Flying Back Home

This past week has been one heck of an amazing week! It was such an honor to be a part of the Texas Flying Legends Museum and to have the privileged of documenting the 70th anniversary of VE Day in Washington DC. Going into this project I knew it was going to be a huge challenge with the amount of the coverage that it would take to tell the story and then to put it all together for an inspirational and memorable presentation. I have my work cut out for me still with 900GB of video and images to go through but I can’t wait!


I’m going to be posting more this week about the ceremony and all that went into it but for starts I figured I’d go with where it all ended. This was the flight back yesterday morning from Fargo, ND to Minot, ND which is one of the main bases for TFLM. We were trying to stay ahead of the weather the whole way back Saturday and Sunday and we caught a little bit of it on Sunday. It actually got so cold it was snowing at one point. This was taken out of the left side of their B-25 Betty’s Dream of their TBM, F4F Wildcat and FG-1D Corsair. Flying formation is always a challenge even more so when there is weather. I wasn’t calling formation changes during any of this because of the weather this was how they were flying comfortably.

Working with the subject as it Flies by

Only half of the fun is spent on the ground, but the real thrill comes when that plane comes roaring overhead going hundreds of miles an hour and are gone as fast as they are seen. This is the time when you have to have good panning technique because those planes move by way to fast and you don’t always get a second chance. Even at an airshow when the planes schedules are often the same on multiple days, the skies are not always same. Besides the image being sharp the most important element after that is the background. When planes are flying they have to be seen as going fast because they are. There has to be something in the image to show off that momentum. Clouds in the background are a great place to start.


Clouds are a great place to start because they are everywhere. You just have to be panning when the plane is going by an area that has clouds to get that nice shot. In some instances the plane can be made to look like it’s going by even faster by having something behind that had more structure. If the plane is flying low enough or if you are standing up high enough something like a mountain can be compressed with a long lens and look like a blur behind the plane. This adds the speed and depth to the image.


With prop planes there is one essential element that has to be shown moving and that is the propeller. If the prop is frozen then the plane looks like it is a model on a string and not moving. The only way to get that blur is with a slower shutter speed. There is a ratio of the number of blades, to how fast the prop is turning equals how slow a shutter speed. This can be as slow as 1/30 of a second to get a full 360 degree disk. If you don’t have good panning technique then the image won’t be sharp. Practice is essential to making it all work properly.


One other really key element to ground to air photography is paying attention to what comes next. You have to be planning on what planes are coming next, how many are coming, what direction and where is the best light coming from. You have to be constantly scanning the skies. If you’re not scanning the skies then by the time that plane is overhead and you’re not ready, you’ll probably miss the shot.

Getting Better at Static Aviation Photography

Since this week marks the 70th anniversary of VE Day and with the number of airshows that are happening around the country, it seemed like a good time to write a little about different areas of aviation photography and how to approach certain scenarios. A good place to start is of course with your feet on the ground. Static photography is certainly the best place to start as all parked planes are easy subjects to work around safely. Airplanes have one very special feature to them that stands out and that is the lines. Planes are made of great lines and the relationship between those surfaces and light is what makes an image come to life.


Whether it’s working at an airshow or at a private hanger, you have to think about what the story is. There is nothing wrong with capturing the moment that exists when approaching an aircraft but if you want to really make something special you have to work at the angle and the gesture of the plane to make a statement. One of the best ways to bring out that gesture is to go in tight with a longer lens like a 70-200 VRII or even a 200-400VR. A long lens does a great job of isolating details like the prop hub, the blades, the canopy, guns, or other characteristics of planes without having to get close physically. When working around other people using a long lens helps to keep heads out of the way while still able to get a shot.


When it comes to telling the whole story one image is never really enough. This is where going wide by using something like a 24-70 AF-S to capture in everything is just as important as going in tight to get detail shots. Just like with a good landscape image a wide shot is only going to be strong is the foreground and background are strong. Some of the se planes are really big, and not having a good sky behind the plane is not going to help. It is important to watch all the elements. One way to help overcome this obstacle is by getting down low and shooting up. This helps to blur the details in the foreground and accentuate the plane while making the plane look bigger. Even with a bald sky shooting this way can make the image more interesting.


