The Flying Illustrators of Aerial Work Aviation

Have you ever wondered how those sharp, close-up aerial photos of an aircraft get on the front covers of flying magazines? Or what it takes to make such awesome airborne images? If you want to know, Patrick Ryan will ‘autofocus’ you on to the answer!

Patrick Ryan  |  12th August 2022
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Patrick Ryan
Patrick Ryan

Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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The Flying Illustrators of Aerial Work Aviation

Where Should We Start?

Let’s start by stating that professional Air-to-Air Photography is more than ending up with a fantastic picture of an aircraft slipping the surly bonds of Earth. It is thinking outside the box or outside the norm to create an image that catches the eye and captures the imagination. Yet, it also fulfills a customer’s needs even if that customer is a professional air-to-air photographer themselves. 

Air-to-Air Photography is a small and very specialised Aerial Work aviation discipline or job that is used for specific purposes, including specific types of applications. In Aerial Work aviation, Air-to-Air Photography refers to capturing images or photographs of other aircraft or subjects from an elevated position for hire, i.e., from the position of another aircraft. 

Air-to-Air Photography requires an artistic mindset and no shortage of technical skills. By far, aerial photographers have very specialised knowledge and experiences needed to successfully photograph flying aircraft while also being in the air themselves! Like other Aerial Work sectors, the Air-to-Air Photography sector has a narrow focus that requires a combination of airmanship skills and unique talents to achieve a specific purpose. In this case, it’s an airborne image. 

So, What is ‘Air-to-Air Photography?’

What it is Not

Air-to-Air Photography is not Aerial Photography. Aerial photography, like Air-to-Air Photography, is the endeavor or effort of taking photographs or video images (i.e., Aerial Videography) from an aircraft, be it a manned or unmanned airborne platform. However, Aerial Photography typically refers to aircraft taking aerial images that focus on landscapes, earth surface objects, and man-made structures, i.e., air-to-ground vs. air-to-air. 

Air-to-Air Photography, as a part of Aviation Photography, is the discipline of photographing aircraft or other flying objects by utilising another flying aircraft as a photo platform. Generally, it is two aircraft flying in formation. One carries the photographer and is called the ‘photo’ airplane; the second aircraft is the ‘subject.’ 

Concerning Air-to-Air Videography, Air-to-Air Videography or Air-to-Air Filming is embedded or parallel to Air-to-Air Photography. Air-to-Air Videography has the same objective and operating processes as Air-to-Air Photography, but the camera and some artistic methods and techniques are slightly different. 

The Need for Speed!

When it comes to who needs an image of a fast-flying aircraft, the customer base can vary from a private person, multi-billion dollar corporation, or even a military air force. Air-to-air photographers or service providers seek to provide Air-to-Air Photography or Videography services to individuals, aircraft owners, media outlets, museums, and aircraft manufacturers. These end-users recognise the value of aesthetic images and the value it provides them personally or their companies economically. 

Some of today’s primary (or sought-after) applications or services the Air to Air Photography community support are: 

Marketing & Advertising – People or companies who are in the process of marketing & advertising aircraft or aviation services rely on air-to-air photographers to enhance the marketability of their products or operations by showing it them in a dynamic ‘natural’ environment, i.e., flying. 

Companies like Airbus, Cirrus, Bell Helicopter, etc., routinely use air-to-air photographs or videos for corporate, product, or branding campaigns. Additionally, many private aircraft owners also leverage air-to-air photography to enhance the saleability of their private or corporate aircraft. 

Media & Publishing – Besides marketing & advertising, many media outlets depend on air-to-air photographs or videos to enhance the message they are communicating. For example, many aviation publishing organizations or magazines like AvBuyer, Flying, Air Classics, Pilot, etc., regularly use inflight images of aircraft on the cover and throughout their magazines to capture their viewership. 

Additionally, aerial images of aircraft are used in the publication of corporate reports, academic articles, and historical documentaries. Plus, you'll find air-to-air images on the internet, e.g., on blogs, YouTube, and many other social media platforms. 

