I am not an aviation photographer. I do appreciate the art and dedication of those who are masters of the craft, but I am quick to admit that I am not one of those people.  I’ve seen plenty of spectacular aviation images online and in print and had an idea of what the process entailed, but never had the opportunity to give it a shot.  However, when one of my best friends needed some compelling imagery of his plane for an upcoming magazine cover feature, I was at least interested in hearing what this might entail.

Air to air photography is something that is often done when shooting from the window of one plane back towards another plane.  Yet this forces all that expensive glass hanging off the front of your camera body to filter through what is usually a scuffed up window or hazy canopy.  When dealing with military aircraft such as fighter jets, or with commercial aircraft and larger planes, pressurization and/or oxygen are often necessary and thus there is no other option really for shooting.  Since we would be shooting general aviation, and more specifically a Piper Warrior, our goal was air to air with no window.  For a cherry on top, we would also try to strobe the cover shot with off-camera lighting.

After securing a skydiving plane as the “camera car” I was told that I would be able to wear a somewhat makeshift harness, then once the conditions were right I could open up the door and shoot freely towards the other plane in mid-air.  It would be incredibly windy and noisy, and the gear would potentially get a little banged up as we were performing maneuvers to get the optimal framing.  My daily driver Sony A7R3 was going to sit this one out.

I had to really think about the camera setup I would utilize, and ultimately decided that the pro bodies would be too heavy and cumbersome, but still wanted something fast, reasonably light, durable, and ergonomic.  I settled on the 5DIV and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II as my go-to camera setup for the criteria mentioned, with Paul C Buff Einsteins+Vagabond Mini Lithiums and Pocketwizards for off-camera flash.

As we took to the skies I got my gear positioned in a way that would prevent it from falling out while still allowing me to shoot, or at least, that is what I thought until we swung open the door.  That’s when I realized I should probably prevent myself from falling out of the door first and then worry about the gear.  Once I had that figured out we lined up and I fired off a bunch of shots, and we did several maneuvers and passes to get the angle of the sun and the background and such all in proper framing.  I had to shoot a reasonably slow shutter to get the appropriate prop blur while also compensating for the wind conditions and extremely awkward shooting position I was in.  As the sun started to set I knew we only had a few moments to really nail a dramatic frame for the opening spread, but the 5D IV performed flawlessly throughout and I knew I had a few keepers once it dropped below the horizon.  It was now time to go for the strobed cover shot.

I wrangled the PocketWizard into the hotshoe and test fired a few frames, all while holding the light stand attached to a single Einstein in between my legs and pointing it just outside the lower right corner of the open door.  Without having a third plane to get the light completely off-axis, this was about the best we were going to get.  I experimented with ISO, power output from the strobe, and shutter speed until I found the right balance between exposing the plane properly, not blowing out the sky, and still getting prop blur on the plane with a decent background to boot.  As the light faded and the winds picked up, I continued snapping away, all the while keeping my gear and myself going until my last memory card was full.

I had a look at the images that same night and was pleased with the results.  We ended up doing a few shots at sunrise the next morning for some statics on the ground with a backlit sunrise to add a little variety.  I could not have been happier with the 5D IV and 100-400 II, and the PCB Einsteins and PW’s also performed well.  At the end of the day I did bend the reflector cover on the strobe and scuffed up the camera body a bit, but no broken glass or major chips on the gear.  A few months later the magazine arrived and it was so nice to see everything in print with the strobed air-to-air image gracing the cover.  Mission accomplished!