The last thing I want to point out is that no matter what the age the plane is, whether it’s jet powered or prop driven, the devil is in the details. Just like with any subject the light is key and where that light is highlighting the plane is a great place to focus on. One great way to help bring your eye to that point is by using a simple gradient on the top and bottom that brings down the exposure. Another simple way to accomplish the same desire is to use a vignette.

The Grumman F4F Wildcat

Many heroic stories were told of the brave men in their Grumman Hellcats and Chance Vought Corsairs fighting the nimble Mitsubishi Zero in the skies over the Pacific. While these aircraft have gone down in lore of the perilous battles they were poised in, before they were even built, many aces were being made in a much less glorified but exceptionally hard working staple of the US Navy and the British Royal Navy, the Grumman F4F Wildcat.


WWI proved the necessity for air power however many questions still lingered about how effective certain areas would be with the use of aircraft opposed to more traditional means. Carriers had been proven to be very effective, even if carrier tactics at the beginning of 1940 were still rather unknown, mostly because they were still being developed. The need for faster, more rugged carrier based fighters was needed and the Wildcat served that purpose in 1940. In the early parts of the WWII the Wildcat was the only option for US Navy and Marine divisions in the Pacific. The Hellcat and Corsair weren’t available until much later. For the first two years the Wildcat had to be the answer. While The Wildcat was not as fast as the nimble Zero, with a top speed of 318mph compared to 331mph, the Wildcat was a rugged plane with a simplistic yet strong internal structure. The Wildcat helped to save many pilots as they consistently were bringing the pilots back home. It was not uncommon for the planes to be riddled with bullet holes and yet still able to fly.


Like most fighters that went through WWII, the Wildcat went through several changes and upgrades until it reached the F4F designation. Originally it was called the “Martlet” used for the first time in Europe by the British Royal Navy. The F4F started with the FF biplane but which featured the first Us Navy retractable landing gear. It was a manual operation to hand crank the landing gear during takeoff and landings and the design would last all the way through to the F4F. This made the plane rather tipsy when parked. It also lead to accidents as occasionally the landing gear wasn’t all the way locked in place. The FF biplane lead to the F2F and F3F Flying Barrel. The general fuselage shape was created and lasted through the F4F with mechanical and performance enhances made. The US Navy however preferred the monoplane design and Brewster was working in competition with the F2A-1, which would later become known as the Brewster Buffalo. In 1936 and order was placed with Brewster with a second order being placed with Grumman for the G-16, designated by the Navy as XF4F-1. The Buffalo proved to be better, so serious modifications had to be made to the -3 with improved tail, wings and a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 “Twin Wasp” radial engine. Testing led to production orders of the F4F-3 including an order from France with the Wright R-1820 “Cyclone 9” radial engine; however, France fell to the axis powers and the planes were delivered to the British Royal Navy in 1940 instead, who renamed the plane the Martlet. On October 1st, 1941 the US Navy received its first F4F-3’s and named it the Wildcat.


From Left to Right: F8F-2 Bearcat, FM-2 Wildcat Air Biscuit, F6F-5 Hellcat Minsi III

The history of the Wildcat began long before it was in the US Navy. The British Royal Navy used it as a replacement for their Fairey Fulmar, which was a two seat fighter that had inadequate performance compared to single seat fighters in Europe. The Supermarine Spitfire was in too high a demand for the Royal Air Force so very few made it to the Royal Navy in 1940. The Martlet, as known by the British, first drew blood on Christmas Day 1940 when it destroyed a Junker Ju 88 bomber over Scapa Flow naval base. This was the first US built plane in British service to score a combat victory in WWII. The Martlet remained in active service with the Royal Navy until the end of the war and flew its last mission on May 5th, 1945. In January of 1944 it was no longer known as the Martlet but officially the Wildcat.


