Mike Fizer's Tips on Air-to-Air Photography

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In a special supplement to his profile here on AVweb, aviation photographer Mike Fizer offers some tips to help you improve your own air-to-air photo skills.

Like aviation, photography can open up a new way of looking at the world around you. As in aviation, knowledge and experience are the best ingredients for a beautiful photograph. Knowing your equipment, surroundings, and techniques increases the chances for your intended results.

These skills can only be acquired through practice. So be patient and persistent, and in time the skills required to create beautiful images will become second nature. With that said, I have to add that there's no accounting for good luck. I was once told that luck was the combination of opportunity and talent. Ergo, the more you know, the luckier you'll be. So read on...and good luck!

What follows is a summary of how I photograph aircraft and aerial photos for AOPA Pilot magazine. I realize that not everyone has the time, or budget, required for the suggestions I have on techniques and equipment. It's difficult for me to present an outline for readers of all skill or income levels. My presentation will be towards both the serious and casual amateur. I include things that the serious amateur may already know, but the casual amateur does not. So bear with me, I'm trying to please all of the people all of the time.

I'll start with general comments on light, equipment, films and processes, filters, and other related subjects. This is followed up with more specific points about aerial and aircraft photo missions. If for any reason, you see something that you don't understand, or agree with, please e-mail me with your comments and I'll try to incorporate your suggestions into these notes for future readers.

Quality of Light

Think about a clear, crisp winter day versus a hazy summer afternoon. Or the sun raking across a landscape just before sunset versus a dreary, overcast day. What separates these conditions is the kind of light that illuminates the scenes. Winter days generally have little haze, with the sun low in the south, producing longer crisp shadows. Summer days tend to have haze, with the sun high overhead, with slightly softer shadows diffused by the haze. These examples have different "qualities of light." Some of these qualities we deem prettier than others, so we use those conditions to our advantage.

You may notice that the best outdoor photography — be it a landscape or an object — is shot earlier or later in the day. The reason for this is the low angle of the sun at that time of day. These times give you longer shadows, which suggests form, and less contrast between the highlights and shadows. For just about any kind of work, these hours of the day are best for outdoor photography. If you are forced to shoot during mid-day, there is some help with the choice of films and filters to help clean up a picture. I'll take up those points later. There are exceptions, for creative reasons, that you may want to shoot during high noon light; or, during the wintertime in northern areas, the light looks good all day long. Again, this is due to the low angle of the sunlight. Essentially, if it looks good, shoot it.

Overcast skies usually present a problem for photographers, with the dull flat light that results from the clouds. But not all is lost. The quality of this light is very "soft" and is perfect for shooting interiors and panels of aircraft. Polished aluminum also looks great under a brighter overcast, especially if you get a little height and shoot down on the aircraft. If the sky doesn't look good, don't show it. Position the aircraft with trees for a background, or shoot down from a higher perspective.

Choosing the right time for shooting a photograph makes all the difference in the world, for both aerial and landscape photography. If you've got great light, even a disposable camera can take great pictures.

Equipment in general

Discussing equipment, and manufacturers, is a lot like discussing politics. I've seen perfectly rational people lose all sense of reality when debating Nikon vs. Canon, 35 mm vs. 120 and so on. In most cases it really doesn't matter. Today, with computer-designed lenses, most manufacturers produce acceptable equipment, and, in most cases, 35 mm holds up as well as 120. If you are interested in photography as a casual hobby, with no intentions of being published, a standard single lens reflex (SLR) camera and a few lenses will suffice. Recent technologies in the "Point and Shoot" cameras have made them a wonderful, though limited, option. All these cameras can produce 8" x 10" prints of fine quality. As I said earlier, if you pick you time and location wisely, almost any camera will work.

If you have a serious interest in photography, with plans of big framed prints, or being published, then equipment does matter. I use 35mm for my air-air aircraft photography because I need the agility of that system. Because of my choice of film and lenses, my 35 mm image can run an acceptable 11" x17" required for a two page spread in the magazine. If I'm shooting air to grounds, or landscapes, I prefer 120 format.

