Lightroom TipsNews

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!!!) 😀

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!