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Face-to-Face with Mankind’s Most Impressive Flying Machines

January 26, 2017 | by David Moncur

When I got the opportunity to do a photo shoot for our client the Museum of Flight—the world’s largest non-profit air and space museum in the world—the little boy inside me thought: “This. Is. Going. To. Be. SO. Cool!”

You see, no matter how old a man gets, he never looses his fascination with planes, trains and automobiles and no matter how modern he becomes, he never looses his respect for mankind’s incredible history.

This photo shoot was an amazing experience (and challenge) that I’ll never forget. Standing face-to-face with these mechanical giants was like being in the presence of royalty. These were the iconic aircrafts that literally moved our race through history, revolutionized our world, survived wars and defined our journey to achieve the phenomenon of flight.

Exactly how was I supposed to capture all that in a single picture, you ask? I’ll tell you…

How to Shoot Massive Aircraft in a Multiform Museum

Figuring out the creative and physical logistics of this unique 3-day photo shoot in a diverse museum setting was the first priority.

My team researched and concepted what we might be able to do, experimenting with styles and deciding how I could capture a really amazing image of each aircraft. The end goal wasn’t to create a photo that documented the plane, it was to elevate the essence of each aircraft and evoke emotion through interesting angles and an artistic approach. In the end they all needed to have a somewhat consistent style that would make a visual impact.

But, the Museum itself came with its own set of challenges. The lighting was all over the place—there were banks of lights we didn’t have control of turning on or off and many of the aircraft I was shooting were inside a giant glass atrium—which put our lighting at the mercy of the sun. Another portion of the Museum I had to shoot in was a dark, mood-lighting exhibit, and the final environment was an outdoor pavilion that was under construction and proved to be the most complicated of them all! Additionally, this Museum was packed with over 175 aircraft and spacecraft.

I knew I needed to be well prepared—so I brought studio lights, a tripod, light reflectors, my best camera and just about every lens attachment I had—from a fisheye to a 400 mm telephoto lens. And the Museum let us use ladders and a cherry picker.

Ready, set…

Fight the lighting with the right timing and equipment.

Contort your body and position to isolate the shot against physical restraints.

Let go of your fear of heights.

And go!

The Harrier
Fondly called a “Jump Jet,” The Harrier is one of the most extraordinary and recognizable fighter aircraft in the world that could operate from short fields, decks of ships and roadways near battlefields. The unique trait that makes it different from other U.S. airplanes is its ability to take off and land vertically by directing thrust from the engine through its four swiveling nozzles, located on the fighter’s belly.

As I started shooting The Harrier, I experimented with capturing different details, but quickly learned that if I focused too closely on one element of the aircraft, when you looked back at the shot you couldn’t even tell what it was. I had fun finding the right angle for this one as I discovered the devils in the details.

Lockheed Model 10-E Electra
The Electra possesses an extraordinary historical pedigree and is the infamous aircraft model flown by Amelia Earhart. This Model 10-E was the 15th of a total of 149 Model 10’s of all variants that were built and flown extensively by Northwest well into WWI. In August 1942, this model was acquired by the U.S. Army Air Forces and became a UC-36A.

The challenge with shooting the Electra was that this plane reflected everything else in the room around it. Photographing its monochromatic exterior meant that the sun had to be at a certain angle in order to create cool blue and white reflections that brought it to life. My timing on this one had to be impeccable.

Lockheed M-21 Blackbird
The Blackbird remains the fastest and highest flying air-breathing production aircraft ever built. It can cruise at speeds of more than Mach 3 and fly over 85,000 feet in altitude. This model was built as a spy plane and its innovative paint was full of microscopic beads that dispersed light and made it imperceptible to radar.

The nature of the innovative paint formula was so fascinating but posed a huge photography challenge since it would not reflect light—the Museum assistant even shined a flashlight directly onto the surface—and it dispersed, no light, no reflection. That meant I had to do 20 different exposures from super bright, over exposed shots to super dark, under exposed shots in order to catch the shape and the details. The real work to make this a dynamic shot came later, in editing.

Goodyear FG-1D Corsair
The Corsair was the premier Navy and Marine fighter of World War II and was designed around the large Pratt & Whitney R-2800 “Double Wasp” 2,250-horsepower engine and massive propeller. The bent-wing design allowed for shorter, stronger gear for carrier landings and reduced drag. This specific aircraft was recovered from the bottom of a lake in 1983 and restored by the Museum.

Since this aircraft was in one of the indoor exhibits, I had to do exposures over thirty seconds in order to get the details in the dark. I definitely wanted to make the massive propeller and fold up wings the focus of the shot and had to get on the ground to hit the right perspective.

Curtiss P-40N Warhawk
The Curtiss P-40 was the most effective U.S. fighter aircraft to get airborne at Pearl Harbor. Throughout the war, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Russia also flew the Curtiss. First flown in 1939, the P-40 was kept in production until 1944 with nearly 15,000 of all models delivered.

This aircraft posed the same lighting challenges as the Corsair and this plane was so bad-ass I really wanted to find the right angle to make it feel as aggressive and impressive as it was. I ended up getting right under the wing for an impactful view.

The Concorde
The Concorde is capable of speeds over two times the speed of sound at elevations up to 60,000 feet (18,290 m). An iconic contribution to the era of luxury planes, the Concorde could fly from London to New York and return in the time it took a conventional aircraft to go one way. Flying with Air France and British Airways, the supersonic jets offered a luxurious and speedy trip across the Atlantic for 27 years.

The Concorde was by far the most difficult aircraft to capture. It was set in an outdoor pavilion, the site was littered with construction and the aircraft was surrounded by many other models. We scouted the space that morning to try to determine the best plan of action, but couldn’t. When I went back to revisit it, I stumbled onto the perfect moment of the day. The lighting was casting amazing architecture shadows from the support beams of the pavilion. This was it. I put on my hard-hat, grabbed my equipment and got the crew to move construction materials out of the way so I could get what I needed. I ended up having to layer and stich together three frames, as the time lapse between each one altered the shadows.

Preparing for Launch

I ended up spending about six days editing these photos to get the dynamic shots I was looking for. The editing process included layering multiple exposures and lighting scenarios, hand painting highlights, shadows, details and contrast and setting back noise to create focus. The final pieces were well worth the work and became the dramatic hero images that you see in the final museumofflight.org website today.

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