Pilot Journal
Monday, November 1, 2004

The Men Behind The Lens

Amidst a massive military aircraft launch, 150 aviation photographers gather to perfect their craft

men behind the lensThere it sits, waiting, a latency of brooding power. It’s like the unprocessed image on a digital memory chip. Family: American warbird. Genus: Lockheed Stealth Fighter. Species: F/A-22 Raptor. You can feel the deadly purpose rise from its gold-tinted canopy and cool, gray skin, like the heat waves that shimmer the Vegas Strip in the distance.
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A flock of military aircraft, such as the F/A-22 Raptor, was the main attraction at ISAP IV, where aviation photographers from around the world took photos and shared tips and tricks of the trade. They were even given their own private air show by the USAF Thunderbirds (right).A flock of military aircraft, such as the F/A-22 Raptor (above), was the main attraction at ISAP IV, where aviation photographers from around the world took photos and shared tips and tricks of the trade. They were even given their own private air show by the USAF Thunderbirds (right).
men behind the lens
Eric Long knocked us out with a trip through several months of shooting the development, move and grand opening of the Smithsonian’s new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center museum located at the Dulles International Airport. “People who exclaim, ‘Don’t worry about the background. We can fix it in Photoshop,’ create quite a dangerous mindset,” says Long. “As pro photographers, we still need good lighting techniques, whether we’re shooting digital or film.”Jim Wilson took up the mantle with his talk on the importance of hustle and professional interactions with business types when photographing corporate aircraft. And Katsuhiko Tokunaga, widely regarded as one of the greatest living air-to-air military-iron shooters, gave a fascinating slide show of his global photo adventures.

Tokunaga’s advice: “The way I survived for 25 years is to do everything safely. You have to continue to always judge the limitation and capability of the aircraft and the pilots you’re flying with. You must plan very carefully. Brief carefully. Fly carefully. Always.”

I feel the anticipation bristle through our milling gaggle of shooters: The very first jets are lined up and ready to go for us. Cameras soon raise, lenses zoom in as the airplanes waver in the telephoto-compressed heat waves, like phantasms.

And here they come! The first indistinct keening, then the roar, of engines, pushes through our soundproofed headgear as a huge dark gray F/A-18 Hornet accelerates toward us. Then the whump-whump as twin afterburners kick in, and I lock auto focus on the racing bird as it’s rolling, rolling so fast now that it’s hard to track him. I mash the shutter button, and the Canon Mark II shoots images so fast that I hardly notice the camera reflex mirror cycling up and down. So fast that it’s not easy to track the bird. The size and power of the ferocious sound, like a body punch, and it flashes by. I zoom in on the flaming exhaust cones, full of brilliant orange fire, and it climbs for the whitish burning blue, and I pan back because here comes the next one. What a rush!

William T. Larkins, with his wife (who was a ferry pilot during World War II), closed out the final evening as ISAP’s guest of honor. He charmed the assemblage with gentle amiability and a stirring display of his early aviation photography.

Larkin’s presentation made for both a warm and fuzzy finale to ISAP IV and a heralding of the path that we all must walk. Looking at the black-and-white photos, many taken before most of us were even born, we instantly relived the astonishing birth of the century of flight, which changed our world forever. And along with it came a realization that there will soon come a time when, sooner or later, each one of us who are gathered at this spectacular event will no longer be able to lift the magic gathering glass to catch the fleeting shape of things that fly. It was a bittersweet moment that made us all the more cherish and relish these precious moments of time of being the eagle eyes behind the lens—a perspective that few get to really master.

Over the next hour and more, Eagles to the right of us and Hornets to the left of us volley and thunder, and happily, we fall pretty to their overwhelming power. Scrambling back and forth between the runways, we jostle for space on the radar tower nearby, seeking that special vantage point that hasn’t already been discovered, absorbing the thrilling, throbbing power in our guts as we capture image after image after image. Ah, this is heaven.


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