In 1943 demands for aircraft changed and Grumman no longer had time to build Wildcats. While the company still held the production rights, General Motors Eastern Division started building Wildcats. Grumman was called on to build a faster better performance fighter for Aircraft Carriers. The F6F Hellcat was their solution. However, the Hellcat and later Corsairs were too heavy, too big and too powerful for the escort carriers so the Wildcat remained in service on the smaller vessels. General Motors ended up building 5,280 FM-1/-2 variants, the -1 was virtually the same as F4F-4 but later changed to handle only four guns and a larger payload, while the -2 was equivalent to the XF4F-8 prototype, which had a faster Wright R-1820-56 engine and a taller tail to handle the torque. This makes the earlier 1940-1943 Grumman Wildcats much rarer.

Both Wildcats seen here are General Motors Eastern Division FM models. The top is the FM-2P owned by the Texas Flying Legends Museum and the second is the FM-2 “Air Biscuit,” owned by Tom Camp and who is a regular at the National Championship Air Races in Reno,NV. Back in 2012 at the Air Races, we had the great privilege and opportunity to have four of the Grumman “Cat” family planes participating in the races. One of the mornings we were able to get three of the four planes out on the tarmac for a static family reunion photo shoot. It was a great chance to put a piece of history together as each plane stamped out its own history. The F8F-2 Bearcat and F6F-5 Hellcat are part of CAF SoCal.


While the Wildcat was out maneuvered by the Zero, thanks to the planes rugged design, self sealing fuel tanks and the Thach Weave, the Wildcat proved a worthy adversary for the early parts of WWII in the Pacific. USN Commander “Jimmy” Thach created a defensive technique, known as the Thach Weave, that allowed the pilots of Wildcats to counter diving fighters while in formation. His technique along with the bravery of the pilots helped turn the tide in the defense of Wake Island, Battle of Coral Sea and Midway. It also played a major role in the Guadalcanal Campaign as part of the Cactus Air Force. The Wildcat was a front line fighter until early 1943 when it was replaced with the Hellcat and Corsair. It still played a role against ground targets and submarines. One of the Wildcats last major victories was in the Battle of Samar when the escort carriers of task force 77.4.3 (Taffy 3), and their destroyers and destroyer escorts, protected the transport of troops and supplies to the Philippines in Leyte, against a much larger surface force of battleships and cruisers, including the Yamato. Confused after meeting strong resistance the Japanese Navy eventually withdrew.

Many pilots became aces in the Wildcat including Butch O’Hare, Joe Foss, and Marion Carl. Joseph Foss had 26 confirmed kills in a F4F. Seven of the top Fifteen Wildcat Aces were awarded the Medal of Honor, including Butch O’Hare and Joe Foss. This little plane made a big difference at a time when it was needed. Despite it being smaller and slower then other fighters during WWII, this plane helped to turn the tide and gain air superiority in the Pacific.

Images Captured with Nikon D3, 24-70 AF-S f/2.8, 70-200 VRII, 200-400 VR, 600 F4 on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Wake Island

Continuing with the events that occurred after Pearl Harbor. While the attack on Pearl was going on, the international dateline showed that on December 8th, the same time, Japanese forces were attacking Wake Island. Some of the radio transmissions caused confusion thinking that the first attacks on Pearl were actually going on at Wake. This helped cause delay in reaction time at Pearl. The battle for Wake was a necessary stepping stone for the Japanese in the Pacific. The Battle lasted from the 8th-23rd of December with the surrender of the island on the 23rd.



The attack began on the 8th with an aerial bombardment that destroyed 8 of the islands 12 fighter planes but failed to break the island. The Imperial Navy returned with a larger fleet but was pushed back due to a strong defensive from the marines on the island and the last four wildcats of VMF-211. The defense held destroying one destroyer and damaging a cruiser and three other destroyers. This proved that Wake would not go without a fight. The Japanese kept fighting and by the 21st the last of the wildcats were destroyed. On the 23rd the Japanese took the island and 1,616 men were captured and taken back to Japan. The island was later retaken but with the great loss of 96 Americans who were executed. The Wildcats were a pivotal aircraft from the start of the War and well into the final years.

