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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Getting Published Isn't Just for the Pros

If you are an aspiring photographer hoping to turn pro, or even a hobbyist like myself, you've likely spent hours shooting and processing images, comparing your work to the work of pros, and finally concluding, “man I suck.” That’s how I’ve felt ever since I took up photography as a hobby in 2010. It’s not necessarily a bad way to feel as it keeps me grounded and pushes me to get better. However, it’s nice every once in a while to receive some validation that I don’t quite suck as much as I think. It’s especially nice when that validation comes from a source as prestigious as the Smithsonian. Read on to find out how I was able to get an image published in Air and Space magazine, as well as some tips I learned along the way.

Just over a year ago, I posted a story relating my experience flying with Sean D. Tucker and Brian Norris from the Team Oracle aerobatic flight team. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I really thought that nothing more would come of that day. In fact, my post spoke little of the photography side of the experience as I didn't realize I had done anything special. Imagine my surprise, then, when I was informed that the Smithsonian Air and Space magazine wanted to use one of my photos in a September 2013 story about the “grunts” that support airshow stars. I was beyond elated as, for me, photography is just a hobby with so much left to master, that I expected nothing from my images that day beyond a pat on the back from family and friends.

Like the other photographers that flew with me, I had packaged up my images and sent them off to Team Oracle along with an effusive thank you for the ride of my life. I am sure you can imagine my shock when, over a year later, I received an email from Brian Norris (one of the subjects of the Smithsonian's story) asking me for confirmation that the image was mine. I very nearly missed the email as it landed in my spam folder! After recovering from my shock, thanking my lucky stars that I looked at my spam folder before emptying it, and confirming that the picture was mine, I anxiously waited a month to see it in print (it just wasn't real to me until I saw that).

Getting the Shot

As someone that is afraid of heights, I never imagined that I would one day be sitting right on the edge of an aircraft with an exposed side and just a simple safety tether strapped to my back. Sure, we had seat belts too, but I often had to remove that to position myself for a shot. That left just a safety tether that had enough slack on it that I’d still fly out of the aircraft and be dangling by the tether if I wasn't careful. The adrenaline rush of being so close to another aircraft in-flight, and a mind racing through all the technical elements of photography, trumped all fears that day.

I still laugh when I think back to being jostled around constantly while trying to keep my hand steady, thinking I couldn't possibly be getting these images in focus, and then hearing a voice from the cockpit say, "Did you get the shot, or do you need Sean to do it again?" My reply was often a meek "yes, I got it" as I thought to myself, "can I really tell Sean D. Tucker, the world-famous aerobatic star, to do it again just for me?" Thankfully after one of his inverted "Top Gun" maneuvers, I found the courage to ask him to do it again after spinning through some blurry images on my camera screen. He deftly rolled his aircraft inverted one more time, and that's how I got the shot.

Air-to-Air Photography Tips

I don’t pretend for a moment to be an expert on air-to-air photography just because I happened to get some good shots. However, I would like to share some of the tips I learned first-hand from the experience in hopes they can help anyone that gets the opportunity to try it. Recognizing my limited skill set, I also reached out to the amazing Jessica Ambats whose air-to-air work is truly impressive. She was able to validate much of what I’ve learned as well as provide additional pointers. Look for her comments wherever you see the “Pro Tip” label, but also be sure to check out this fantastic article she published on the topic.

When reading through this, please remember an important pointer I received from Jessica: Every photographer has their own personal preferences. Consider this a guide on what can work, but don’t be afraid to experiment. 

Shutter speed: This is very important when shooting props. If you forget anything else I mention here, don’t forget this. You could have the best camera in the world, with the best lens, but if you try to shoot a prop-powered aircraft at 1/1000s, you’ll end up with a crisp, clear, and likely useless image. No one looking at an image with a critical eye wants to see that “stopped prop” look. Instead, try your best to shoot slow. For me, 1/100s seemed to be the sweet spot for getting the smooth, continuous, prop arc (see below).

