"The pictures you make are like a connect-the-dots game that becomes the line of your life, as real and vibrant as the lines on your face and hands. We tell stories with our pictures. In turn, our pictures tell our story - what we did, and how well or poorly we did it, and very significantly, if we stuck with it." - Joe McNally
One of the most fun and rewarding things I get to do each year is to work with the most advanced theatre class at San Juan Hills High School, under the direction of Cambria Beilstein. The Actors' Repertory group is an amazing group of young men and women, dedicated to their craft, and challenged by Ms. Beilstein to stretch and grow as actors. I began to work with Ms. B three years ago, and one of the things I suggested to her at that time was to create a class photo. The first photo was a simple group shot in the audience of the school's theatre, photographed from the stage. That experience led us to create a series of annual class photos, each one a different concept. Last year, we posed the group in the wings of the theatre, similarly to the above shot, with the line set lit by ambient work lights as a backdrop.
As we contemplated the idea for this year's class photo, I happened upon a photo made by one of my photography inspirations, Joe McNally, earlier this year. It was a project designed to showcase the experience of a young professional dancer as she began her career in New York. The particular photograph that spoke to me, in the context of our own project, showed the dancer on stage in profile in a Bob Fosse-inspired pose, with one foot resting on a chair, a fedora perched on her head. If you know anything about Fosse, you can envision the pose. The camera position is upstage, pointed to the audience. Joe has placed seven speed lights in the audience, with some gelled blue, creating the idea of stage lighting, but using only small flashes. The dancer is lit with two speed lights placed off-stage, giving her rim lighting only.
I saw this photo and immediately saw the potential to replicate the approach, but with the Actors' Repertory class, a group of 21. Obviously, two speed lights placed off-stage would not work to light this group, but my previous year's strategy would certainly work. That strategy included just one overhead Elinchrom ELB 400 mounted in a large Rotalux strip box, with two reflective panels on the floor to provide bounce fill. My only concern was that this relatively large light source, covering a group this large, might wash out the reflections from the audience-based speed lights. A conversation with Joe's assistant Michael Cali confirmed that it would "probably" work. So two weeks prior to the shoot, I set it up, without the group, and verified that it would, in fact, work as conceived. When we ultimately assembled the group, it turned out that only five of the seven speed lights would be visible from the camera position; the other two are behind the group, providing rim lighting. Altogether, the shot required about two hours to complete, from building the seven speed light assemblies (light stands, speed lights fitted with Rogue Flash Grids, fired with Pocket Wizard radios), and the Elinchrom gear, followed by organizing the group. When the group was assembled, we needed to tweak the placement of the speed lights to ensure that they would be seen, given the structure of the group as posed.
I'm really happy with the result. The final deliverable is a poster layout featuring this photo, with some text below. To accommodate the text in the format we've chosen, I cropped off the upper section of the photo you see above, which is the empty balcony. The photo you see above is straight from the camera.
The group photo was made on Friday of a very busy week of shooting at San Juan Hills. On Wednesday, I finally was able to do a project I've long wanted to do, to create a series of full-body portraits of these actors on a muslin backdrop, augmented with some furniture pieces or not, as the actors desired. This project was inspired by an annual series of actors' portraits by David Cooper, with whom I've had three opportunities to photograph dancers in his Vancouver studio. David has photographed actors at the annual Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada, since 1980. Because the Shaw Festival presents several different productions, these photos are not specifically character-based. Instead, the actors are dressed however they wish, portrayed however they wish, but definitely showing the actor's personality and character. They are printed large and placed in the lobby of the venues, and used in the programs. For my photos, I used a simple muslin backdrop and lit the actors with two ELB 400's, one fitted with a 53" Rotalux Octa as a key light; the other fitted with a 41" Varistor diffused umbrella as a fill. We had four different furniture pieces on set to choose from if desired (they really liked the overstuffed chair), and let the kids do pretty much what they wanted. I frankly didn't care what concept they wanted to bring, as long as THEY cared. I'm presenting these photos to them in both color and black and white versions. The black and white conversions were made with Nik Silver Efex Pro. Presented below are some samples.
I'm really pleased with the results from last week. It was a hard week of photography, most of which consists (in the words of Helmut Newton) of moving furniture. In addition to these photos of the Actors' Rep class, I also made several headshots on a completely separate set, with a different lighting grid. A hard week, but a very rewarding one.
