My First Air-to-Air Photo Workshop with Moose Peterson

Let me just start out by saying do not attend one of these workshops. If you do, you will absolutely get hooked. I know I just did :) … I’m kidding of course. This past weekend was one of the best times I’ve ever had shooting. Moose Peterson invited me out to spend the day at one of his Air-to-Air photo workshops. My wife tells me that I’ve had an ear-to-ear smile on my face ever since.

I arrived early Saturday morning at Stallion 51. I was immediately greated by Moose, his wife Sharon and KT (The coordinator at Stallion 51 – make sure you ask for her if you ever go by). I got there before sunrise to photograph the planes on the ground (statics). We had some ground fog and were even able to get up higher and shoot down. It was a great way to get warmed up and shoot some beautiful planes before everything kicked in.

(Click to see larger versions of any of the photos)

After that a few people had mentioned that Lee Lauderback (the owner and chief pilot at Stallion 51) was bringing his falcon out. Well, not wanting to sound dumb (I don’t know much about planes), I never really asked too much about it and just nodded my head figuring that he had a plane that was a “falcon” and that we’d be photographing it. I was wrong. It literally was a falcon that Lee owns :-)

Then we all grabbed some breakfast together. I got to sit down with Moose, his lovely wife Sharon, Richard VanderMeulen, and Scott (pilot) and enjoyed a short stack of pancakes. We got to talk about planes, cameras, social media, more planes, more cameras, and well, you know… the normal breakfast conversation :) I even got to spend some time chatting with the other guys in the workshop and (as usually happens in these workshops), everyone instantly becomes great friends. After that we went back to Stallion 51 for some classroom time. World renown aviation photographer, Richard VanderMeulen gave us a nice presentation on air-to-air photography. I learned a ton from this. From safety, to what planes are best to shoot from, all the way to composition and how to get a great photo. We took a small break and then geared up for our briefing for what was to come later in the afternoon. Lee stepped in with the other pilots and briefed them (and us) on exactly what was going to happen… right down to the minute. They had everything planned perfectly. As you sat there, you knew you were in good hands.

Next is when the butterflies really start building. We all headed outside and put on our harnesses. These guys mean business when they talk safety. You have a full harness (you’ll see why you need it in in a minute) that gets strapped in to the photo ship (that’s the plane the photographers ride in) in two places. Then during a short walk to the plane you start realizing that this is REALLY happening. Our ride that day was a Skyvan which typically has sky divers as it’s passengers. Here’s a photo of the tunnel-like opening that we shoot out of in the back (thanks to Tony Granata for the photo). That out-of-focus stuff in the foreground is actually other people shooting. Yes, that’s how close we were to the edge.

Here’s a photo of Moose getting ready. You can see the yellow harness that he had on was similar to the ones we all wore as well. Although… I think Moose gave me the one that had some faulty hooks on it. But I switched with this guy Tony from New Jersey when he wasn’t looking, so I’m pretty sure I had the safe one again (totally kidding!!!) :-D

I walked up to the Skyvan not knowing really what to expect. I knew we’d be looking out the back of an open plane, but I never really knew that I’d actually be sitting on the edge of the platform with nothing but air between me and the ground 6000 feet below. Seriously, the edge you see me sitting on is it! Don’t get me wrong though. I love heights, I love adventure, adrenaline and doing crazy things. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get a little nervous when I’m getting ready. Oh and I wonder who the goofball is with his lens cap still on ;-)

Right on schedule (even a little bit ahead of time), we taxied out to the runway and were in the air in just a matter of minutes. Our subjects this evening were a yellow T-6 Texan, 2 Silver/Blue P-51D Mustangs, and (my personal favorite) a L-39 Albatross Jet.

Within about 2-3 minutes of being airborne we had our first plane to shoot. Just one plane at this point and it was a great time to get accustomed to shooting up there. The biggest trick to shooting these planes was the shutter speed. For most of the shoot, there was plenty of light so you could easily get shutter speeds of 1/500th of a second and ever higher at times. But if you used that high of a shutter speed, here’s what you got.

See the problem? The propeller spin has gaps in the blur. Because of the speed at which the propeller spins, if you shoot at too high of a shutter speed you don’t get proper propeller blur. Essentially, you want a full rotation with no gaps in it. Because of that, I dropped my shutter speed to 1/80th and set the camera on Shutter Priority so it picked the appropriate aperture. Heck, even 1/80th on the yellow T-6 wasn’t slow enough, and sometimes I had to dip down to 1/60th to get the full prop blur. Throw that in with the fact that you’re in a moving plane, the planes behind you are also moving, and you can see how the guys who make a living photographing this stuff earn their money. It definitely wasn’t easy. And the pilots… don’t even get me started. They flew so damn still it was crazy.

Over the course of the next hour or so before sunset, the 4 planes flew various formations that included all of them alone at some point and all of them together at some point. You had about 3 minutes with each formation and the pilots and our crew on board planned this perfectly. It was the perfect amount of time to get honed in on what to shoot and how to shoot it. When you were done shooting, the next plane was on it’s way in.