More often than poor equipment, what degrades an image is motion. If the camera is not stable relative to the shutter speed, your images can be slightly blurred. When enlarged, that motion is magnified many times. So when in doubt, use a faster shutter speed, or a tripod to minimize that motion. When using a tripod, and shutter speeds from a fifteenth of a second or slower, I would suggest a cable release for tripping the shutter. This depends on whether you're using a wide angle vs. a telephoto lens, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

I would also recommend locking up the mirror if you're using a SLR with a long lens. Depending on the camera and lens, the action of the mirror raising up during the exposure can create a vibration that shakes the camera, especially with exposures from a fifteenth to a full second.

Cameras

I primarily use 35 mm cameras. For years I used the Nikon F4 with an assortment of lenses and dedicated hand strobes. I switched to the Canon EOS 1N a few years ago. Besides the high quality of Canon's "L" series lenses, what sold me was the ergonomics of the body. It felt good and made sense. I can operate the camera with slight movements of my fingers. I own the following lenses: 14 f/2.8L, 17-35 f/2.8L zoom, 28-70 f/2.8L zoom, 70-200 f/2.8L zoom, 75-300 IS f/4.5-5.6, 100 f/4 macro, 50 f/1.8 and 1.4X tele-converter. All these lenses have auto focus function, and I use it most of the time. You can use the manual focus if you want. I'm a big fan of zooms, the current crop of good zooms have all the quality of a fixed focal length lens. I know very little about third party lenses, such as Sigma or Tamron, and can't comment about their quality.

I also own a number of the Canon dedicated hand strobes. I can't stress enough the importance of TTL (through the lens) metering with hand strobes. I use them for interiors, and they're quite good. You can dial the intensity of the strobe up or down in relation to the ambient (existing) light. It's common for me to work the strobe one to one-and-a-half stops down from the ambient light level. It gives you a natural looking image. I have not tried any third party TTL strobes, but I've heard they work fine. The other advantage to the higher end strobes is the ability swivel the flash head laterally and vertically; this allows "bouncing" the light off a headliner, or ceiling, for natural looking illumination. If you don't own a handstrobe that allows TTL metering, or does not swivel, consider shooting with ambient light only. If you're careful about positioning the aircraft for good light inside, most of the time you'll be fine.

For the 120 format I use a Mamiya 645 Pro with a small assortment of lenses. I purchased these for the pistol grip and two frames per second motor drive. In the last few years Hasselblad and Contax have come out with similar designs, and knowing their history, I'm sure they're wonderful, yet pricey, systems.

Some of you may be familiar with the 4x5-film format. It's hard to beat an image from a 4x5, but in the air, the system requires some patience.There's a family of 4x5 cameras called field cameras which can be used handheld. My only problem with them is the limited amount of film and situations I can shoot. But for air to ground photography, there's nothing like them.

Tripods and Gyros

I use slower transparency films — thus I'm usually operating at relatively slower shutter speeds. For air to air photography, I'm shooting between 1/250th of a second down to 1/30th of a second. With vibrations and turbulence that accompany flight, it's hard to hold the camera stable. I use a Ken Lab Gyro Stabilizer (Old Lyme, CT; (860) 767-3235) to stabilize the camera. It's a small gyro that bolts into the tripod mount of the body, and when spun up, takes away most of the small vibrations that can plague shutter speeds at 1/125th or slower. Gyros can be rather expensive, but if it's important, it might be worth while to rent one from several large photo stores around the country. Ken Lab makes four models, the KS2, KS4, KS6 and the KS8. I use the KS4, but would recommend the KS6 for 120 cameras. I've noticed when my gyro drains it's battery and winds down, it still handy to have it attached to the camera. The added weight helps stabilize the camera. One might consider making a small (2- to 4-lb.) weight to attach to the camera; the added mass will help.