Recording & Documentation – As well as marketing & publishing, air-to-air photographs, and video helps document and "for the record" specific flying events like flight testing, training, and inflight emergencies. 

Specifically, these air-to-air photography operations are conducted by ‘Chase Planes’ or ‘Chase Aircraft’. A chase plane flight operation is an aircraft that ‘chases’ a ‘subject’ aircraft or other types of flying objects to make real-time evidence observations by taking photographs and video of the subject platform. 

Private & Personal – Last but not least, various private and corporate aircraft owners want air-to-air photos for personal or private use. More private aircraft owners, flying clubs, and corporate flight departments enjoy seeing themselves flying their beloved aircraft or capturing the beauty and prestige of their investment. 

"Tips & Techniques" Rationale

As mentioned before, Air-to-Air Photography is a very specialised Aerial Work aviation discipline. Because of the complexity and skill of choreographing aircraft, managing cameras, and looking for the right photo setting, the pool of professional air-to-air photographers is small compared to the broader aviation photography community. However, when taking a fantastic photo or video of a flying aircraft, there are some common practices the true professional air-to-air photographer applies. The following are just some of these practices: 

Plan, Plan, Plan!

Air-to-Air Photography isn’t something that happens spontaneously or lightly. Air-to-air photo shots require detailed and extensive planning. When two aircraft hook up successfully in formation for a successful photo shoot, numerous hours are spent on ensuring every detail was thought through. The overall process consists of countless e-mails, phone calls, studying charts, weather checks, crew briefs between the photographer and pilots, and meticulously researching and cross-checking the flight formation plan to ensure the photo shot is safe and effective. 

The photo-shot planning begins when the customer defines their requirements and needs. Some of these needs could be highlighting a new aircraft colour or design scheme, capturing a dynamic frontal image of a single airplane or formation of aircraft, or taking shots of an aircraft at low level over dramatic terrain in a high-G turn. 

Following this, an air-to-air photographer will define the operating area and airspace and ensure both the subject and photo aircraft can operate within their technical limits. Most air-to-air photographers will say planning is the most critical part of taking a good shot. Without proper planning, the shot will never happen. 

Photo Aircraft & Configuration

When it comes to aircraft, air-to-air photographers like to use traditional ‘photo aircraft’ to capture the right image of a ‘subject aircraft’. Therefore, aircraft with superb uninterrupted views from the rear or an excellent side-on-angle look are preferred. Some aircraft used for Air-to-Air Photography are Cessna Caravans, Beech Bonanza, Shorts Skyvan, and even classic warbirds like the B-25 Mitchell and OV-10 Bronco for their rear ‘tail-gunner’ views. 

Regarding configuration, the top two things air-to-air photographers are concerned with are plexiglass and safety. As many know, taking a picture through an airplane window is not the best. As a result, the quality or sharpness of the photo usually comes out poor. To mitigate this, many air-to-air photographers coordinate having a hatch or window removed for their photoshoots. Besides this, photographers fit safety harnesses to themselves and their kit, i.e., they would hate to lose their life or parts of their high-value camera equipment during an unscheduled wake turbulence event.

Inflight Photography Techniques

As you can imagine, photographing other aircraft in the air has unique photographic challenges. It is a very fluid and dynamic environment with both the subject aircraft and the photo aircraft in high-speed motion against a continually moving ‘best-shot’ background. To manage all of this, air-to-air photographers use many techniques to get it right the first time. 

The number one technique is managing lighting and the background. The lighting and the background are essential to getting the best photos. Proper lighting is achieved through relative positioning of the aircraft relative to the sun or by only flying at a specific time of the day as required. Additionally, photographers need to ensure both aircraft are placed in the best light and have non-competing backgrounds. 

