Saturday, July 14, 2012

Tweeting Oshkosh

My cameras and I will be attending EAA Airventure Oshkosh in 2012 for the first time in several years.  One of the challenges of Oshkosh has always been that it's a big field, a lot of flying and other fun activities happen spontaneously with no warning, and it's hard for one guy with a camera to cover them all.

To help address this, I proposed on the Warbird Information Exchange that a group of us sign up for Twitter, follow each other, and post heads-ups from around the field when we see something cool happening, chiefly a special warbird or antique being prepared for an unscheduled flight, or perhaps something in the pattern that others might not have spotted.  The response on the forum has been underwhelming but I'm going ahead anyway, and inviting readers of this blog to join.  So, my new twitter account is @Wix_K5083.  It will be active from July 24-30, 2012, after which I may kill it or at least let it go dormant.  During that time, I'll do what I've described above.  Feel free to follow, and if you'd like to share in this little social media experiment, let me know in a comment to this post what your twitter ID is.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Publishing for Nothing

A dozen or so shots from my A-36 walkaround shoot appear in Mushroom's new book on the A-36, a nice thing that happens now and then.  My spouse's question was, "How much did they pay you?"  Umm, nothing; just credit and a comp copy of the book.  "Why do you let people do that to you?  They should pay you."  One or two of my more venal friends (i.e., investment bankers) echoed the sentiment.  The rest of them understood my motivations a little better.

Amateurs supplying photos for nothing or nominal cost to for-profit entities that would otherwise have to hire pros is a touchy topic in photography these days.  Many pros feel that "crowdsourcing" deprives them of immediate income, devalues photography, and results in inferior photos being published, harming the consumer experience as well.  Most serious amateur photographers are friends with pros and some aspire to be one, so they can't just brush off such sentiments.  But they don't appreciate being made to feel like scabs just because they like to shoot for fun and get a kick out of incidentally seeing their work in print from time to time.

What separated the pro from the shutterbug in the past was the pro's better quality photos, created by three things:  better composing, lighting and shooting skills; better quality gear than the amateur could easily afford; and privileged access to the subject, whether by connections or by effort.  The other thing about a pro is reliability.  Pros don't just happen to get shots, they are sent out to get them and they had bloody well better come back with them.  They achieve this through redundant equipment (2 or 3 cameras at the wedding) and a business-oriented approach to workflow.

But most of the gaps separating the pro from the amateur have been closing, and others apply only in same circumstances.  Pros and serious amateurs shoot the same gear now, and the technical requirements for the resolution and quality of a photograph -- even in print, but certainly on the web -- have declined to be within reach of even modest amateur equipment.  Not all photos require mastery of photographic technique or a lot of creativity to obtain.  The economic case for a pro in many circumstances is weakening.

The pro's biggest remaining advantage is the special access, which can matter a lot in airplane photography.  At an airshow, a pro who can get within 200 feet of the runway will get better photos than us proles back at the crowd line.  Many shots of military airplanes are available only to those with ties to the services.  Air-to-air work, the most sought-after gig in aviation photography, requires connections and cooperation, often resulting from trust built up over many years, as well as a somewhat unique skill set.  So we amateurs aren't really eating anyone's lunch by grabbing and giving away a few opportunistic ground shots.

As a last resort, the pros sometimes try to make us feel like we are debasing ourselves by giving away images.  "Is a photo credit all your pictures are worth?  Have you no pride?"  Well, not all of us shoot for pride.  The "worth" or "value" of a photo for a lot of amateurs is in the taking, the personal enjoyment, the sharing with friends and enthusiasts.  Monetary compensation is not even gravy -- it's parsley.

Thinking about my banker friends, what seems to bug them is the idea that someone could extract money for an asset but chooses not to.  Leaving money on the table is offensive, almost sinful, to them.  These tend to be people who don't have a lot of hobbies.  Perhaps what they're missing is that there can be a lot of value in not even being "at the table" sometimes.