Mike FizerFor ground shots or interiors, if I have any doubt about stability, I use a tripod. A good rule of thumb is to double the focal length of the lens for your shutter speed. If using a 50mm lens, shoot at 1/125th; a 200mm would require 1/500th. If you're shooting air to grounds, it's probably safe to shoot at 1/500th all the time; depth of field is not crucial when shooting at infinity. Canon has a line of Image Stabilized (IS) lenses that electronically control the stability of the image through a, would you believe, small gyro stabilized optical element. These are wonderful lenses, and if you have the budget, worth checking out.

Films and Labs

Let me start by saying that film choice is very subjective, so go with what you like. What follows are my reasons for what I choose, not what you have to choose. I use transparency (slide) film almost exclusively. The reason is that for reproduction, transparency film results in higher quality. When scanned for printing, the original film is being used. Prints from negatives are a second-generation image, and though can give satisfactory results, don¹t match the quality one can get from transparencies. Color negatives can be scanned for reproduction, then the image digitally reversed, recent test has shown that there is no reason why negative film can not be used. It's simply easier to store and view slides. With either transparency or negative film, I use only the professional versions, which are available at most camera stores. For transparency I shoot Fuji Velvia RVP 50 ISO or Fuji Astia RAP 100 ISO. Velvia is one of the sharpest films available, and its contrast and punchy color lend itself to my subject matter. I would not recommend Velvia for shooting interiors or people; I use Astia for those situations. Astia has less contrast, and has more a neutral, though cooler, color palette. I use a warming filter when shooting Astia.

With either transparency or negative film, I use only the professional versions, which are available at most camera stores. For transparency I shoot Fuji Velvia RVP 50 ISO or Fuji Astia RAP 100 ISO. Velvia is one of the sharpest films available, and its contrast and punchy color lend itself to my subject matter. I would not recommend Velvia for shooting interiors or people; I use Astia for those situations. Astia has less contrast, and has more a neutral, though cooler, color palette. I use a warming filter when shooting Astia.

Kodak makes excellent transparency films, but for what I do, I prefer the Fujichromes. I have high regard for both Kodachrome 64 and 25. But the processing can only be done at a small number of labs around the country, and the two to three day turn around is too long. The Fujichromes and Ektachromes are what we call E-6 films, after the name of the process. This process is available at most custom labs, and can be turned around in 2-4 hours.

If you're interested in just using color negative, you're shooting options are much better. Current negative films are quite good. The 400 ISO films have wonderful grain structure and are very forgiving. I use Fuji NPS 160 ISO or Fuji NPH 400 ISO color neg film. Because of the higher film speeds, you can shoot at faster shutter speeds, or with lower light levels. The results I've seen with 2" film are quite impressive. For reasons I'm not familiar with, the 400 ISO negative films have a much finer grain than the transparency equivalents. So if you need the speed, I recommend the negative films. Negatives also give you the option of manipulating the image when printing, overall colors can be shifted, and areas also can be lightened or darkened. This kind of service is available at custom photo labs.With the advent of computers and photo manipulation software, transparencies can be scanned and manipulated even more so.

I can't say enough about the importance of using a custom lab for the serious amateur. Though they can be more expensive, the results are well worth it. There's a lot to be said for the ability to talk with a professional about what you're trying to accomplish. If you're a casual amateur, or have limited budget, the processing one gets through a supermarket can work. The only draw back is that you have no control over the results, you get what you get. If this is your situation, you'll need to tailor your shooting to that lab. Don't get me wrong, you can get good results with these labs, you just have no dialog with who's doing the work. If for some reason there's a problem with your images, a cashier in a super market is not going to be able to critique that problem.

Another option is the mini-lab, or one-hour photo. These labs have the machines that can do some limited manipulations on color and density. (Density is how light or dark an image is, be it a transparency, negative, or print.) The lab manager may have enough photographic experience to guide you to better pictures.

Bracketing

There's an old saying, "The only difference between the amateur and professional photographers is how much film they shoot." Part of the reason for this adage, which is truer than some pros want to admit, is what we call "bracketing." Bracketing is varying the exposure of the same shot. I have my cameras set up to shoot three images, each a third of a stop different, one above "normal" and one below "normal." If the photo is important, shoot a couple of frames more to be sure I get the shot. For transparency, I'd recommend 1/3 to 1/2 stop brackets, and for negative, 1/2 to a full stop. For sunsets or silhouettes, you can probably increase those exposures.

