In this Photoswarm Pro photographer interview, we check in with aviation photographer Brodie Winkler and discover what shooting aircraft it all about, the difficulties in involved and how to handle potentially tricky security situations.
1. Tell us about your experiences getting started as a photographer?
Well I would say it has been a major learning experience on many levels. Ranging from how to deal with people in sticky situations, to realizations such as you really do get what you pay for in terms of equipment quality.
Photography is a journey where just when you think you have mastered it, you learn something new or a new feature comes out and the learning curve starts again.
2. How did you get involved in the field of aviation photography?
I actually started by doing video initially. The 2010 Winter Olympics had daily fighter movements at YVR and I decided to buy a camcorder to capture these unique flights, and have something to look back at. But after a while I was unsatisfied with having video as it was quite a hassle to post and edit. When the Abbotsford Airshow came around that year I decided to try my hand at still Photography. At the time all I had was our family’s old 35mm Canon with a 35-80mm lens. There was a lot to learn, but I walked away very happy with my results. When I ran into some excess cash later that year, the first thing I did was go out and buy my Canon 7D which is still my old faithful!
3. What difficulties do you have to overcome when photographing aircraft?
Well the airport environment itself is quite challenging. Wind, runway in use, angle, and lighting conditions are all variables that have to be considered to make a good capture. In addition, the security at different airports is always changing. For example YVR recently raised perimeter fence and added razor wire making it difficult to find a good shooting angle. Many are resorting to ladders or longer lenses to compensate.
4. Do you have a pilot license?
No, although I have had the opportunity to take the stick in both a T-6 Harvard and a PT-17 Kaydet for some basic flying. I have experienced some aerobatics, but those where flown by the aircraft owner.
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5. What type of equipment do you use?
I have a Canon 7D, and kit 18-55mm and 55-250mm lenses. I use four 8GB 200x speed CF cards, and also have a 8GB 800x speed CF card for those times when rapid shooting is a must. In future I would like a Canon 100-400mm IS L lens, but that is an investment for a little way down the road.
6. Which one item of equipment would you say is the most important to you?
The camera body. Initially when I started I was using an old 35mm Canon film camera and worked with a really old 35-80mm lens. It worked as a starter set-up, but I am a lot happier now with digital photography and my Canon 7D.
7. What’s your favourite photography accessory, other than your camera?
My car and my 20 foot ladder. The Pacific Northwest has a ton of different photo settings. If you can handle the fuel cost, sometimes the best opportunities are at the smaller airports. My favorite shot was at Squamish Airport, small airport where rarely anything goes on. I happened to be out there for a BBQ when I scored a shot of a Airspan Bell 212 fresh out of overhaul on its way to Vancouver Island. If you didn’t know better you would think the photo was taken in the bush.
Airspan Bell 212 Helicopter
8. Tell us something about you that very few people know?
Hornet Hunter was actually a nickname I overheard one of the military personnel use during the 2010 Winter Olympics for me when I was nearby. It just stuck with me as it worked perfectly with what I like to do!
9. Have you ever found yourself in a difficult situation while taking aviation photos?
There is a list. However the first one that comes to mind is McChord Air Rodeo 2011. McChord Air Rodeo is a competition where various countries from around the world will send their best airmen and a transport aircraft to compete in various challenges such as an engine running offload. This is not open to the public but the fence at McChord AFB, is very close to the base at some points offering shots of the aircraft as they taxi by.
At about 9am of day 2 of the Air Rodeo I had my lawn chair setup and was waiting for the next aircraft to taxi by when I was approached by an unmarked SUV but it was clearly some sort of police vehicle. I was approached by a member of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, my first thought was “This is gonna be rough”. I was wrong; once I explained to him why I was there and that I have a basic understanding of policies such as not to take photos of forces personnel. He was very understanding, and told me which areas to avoid where private property owners may get upset. He handed me his business card and told me to call him if I saw anything suspicious, and then proceeded to thank me for my co-operation and drove away.
At about 2:30pm there was a Royal Netherlands Air Force C-130 that was starting up so I grabbed my camera and proceeded to the fence. I was standing there waiting for the C-130 to taxi when a pickup truck labeled “Security Forces” pulled up on the other side of the fence. The person got out of the truck and began to tell me I couldn’t take photos. Remaining polite I explained why I was there and that I wasn’t photographing airmen. He told me I couldn’t take photos without a written letter from the base commander and to put the camera away and leave before he called the Tacoma Sheriff Department, promising me they wouldn’t be nearly “as nice” as he had been.
A little frustrated that I didn’t get a shot of the RNLAF C-130 that taxied by and having him standing there watching me to make sure I leave I decided to call the Special Investigator that I had met and spoken to earlier. After explaining the situation to him on the phone I was told to stay put and he would be with me shortly. I patiently waited as I continued to be watched. About 20 minutes after I made the call the investigator showed up, went straight to the security forces officer and talked to him for about a minute before the security forces personnel got back in his truck looking frustrated. The Special Investigator came over and we had a brief discussion before I thanked him and he drove off. I wasn’t bothered by security forces again that day, although I still wish I had got a photo of that Netherlands C-130!
