The Well Rounded Story
I think it’s safe to say that as photographers we often have the image we want in our head before we press the shutter, a degree of planning, knowledge and previous experience all combine to create that all important shot list. In aviation it’s essential that you have a photo brief prior to flying, it enables the crew to bring up any possible problems with it, avoids the ‘hold my beer’ kind of moments and means that all parties can work to the same schedule and timings, the latter being incredibly important in the military flying world.
There is however a limit to what you can plan, certainly when that comes to portraits of aircrew, techs and ground crew. Pre-planned/posed portraits tend to be incredibly rigid and un-natural, understandably so as I can attest to how much I hate having my photo taken and even more so when I know it’s happening.
So what’s the best way around this? Un-posed and natural portraits, I will still mention in the briefing that throughout the flight I’ll be taking photos of crewmembers, after-all there are crews who perform specific mission roles and as such are not comfortable with having their photos out in the public domain.
These images are commonly referred to as the ‘human element’ showing the crewmembers who operate the aircraft, technicians and maintenance personnel who look after the aircraft and the groundcrew who dispatch and refuel the aircraft. In my opinion the most dramatic images come from the aircrew, as the interior of helicopters tend to be so confined it means you can get up close and really use the shallow depth of field to make them pop, using the light that streams in through the windows or open doors, a sort of spotlighting I guess. It’s such an easy way to tell the story you want to convey to your viewer, using reflections in the helmet visor to show the surroundings without actually including them in the bigger picture (if that makes sense?), showing the confined and cramped conditions the crew work in and the slightly wider shots showing the guys in the back with the door open and some of the outside environment included. All have their place and all tell a different story, the images that really tend to stand out however are the close-up and tight crops of crews, using the spotlighting to highlight their features or show the reflection in the visor.
As I said it’s hard to plan these images so you have to be ready to capture them when they arise. It’s easy to get hung up and focused on just capturing images of the aircraft, after all they tend to be some of the most popular on social media, image websites and occasionally magazines, however the latter seem to realize the importance of showing people at work, that most important human aspect and the people that operate these machines.
I approach each shot differently but something I tried to avoid is using flash, it has it’s place of course, either when using a wide lens or fisheye and shooting in the cockpit or half out of the door as it’s more or less impossible to balance the exposure due to the light difference inside and outside the aircraft. For the close-up shots of crews I find using flash makes the images look artificial and a little bit, and I hate to use this word, but amateur. It’s much better to use the available light and use the shadow of the interior to make the subject stand out more and bring some detail out in the highlights when editing – a vignette works well in post production if the background isn’t quite dark enough. Lens choice varies and often depends what equipment you have at that precise moment, if it’s the slightly smaller cabs such as the AW139 I find something like a 17-55mm F2.8 works well, stopping the lens down to F3.5 or F4 to still get that shallow depth of field but retaining the lenses sharpness, something I find it loses when using it a 2.8.
If it’s something a little bigger like the AW101 Merlin (which is massive!) then a 70-200mm F2.8 works really well, especially if the crewman is on the rear ramp when it’s open, the compression of the telephoto can work fantastically if you can get some of the interior of the aircraft in as well – similar to those F1 portraits you see from Darren Heath that have the most amazing bokeh.
Hopefully not telling you to suck eggs too much!