Filters

Practically everything I shoot has some form of filtration on the lens. This consist of two kinds of filters; polarizing or warming. Both of these filters are available in the glass screw mount variety. Common manufacturers are Hoya or Tiffen. I use more expensive versions produced by B+W or Heliopan. Hoyas and Tiffens should be available at most camera stores. European B+W and Heliopan can be found at larger professional camera stores.

Mike FizerFor ground shots or interiors, if I have any doubt about stability, I use a tripod. A good rule of thumb is to double the focal length of the lens for your shutter speed. If using a 50mm lens, shoot at 1/125th; a 200mm would require 1/500th. If you're shooting air to grounds, it's probably safe to shoot at 1/500th all the time; depth of field is not crucial when shooting at infinity. Canon has a line of Image Stabilized (IS) lenses that electronically control the stability of the image through a, would you believe, small gyro stabilized optical element. These are wonderful lenses, and if you have the budget, worth checking out.

The polarizing filter is wonderful for cutting through haze, and cleaning up reflections. If I'm forced into shooting at mid-day, I rely on the polarizer for cleaner horizons and to saturate what color is in the background. For air to ground photography, polarizers can greatly improve the landscape in brighter light. If I had the film speed to work with, I'd probably shoot with a polarizer for landscapes in lower light, as long as reflections weren't important. But when I'm shooting air to airs in the morning, I want to use the colorful reflections I see on the fuselage of the aircraft. A polarizer would remove those reflections. DO NOT USE A POLARIZER THROUGH AN AIRCRAFT WINDOW! You'll get some crazy color bands.

All polarizers tend to have a slight cool (blue) color, and with the less expensive polarizers, it verges on a green tinge. To correct for this, I also use a warming filter to warm up the color. B+W and Heliopan produce a"warm polarizer" with the warm color built in to the polarizer. You should also be aware of linear versus circular polarizers. If you use manual focus, you can use either, but if you use auto focus, you should use the circular polarizer. I should warn you, the B+W and Heliopan filters are costly: my 77 mm B+W polarizer runs around $300.

Warming filters deserve a little explanation. In bright sunlight, objects in the open shade are illuminated by reflected light. In most cases, that light is the open blue sky, and is the color of its source: blue. Another source of this blue light is ultraviolet rays. An example of this would be the shady side of a barn on a clear winter day, set in a field of snow. There's little haze to bounce the light around, and the snow kicks back the blue already coming in from above. (Next time you see a photograph of a snow scene, notice the color of the shadows.)

If you were to photograph someone in this ambient light, they would be very blue. To correct for this blue — it's practically everywhere — filter manufacturers produce warming filters for varying amounts of blue. There are two choices of warming filters available today. The American version, based of the Kodak Wratten series of filtration, is called the 81 series filters. These are available in glass and gelatin filters. The 81 series consist of the 81 (least correction) and progresses through the 81A, 81B, 81C, and finally the 81EF (most correction). The 81EF will correct most of the blue in the example given above, open shade with clear blue skies. (I also like the 81A and 81B for shooting people on transparency film.) The other choice in warming filters is the European KR series, (B+W and Heliopan) the KR1.5, KR3 and the KR6. They are made for the same reasons as the Wratten series, but have a little more red in them.

I prefer the KR series for the aviation and aerial work that I do, especially at sunset. These filters are also handy for overcast days. Generally speaking, a KR3 or an 81C is good for the slight blue prevalent on a cloudy day. I shoot all my interiors and panels with a KR3 (81C) because I use so much ambient light. This light is similar to the open shade scenario mentioned above.

I don't find myself using a UV filter very often, except in the studio. Strobes, especially hand strobes, have a high UV content, this can give white fabrics a blue tinge if not filtered. If you shoot color negative, I'd still recommend using filters as suggested. The lab can always make adjustments in color and density, but they're dialed into certain specifications, and will not know what you're thinking.