We flew in a constant circle so we were able to get different backgrounds as well as different lighting based on where the sun was. My gear of choice was a Nikon D3s and 70-200mm lens. Moose said he sometimes puts the tele-extender on, but suggested I leave it off since it was my first time and just crop a little after if I needed. If I’ve ever learned one thing in my career as a photographer… Listen to Moose! So I did and I’m happy I left it off.

My favorite plane of them all was our last subject right at sunset. It was the L-39 Albatross Jet. I absolutely love jets! Ever since I first saw Top Gun as a kid, I was hooked. It’s been a dream of mine to fly in a jet. This was the next best thing (but I’m still determined to get up in a jet one day!). These guys came so close it was amazing. In one of the photos below, you’ll see my out-of-focus shoe circled at the bottom of the frame to help you gauge just how close they were. A-freakin’-mazing!!! Oh yeah, I was able to switch over to Aperture priority mode and control the aperture at this point, because the jet doesn’t have a prop to worry about.

Right on schedule, we finished up, landed safely and were on our way to our cars within minutes. The entire crew (pilots and all) joined the class for dinner. I had a 90+ minute drive back to Tampa (and was pretty beat from getting up at 5am), so I didn’t go with them but I really wished I did. All I can say is that this was an incredible day. It was everything I had hoped for and more. Moose, his entire team, as well as the folks over at Stallion 51, put on an impeccable workshop and performance that day.

All totaled I think I shot about 1500 photos in the air. It was constant shooting and I never wanted to stop. I had a 32 GB and a 16 GB card in my camera just in case. Personally, I didn’t shoot with two bodies, but some other guys had another body with a wide angle lens on. Being a newbie and because of the 1/80th of a second shutter speed, I’d say half the photos are slightly blurry (but nobody will ever see those right?). But I definitely got enough sharp ones to be excited about. And I learned a ton while shooting (and after) which will help me out the next time I go up… and trust me… there WILL be a next time.

On his website, Moose writes “There is literally no other workshop on the planet like this one!”. I can vouch for that statement and say that it’s absolutely 100% true. There isn’t anything out there like this and I feel confident in saying it was by far the most fun I’ve ever had shooting.

I just wanted to say a huge thanks to Moose, Richard, Scott, Lee, KT and all of the pilots and staff at Stallion 51 for a wonderful learning and shooting opportunity. If you can make it to one of Moose’s Air-to-Air photo workshops, I highly suggest you do. And if you’re ever in the Central Florida area, make sure you look up Stallion 51 and ask for KT (she rocks!). You can stop by to see the planes, and more importantly, you can actually get to fly in one too. I know I’ll be back. Thanks for reading!

Author: Matt K

Matt is a full time Education Director for the NAPP and Kelby Training. He's a best-selling author of various books on Photoshop and Photography co-hosts the live weekly photography talk show "The Grid" and is co-host of "Photoshop User TV". In his spare time he practices as a 1st degree black belt in Taekwondo and enjoys spending time with his family in Tampa, FL.

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36 Comments

  1. That shure looks like an awesome experience. Abolutely love the photo right up top and … lesse… #13 & #14 (yellow plane with lake/trees as a background).

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  2. Hi Matt,
    Great shots, but why the close cropping? There’s nearly no plane with the wings intact. Even Moose’s picture of you, half heads in the background… Love your work though. / Jens.

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  3. I went skydiving once, but now that I have kids, I sorta had to cross it off my list permananetly. However, this sounds like a perfect way to re-live some of that adrenaline rush without all the risk. Looks like a blast! Thanks for sharing…

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  4. Hey Matt! What a fantastic experience! Thanks for sharing! I love airplanes and spent a better part of my engineering career designing planes and jet engines. So, you can see I really love planes! How often does Moose do this workshop? Is it reasonably cost for a retired dude to go? Your shots are GREAT and thanks for the info on shutter speed for the propeller blur! Love following you on your adventures! Hopefully, you’ll post some more photos of this workshop!

    Take care, and have a Blast a Photoshop World!

    Dennis

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  5. Great shots Matt. What a wonderful adventure. Thanks for the BTS shots as well.

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  6. Hey Matt, got excited, I finished a study for flightengineer/pilot. Now I’m a professional photographer, with your pictures both game together, thnx for sharing.

    Peter

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  7. Matt, I’m so envious! I’d be so happy to go to one of Moose’s workshops since I love aircraft. I’m determined to do it someday. Let me know when you are going again.

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  8. Hey, what a brave soldier, i can see the pilots grinning.
    One quick query Matt followed your podcasts for years, thanks you basically taught
    me most of what i know. Ah the question….will your presets from the past work with
    Lightroom 4 or no. Keep em coming

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  9. Dear Matt;
    Sound like a neat experience. Just one thing the “falcon” picture you put on the LKT website was actually a Harris’s Hawk, native to the southwest and frequently flown by falconers.
    Thanks
    Lee

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  10. That looks like so much fun!!! My husband has a Cessna, can’t get great shots like this out our window

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  11. Nice writeup Matt and some great shots your first time out. Just more motivation for me to signup for one of Moose’s workshops. I’m a pilot and photographer so it’s the best of both worlds for me.

