Mike Fizer's Air-to-Air Photography Checklist

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Aviation photographer Mike Fizer provides these handy checklists for getting the best airplane photos. A special supplement to AVweb's profile of Fizer.

Preflight Briefing

  • Use formation-trained pilots!

  • Discuss a flight plan, where are you going, what kind of airspace, obstacles, etc.

  • Confirm radios operational and frequencies to use, with back up. Don't fly without radio communications, and that includes an intercom!

  • Confirm airspeeds: Chase aircraft needs maneuvering speed

  • Turns: 360s are common part of the photo mission, talk about bank angles and directions.

  • Take a safety pilot in both aircraft if possible, more eyes the better.

  • Break procedure: Who's going where when things aren't right. Do not lose sight of other aircraft!

Photo Mission

  • Be airborne by sunrise or one hour before sunset. Low light looks best.

  • Search out uncluttered background. Avoid roads and buildings, use lakes or undeveloped areas. City skylines can be an exception to the rule.

  • Unless the photo requires a particular altitude, search out an altitude that's smooth: minor turbulence can cause big problems in low light. High speed color negative films (160 ISO-400 ISO) can solve this problem.

  • Pick a heading that puts the sun between 10 and 2 o'clock, from the pilot's perspective, for extended shooting time with a particular look. Then try flying several 360s for constantly changing light.

  • Position the subject airplane; look at existing photography for a feel on angles. If there is haze, get above it or fly low and shoot down. Try a polarizer and/or warming filters.

  • Don't skimp on film. BRACKET EXPOSURES!

Prop Arc and Shutter Speeds

  • Have subject aircraft keep rpm's up as much as possible.

  • Full prop disc depends on number of blades and rpm's.

  • Piston aircraft: 1/250 and slower, 1/500 will work, but will probably freeze the prop.

  • For a full disc on a two blade prop, 1/60; for a three blade prop, 1/125.

  • Turboprop or Radial engines: These aircraft operate at lower rpm's. 1/125 or slower.

  • Jets: No props...no problem!

  • When in doubt, shoot some at 1/500 to be sure you get something, then back off to the slower shutter speeds.

Ground Shots

  • Low light! First two hours or the last two hours of the day works best.

  • Look for uncluttered background.

  • Put the sun at the aircraft's 10 and 2 o'clock position, depending on what side you shooting.

  • Clean up the control surfaces; level ailerons, elevators and rudder.

  • With the right position, any lens selection is valid.

  • Don't just shoot eye level; lay on the ground, get on a ladder. Fuel trucks work great for a stable platform.

  • If you're shooting at sunset or afterwards, use the color to your advantage. Walk around the aircraft and look for interesting reflections.

  • When in doubt, use a tripod and cable release. Unless it's part of an intended look, a photo can't be too sharp.

  • Use filters like polarizers, warming filters, graduated filters, etc.

  • Carry a handheld radio for communicating with the pilot if the aircraft is running.

  • Don't skimp on film. BRACKET! BRACKET! BRACKET!

Interiors

  • Always park the aircraft directly into, or away, from the sun. This avoids or minimizes the direct sunlight contaminating the interior. If you're shooting a panel, put the sun on the aircraft's tail, or at your back. If you're shooting a seating area, park it with the nose in the sun. Overcast days are great for shooting interiors, no harsh shadows.

  • Lens selection depends on the size of the aircraft; I use a 17- to 35-mm zoom for all of my work. Most interiors can be shot with a 24 mm or wider.

  • Shoot at least f/8 or more for extended depth of field.

  • Filter for the extra blue light from open shade, I use a KR3 (81C).

  • Shoot available light, it's more natural. If you want, bounce a handstrobe off the headliner dialed down 1- 1 1/3rd stop from ambient light. This can brighten up some interiors. Be aware that the color of your headliner will cast the same color in the photo.

  • The light coming through windows of the aircraft can fool meters; the bright light tends to underexpose the interior. I overexpose 1 to 1 1/2 stops from what my meter reads.

  • Using a spot meter, if available, can avoid these problems.

  • Use a tripod and cable release when possible.

Panels

  • Turn on panel power for any lights, radios, GPSs, etc.

  • Shoot with ambient light so those lights appear on film, and use a bounced hand strobe to fill in, or brighten the panel. Panels also look great at sunset, or night.

  • Place the camera fairly high in the cabin, this helps with possible hotspots caused by hand strobes.

  • A 20mm lens is ideal for panels: 24 mm might get you by.

  • Drape a black cloth around the cockpit, out of camera view, to cut the reflections in the glass of instruments.

  • Spring clamps or duct tape works well to suspend the cloth.

  • Use a tripod and cable release when possible.