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.