Pro Tip: Jessica likes to bracket between 1/60s and 1/125s for prop planes, but also recommends a few shots at 1/200s if the air is turbulent just to be safe.

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1/100s shutter speed over Eden Prairie, MN

Now, you can certainly bump it up a little higher. In the example below, I would never have gotten this in focus if I hadn't gone to 1/250s. This is another example where I initially forgot I was at 1/100s and had to have Sean roll the aircraft inverted again. This was captured right as he began the roll the second time. The prop isn't a continuous arc, but it still shows motion.

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1/250s shutter speed as Sean begins to roll over the photo ship

Finally, if the prop is no longer in the image, or you are shooting a jet, crank that shutter up. Don’t go too fast though. In the example below, I spun it up to 1/800s of a second, which allowed me to get the rider in focus despite being zoomed to 84mm. My mistake, however, was that I forgot I had locked my ISO at 100. This forced the camera (in shutter priority) to select an aperture of f/4.5 for proper exposure. The result of this mistake is a shallow depth of field that has the rider is in focus, but not Sean. If I had bumped up my ISO, I could have likely corrected for that.

Pro Tip: Jessica often shoots at 1/400s when photographing jets.

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1/800s shutter speed at 84mm

Shoot what you have: I used an entry-level Canon T2i to capture my published image. Sure, a 5D Mark III would do a better job, but I simply can’t afford that, and it wouldn't make sense for me to try given that I’m not a pro trying to sell my images. I recommend investing more in the lens than the camera body.

Choose the right lens: If you don’t have multiple camera bodies to switch between, you’ll want to be sure to pick one good lens. There’s no changing lenses up there unless you have a lot of time, are amazing at doing it, or are crazy and don’t care if something flies out of the plane. The shot in question was captured with a Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 lens. You might think that’s too short, but remember, you are really close. I ended up having the chance to shoot air-to-air with Team Oracle again the following year, and that time I chose a Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens. That worked out very well. If you shoot Canon, the 24-105mm is a popular, high-quality, and relatively cheap lens (~$750) with a very useful focal length. It allowed me to get the wide shots, as well as zoom in for close crops of the pilots. Also, f/4 is generally plenty fast for this type of photography.

Pro Tip: Jessica’s favorite focal lengths are 24-105mm and 70-200mm.

It doesn't have to be technically perfect: My shot certainly isn't. If you are hoping to get an image published, what’s important is that it tells the story the publisher wanted to tell. If you’re a hobbyist, you likely aren't shooting with a specific mandate from a client, so try to get a variety of shots of the moments you enjoy.

Hold your hands steady: This probably seems obvious, but you really need to focus hard on this when you’re shooting at 1/100s of a second from an aircraft with an exposed side. An image stabilized lens will help. It also helps to not rest your hand against the side of the fuselage. This is something I would normally do to steady my hand, but I quickly realized that the fuselage is vibrating from the spin of its own props and the fact that we’re being buffeted around by the wind.

Pro Tip: Jessica agrees with not resting against the fuselage, and also advises to keep your lens out of the airstream. Additionally, she mentions that gyrostabilizers are available, but they are heavy, so she only uses them when the desired effect calls for extra slow shutter speeds or the ride is expected to be particularly rough.

Spray and pray (in short bursts): My solution to the vibration problem was to resort to the time-honored spray and pray approach. This consists of short bursts of the shutter, and hoping that at least one of the resulting 5-10 images is in focus. Some photographers are ashamed to admit they do this. I’m not. It’s honestly how I got many of those shots. I’ve found that I can usually adjust to the vibration introduced by the camera’s own mirror movement (in an SLR) after the first frame, and the extra frames help me to steady myself. Don’t do this too much though as you’ll want to kill yourself when sifting through the images during post-processing.

