’t fair too well with digital. As the length of exposure increases, so does a phenomenon known as ‘noise’. Noise is similar to grain in film, thus more noise would be akin to a higher ISO or more grain. Because lightning requires rather lengthy exposures, I still prefer to use film over digital. Additionally with most digital cameras, the elements presented during a lightning storm aren’t too friendly to digital cameras versus the older manual film cameras.

Although lightning itself is a beautiful thing, be aware of your foregrounds. Not only do you want to keep power poles and power lines out of your photos, you may want to include some things like your car or distinct trees, etc.


Film has always remained a personal preference. Some are loyal to only one type, while others choose a plethora of styles. If black and white is your forte, Ilford’s Pan F 50 would be a good choice. This film has an incredibly fine grain structure as well as extreme contrast values. When it comes to color, the Fuji Velvia rated at ISO 50, Fuji Provia 100F and Kodak’s E100 VS can produce vibrant colors beyond what we can see with the naked eye. Plus, these films are incredibly fine-grained.

With few exceptions, I have managed to stay away from print films since most come out murky or difficult to control as far as detail is concerned.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Reciprocity characteristics are what enable film to record lightning in such vivid colors. These characteristics vary by film type, so try ’em all ’til ya find one you like.


You’ve probably taken a moment to browse through the photos to see if this article was worth your time. If you’ve made it this far, I think it’s safe to assume that you too would like to create images like these. Sorry, won’t happen. You see that’s what makes lightning such a thrill to photograph. We’ve all seen the clichés, the poppy field, Half Dome and those two white wooden lawn chairs beneath the bent palm tree in the Bahamas. Instantly, pictures came to mind, huh? But, when you think of lightning, is there any one photo that you can think of? Probably not. Well here’s your chance to break away from the clichés.

First, you need a camera. In my opinion, there are only two types that will work in the 35mm size. A completely manual camera such as the venerable Pentax K1000, Ricoh KR-5 series or the Nikon FM-10 or, second, a professional weather resistant SLR like the higher end Canons or Nikons combined with their pro lenses.

Why? When there is lightning, generally, there is rain. In the older manual cameras, there is very little circuitry to be ruined by the weather. This, of course, does not guarantee your camera is invincible. If you happen to be in an area that receives 8 inches of rain in 14.3 seconds, no warranty will cover the removal of fish between the optics of your lens. However, if you are cautious about the amount of elements your equipment is exposed to, you should have no problems enjoying the thrill of photographing lightning again and again.

Taken from a mechanical Hasselblad 500C/M with a 80mm 2.8. Mechanical cameras work wonderfully in the field as weather has little effect on their ability to function.

No matter whom you talk to in the photo industry, they will tell you water is bad. They are 100% correct. If you can avoid water, do so. If you can’t avoid water, remember to wipe down your equipment thoroughly and immediately. I have tried everything to protect my equipment by using Zip Lock bags to trash bags, all of which caused more hassles than it was worth. Which brings us to the professional line up.

I personally use Canon’s EOS-1V due to its resilience against the elements, and a 70-200 f/2.8 for the same reason. Of course, what idiot would ever think of leaving that type of outfit in the rain? Need I refer back to the ‘lightning rod’ incident? O.K., it was an accident. I left it on the roof of my truck overnight after unloading equipment. After all, it’s not supposed to rain in California, right? In the morning, the camera performed flawlessly, and to this day, it has seen many storms and braved them successfully. Kudos to Canon. One major reason for using the 70-200 2.8 instead of a wider lens, is the enormous lens hood that protects the front element from any water that may ultimately distort the image.

In the medium format realm, I use a Hasselblad 500C/M with either a 50mm or an 80mm lens. This camera serves the same purpose as the mechanical 35mm in that it has no circuitry. The reasoning for the choice of lenses is that I am already using a slight telephoto on the 35mm set up. This gives me an opportunity to capture the textured sky as the bolts light up the clouds above. Also, the sharp Carl Zeiss lenses enable me to crop tighter if need be. The only downside is the lack of protection on the front element from water.

