Making aviation photos for the National Agricultural Aviation Associaton, or the NAAA, the concept was to create a unique image of an aerial sprayer in flight. We’ve all seen crop duster images from the ground, and sometimes alongside in flight from the vantage point of a chase plane.
But hey, what would it look like if you could see into the cockpit, and see the pilot’s face, as the plane flew directly underneath you? Gulp! No problem, these pilots have nerves of steel and are known for flying insanely close to the ground. But what photographer is going to dangle 32 feet in the air, hanging from a bucket crane, and let one of these planes fly under the suspended bucket? Sign me up!
To get the most attractive blur on the propeller for this image, the shutter speed had to be determined in the planning stages. With the plane on the ground and it’s brakes on, the engine and the pitch of the propeller were set at the same RPM as it would be in flight.
We tried various lighting positions and shutter speeds to find the ideal blur. Our tests revealed 1/250sec was best with 2 grided strobes at a 60 degree angle to each other. Anything different, and the propeller would look like it’s not turning and you wouldn’t see a screened effect in the turning blade.
Considering the plane flies at 180 mph, the next challenge was to make a tack sharp image with this low shutter, in a swinging bucket. As much as you could plan, this question would be answered only on the day of the shoot.
So on a bright overcast calm morning it was go time. After a few test passes at a safe distance alongside my position, the most predictable sharp focus results came from using center weighted AI Servo.
Time for the money shot. The plane banked hard, came in low, and positioned itself for the first pass directly underneath my position. Thankfully the first frame produced this image! The pilot made more passes, with variations on a theme, making exciting photos all morning.
By the end of the session the feeling of vulnerability changed to exhilaration. Still, I was thankful to hear the sound of my little Willie Wonka elevator gently thud to the ground.