Since my first exposure in 1975 to John McPhee, the greatest non-fiction writer alive (in my humble opinion), I've had a fascination with geology. Starting with his influential Basin and Range in 1981, and through many of his travels with geologists, I have come to a better understanding of how our planet has come to be what it is, through the eyes of the geologists who explore it, and a writer who can translate the science with literary mastery. I love to travel, and started out as a landscape photographer (of little skill), combining my enjoyment of the open road and photography. I put away my cameras in favor of the joys and responsibilities of family life, and then ultimately became primarily a people shooter, but my interest in the physical landscape has never waned. I have a natural curiosity during my infrequent travels, always asking myself how did that mountain/river/roadcut, etc. come to be where it is? There's a geologic question around every bend of the road, and every turn of the head.
So although I don't get out and about as much as I might like, I have been to many places of majesty and wonder in the American West. Zion Canyon, Yosemite, Arches, Canyonlands, and many others. In each of these places, there's a story, and a sense of place. I could easily wrap my head around that story while taking in the views. But until just a couple of weeks ago, there was only one place that left me utterly slack-jawed, my first view into the Grand Canyon about thirty years ago. After a nine-hour drive from home to the park, I pulled into the first viewpoint from the entrance to the park, Mather Point, as I recall. I got out of my car and sat on the low wall at the rim of the canyon. Forty-five minutes later, i was still sitting there, staring into that massive abyss, in utter amazement at what time, uplift, wind, and water had created. I've been back to the Grand Canyon since, including a weekend hike to the bottom, with a stay at Phantom Ranch. With each visit, knowledge is expanded, but the wonder never ceases.
So on a recent flight to Vancouver, I was fortunate to have an unobstructed view of Mount St. Helens, the most active volcano in the US, which blew its face off on May 18, 1980. That view led me to read the best account of the event and its aftermath, Steve Olson's Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens. It's a fascinating book, chronicling the history of the timber industry and its decline in the Pacific Northwest, the railroads that had such a large influence on settlement and extraction in the PNW, the geology of Mount St. Helens, the story of nearby residents, loggers, visitors, victims and survivors of the eruption, and the battle to establish the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in 1982. I highly recommend this book, which instilled in me a strong desire to visit this place, which I did over a brief three day period last month.
Cut to the chase; my first, and nearly every view of this incredible place left me, for only the second time my life, utterly slack-jawed. Words and pictures simply cannot encompass the scope and impact of this eruption.
Here's the story in brief. In the spring of 1980, a swarm of earthquakes under Mount St. Helens convinced everyone that the mountain was awakening. Geologists' warnings were noted, but industry and local interests (as well as the few who lived near the mountain, most noted among whom was the irascible Harry Truman, owner of a lodge on the shore of nearby Spirit Lake) battled authorities over the limited access granted to those who wanted, or needed, to be near the mountain. Volcanologists set up equipment and sites to study and monitor volcanic activity. The closest on that fateful day was David A. Johnston, who manned a viewpoint called the Coldwater II Observation Site, about five miles from the peak, near the viewpoint of the photo above. This site was in a clearing accessed via a logging road, enabling Johnston to view the volcano over the tops of the old growth forest that surrounded him and led up the slopes of the mountain.
On the morning of May 18, a shallow 5.1 earthquake struck the north side of Mount St. Helens, triggering the largest landslide every recorded. The entire north face of the mountain slid away. Immediately upon the release of that overburden, the magma welling up inside Mount St. Helens, reached groundwater, which flashed to steam. The superheated gases emanating from the magma chamber blew out the remaining face and about 1300 feet of the peak of the mountain. These superheated gases traveled at speeds estimated at 300 mph, traveling up to seventeen miles away, devastating everything in a 230 square mile radius.
The affected area has been described in three zones: in the closest 7.5 miles from the eruption, everything was completely obliterated, including David Johnston, whose last recorded words were, "Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it." Within a couple of seconds Johnston and everything around him were no more. From this radius, out to approximately 15.5 miles from the crater, is the "Blowdown Zone" within which nearly every tree from the old growth forest was literally blown down. This blast carried the rocks and trees in several directions, including northeastward toward Spirit Lake. It pushed the downed trees toward and into Spirit Lake, splashing the lake up the far side of the eastern hill about 850 feet upslope, filling the lake with mud and downed trees, elevating the surface of the lake by 200 feet. Obviously, Harry Truman and anyone else on Spirit Lake perished immediately.
