I move around a lot – sometimes for work and sometimes for fun. Most of the time, I’m just moving in circles in the air. For that reason I don’t always have my gear with me when I book a shoot; the logistics don’t always work out for me to travel to get my gear and then go to my shoot. When I was recently in Michigan, my gear was stuck in California and my shoots were in Arizona and Utah!
It was to be an intense air-to-air mission at four locations with five clients and six airplanes. I was able to order everything I needed from BlueHillco to arrive at times based on relatively last-minute weather changes and before my first shoot. This is one of the biggest benefits of renting. Here, I will walk you through a day in the life of an aviation photographer
Aviation Photography: Process, Settings, and Safety
I arrived at my first location, Sedona, a few days early and familiarized myself with the Canon 5D Mark IV. Each of the air-to-air shoots presented their own particular challenges and I had to try and manage them as best as possible. They were all scheduled for sunrise or sunset when the low light embraces the landscape and the air is (hopefully) calmer. Aviation photography isn’t just about airplanes – it’s about the stunning sceneries general aviation pilots and their passengers get to enjoy. Likewise, my shoots aren’t just about photos – they’re also about the client experience. I am exposed to a specialized form of flying, get to work with expert pilots, and have the privilege of visiting remarkable places.
The first plane of this trip was a Pilatus PC-12, a single-engine turboprop aircraft manufactured in Stans, Switzerland. Its large wingspan of 53′ alters how I set up compositions and the propeller’s relatively slow speed of 1700 RPM meant I needed to use a shutter speed of around 1/100th of a second while shooting handheld in occasional chop. Sunset shoots have the luxury of working towards the good light. I could take time to establish our orbit pattern over the desired backdrop and the pilots settled into formation as the light continued to improve.
At sunrise the air was smooth. I requested my photoship pilot to fly racetrack patterns west of Sedona, where the terrain was illuminated by the early sun. It’s a luxury shooting the Daher TBM’s five-blade prop, which turns at a max speed of 2400 RPM. I was able to push shutter speeds up to 1/160th of a second and still capture a full prop arc.
Aviation Photography Gear
I always take two cameras with me in the photoship, as it isn’t wise to attempt changing lenses next to an open door in a windy environment thousands of feet above the ground. The Canon 24-105mm f/4 works nicely for vast landscape shots and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 puts focus on the plane and pilots.
Given low (but not too low) water levels, the terrain at Lake Powell between Utah and Arizona is exceptionally spectacular and its tremendous scale is apparent from above. Shooting jets, in general, allows more leeway with camera settings since there’s no propeller to influence my shutter speed decisions.
My “corner office” in the rear of the Bonanza A36 photoship came with a great view but was not a comfortable environment. It was windy, noisy, cold, and bumpy.
I needed to wear many layers of clothes and was strapped in with a harness.To communicate directly with the pilot of the subject plane, I used a push-to-talk switch to give positioning instructions such as “10 feet lower” to achieve the composition I want.
This was the last air-to-air shoot of a busy and exhausting few days. We must always be careful not to get complacent. Our team had just completed three successful photo flights (following many more over the years) but from a safety standpoint, we operated as if it was our very first. I only work with highly experienced formation pilots. We conduct a thorough briefing session before every flight, even if it’s repetitive information. Topics covered include takeoff/rejoin/landing procedures, the flight route, photo maneuvers, airspace/weather considerations, and emergency/contingency plans. Being a pilot myself helps to contribute to all aspects of the planning.
For the last location, there was a small window of time during the very first and last light of the day when the Monument Valley area was particularly dramatic. The terrain peaks were glowing but the ground was dark. To take advantage of these conditions you must be willing to wake up very early – our call time in this instance was 4:05 AM!
When my work in the air is complete, it just begins on the ground. My company, Base Turn, designs aviation-themed apparel featuring patterns from my photos. It’s a place where flying and yoga mindsets meet. For more adventure-styled photographers like myself, renting often eases logistics concerns and frees up mental space to focus on safety, my subject, and shooting.