Photographing the “Queen of the Skies”
4 December, 2019
Recently I was hired by Cargolux to photograph their Atlanta operations for their in-house magazine Charlie Victor. Knowing that there are always potential problems that may arise from poor planning, I visited the Cargolux facility at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for a site survey, prior to the shoot day. The tour didn’t reveal anything I didn’t already expect. Safety was a concern, so high visibility vests were required attire the day of the shoot. The station manager provided excellent cooperation, and I was pretty much able to shoot what I wanted.
Having said that, I did have one specific request from the client to shoot vertical images, as well as horizontals. Why you may ask? Lots of images are used in publications vertically, especially for the cover, and it should be remembered that in the editorial world, covers pay more! So alway shoot verticals, even though aircraft seem to fill the frame better as horizontals. Verticals used side by side in a layout also look great as a two-page spread…depending on the subject.
Knowing that I was going to be photographing a Boeing 747 also prompted me to pay attention on the ramp, prior to the shoot date. I took my camera along, and made some images to test the coverage of my 17-40, and 28-70mm lenses. As it turned out, I had plenty of room to back up as needed, so either lens would work, as well as the 70-200 for shooting the departure. I was testing a Sigma 150-600mm lens at the time, and in fact used it a bit during the job. While very sharp, it was also very heavy and I found it overly difficult to use without a gimbal. Instead I used my first generation Canon 70-200F2.8 lens to shoot the take-off, which was more than enough lens for the task.
On the day of the shoot, I also took along my Profoto B1 (500watt seconds) battery powered strobe, a magnum reflector, a beauty dish, and my tripod. The aircraft was due to arrive at 0705, so I arrived at 0630, so I’d have to time to get into the facility and be in position when it arrived. As it turned out, the aircraft was already on the ramp when I arrived, and was well on the way to being unloaded. Something else I wasn’t aware of going in is that they don’t always unload the entire aircraft, prior to loading it with new cargo. It depends on the freight being carried, and of course it’s destination.
One thing I should also mention is being ready for unexpected opportunities, when they occur. Such was the case when the pilots deplaned. I mentioned that I was creating images for the company magazine, and would they allow me to quickly photograph them? When they hesitated, I said “give me three minutes”. They said yes, and even though it wasn’t a request from the client, I added those into the mix, as I also wanted to show that I could photograph people too. According to the metadata, the shots were completed in two minutes.
Since it was still dark when I began shooting, the strobe and tripod allowed me to create images that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get. One of my favorite techniques to use in low light situations is called “pop and burn.” Basically the camera is on the tripod, and using an extended shutter speed (any speed that will give me a blur of whatever is moving in the frame…), the strobe is also fired at some point during the exposure. If it fires when the shutter is tripped, that’s called “front curtain synchronization.” An alternative is to use rear-curtain synch, which most modern cameras can do. The benefit of using rear-curtain synch is that an object streak (a moving tug towing a freight pallet for instance) can be recorded with a pop of flash at the end of the exposure. This shows in the photo as a normal streak, with the object frozen at the end of the streak, rather than being frozen at the beginning of the streak. It’s a subtle difference, but is quite evident when compared side by side.
Using the Profoto “magnum” reflector, which throws light an insanely long way, I was able to illuminate the company logo on the tail of the aircraft, while blurring the motion in the foreground. Using this technique, instead of just dodging the logo in post-production, led to a more refined image. There is less potential for noise, and the ever-present noise reduction needed would’ve also reduced the sharpness of the logo.
Using the tripod also allowed sharp images to be captured inside the cargo hold, and of course the cockpit, using available light. I didn’t have time to light the cockpit as I would normally do, so the tripod with available panel/ambient light was the way to go. It worked out fine in both instances, and motion in an image seems to have a bit more “life” than an otherwise totally static shot. Use of a tripod also slows one down to the point where a more considered approach to the subject is required, and of course sharp images are virtually assured, especially in low-light conditions.
Creating the set of images proceeded normally, and the files were delivered, which the client was happy with. It should be noted that Cargolux had previously moved two Beluga whales from China to Iceland, and to publicize the event, had the two whales painted on the fuselage of this particular aircraft. About 10 days later, I received an email from the client, saying that they wanted me to go back to photograph a different aircraft, as for some reason unknown to me, they couldn’t use that aircraft in the company magazine. Instead, the decided to use them in the annual report, and will use the second set of images in the magazine.
So that’s what we did. The second shoot occurred in the afternoon, and lasted until dark. Oftentimes in the winter in the southern United States, clouds appear to be “on fire” as the sun sets, and on this day fortune was with us. “Amazing” was a quote from the client when she saw the second set of images. With any luck at all, I’ll be shooting for them again…
©2019 John Slemp