Immediately following the blast itself, a huge pyroclastic flow erupted from the crater. Unlike the shield volcanos of Hawaii, where magma flows in rivers from the crater, Mount St. Helens and others in the Cascades are stratovolcanoes, subject to catastrophic blowouts and expulsion of massive amounts of debris, primarily ash and pulverized rock. Ash cools to pumice, which when mixed with water or other plastic material, flows like mud. The pyroclastic flow from Mount St. Helens traveled in three directions, southeast, northeast, and northwest, down the Toutle River, seventy five miles to the Columbia River.
Beyond the "Blowdown Zone" is the "Scorch Zone", extending up to three additional miles or so, depending on terrain. In this zone, trees were literally killed by hot gases, but not enough to knock them all down. They stand there today, white, naked trunks, gradually being succeeded by new growth.
I flew up to Portland on a Thursday morning, rented a car, and checked into a hotel in Battle Ground, Washington (site of an encounter, not quite a battle, between soldiers from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River and local Native Americans). I decided to travel up the east side of the volcano, the only side from which you can see Spirit Lake. It's a long, but beautiful drive through old growth forests, some clearcut areas, roads closed during the winter, and not a few Trump-Pence campaign signs. Sadly, on this day, the area was under cloud cover, and much of the mountain was obscured. After a couple of hours, I entered the Scorch Zone. It was amazing to see the impacts of the blast, nearly eighteen miles from the crater itself.
Driving down the road a bit, I came upon the Miners' Car, about nine miles from the mountain. This car belonged to a family of miners who perished in their nearby cabin, which was incinerated by the blast. Their car was blown an estimated 60 feet into the air, coming to rest here. The car is now about two feet high, from wheels to top.
Approaching the end of state route 99, you finally get a glimpse of Spirit Lake. My previous expectation of Spirit Lake was that it would be a small lake, but it's not. There is no single point accessible in the protected National Volcanic Monument where you can see the entire lake. What you can see, however, are the millions of trees still floating in the lake, moving from place to place with the wind.
Looking around, you can see the areas directly hit with the exploding gases, surrounded by areas that were better sheltered either by terrain, direction, or snow cover on that day.
The next day, I went back to the Monument from the west side, where the route to Spirit Lake had been replaced with a new, often four-lane highway following the course of the North Fork of the Toutle River. This is the main entrance to the area, with a few visitors centers and vistas of the mountain from farther away. I was one of the earliest visitors to the area that day, ending my drive at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, five miles from the volcano, with a view directly into the north face and the crater. Although there are hiking trails that lead around the perimeter of the blast zone, and though experienced hikers can actually climb to the crater's edge, the entire Monument is basically off limits to human activity, as the site is now a massive laboratory of the study of recovery, a story all its own.
From Johnston Ridge, Mount St. Helens is backlit for most of the day, as the sun is in the southern sky directly in front of you. Also, atmospheric haze interferes with contrast, making most views a bit milky. My photos required a lot of added contrast and "dehazing" in Lightroom to bring out the details. Here's my best view into the crater itself, as the sun got high enough to fill the crater with light. You can see steam venting from behind the growing lava dome in the interior of the crater. That's melt water seeping down from snow into the hot rocks above the magma chamber, venting off as steam. This is a very tight crop from my Fuji X-Pro 2, fitted with a 55-140mm (205mm equivalent) lens. To get this view, uncropped, with a full-frame chip would require about 500mm.
Here's a good view of the Pumice Plain below the crater. Two things of note here. First, the "hills" toward the lower left are hummocks, entire masses of slope that were transported intact down the mountain during the eruption. Many of these are 500-650 feet high. Second, the gorges created by the headwaters of the Toutle River emanating from the mountain have cut through the pumice and other avalanche debris that is, at this point, about 300 feet thick. The gorges themselves are approximately 200 feet deep, to give you a sense of scale. Everything in this view, prior to the eruption, was covered with old growth forest.
The Johnston Ridge visitors center offers a wealth of information on the events of that day. There is a theater in the building that shows two videos, one covering the eruption and it's impacts, the other focusing on the amazing recovery of flora and fauna in the area. You enter the theater, sit in comfortable seats, and see a red theatrical curtain with a retractable screen in front of you. When each video ends, the screen is raised, followed by the theatrical curtain, revealing this incredible view of the mountain.
These two folks and I were the first visitors to Johnston Ridge that day.
