How Corporate Aviation Photographers Get Their Amazing Shots
You’ve seen the photos on Instagram and in airline ads enticing you to fly a particular airline: a Boeing 787 in full flight, banking ever so slightly, over mountains and through the clouds, sporting a brand-new, shiny livery. It’s so perfect the plane looks like it was Photoshopped in.These stunning shots are the work of a small but passionate group of professional aviation photographers. Whether hanging out of a helicopter shooting aircraft on the ground or high above the Rockies in an air-to-air shot with a chase plane, their work is an AvGeek's, photographer's and marketer's dream.
I spoke with two of aviation's best: Chad Slattery, one of the world's leading professional aviation photographers, and Air Canada's long-time corporate photographer, Brian Losito.California-based Slattery literally wrote the book about aviation photography. It's chock full of tips and advice for amateurs and professionals alike, and a must-read. From equipment to lighting, Slattery covers it all. The book goes into great detail about how he got his best shots, shot by shot and edit by edit. (His default ISO for air-to-air shots is 400, ISO 800 if it's later in the day — that's the level of detail an aspiring photographer can find in the book.)
Losito is a longtime Air Canada employee, having started at the Montreal-based carrier in 1987. He started in the dark room, assembling 35mm slides for corporate and training presentations at the Canadian airline. Five years into the gig, his boss retired and he was offered the job as company photog. "I thought I would try it out for a few years," he said. Losito has documented all of Air Canada's recent liveries, ranging from the classic red with burgundy stripe, to the "toothpaste" green livery of the early 2000s, all the way to the beautiful new one shown on the Boeing 787 above.
"Air-to-air photography is exhilarating. And not many photographers get to do it," Losito said.
How Do They Shoot?
Typically, air-to-air shots begin with a modified Learjet 25B. The photographer will shoot out the front side windows of the aircraft and via a camera pod underneath the left wing. Wolfe Air Aviation in southern California is the go-to and maintains the Learjet for cinematic projects. Why a Learjet? With a service ceiling of 45,000 feet and a climb rate of 6,000 feet per minute, she can keep up with any corporate jet for photography purposes. And Wolfe's Learjet is specialized for this kind of aerial photography.
Slattery said he shoots out of the windows of the aircraft, camera in hand, most of the time. "We keep the front windows on each side of the Learjet cabin clean and polished to maintain optical clarity." The other photos come from the underwing camera, which is a modified "bomb" with the rear removed, attached to a military-style pylon underneath the left wing. "A three-axis gimbal sits inside the pod, enclosing a Canon 5DS stills camera equipped with a 24-105mm zoom lens," Slattery explained. "A tiny witness camera feeds what the camera sees to a console-mounted monitor that I use while we’re flying. I remotely aim the camera at the target plane with a joystick, frame the zoom lens using a toggle, and then punch a button to trip the shutter — all in real time."
"It's a lot like playing a video game," said Losito, who also employs Wolfe Air for shots for Air Canada.In a highly-coordinated ballet. The pilots of the chase and target aircraft will fly in formation, in and of itself a challenging task. The Learjet will fly within as little as 25 feet from the target aircraft, but typically 75-100 feet away, for shots of the entire fuselage. That is very close, particularly in light of the wake turbulence that accompanies a heavy jet.While Slattery will shoot anywhere a client asks, most of the shoots take place in and around Everett, Washington, where Boeings — except 737s and some 787s — roll off the assembly line. For his part, Losito shoots for Air Canada in the same neck of the woods, in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Vancouver has got everything you want: water, mountains, and ATC will let us fly over the city," he said.
Learjet or Helicopter?
Photographers will also use a helicopter with the doors off. "The helicopter is equal parts a dolly, tripod, and snorkel lift," Slattery said. "It is ideal for photographing aircraft on the ground as they taxi, turn, position, launch, and recover."
"The Learjet is perfect for photographing high-performance aircraft in their element — miles high. I love swooping around in the helicopter; I love flying in the Learjet with a 747 tucked in 50 feet below us at our six o'clock position. Choosing between them would be like choosing one favorite car," he said.
Some Advice for the Instagram Set
Unusual for many photographers, Slattery does not maintain an Instagram account. You've likely seen his work in an ad, but may not have known who was behind the lens.
And that's fine by him.
"The Instagram audience is not an audience I need to reach. And many of my clients want to keep a close hold on photography," he said.
Losito maintains a beautiful feed of Air Canada and vintage aircraft and shots of the people that make the Star Alliance carrier tick.
The experienced photographers have some advice for the Instagram-mad, who aren't likely to be flying close and high with a Learjet. "Get a small adjustable camera like the Canon S120 or Sony RX100 VI that fits into your pocket or purse, then always keep it close," Slattery said. "Shoot in RAW format, then make your photos shine with Adobe Elements or Photoshop.""For me, it's all about light," Losito said. "Then you need to have an interesting background. Even engines can be amazing on the ground if there is something in the background to make them pop."
Then there's the quote from famed photographer Richard Avedon: "The final photograph is both accurate and untrue." It's a key theme for Slattery, who goes as far as to include it in his email signature.
"I absolutely saturate colors and selectively enhance skies right to the ragged edge of believability, but then back it off 10 percent," he said. "I enhance reality, but never want people to think they’ve wandered into a psychedelic experience," he said.Airlines and ad agencies will Photoshop their images onto different backgrounds, Slattery said: "If the day we shoot is totally clear, but the ad agency wants to show passengers soaring high above the clouds, they’ll strip out the jet and paste it into a stock shot of clouds."The reason is simple."Air-to-air shoots burn money. Our photo Learjet is expensive, our crew is expensive, their crew is expensive, and of course there’s the opportunity cost from pulling a 777 off its route for a day," he said.
With these stunning shots, there's no real need to apologize. Keep your eyes peeled for Slattery or Losito's work in your travels. And, if you're around Everett, Washington, or Vancouver, British Columbia, look for a Boeing chasing a Learjet.
Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand, and a private pilot.