Anyway, if you like A-36s, get the book.  It's a good one.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Explaining Phil Makanna to First-Graders

My son's first-grade class has a unit called "The Mystery Reader" in which, each week, one of the kids' parents comes to class to talk about reading and books. Last Friday was my turn. Our assignment was to read a children's book to the kids, but also to do a show-and-tell about the types of things we read for work and for pleasure, and make the point that reading is not just something you have to do in school but a fun and valuable thing later in life. I brought in some of the books and other things I've written and read as an attorney, which of course caused a few eyes to glaze over, but as part of the reading-for-pleasure part, I used Phil Makanna's first (1979) Ghosts book of World War II airplane photographs.

The kids and their teacher liked Makanna's photos a lot. The ones containing explosions especially impressed some of the boys.

My idea was not really to talk about airplanes or photography as such, but more to discuss the idea of "inspiration" and how a single book can inspire you to do things and strive to be better at them. It involved a personal story which I'll repeat here, more or less as I told it to the first-graders.

I had been interested in airplanes, especially old ones, since I was a first-grader's age. I built models, drew pictures, read airplane books and magazines of all kinds. I had no interest in cameras or photography.

One summer in 1980 when I was not too much older than the first-graders, I came across Makanna's first Ghosts. It made a huge impression. It was not the type of book I normally would buy on my modest allowance. I was focused on books by people like Bill Gunston, full of specifications and cutaway drawings and color profiles. This was just a few dozen simply presented photographs. But what photos! Many of them had a surreal quality that was different than any way that I had looked at airplanes before. I made two decisions right away. First, I had to buy the book. Second, I had to do this stuff myself. I started pestering my parents for a camera, and soon was shooting airplanes every chance I got, a pursuit that has continued well into what passes for my adulthood.

Shooting airplanes, often early in the morning on quiet airports and fields, gave me some of my most enjoyable and rewarding experiences over the years. I have met fascinating people and have been invited to snoop around some wonderful machines. I've branched into photography of other subjects as well. It's been my most important creative outlet, and every now and then I come up with an image that gives me some satisfaction. This is how I explained "inspiration" to the first-graders: seeing something done so well, whether it's Derek Jeter playing baseball, Eric Carle illustrating children's books, or a President leading people, that it makes you think, Gee, I want to do something like that, that well. The kids did an art unit inspired by Eric Carle recently and got the message.

Finally I told the kids how, early one morning 25 years after first being inspired by Makanna's books to take up this pastime, I was shooting planes in the quiet sunrise before an airshow when I bumped into a guy who turned out to be Phil Makanna getting ready for a photo flight. So I got a chance to say thanks, and showed them how Phil kindly agreed to sign my dog-eared old copy of his first "Ghosts" book, which changed a small but not insignificant part of my life.

A few additional comments on Phil that I didn't share with the first-graders:

After 1979, Phil became a rock star of warbird photography, but not with photos like the ones in his first book, which sold poorly. His breakthrough was in a daringly large-format calendar of air-to-air shots, which jump-started a whole genre of such calendars and is the foundation of his successful "Ghosts" franchise to this day. These were accompanied by larger and slicker coffee-table books, featuring very high quality photography but of a more conventional nature than his initial foray.

He has cultivated a style that still has a tenuous link to his origins as a fine-art photographer; compared to others who do air-to-air cheesecake, his photos are exceptionally well crafted, and often feature carefully chosen terrain as background that works both on a content level (keying off of the historical environment and exploits of the type of plane, for example) and compositionally. For example, in this Nieuport shot from his 2011 World War I calendar, the agricultural terrain both recalls rural France, over which this type fought, and leads the eye in lines along the fuselage and across the wings. Most air-to-air warbird photographers achieve this type of compositional sympathy occasionally, almost as a fluke; Phil nails it often. Phil's other trademark over the years has been extensive darkroom work with heightened contrast and saturation, often having areas of burned out white and detail-less black. For the most part, this is very effective at creating an other-timely mood in his pictures, although on occasion, especially in the 1990s, it came off as a bit overcooked. Even then, though, it was at least a distinctive style. I never got the feeling that many other aviation photographers spent a lot of time in the darkroom, or tried to make their photos look like anything but a straight representation of what was in front of the camera.

