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Aviation Photography – The Words Are the Easy Part

Aviation Photography – The Words Are the Easy Part

Barrett Tillman, historian, author and Flight Journal regular is fond of saying, “God forgives man that time spent looking at airplane photos.” Outside of actually flying, nothing gives aviation types as much pleasure as looking at high-quality (or interesting) photos of flying machines. It almost makes no difference what kind of airplane. We’ll look at anything, but the more unusual, the more artistic, the more in-your-face, the better.
All that having been said, it is a fact that most of us don’t think past the photo. We don’t think about where it comes from, who, or how they took it. Aviation magazines are built on a foundation of aircraft photos, yet, the readers (lookers, actually) take them for granted. That’s why I laughed out loud, when I ran across the photo above mixed in with B-26 photos sent to me by Phil Makanna. It says so much about air-to-air photography.
The entire process has to be carefully choreographed and the photographer’s most unrecognized talent is his ability to control the logistics so everything is just right. Once they’re in the air actually shooting, life is good.
First there’s the question of weather. It’s easy to travel half way around the world and find gray, sodden skies for the duration. When skies are gray, airplanes don’t look happy. If, however, you can climb on top the cloud deck, that’s a huge bonus.
The time of the year has an effect: a background of snow or lifeless trees causes the viewer to shiver. That’s when the photog has to get creative with background shadows and sun angles.
A pair of good formation pilots is critical. The photographer can’t shoot what isn’t there and there is nothing scarier than trying this with a newbie formation pilot. It’s both dangerous and non-productive. Especially in any but the smoothest air where the airplanes move around like corks, challenging both the photographer and the pilots.
The middle of the day doesn’t exist for a photographer. It has to be first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon to capture that low, warm, golden light that shows off the airplane’s most voluptuous curves through reflections. An airplane shot at noon has no dimension or texture.
The list goes on and on and each factor can make or break the shoot by rendering a potentially killer subject, flat and lifeless. And, while all this is going on, the photographer is being bounced around, hanging out of an open door or fighting canopy reflections, compensating for F-stop to saturate the image (REAL photographers don’t depend on Photoshop), possibly freezing his butt off, working with numb fingers and generally fighting everything around him to make this thing happen.
Air-to-air photography is hard work and when the shoot is over, like as not, he’ll run a tub of scalding hot water and soak. If he doesn’t, he’ll have sore muscles from straining so hard to get the shot.
Pretty airplane photos don’t just happen. The photographer makes them happen.


This is what it REALLY looks like behind the camera. Photog Phil Makanna is strapped into the back of Planes of Fame’s B-25 as pilots Tony Ritzman and Carl Scholl snuggle up close in Kermit Weeks’ B-26. Marauder by Martin. Camera by Nikon. Film by Fuji. Sneakers by Brooks.


by Budd Davisson
Editor-in-chief Budd Davisson has spent his share of time in the air-to-air arena producing over 300 magazine covers and a 55-piece one-man photo show at Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum that hung for eight years.

Updated: November 27, 2017 — 2:55 PM
Flight Journal Bookshelf 275x125 v2


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  1. Thanks for the insight, Barrett & thanks to Budd for th great work!

  2. Ghost, you’re the best, but do remember to use a fast shutter speed as I move about in formation on the camera ship!

    1. Just now read your comment about making aircraft pictures, “Use a fast shutter speed.” Nope. As a long time and often published aviation photographer, I learned the hard way NOT to use a fast shutter speed. It stops the props. The plane looks parked in the air. Prop planes require a slow shutter speed to show prop blur. A pet irritation is paintings which don’t show a complete prop disk, which is what the naked eye sees, but with each individual prop blade blurred, as if the painting is actually a photograph using a shutter. I ruined a week’s worth of Reno Air Race pictures by using a faster than 1/250/sec shutter speed. They were unsalable.

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