In my line of work, the camera is not the most important thing. There are so many other factors that come into play that can make or break a shot before my camera is even in the discussion. That’s not to say it’s not important, but it’s only one of many factors. For one, a proper preflight is critical.

A preflight conversation with all the pilots, both the pilot of my ship and those of the jets I will be photographing, assures that everyone understands what my needs are, the photos that I am going to capture, and when each of these photos needs to occur. We use what are called briefing sticks to show, and act out, the maneuvers that we will be undertaking. I even use them at home by myself in the days before a shoot to visualize how it is going to go. I am prepared for the entire shoot well before I sit in the cockpit of a jet.

© Rich Cooper

The second most important part of a successful photo flight is, and this is going to sound obvious, a clean canopy. I need a clean canopy. Frankly, a lot of canopies are crap, not just compensating for glare, which I’ll touch on next, but the scratches. Many of the jets I fly in are from the 80s or even older. It is important for me to find a jet with a clean canopy, and do my best to keep it that way.

I then have to consider my position relative to theirs, the restrictions of being strapped tightly to my seat, the placement of the sun, and the reflections inside the canopy.

Speaking specifically about the last point, inside the cockpit I use a Lens Skirt. Back when I first started shooting, I did not have one and had a lot of glare problems. Some other shooters use a sort of cloth “bib” to cover the buckles and prevent glare from there, but I personally don’t like to do that. I don’t want to cover anything I might need immediate access to in the case of an emergency. So for a while, it was a struggle. Only about half of the photos I would take per each photo flight would be usable, the other half would have too much glare. But now I hold the Lens Skirt against the canopy and press the skirt directly up to it with one hand, and it blocks the glare for the most part.

But there is a downside, because the lens skirt often needs to be held flush with the canopy, and I must hold it there. That means that instead of what I would normally do, which is shoot with both hands, I now only have one hand for zoom, focus, and shooting. It took getting used to, but thanks to this method I now have about 90% of my images that are usable, as opposed to the dismal 50% before.

I wasn’t even able to wear patches before I started using the Lens Skirt because they were reflecting. But thanks to it, I can pretty much wear whatever I want and look cool still which is awesome. I will never be Tom Cruise, but I can try!

I am always shooting manual mode, and my settings are 1/800 second, f/8.0 and auto ISO, for the most part. I use the 24-105mm f/4 because of its range, because in the past I used the 24-70mm but the range wasn’t sufficient enough. I also use an 11-24mm for selfies and if there is a tanker above us, I need the wideness to make sure to get it all in frame. In that selfie above, I was sustaining 8.3Gs. I used the control panel in front of me to hold the camera steady and just pressed the shutter button as I was straining to hold my arms steady. With that number of gravities pressing down on you, it’s the best you can do. Your arms are incapable of moving!

I also don’t like to use lens straps when I’m flying, because when you take Gs, they can pull and become a hazard. Not to mention in ejection situations they can also get tangled and pose a threat. Instead, I use fasten a one-handed grip on the side of my camera that holds fast to my hand and allows me to keep a firm hold on the camera without having to use a strap. In the F15s I am usually in, there is a good amount of space around me, which is a luxury when you consider how small jet cockpits can be. I use that space to store my backup camera and flight bag while we are in the air.

I wanted to share with you all my method for capturing flares, because I think these are some of the most dynamic photos I’ve taken. They also not only require all those physical non-camera things I mentioned above, but also do require that my camera can keep up with the workload. For that, I’ve been using the Canon 1DX II lately, and in the past I used a mixture of the 1DX and the 1D Mark V. But the 1DX II has definitely been a huge help in my recent work.

In case you didn’t know, flares are a jet’s missile defense system. There are many missiles that can be deployed against active military jets and they work based on heat detection of a jet’s afterburners. To combat this, flares are launched behind a jet to distract those missiles. Because a flare is hotter than the jet’s afterburner, the missile will instead seek the flares rather than the jet.

In photography, those flares make for some stunning imagery. The tricky part is capturing them, as the time it takes for a flare to launch and for it to basically be over is less than a second and a half when shooting wider, and even more slim of a time frame when I’m using a tighter focal length.

Part of what we discuss in the preflight is the countdown before the pilots initiate flares. I am in charge of that. I will count down: three… two… one… flares! And then the specific, pre-determined maneuver will happen, I take my photos, and it’s over. This whole sequence happens very fast as those flares pop out for just fractions of a second before they’re behind us and out of frame. That’s when the 1DX comes in handy. It has very fast frames per second shooting and the autofocus is excellent, so when I time it right, I can get the shot.

Another thing I like about the 1DX II is the location of both shutter buttons. In each case, the button is angled and out towards the side of the camera, so it’s much easier for me to hit when I’m taking photos over my shoulder. You have to consider that when you’re strapped into a jet’s seat, you can’t really move at all. It’s pretty important to have a camera that doesn’t make it even harder to get photos in that position, and I’m grateful for the 1DX for that.

These photos are from a shoot I did with the Florida Air National Guard, based out of Jacksonville, Florida. They fly F15 Eagles, and I took these images during a flight over Bulgaria. I was in the F15 D model, which has the second seat behind the pilot.

This first image here was relatively easy to capture, with us relying on timing and our preflight arrangements. For me, the jet was moving horizontally next to these other two jets and I was able to simply look out the left side of the cockpit and capture it. No big deal, right? Well, it gets harder.

In this image, from the same shoot, both jets are breaking away from me and releasing flares on signal. I am also flying at 90 degrees, facing upwards and looking up in the canopy while aiming through vertically. In this case, we are pulling 3 to 4 Gs while I’m shooting, so you have to imagine the incredible increase in weight of not only my camera and lens, but my arms as well. I mentioned earlier that high Gs make it hard to move, but I want to reiterate. When you pull Gs while flying, you have to consider that everything gets much heavier, including your arms. Eventually, the weight of your own limbs exceeds your muscles’ ability to lift themselves. But at the 4 Gs, I am still able to hold my camera up above my head and shoot, but only because of years of practice.

This photo is like a recreation of a dogfight. I was flying straight and level, and this pilot of the lead jet was breaking away from us and the F15s were breaking into us at 5Gs. They were crossing each other, breaking into each other.  I need a camera that I can rely on for speed, firing as fast as possible, because if I miss the shot, I’ll not get a second chance. This event happened in a fraction of a second. Even firing as fast as my camera could, I still only had a second, second and a half tops to capture this photo before the moment had passed.

In this shot, it’s after sunset and we wanted to get a unique photo of a flare illuminating the jet from behind. To do this, I was aiming at the after burner, anticipating the flare. In the fraction of a second that I had for the flare to be in the right position, I had to be ready to capture it. So I am not just pre-firing here waiting for it to happen, I am actually waiting and timing it. It’s less spray and pray, and more timing for sure, and it’s something that takes practice. If you just start spraying at maximum fire rate at the wrong time, you could miss the shot.

In all these photos, it’s very important for me to not stay static in my positioning. I have to constantly be panning in conjunction with the jets, and anticipate where they will be moving in my frame of view. The 1DX II does have one drawback: blackout when it’s capturing an image. It would be much easier for me to keep track of a jet in my frame if I didn’t have to deal with losing sight between each photo, but this is a rare feature and I’ve done my career to this point without it.

In the end, it all comes down to preparation. I trust my equipment to a degree, but most of what I do comes down to the skills of the pilots I’m shooting, the pilot I’m paired with, and my abilities as a photographer. Sure, the camera is important especially for high frame rate and autofocus accuracy, but never forget that you as the photographer is the number one factor into what makes your photos great.

© Rich Cooper