Anyway, I bought all those books and most of the calendars but it was always the original 1979 book that I returned to when I needed inspiration for my photography. Besides being the most original of Phil's work, it also had the most to teach me in that many of the best photos were taken on the ground. Air-to-air photography is nice to look at, but there isn't as much to learn from it for the spare-time shooter who can't or won't put in the effort to get the access that it requires. It's like watching Roger Federer play tennis: beautiful, but not that helpful for improving your play, because he just doesn't play the same game you do. Phil's 1979 photos prove that you don't need to wangle rides in the back of T-6s or B-25s to make beautiful, original statements about old planes. Being on the ground can give you more creative freedom in some ways.

If you do aviation photography and haven't seen the first Ghosts, you should get it. There are always three or four copies on ebay, usually for about the price of a burger and fries. In fact, this is the one book of aviation photography that I'd recommend, and frequently show, to photographers with no particular interest in airplanes.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review: Flight Journal Aviation Photography Issue

The magazine Flight Journal has a special issue on Aviation Photography that is on newsstands now. I would post a cover shot, but can find no image or mention of this issue on Flight Journal's website, which evidently has better things to do than promote Flight Journal publications, and I haven't bought a copy. So these are my impressions from browsing it at the newsstand.

The magazine contains a selection of aviation photos, old and new. Flight Journal's Editor-in-Chief is Budd Davisson, and Budd was not too modest to include many of his own photos in the publication. In itself, that's not inappropriate, because Budd is one of the most important aviation photographers, having established conventions for air-to-air photography in the 1970s that still frame the genre today. Sitting here, I can easily call to mind a dozen of his iconic images from the 1970s and 80s that appeared as magazine covers, photo spreads, and posters in Air Classics, Air Progress, and other publications. I have attended his talks illustrated by slides of many of these shots and would be delighted to buy a magazine, or better yet a well produced book, compiling these pictures. Unfortunately, almost none of them appear in this volume. There are a couple of familiar older pictures, such as a straight-down shot of an orange and green Fokker Dr.I replica from the 1970s, but most of the Davisson shots in this magazine are newer and less impressive. I suppose, sadly, that Budd may not even control the rights to much of his best older work.

Outnumbering Budd's images in this book are those of John Dibbs, the British master of air-to-air warbird pinup photography whose work has become familiar through Aeroplane magazine and his own "Legends" book franchise. Dibbs' work is as professional, sumptuously produced, pretty, and slick as a Christina Aguilera song, but also similarly undifferentiated and lacking in creative or emotional range. Looking through the Dibbs-dominated images in this volume, as well as contributions by photographers such as Paul Bowen and others, I get the impression not so much of a variety of aviation photographs, but more of a variety of aircraft taking turns appearing in the same photograph.

That's probably what Flight Journal's audience, composed of airplane buffs rather than photography buffs, wants. The captions also avoid giving any serious technical information on how the photos were accomplished, which again is probably an astute assessment of the audience's interests. There is certainly some nice softcore airplane imagery here. For someone interested in photography, it's a bit of a disappointment.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A-36 Walk-Around

For aviation shutterbugs like me who keep their feet on the ground, the ultimate photo-op is to get some time with a nice airplane, in uncluttered surroundings, free of "keep back" tape and canopy covers, and the opportunity to inspect and shoot the plane from any angle. Such a chance was afforded to me recently at Planes of Fame in Chino, CA. The plane was a special one, an A-36 Invader, which is an early dive-bomber variant of what would become the famous P-51 Mustang. Only two A-36s exist, with the other in a museum; and only a handful of visually similar P-51As exist, two of them also at Chino.

During my most recent visit to the museum, an A-36 temporarily in residence at Planes of Fame was pulled out for a new pilot to take a short check flight in the machine and then fly it for a photo mission. So the aircraft was on the ramp for three or four hours, mostly with nobody around it, under progressively more favorable lighting conditions. Plus there were two sets of start-up/taxi/shut-down sequences associated with the flights. So there was a chance for static shots, action shots, even a little human interest. It's the type of opportunity that I no longer waste, having regrettably failed to take advantage of some in my younger and more frugal days.

I treat these occasions the same as I would a photo session with a great human model, or anything else worth expending a few rolls of film on that is willing to sit still. Most of the time I am not shooting pictures but walking around, studying the play of light on the surfaces, becoming familiar with the curves and forms. Photography can enhance your visual understanding of a subject because it forces you to attend closely to the way something (or someone) is put together, makes you pull out the most attracting and interesting elements. Without the goal of getting good pictures, most of us would not do this work.