Coming back down the highway, I took the opportunity to stop and look carefully at the areas owned by Weyerhaeuser that were planted in the years immediately following the eruption. These replanted areas were owned by Weyerhaeuser prior to the eruption, and negotiated out of the protected area when the Monument was established. Some of these trees are now approximately thirty years old, and they're quite large. But you can see the difference between the natural look of an old growth forest and the consistency of a planted slope. Not a value judgement on my part, but an obvious difference.
Looking down the Toutle River toward the west, you can see the extent of the flood. It's like this all the way.
The power of this place is almost mystical. It's difficult to wrap you head around the extent of the eruption's impact on the land and the people of the area. On that fateful day, 57 people lost their lives, and 113 were rescued in the following days. Two hundred homes were destroyed, as were eight bridges and the entire road to Spirit Lake. An estimated 1,500 elk, 5,000 deer, hundreds of bears, and countless smaller animals, birds, and fish were killed. The temperature of Spirit Lake rose to 100 degrees; nothing survived.
Yet the area is recovering, far ahead of what many expected, thirty-six years later. Somehow, fish have been reintroduced into Spirit Lake and clarity and chemistry have returned to normal. The Pumice Plain is covered with new vegetation. Animals, beginning with the pocket gopher and birds, began to repopulate soon after the eruption. Mount St. Helens is now a laboratory for the study of renewal.
Mount St. Helens has erupted several times since, and will erupt again. Who knows when, or how extensively? I can say this with certainty; I want to go back.
First things first: I'm pretty much a generalist photographer, with an emphasis on performing arts. Dance, theater, jazz, choral, you name it. Along with that comes portraiture. I also shoot occasional sports, and when I'm lucky, landscape and travel. But there are two things I absolutely do not do: video and weddings. Both scare me to death. Why video? I have no idea what to do with it. It's more hassle than it's worth, at least to me. And weddings? The pressure. For everything else I do, there's the ever-present possibility of a missed shot, but another opportunity to get a better one. Or a do-over. Every sports shooter misses a shot for whatever reason, but there's another one right around the corner (unless it's the game winning play, then it's "oh, shit...") But with weddings, there's no do-over, just the gnawing cranial pressure to Not Screw This Up. Several years ago, I did one wedding as a favor to a good friend; the photos turned out fine, better than the marriage did. But that's another story.
While covering a 20th year class reunion for the inaugural class of Santa Margarita Catholic High School, one of the members of the staff asked me if I'd be willing to photograph her son as he proposed marriage to his intended bride. It would be surreptitious, unknown to her until the deed was done. I said I'd do it, as long as we could carefully plan it, so I could get the shots the couple needed, in decent light and camera position, with nobody intruding into the field of view. Okay, she said, and we made a plan. It would be me, alone; no assistant, no lighting gear, no reflector, one camera, one lens. I saw myself as a gumshoe private eye in one of those '50s detective movies.
A couple of days before the event was to go down, I met Nick at the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, to scout out possible locations, considering sun angle, time of day, avoidance of intruders into the scene, and importantly, the beautiful backdrop of the Laguna coastline and the Pacific Ocean. We found The Spot. The day before the event, I went back again, to carefully consider the sun angle at the scheduled time of day. At that time, at that specific location, I concluded that I'd get a lovely loop light on the bride's face as she looked lovingly into the eyes of her man when he dropped to his knees to propose. Slam dunk. Aperture priority, no exposure compensation, no nothin'. A chimp could make that picture, as long as he was looking at the couple and could find the shutter. We'd do the picture at 10:30 in the morning (hazy sun at that time of day), and Nick and Meredith would go up to the fine dining restaurant of the Montage for lunch. He booked a table with a wonderful view, and told the staff that it was his and Meredith's engagement, and hoped for the best time ever.
Comes now the day of the blessed event. At 10:00 I crest the hill down to the Montage, only to see a wall of dense fog. No resort, no Laguna Beach coastline, no Pacific Ocean. No nothin'. No reschedule either. Nick has planned this special day with his bride down to a T. It was going to be a great day, no matter what. Okay, as I say, in for a penny, in for a pound.
I go to our intended spot to make sure nobody else decides to camp out there for the morning. Not much chance of that, given the total lack of view, but that's why I'm there, so I spend my time testing exposures on passers-by, making sure that I can get good exposure on the bride's face, even if the foggy-bright sky would pretty much blow out. Above all, I say to myself, DON'T SCREW THIS UP! I stay with Aperture Priority, and ride the exposure compensation up or down depending on what the cloudy bright sky is doing at any moment, to give Meredith enough light in the face.