As far as 4×5 goes, have a blast. I never use mine in the rain simply because there are too many entrances for the water to reach the film. When it is not raining, I prefer either a 90mm or a 150mm. Basically the same as medium format. Just remember to mark your infinity focus point on the rails before you go out. Trying to find infinity in the dark is pretty difficult!

A final camera of choice that could suffice, if need be, would be the 35mm Pentax IQZoom 90WR, 38-90, all-weather point-and -shoot camera, or it’s replacement, the IQZoom 105WR. Simply set the cameras at their widest angle and attach a C-clamp enabling the shutter to remain depressed. Most of the Pentax line of point-and-shoot cameras have ‘bulb’ capability however, there is nothing to keep water from hitting the front lens element. This may result in slightly distorted images.

The use of filters over a series of time during one exposure can result in a more colorful scene. Here a standard exposure was made with no filter followed by use of a red #25 towards the end of the exposure resulting in two different colored lightning strikes.

Regardless of what camera system you choose it must have a bulb setting and shutter release capability. Other necessities include a wooden tripod and a fairly long shutter release. Optional items you may want to consider bringing with you would be an assortment of filters, flashlight, umbrella, radio and even a chair if your vehicle isn’t around.

Why do I need a chair? Photographing lightning will probably be the easiest thing you’ve ever done. Here’s the secret. Set up your camera in the direction of the cell that is producing the most ruckus. You may have to wait for a couple of bolts to appear before you can determine this. For 100 ISO film, set your aperture to F/8, open the shutter on the ‘bulb’ or ‘B’ mode, lock the shutter release to keep the shutter open, then go inside and hunt for your favorite episode of ‘West Wing’. It’s that simple.

Unless you live near a city where the sky is illuminated by artificial light, you should be able to keep your shutter open for five minutes or more. But wouldn’t more than one bolt of lightning overexpose my picture? Imagine placing your camera in a pitch-black closet. No matter how long you keep the shutter open, the camera will only continue to record darkness which is, well, black. Now imagine you’ve just popped the flash. Besides being blind and doing something only I would do, you have also enabled the surrounding area to become bright enough to record an image on film.

Lightning is the same way, only more centralized. The bolts provide the fill in light necessary to recording the image, only the emanating light from the bolts are more controlled than a haphazard flash bulb. However, nature does provide her form of haphazard flashes. If the sky should light up repeatedly without bolts of lightning, you do run the risk of overexposing the image. After all, the bolts are what provide the impact for a successful photo. The more bolts that can be recorded on film, the more impact the photo will bring.

This is where the chair comes in. Have a seat. Enjoy.

What looks like Mars, is actually the use of multiple filters. When using filters during a single exposure, remember to carefully adjust your aperture to compensate for each filter's density factor.

Cool Tricks

Now that you’re a pro at shooting lightning, try throwing some curves into play. Remember those filters? Use ’em. Open your lens one half stop and stick that yellow in front. Wait a couple a bolts then open your lens an additional two and a half stops and put that #25 red in front. Next, try an #80A blue, then close it one stop and try a green. You could go on forever! All that work for one frame of film. When you get your photos back, they should resemble the surface of some unknown planet with multicolored streaks of lightning. Just remember to compensate your aperture for the varying densities of the filters.

Be creative

Set up your vehicle in front of the camera with you posing. The lightning in the background should make for some pretty killer business cards.

Yet another trick! Say you’ve just finished shooting a great lightning storm with a medium format or large format camera. Unfortunately, the cell causing most of the lightning moved way over to the right.Rather than chucking the image, cut it! Take out the scissors and cut it down to the next frame size. Large format becomes medium format and medium format becomes 35mm. No one can predict where the lightning is going to strike, but by using this method, you have a second chance to compose the image the way you want it to be.

While lightning deserves respect, it's important to remember there are no rules. Experiment and have fun!

Common sense

As statistics try to point out, you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than you have of winning the lottery. Although I personally have nothing to back this up, I have heard rumors of people winning the lottery. This brings me to the conclusion that, for one, statistics suck, and two, those of us who ignore common sense are quickly reminded of who is in charge (pun intended).
Almost all of the images presented were photographed during the early morning hours of an ironic, 9/9/99, storm in Central California. The last storm of comparison, in that area, occurred over eighteen years prior.