I have a few standard shots that I always get. There's the obligatory front-quarter beauty shot, for example. If I have a wide angle with me (20mm Flektogon in this case) I usually look for a couple of wide views near the tail. It's also been my habit lately to get a vertical front-quarter close-up shot bunching together items near the center of the aircraft, such as the cockpit and one landing gear. Otherwise, I let the airplane guide me.

When the aircraft taxied out and back, I skittered away from the small crowd that gathered and planned my shots from positions I wanted with the right lighting and backgrounds. This is an opportunity one doesn't easily get at airshows, where things happen fast and mobility is more limited.

I'll cop to some pangs of envy for the air-to-air photog who went up in a Navion for some portraits of this beauty upstairs. It was a fine day and no doubt he got some good stuff. Then again, he was wrapped up in his aerial mission and didn't get the stuff I got, either. Not only did I come back with a few dozen solid images, but I feel I've learned the looks of the Allison-powered Mustang in a way I had never managed before, despite having seen and photographed all the other intact ones that exist. When it comes to airplane shooting, that's a good day for me.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Seafire PR503

This airplane flew last week, following a 40+ year restoration by at least three owners. It probably will be the warbird sensation of the Oshkosh airshow later this month, when it makes its public debut.

I wish that the picture were better. It was taken around 2000 near Minneapolis with one of the plane's previous owners. I was in town on a business trip relating to a corporate acquisition. I was not expecting to have spare time to see old airplanes or other sights, so I didn't bring a camera. One day the deal cratered (as corporate law jocks like to say when a sale is abandoned) and we all found ourselves with a free afternoon. The museum that owned the Seafire was closed that day, but I called and talked someone there into letting me in. I bought some disposable cameras at a drug store on the way there, and did what I could with them. In the ill-lit hangars, that wasn't much, and I came away with no photos of some pretty neat planes, including a Lockheed P-38 that was about to be sent to Duluth for static display that I'll probably never see again. The Seafire was in an open restoration hangar and I was at least able to get some poor pics. That was about the last time I went on any trip without a decent camera.

An old-time photojournalist -- nobody is sure who -- when asked how to get good news pictures, said "f/8 and be there." "F/8" is just a typical lens setting; the point is that a lot of photography is just about being in the place where something happens, whether it is a war or a sunset, with a camera at the ready.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Women and Planes

My attention was drawn recently to, an outfit that produces calendars and live events built around the combination of attractive young ladies, dressed and styled for a 1940s look, posing with restored military airplanes of that era.

The photography on the site is conventional and mostly competent, if a bit cliched. Some of the poses are awkward, and the Warbird Pinup photographers are not as adept at flattering the models as, for example, the guys at Sports Illustrated showed themselves to be when using similar WWII aircraft as props: Of interest at present, though, is not the merits of the particular photography but the whole concept of pairing young women with old planes.

The babe-and-machine shot is nothing new, and there are whole magazines such as Easyriders,, filled with this genre. Scantily clad women also have a special history with World War II aircraft, having been a popular theme in nose art painted by servicemen during the period. I understand the appeal of photos of young women and of photos of old planes or other beautiful machines, but not really the combination. As a fashion accessory, airplanes are not easy to wear well. Women draped over planes almost always end up in positions that look uncomfortable and unnatural, or else they have no relationship to the plane at all and just happen to be sharing the frame. The women don't do much for the attractiveness of the planes, either, assuming anybody is even looking at the planes. Actually I've never seen a photo of a woman and a plane, or a motorcycle or car or whatever, that really works as a photo that is even as good as the sum of its parts. Not one. I can't really even envision what one would look like.

The juxtaposition does, of course, raise interesting psychological questions about just exactly why guys like to look at pictures of cars, planes, and bikes. But maybe it's best not to go there.

This doesn't seem to bother the following of Easyriders or Warbird Pinups, however. They must figure: it's got a chick, it's got a cool ride, it's all good. Never mind whether they go together well. Hey, could I get a scoop of ice cream on my pizza?