But the couple is late. At 10:45, fifteen minutes after our scheduled time to do the deed, they arrive at the Montage. Nick and I are frantically texting each other about whether to do it RIGHT NOW, or wait until after lunch. As they walk from the valet toward the restaurant, Nick decides to do it after lunch, but the staff at the restaurant needs to know that the Special Event hasn't happened yet. They can't blow the secret! So I hot-foot it to the nearest house phone, to let the receptionist know NOT TO BLOW IT!
Back to holding my spot while Nick and Meredith have a wonderful lunch. About half-way through, though, I realize that I haven't fed the parking meter enough to account for the extra time this is taking. Some friendly lifeguards let me know that the chances of getting a parking ticket from the City of Laguna Beach is somewhere around 100%. Oh well, again, in for a penny, in for about seventy-five bucks. I can't leave my post, as the couple could be there ANY MINUTE.
Finally, I see them approaching from the hotel. I move from THE SPOT to a location I've already determined I'd shoot from, even though the fog is still with us. I'm stealthy as hell, looking out of the corner of my eye as they come to the location. Nick is talking to Meredith, and he then drops to his knee. I bring the camera up, and shoot like a man posessed.
At this point, I steal a look at my camera's LCD, and realize that the exposures are good, and I've caught THE MOMENT, several, in fact. Meredith processes what has just happened, and she reaches for Nick. Again, I bring the camera up and fire away.
At this moment, I later find out, I've been made, by Meredith. She says to Nick, "There's a man in the bushes over there. Is he with us, or is he a creep?" Fortunately, Nick assures her that the creep in the bushes is, in fact, legit. Meredith smiles, and our eyes meet for the first time.
But there are a couple more frames to get before I leave my post. Nick knows that Meredith has made him the happiest guy alive.
You can see what might have been in the background. It's there, but it's totally superfluous.
We had planned all along to get some additional shots after THE SHOT, so we spent a few more minutes around the exterior of the Montage.
Before we left, as I was sure my car was about to get towed, I suggested one last location, in the lobby of the resort. It's a beautiful hotel, and the lobby looks like a well-appointed lodge from the Craftsman era. We chose the fireplace as a good setting.
We then decided on a few final shots on a patio just outside, overlooking the property and the ocean (out there somewhere). That view was not going to happen, but shooting the other way, with the couple on a sofa facing the ocean was a good alternative.
Just out of frame, to my right, was a lady sitting alone at a table, working on her laptop. She began chatting up the couple, wanting to know way more details of their lives than she had any right to, but she was rather amusing. I kept shooting and caught what might be the best shots of the day, at least after THE MOMENT.
At that point, it was time for me to go, and probably bail out my car. A couple of final shots of Meredith calling her family and friends on the east coast to let them know of her engagement, and we parted.
I went back to my car, expecting the worst, and found to my amazement that I had dodged the bullet, and not received a ticket. I knew I had some great photos, and my stress level was replaced with a feeling of joy at having the opportunity to photograph two people deeply in love, two really nice people I wish I could remain friends with (they live in New York). When i got home, I looked at Facebook, and found that Nick had posted an iPhone pic that I had taken so he could get the news out on social media. It was a great photo, especially since I am in no way comfortable with phone pics, and his post had received almost 700 likes by the time I got home.
My fear of weddings has not diminished one bit. But on this particular day, my fear was overcome by careful planning and familiarity with my equipment, enabling me to concentrate on my clients and their special day. It was, altogether, one of the best days of photography ever.
Wow, it's been almost a year since my last blog post. Chalk that up to being way too busy with things that are rewarding on many levels, but maybe not exactly portfolio-quality work.
Last week, I had the privilege of photographing the LA-based CONTRA-TIEMPO dance company in rehearsal with their latest work entitled "SHE WHO: Frida, Mami & Me", inspired by the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Cahlo and Nigerian deity Mami Wata, to be performed at the Ford Theatre in the Hollywood hills. These dancers, led by their creative and artistic director Ana Maria Alvarez, are extremely talented, and they're great people to work with as well. My assignment was to shoot their rehearsal, as they would be the first performance, ahead of the Brooklyn-based company, Urban Bush Women. UBW would perform their work "Walking with 'Trane", featuring the music of the legendary John Coltrane. As the LA County Arts Commission, which operates the Ford Theatres, has a contracted photographer to shoot their productions, my role would be limited to shooting CONTRA-TIEMPO for their own publicity purposes, as well as for LA Arts.
