I mentioned in a prior post that I would soon tell you about some other air-to-air experiences I’ve been lucky to have. For this post, I’d like to share the story of what it was like to see the always gorgeous, autumn foliage of Minnesota, from an entirely different vantage point. Thanks to some great coordination by Max Haynes of MaxAir2Air late last year, not only did I see some amazing fall colors, but I also had the chance to shoot some images of a beautifully restored Boeing Stearman.
The flight started off just like other air-to-air flights I’ve had. The buzz of the butterflies in my stomach taking flight, the roar of the photo ship’s engine as we accelerate down the runway, then the instant peace after wheels up as sounds melts away and I focus in on my subject. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that this wouldn’t be like any other air-to-air experience I’ve ever had.
All of my previous experiences had been in warm weather, broad daylight, and at altitude. Generally, that meant camera settings of around 1/100th of a second or less, f/16+, and ISO 100. In other words, easy shooting. On this occasion, I instead found myself cold (FYI, don’t wear vented running shoes), in quickly fading light, and low to the ground. Translation, much harder shooting conditions. Crap!
I soon discovered that I would have to adapt on the fly, based on how close we were to the ground, or whether we were flying into the sun or away from it. The settings that normally produce a nice smooth prop disc (anywhere from 1/60th to 1/100th of a second or less, depending on the aircraft) would result in blurred ground if we were down low. This can be jarring to look at if you don’t blur it enough. To compensate, I sometimes opted for higher shutter speeds that still left me with enough prop movement to avoid the dreaded “propsicle” stopped prop look.
The other issue is if I wanted the ground to be relatively sharp as well, I also needed to use a narrow aperture. The result of that, was ISO values that could result in a lot of digital noise if I pushed them too hard. I did my best to compromise and make the most out of what I had. I hope you will agree that I succeeded in the end. The image below (courtesy of Max Haynes) shows how I was seated in the photo ship (piloted by Jason Erickson):
The Beauty of Minnesota
Technical challenges aside, I quickly forgot about them as I took in the beauty of the landscape around me. One of the nice parts of Minnesota is that despite bone chilling winter temps, we enjoy the full breadth of the four seasons, leading to rich, vibrant, colors that peak in early to mid-October. Between nature painting the backdrops for me, and the pilots finding the great light, there wasn’t much I had to do besides compose the shot and click the button.
The shot below isn’t the first shot I got, but it is certainly one of my most popular as it shows off the rich colors that surrounded us, illuminated beautifully by the golden hour light (Stearman piloted by commercial 737 pilot Ryan Mohr):
This next shot immediately followed the one above. I decided to pull back and get a wide-angle shot to show off not only the colors, but the expansive beauty of the landscape beneath us. This included the Rum River meandering serenely through the land. The original Native American name for this river, Watpa waḳaŋ, roughly translates to Spirit River. However, this was misinterpreted by early European settlers to mean alcohol spirits, therefore it became the Rum River. Based on how I felt seeing it from the air, I think the Native Americans knew what they were talking about with the original name:
The tight curves of the Rum/Spirit River were so cool, that we simply had to come back around and get a closer look at them:
We didn’t spend all of our time cruising serenely; some of it was spent getting up close and personal with the varied Minnesota terrain. In the shot below, we got a chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do by flying very low through a small valley:
This low flying included some amazing passes over homes that were so low, that I sincerely hope the owners were able to appreciate the beauty of the Stearman, rather than be annoyed by the enormous racket we were surely making. If the owners of these homes ever find this article, I’ve got some prints that would love to find a spot on your walls!
That same apology goes out to the numerous fishermen we buzzed while creating the shot below. The ripples in the water are incongruous to how this moment felt. Utterly peaceful:
As I took a brief moment over that lake to enjoy the scenery with my own eyes, I noticed the inverted reflection of the Stearman on the surface of the lake, and knew that it would make for a really cool shot. The lines you see below (which the geek in me says are star trails from a ship in warp), are the blurred reflections of the fading sun on the tips of small waves on the lake:
Despite the fact that this was a “fall colors” shoot, one of my images ended up being over a patch of trees with fairly dull color, so I decided to do something different with a B&W conversion. I call this next one “Moonlighter”, as I thought the black and white ended up giving it a really cool “moonlit” look to it:
This next image is quite popular on social media as the deep blue of the river we flew over really helps the colors of the Stearman itself pop. This is one of the most beautifully restored WWII-era Stearmans I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing:
As the time passed, it didn’t mean the end of our shoot, it simply meant we were able to briefly enjoy a different source of color altogether; the rich golden light of the setting sun:
The last image, and also the image used for this article’s header is my most popular image to come out of this shoot. I love it because it fully encompases the utter peace and serenity I feel when I’m doing air-to-air. For that reason, I titled it “Serenity”: