Photography: Philip Stevens
A great photograph always brings two kinds of pleasures. There’s the thrill that comes from knowing you got all the technical demands right: the lighting, the composition, the focus, the moment. And there’s the excitement too that comes from looking at a subject you love presented in the most loving way possible. That’s particularly true of aviation photographers, aircraft enthusiasts who specialize in capturing images of airplanes and helicopters in flight and on the ground.
It’s not a huge field – the International Society of Aviation Photographers only has about 400 members and many of those are publishers, photography businesses and artists rather than photographers – but it is an area that requires particular skills, and a genuine love of all things flying.
Philip Stevens, for example, has been taking pictures of airplanes since his early teens. Born in Toronto, Canada to a father who had served in the Royal Air Force, the family moved to the UK in the 1960s, and lived near Elmdon Airport, now Birmingham International Airport. By the age of ten, Philip was a keen plane-spotter. The photography followed shortly afterwards.
“I remember taking landing shots with my only lens, a standard 50mm, at RAF Valley in the early 70’s whilst sitting amongst the landing lights,” he recalls. “The jets were full frame!”
Today Philip specializes in shooting military aircraft and civilian planes made before 1960, a time, he explains with all the enthusiasm of a specialist, when civil aircraft were hand-crafted and had character. Like all aviation photography, the shots themselves can be captured in three ways: ground-static photography means taking pictures of aircraft on the ground (Philip often visits small airfields in the UK and Europe in the hope of capturing a rare, old plane); ground-to-air photography involves the photographer standing on the ground as planes fly overhead. (It’s the kind of aviation photography that’s easiest to do and it’s the type that most photographers at air shows engage in.)
Air Forces Like Favorable Publicity
But the most exciting form of aviation photography is air-to-air when the photographer is in one plane taking pictures of a second aircraft in flight. That kind of photography though is the hardest to organize, especially for shots of military aircraft, although air forces can be fairly welcoming to photographers if they feel that the images will help them to communicate a positive message.
“The biggest challenges are getting to places where only the best journalists get to,” says Philip. “If you put forward a good case for flying with any air force then often they will let you fly with them. They like positive publicity in the form of articles etc.”
That does, however, create a problem for new aviation photographers. Writing articles for magazines helps to establish credibility with military public relations departments — the people who can arrange the necessary permissions — but it’s hard to get the articles without landing the permission first. And for some air forces, only the Chief of the Air Force can authorize a visit or a flight.
“To get access to air bases, you have to build up creditability, and this takes time,” says Philip. “This is almost a chicken or egg conundrum.”
When you can get permission though, the experience — and the manner of shooting — can be unforgettable. Paul Bowen, a commercial photographer from Wichita, Kansas, has been shooting aircraft since 1972. One of Canon’s 60 “Explorers of Light,” Paul’s images have appeared on more than 950 magazine covers and he’s the author of four coffee table books about aviation photography. His favorite shooting position sees him strapped into the end of an adapted B-52 whose tail cone has been removed. From there, he can shoot a following aircraft head on, capturing the plane at the most exciting angles, against the most interesting backgrounds and playing with the way the light strikes the wings or fuselage.
Paul is unusual in that he’s able to make a living as an aviation photographer. Despite a formal education in photography, Philip Stevens is not a professional photographer. His main job involves running an engineering company but his images do earn enough to cover his equipment and some of his travel expenses. He hopes to retire early and focus on photography full time.
Income from Stock and Commissions
The revenue comes from two sources. Despite his non-professional status, Paul does win the occasional commission from clients who come across his website. He also posts his images on stock libraries, an approach followed too by Paul Bowen and other aviation photographers. Paul’s website even offers personalized stock selections and suggests that clients hire him to photographer their aircraft.
For most aviation photographers though, as for most car photographers, any income the photography generates is a bonus on top of the pleasure that comes from taking great pictures of a subject they find fascinating. Asked what makes a good aviation photograph, Philip replied that it’s a picture that you like to look at, often, and wished you had taken yourself.
“An image that reminds you of how excited you were at the moment you captured it. Images that took a lot of time to arrange for permission to take them [and] a unique opportunity all go to make an image special,” he says.
But there is income to be made. Just as Andreas Reinhold, another professional engineer and semi-professional photographer, has been able to build a second career for himself as a car photographer out of a love of automobiles, so it’s possible for any photographer with a passion for a subject and an eye for an image to turn their talent and their interest into income. It might not let you give up the day job and it might just be enough to cover the camera gear and the travel fees but there’s only one thing better than shooting a great picture of a subject you love — and that’s getting paid for it.