Though I grew up and lived most of my life within about ten miles from the Ford Theatre, I hadn't been there in many, many years; so many that I barely remembered the place. It's that small venue tucked away in a hollow on the east side of the 101 Freeway, on the other side of the Hollywood Bowl. But it's a beautiful, 1200 seat amphitheater that is currently undergoing extensive renovation and improvement. The performance area is a multi-level stage, with decorative hardscape and plants, behind which are the steep cliffs of the Hollywood Hills. The audience experience is currently being improved by the addition of a large sound wall behind the seats, as the Ford performances are often overshadowed by the audience response at the nearby Hollywood Bowl. Last night's dance performance was continually "augmented" by applause from the audience of Boy George and Culture Club. I didn't know that Boy George was still a thing.
Because I wasn't going to shoot the actual performance, I decided to bring my little Fuji X100S, which hasn't gotten much love these days after I purchased my XPro2, and used it extensively in Italy this past spring. But since "non-professional" photos are allowed (no flash) at the Ford, I thought I'd bring the X100S and see what might be possible.
The first thing you notice when you arrive at the Ford is the sheer verticality of the place. It's a steep hike from the small parking lot to the entrance, and from there up to the doors. From the rear of the audience, here's your view back to the park-like area you just came through.
Once inside, because we were so early, I had an opportunity to reconnect with the CONTRA-TIEMPO dancers as they warmed up.
As the sun dropped behind the Hollywood Hills to the west, we began to see how the natural environment and the design of the stage area would combine to become a great performance space.
It was difficult at first to watch a dance performance without shooting it. I saw the contracted photographer at work, sometimes wondering whether she was getting anything at all under the subdued lighting at play during parts of the performance. But as the stage darkened, both CONTRA-TIEMPO and UBW employed projected images on the back area of the stage, meaning the hardscape, landscape, and natural cliffs. It was an amazing use of this space. I figured I'd try the X100S and see what its fixed 23mm lens would give me from Row M, probably 100 feet from the stage. No zoom, no ability to move from my seat, expose for the highlights and hope for the best.
What turned out to be the optimal exposure for this distance and view? Amazingly, I was at 2500 ISO, f/2.0 and 1/60 or 1/125 second. That's way, way too slow to stop the motion of dancers. Way too slow, that is, unless they occupy such a tiny portion of the frame. Under those conditions, a dancer's movement that would translate to noticeable subject motion in a "normal" frame barely registers from such a distance. The biggest problem I encountered was the camera's difficulty in achieving quick focus from so far away, with the subjects so small in the frame. Nevertheless, I was surprised at what I was able to capture. Post processing consisted of nothing more than "auto" straightening of vertical and horizontal edges in Lightroom, plus a bit of clarity, vibrance, and in some cases, shadow boost.
The first half of the Urban Bush Women's performance featured recorded music of John Coltrane. Following intermission, Grammy award winning pianist George Caldwell manned a grand piano on the riser to the left and began to play arrangements of Coltrane's "A Love Supreme". Here's Caldwell, alone, at 23mm from the cheap seats:
A silly photo, yes. But there's actual detail in this shot, if you zoom in all the way to the max. So the show went on:
All in all, this was a great night of dance, and a surprisingly decent collection of photos to remember it by. I'll never prefer the X100S as a dance camera, but I continue to be impressed by the image quality of this little gem, and the fact that it can go anywhere so easily.
Back in 2011, I posted some cool images of Navy F/A-18s generating vapor cones during the annual air show at MCAS Miramar. Those photo were made with my Canon 5D Mark III and a 70-200mm lens. This was the longest lens I own, and even at that length, there was quite a bit of post-processing needed to clean up these photos and render them faithfully to what I saw that day.