Never Enough Time to Shoot

I got an email this past week that got me thinking, far more than I care to do but nonetheless some thought. The jist of the email was I should be working with more than I already am. Well, I didn’t know the person nor was their any disrespect in his email but it made me think about what I am doing and what else I could be doing. The reality is there are shots being missed every second I ‘m not behind a camera, and that goes the same for every photographer. There is just no way to be out shooting all the time, capture every photograph, and still make a living.

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The images present are a great example of exactly this. Although they were taken a couple weeks ago, I am still working on processing everything to get sent out to people, and happy to do so. That’s just the way it goes. More work comes in, shooting time goes down. Although it may sound like a bad thing, keeping busy right now is a really good thing. Shooting without anything to work towards, although relaxing isn’t really productive.

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As I responded in my email, you never know what the future might hold, all you can do is work through what you got and keep planning for the future. In this sense even if I might not be photographing more today, tomorrow I just might be.

In the Camera Bag:

Nikon D3, 200-400 VRII, SunSniper Strap, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Making the Static’s Shine

One of the biggest challenges of working at an Airshow is capturing those great static shots. There isn’t always an opportunity to pull a plane out to where you want it, and in the case of this last weekend the background was mostly hangers anyways. A big factor that I found for the Cable Airport was that in the mornings when the sun came up over the hangers, the hangers cast a shadow over the parked planes. This made morning shooting difficult, but not impossible.

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This F4F Wildcat from the Comemorative Air Force was one of my favorite subjects to work with. It made a nice subject along with the SBD from planes of Fame. The one thing that still confuses is me, is the paint job. I can’t figure out that scheme.

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The Pilatus Porter PC-6 was a very interesting plane. The man flying it was known other than Clay Lacy, a true legend in the field of aviation, with over 50,000 hours under his belt. He had an amazing performance at the show, and that plane of his does a spectacular job. It turns on a dime and takes off in a very short distance. As I said earlier this is about making those static shots shine. Well in all of my shots down the runway there was an annoying set of power lines and building crane. Both of these were quick fixes in CS5. But there was one other tool I used on these planes to make them shine.

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Now one of my favorite lenses for working with static planes is the 200-400 VR. Not only does this lens allow me to be far away from the subject so I don’t get in anyone else way but also it compacts the subject and the background. When you got a lot of background clutter you don’t want in your photograph then it’s a good way to go. The Wildcat was shot with a 70-200, much closer, much tighter shot. Now the last element that i used on these shots which makes a big difference is Color Efex Pro’s Detail Extractor. This tool is absolutely amazing when working with planes. It brings out so much detail especially in the shadows under the wing that it’s almost a most. One thing to be careful with is that it does bring up noise, so it’s best to not apply this to the sky.

In the Bag
Nikon D3, 200-400 VRII, 70-200 VRII, Lexar UDMA Digital Film

The limitless unlimiteds


Well I’m slowly coming to the end of my recap from the races, it has been a few days of planes well beyond the races themselves but i thought it was fun. Funny enough I’ve found time to make this many posts considering the school work i needed to get done. Tomorrow will be the last day but for now here’s one more for the kiddies. My favorite group is the Unlimited. Don’t ask me which ones are the bronze, silver and gold cuz i frankly don’t have them all memorized. I like them all. The T6’s are up after the unlimited in my book. I like the prop planes because of the challenge they provide. Getting the propeller blurred and the plane sharp isn’t easy. Getting a full 360 blurr and the plane sharp is even harder. This was the only shot i managed to that with.


This is that P51 you see in the above shot, just wihtout a plane on top of it. As you can see i didn’t get the full blurr this time. But four blurrs is second best in my book.


This is another P51, there is in fact a lot of P51’s in the air races. Many different paint jobs and variations exist, this one i seem to like more than some of the others.


Then there is this guy. It seemed like he was out there solely to show the viewers a good time, because his time wasn’t so hot. This is the Grumman FM-2 Wildcat. A seemingly slow plane that seemed to pose rather decently. Wasn’t the prettiest of planes out there but it turned a few heads nonetheless. As you can probably tell I’m a bit more winded down from the beginning of this week, my text just ain’t as long. There’s one more day of exciting air displays before i go back to blogging about Montana, as i said T6’s are #2 in my book.

Images captured with D3, 500f4, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

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