Pro Tip: While continuous shutter mode is an option, Jessica prefers to limit this to very fast maneuvers like rolls. Her experience has been that she is steadier and gets better results one shot at a time (remember every photographer has their own preferences, and Jessica is very good at what she does).

Shoot in RAW: On my first outing with Team Oracle, I was still too afraid to take the RAW plunge. I shot all in JPEG, and it hurt me a bit when I wanted to recover highlights in the clouds, or brighten the shadows on the aircraft fuselages. The second time out, I shot in RAW and was amazed at how much more I could do to an image to improve it. One major limitation of this approach is the speed your camera can write images at. By my second outing, I had upgraded to a Canon T4i with the fastest SD card I could buy. That helped make shooting totally in RAW a more realistic possibility, but the T4i’s frame buffer still isn't large enough to support more than a burst of 6-8 images before I have to pause for a few seconds. In some cases like the snap roll below, I had to quickly switch to JPEG to be sure I captured the shot I wanted. This is one area where it may make sense to spend more on the body and get a 7D that can shoot much faster in RAW.

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Sean D. Tucker performs a snap roll over Minnesota

Low ISO: You’ll generally have plenty of light with this type of photography so try to keep your ISO as low as possible. Just don’t forget to bump it up if you need to crank up the shutter speed and want deep depth of field. 

Pay attention to composition and lighting: As with any subject, it is always important to pay attention to these things. The unique element here is that you won’t be able to just step over and move your subjects (or yourself). In the air, you’ll need to coordinate both with your pilot as well as the pilot of the aircraft you’re shooting. They’re the ones that will have to control your lighting and background to a certain extent so ask them to position the aircraft where you need it. When I went up with Team Oracle, I was asked to direct Sean using instructions such as, “Up ten, down ten, forward ten, and back ten.” Also, don’t be afraid to direct any riders to do what you need them to do. In the image that got published, I still kick myself for not thinking to ask the front seat rider to turn and look at the camera instead of looking back at Sean.

Pro Tip: Certainly one of the skills that defines a pro, Jessica feels that being able to properly plan a photo flight and coordinate everything in-air, is far more important than your gear. Once again, be sure to check out Jessica’s article on air-to-air photography as she’s got a lot of great advice on this point. To learn more about the planning Jessica does before each flight, check out this video produced by Karen Hutton:

Get the images in front of someone that can use them: I don’t have any great advice here; only that I know this was instrumental in getting my image published. I got lucky with the connection to Team Oracle that I had through my employer. Most won’t have an opportunity like that, so you’ll have to work a lot harder to market your images. The best advice I can offer here is make sure that you attach metadata to your images when posting them online so that people will see your image and be able to identify you when performing web searches. Also, get your images out there in as many forums as you can (500px, Flickr, Facebook, SmugMug,, etc.).

Pro Tip: Jessica has got some great advice on the types of clients that can make use of air-to-air shots here.

Want to do more? Ask, and offer to do it for free: Flying is expensive; very expensive. Chances are that if you’re not a pro being commissioned to do a job, you won’t be able to afford paying pilots to go up and fly for you. What’s the alternative? Get out to as many airshows as you can and talk to the pilots. Tell them you’re and air-to-air photographer (they don’t have to know that you think you suck). Tell them you’ll do it for free and give them copies of the photos. This won’t fly forever if you plan to go pro (no pun intended), but as a hobbyist, the experience, thrill, and recognition are more important to me than being paid to shoot the images.

Unique Moments

I know that many hobbyists like myself shoot for much of their lives and never see an image of theirs published in the media. For that reason, I am incredibly grateful to my employer, Team Oracle, and the Smithsonian for giving me this opportunity. To any other hobbyist photographers out there, I want to remind you that it isn't always about technical perfection. An unusual situation or unique moment can easily trump a technically "perfect" image. Don't get too caught up in the camera gear, or fears that you aren't good enough. Focus on finding unique or unusual moments, do your best, shoot what you love, and maybe something great will come from it.

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