After the fiasco of budgetary "sequestration" that sidelined the Blue Angels from air show appearances for a year, I was happy to go back to Miramar this weekend to take in the show. And having added my Fuji system to my photographic inventory, I decided to bring the X-T1 and a couple of lenses, and focus on a different aspect of the show. As I've said before, the X system isn't the best for action, so that wouldn't be my goal. However, after completing the task I gave myself, I did turn the X-T1 and the oft-neglected 18-135WR lens on the Blue Angels to see if I could get anything worth keeping. I was pleasantly surprised that I could, in fact, maintain focus on fast moving jets, once focus was acquired (that's the tough part). But none of those images could compare with the flight photos from 2011, for reasons not due to shortcomings of the Fuji gear, but rather due to atmospheric and weather conditions this weekend. Nevertheless, there are a few worth sharing, at the end of this post.
Instead, I would concentrate on photos of the static displays and the aviators who own, fly, or maintain them. As such, it would be an exercise in environmental portraiture. Now, to do this job "right", the strategy should be to carefully assess the scene, manage it within reason, pose the subjects carefully, and light them if necessary. But in the context of an air show, with environmental conditions less than optimal (e.g. harsh sun) and lots of crowd that can't be managed, and no lighting gear, you do the best you can, utilizing as much knowledge and skill as you have to get images that are worth sharing.
First up, the cockpit of a B-52, made with the Fuji XF 10-24mm lens at 10mm, through the very small open window. Because I was just one guy in a line of maybe one hundred people climbing up a staircase to look through this window, the challenge here was to estimate the proper exposure (in manual mode) for the interior of the aircraft, without being influenced by the nuclear sunlight outside. My total "time on target" was probably 10 seconds. Get in, get out. Score.
VMFA-121 is the first squadron in the Marines to fly the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. Here's Captain J.P. Stuart on the flight line with the F-35B.
To get this shot, all l had to do was ask Capt. Stuart to move a few feet closer to the nose of the jet, and turn his gaze to give me the loop lighting on his face that I wanted. Of course, I couldn't have the foil sun shields removed from inside the cockpit, nor the three spies trespassing behind the jet. Same 10-24mm lens.
This is an old, Vietnam-era Huey helicopter, used primarily for search and rescue missions. Still armed with machine guns and rocket pods, there were little kids all over the thing. I asked this crewman to stand precisely where I wanted him, and waited for a four year-old to finish firing the machine gun. Immediately after this snap, he was back blasting away.
Another helicopter on display is the CH-53E Super Stallion, the largest and heaviest helicopter in the US military. It can carry up to 16 tons and can retrieve downed aircraft, including another CH-53. For this shot, I simply asked the crew member to don his helmet. He asked, "Can I put on my vest, too?" Sure.
Cal Fire, the state's wildland fire management agency, utilizes a wide variety of aircraft in its fire suppression mission, including this Grumman S-2T, originally tasked as a carrier-based anti-submarine warfare platform. Today, it monitors fire activity and drops retardant.
The F/A 18 Super Hornet:
The C-17 Globemaster III is simply huge. It can transport two M1A1 Abrams tanks inside its massive hold, though for weight reasons, it typically will carry only one. The cargo bay was filled with visitors, and Sgt. Trowbridge was there to manage the crowd and answer questions. My only question to him was to see if he could move about one foot to his left, enabling the light to fully illuminate his face. Three elements make this photograph for me: the filtered light on Sgt. Trowbridge, the girl looking at him on the right, and the illuminated back wall of the C-17, courtesy of a door to the left, a window on the right, and an escape hatch on the roof of the plane.
When I first saw this biplane, I had to stop and look at it twice. It's the largest biplane ever produced. Moreover, it was first built in 1946, after the Second World War at the beginning of the jet age, and it was built in Russia. It's the Antonov AN-2, and it's still in use in some third world countries today.
The TBM-3E Avenger was a carrier-based torpedo bomber extensively used in the Pacific theater during World War II. It was the heaviest carrier-capable plane of its time, carrying one huge torpedo under its belly in addition to two machine guns and a crew of three. The Avenger was credited with the sinking of the Japanese super battleships Musashi and Yamato.
This is the AirGyro Cavalon, a European gyroplane. It's a two-seater (with luxurious leather seats), claims to be able to fly long distances through weather you'd never want to fly it in, and able to land on a dime. You can have one for 86,000 euro.
Here are three members of the eight-man Swiss Breitling L-39 Jet Demonstration Team, walking quickly across the tarmac. This is a total grab shot, as they were practically running at the time. I raised my camera and snapped off a couple of frames before they began mugging for me.
Though my goal was to capture some decent environmental portraits of these aviators, and without much expectation of impactful flight photos, I was fairly impressed with some of my Blue Angels photos. Here are four that I thought worked well.