    Except do I fly in a P-51 or do an air to air workshop? Don’t think my wife will let me pay for both.

    Thanks for all the instruction and knowledge you provide.

    -Kevin

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  12. Ok so ‘jealous’ would be the understatement of the year :)
    What an incredible experience that must have been and hey superb results too!

    Looking forward to hearing more about it,
    Cheers,
    Glyn

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  13. Dude. Extremely envious, amazing shots. You certainly know the right people eh ? ;o)

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  14. Wow! Matt, that was a great narrative, and I truly felt like I was with you all the way. Awesome post! I have a chance to do some helicopter shooting in the next couple of weeks, and was worried about doing it “doors open” but now I think I am jazzed for the opportunity. Life (and photography) is all about adventure, right? Thanks for a great post.

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  15. Matt,
    It was great meeting you and sharing the luxurious front row in the comfortable, state-of-the-art, well-ventalated Sky-van. “Don’t jump on my door!”
    I have the same shot of my shoe and the L39. lol Nice shots. Oh and Dude! I want my ear plugs back. LOL :)

    Take care,
    Kent

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  16. Wait for Photoshop CS6 in whitch should be antiblur function :)
    Love photo’s

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  17. TFS! What a great experience. You really got some great shots, though that first one in the line up is a stunner. I have to admit my stomach was churning a little looking at some of them where you are looking out the plane. (it would never be me up there).

    Hope you get to go again.

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  18. WOW! I did a freefall parachute jump last year and have been looking for other things to put on my ‘bucket list’. This is definitely one of them.
    Thanks for the photo tips and a great article.

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  19. Hi Matt,

    Absolutely awesome! Really jealous, not a type of photography I had considered, but after seeing your pictures and the advert on Moose Peterson’s website, I want to try it.

    Can you provide us with an idea of cost as well because this is going on my list of things to do in my life.

    Yours

    Jonathan

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  20. Air to air is definitely a blast! I got to go up with Greg Poe and crew once and it was amazing fun. The turbulence is tough on midline camera bodies.

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  21. Hello ! ( bonjour )

    I love your photos ! I don’t understand evrything you write,but almost evrything.
    I worked a long time ago as an hotess at the Paris airport and like you i love planes,
    adventure,doing crazy things and taking beautiful pictures.Yours are very nice and not only the one of planes.I like very much the golden sunset light in a picture .I’m looking
    evrywhere for advices to make a success of my photographs.
    bye
    Caroline

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  22. I would love to do this some day. Looks like a lot of fun and great learning experience.

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  23. 3K for the workshop? Wow, I did it for 24 years and got paid for it. One thing when shooting aircraft with props or choppers. Always use 1/125 as your SS. Never shoot using any automation, and bracket the hell out of your exposures. Best camera lens combination I’ve ever used shooting aerial imagery was a Nikon F-4s w/ the Nikor 35-70 f2.8 lens.

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  24. Air to air is an amazing photo shoot! I got a chance a couple of years back to photograph Greg Poe in his MX2 with Dax piloting the chase plane. It was a thrill to hang at the edge of the safety harness and compose images. The environment is tough on mid-level dslr bodies and sensors, bring the cleaning kit for later.

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  25. Awesome set of shots, would love to do something like this what is the cost of something like this?

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  26. This is one of the most exciting workshops I’ve ever heard about. The opportunity to shoot the P-51 air to air alone is incredible. Thanks for sharing.

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  27. Sounds like you had a wonderful time and came back with some great photos. I haven’t really been that interested in the Air-to-Air workshops but you make it sound like such an incredible experience I think I’ve changed my mind.

    Also, thanks for making me feel old with the ‘saw Top Gun as a kid’ reference.

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  28. I’m not seeing pricing on the website. Could you tell us what it cost?

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  29. Finally found it buried in what looks like fine-print in the last paragraph:

    And you can be a part of this! All the information for the Air2Air Workshop can be found here. Or, you could cut to the chase and call WRP @760.924.8632 or 661.204.1506 and join us (price is $2995 which includes instruction & photo ship only. You are required to sign two Hold Harm agreements to participate).

    A much better site (which is actually designed to advertise the workshops) to look at is this: http://air2airworkshops.com/2012_Workshops.html

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  30. Wow, you have some outstanding HD video and still photos of classic WarBirds! As a former Boeing photographer, I really appreciate the quality of aviation images on your site. Of course, nothing but the best imagery from the mighty Moose!

    If you have an opportunity please visit my photo essay of Warbirds at Everett’s Paine Field annual: General Aviation Days. Please see: http://sciencetechtablet.wordpress.com/
    “Paine Field in the Pacific Northwest is becoming an aviation mecca.” You can see Paul Allen and John T Session’s warbird collections flying next to Boeing commercial aircraft and much more.

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  31. Great photos and great story!
    Thanks for sharing!

    Post a Reply

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