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10. How important is Photoshop in your final images?
I actually don’t use Photoshop. I use the basic editing software that came with my camera. I prefer not to do a lot to the photo; up the contrast a little, a little crop and levelling, maybe adjust the brightness. I like to keep the editing to a minimum.
11. Do you mainly photograph at airshows or do you have contacts allowing you to work with the military and airports etc?
I am still an amateur and this is still more a hobby than work, However I do work for a ground handling company as a ramp-lead at YVR which permits me ramp access during the hours I am scheduled to work. If I have free time and if there is something worth taking a photo of, I will usually take my lunch break for it.
Outside of YVR I have a few contacts here and there but I usually do a bit of fence crawling, maybe some research with various sites as to how friendly the airport is for spotting from outside the fence. When airshow season comes around I like to travel and attend as many shows as I can.
This season I hope to make it to:
MCAS Yuma Airshow – March 9, Yuma, AZ
Defenders of Liberty Air Show – May 4-5, Barksdale AFB, Bossier City, LA
Skyfest 2013 – May 18-19 Fairchild AFB, Spokane, WA
Tacoma Freedom Fair – July 4 Tacoma, WA
American Heroes Airshow – July 13 Boeing Field, Seattle, WA
Olympic Airshow – July 14 Olympia Regional Airport, Olympia, WA
Oregon International Airshow – July 26-28 Portland-Hillsboro Airport, Portland, OR
Seafair – August 2-4 Lake Washington, Seattle, WA
Abbotsford Airshow – August 9-11 Abbotsford, BC
Comox Airshow – August 17, CFB Comox, Comox, BC
MCAS Miramar Airshow – October 4-6, San Diego, CA
Aviation Nation – November 9-10 Nellis AFB, Las Vegas, NV
12. How important is a great photo website for your photography?
Extremely important! I initially got this site so I had a proper website name to put on my business card. After the past airshow season and having lots of e-mail addresses on the notepad of my phone, I decided I needed a proper website and a business card to make it easier to promote myself. Having these items has increased my opportunities as time goes on.
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13. What aspect or feature of Photoswarm do you most value?
In terms of cost and ease of use, the site has turned out to be a great investment. It has increased exposure of my photography work and has given me opportunities I might not have received otherwise. A proper website and branding is very important for the promotion of my activities.
14. How has Photoswarm helped with what you want to achieve with your photography?
I have gotten several great opportunities as a result of having an online portfolio. Just recently I had the opportunity to photograph two helicopters up close as they were taking off, as a result of Photoswarm. I feel this site has helped me get my name out there, and with recognition of my work. With airshow season very soon, I believe the site will help me get noticed even more!
15. How long have you been doing Aviation Photography?
In absolute terms I am a relative newcomer. I really only got into serious photography about two years ago. I am still learning a lot of things and am working hard to refine my technique, and to get my name out there.
16. What is your personal favorite photo you have taken?
An OH-58 Kiowa as it departed the American Heroes Air Show in Seattle last year. I just really like the composition of the shot and how it turned out. I have plans to print it and have it framed.
OH-58 Kiowa Helicopter
17. What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator” by Gary Noesner. Simply because it is a very interesting read and it helps kill time while waiting for the sunset, the next airshow performer, or just simply when there is nothing going on.
18. What advice would you have for photographers interested in mastering aviation photography?
Confidence is number one! I have had my fair share of close calls with security, police, and the military, and I have found the key to dealing with these situations is confidence. In a situation where you are deemed “suspicious” the best thing is to be confident. If you are nervous they usually see that and think you are hiding something. Confidence can also lead to some opportunities. If you are at the local airport and a military aircraft is in town, talk to the crew if you get the chance; ask them if they can take you on the apron. If you are confident and they are not on a mission at the time they will usually take you out!
Ask the community. When I first started I had no experience at all. I learned all I know about photography from scratch without classes. The community is a tool that’ll help guide you when you feel lost. When I had issues I asked questions on forums. For example my first photos where incredibly grainy. I found out about ISO, F-stop, long exposures, and shooting stances by asking around in the community.
Dedication pays off. I have had countless times where I’ve spent 8 hours at an airport and walked away with nothing out of the ordinary. But dedication pays…I have captured lots of aircraft people had no idea were arriving as a result of this dedication and waiting. From a Qatar Amiri Flight executive 747-8I on a delivery flight, to a Swedish Air force C-130. Aircraft such as these often cannot be tracked, and can pop up anytime.
Finally, take the time and put your camera down once in a while. I find this is important to help keep it an enjoyable experience. If you are always shooting and never just taking the moment in, then it begins to feel too much like a job and you begin to lose the passion for what you do.
Brodie’s work can be found on his pro Photoswarm portfolio and you can also read other pro photographer interviews.