Besides considering lighting and background conditions plus the photo aircraft configuration, air-to-air photographers have to account for many other variables. For example: 

Propellers – When photographing propeller aircraft, photographers must consider the blur effect caused by the subject aircraft. Depending on the goal of the shot, the photographer will use a very high shutter speed to help ensure the sharpness of the subject and eliminate propeller spin blur. Conversely, slow shutter speeds often cause blurry subjects,i.e., because of the motion of the camera and aircraft. 

Stabilisation – Stabilisation is critical in getting any sharp image. Handholding a camera while standing firmly on the ground using certain shutter speeds is difficult. However, handholding a camera while shooting from a moving aircraft with a strong gale coming through the window with the subject airplane flying against a fast-moving background is even more challenging. Many air-to-air photographers use a gyro-stabiliser to mitigate this situation to dampen motion and aircraft vibration. A gyro-stabiliser is a platform or device that dampens movement and vibration. Ever since the introduction of gyro-stabilisers, this bit of equipment has made air-to-air photography at slow shutter speeds possible. 

The Coolest Job Ever!

The air-to-air photographerss job is a risky but rush-inducing kind of aerial photography that requires shooting from an aircraft with no doors or hanging out of windows. Air-to-Air Photography is definitely not for the faint of stomach. These photographers are comfortable with the idea of slipping out of their seatbelts, hanging out of hatches or open windows while completely turning around in their seats to get the right angle and perspective. 

Along with this, air-to-air photographers routinely battle crazy conditions and the elements while flying in all aircraft types, e.g., frigid air, prop/rotor blast, defeating noise, high-G manoeuvres, and more. Another non-routine (or routine, depending on your perspective) part of this job is to fly dangerously close to other aircraft regularly. It is not unheard of for air-to-air photo shots with only 20 feet separating the photo and subject aircraft. 

When it comes to the qualifications, experiences, or backgrounds of air-to-air photographers, the following are some of the disciplines or interests common among these professionals: 

• Aviation Knowledge (Pilot Licence)

• Art Studies

• Commercial Photography

• Digital Arts

• Photography

• Photo Journalism

All-in-all, the actual common thread that runs throughmost air-to-air photographers is passion and enthusiasm. They’re enthusiastic photographers with the same passion for aviation. In addition, they love the experience of combining their work and hobby into one job. 

Let’s not overlook another job critical to Air-to-Air Photography — the professional pilots who fly the ‘photo’ and ‘subject’ aircraft used in photo shots are essential to making every photo flight safe and effective. These pilots are not your average type of aircrew members but are highly trained and experienced in air-to-air photography operations and formation flying. In addition, many have extensive years working with photographers, videographers, and cinematographers, which allows for proper planning and well-coordinated shots. Without their aviator focus and hand-flying skills, the job can’t get done! 

The Last Inflight Photo Shoot

Undoubtedly, the dedicated photographers and aircrew members of the Aerial Work aviation sector of Air-to-Air Photography ensure every amazing photo of an airplane flying through the sky ends safely and correctly. 

Also, the term ‘Air-to-Air Photography’ for this Aerial Work sector is more than taking a ‘spontaneous one-offphoto.’ It consists of many specific or specialised efforts or services that provide valuable images to marketing, media, industrial and private clients. 

Like many Aerial Work sectors, the Air-to-Air Photography sector has unique operating procedures, preferred aircraft, and specialised kits. With that, one could say Air-to-Air Photography is one of the world’s coolest and most exciting jobs. 

So, as you can see, the Air-to-Air Photography sector of Aerial Work aviation is an essential cornerstone of the imagery world and especially the aviation community. Without air-to-air imagery of an Airbus 380 or classic Supermarine Spitfire gracefully slipping the surly bonds of Earth, we would be denied the pleasure of seeing the beauty of aviation in its true form!

Mark Wagner, who provided the images on the main spread of this article, is an award-winning aviation photographer. Working through he has spent several decades photographing aircraft both in the air and on the ground. He is one of a small band of photographers who are experiences in air-to-air photography, and is also a pilot and instructor who regularly flies aerobatics.

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