April 01, 2012 — The Gulfstream jet had been rolled out of its hanger at 9 a.m., was washed and polished until it gleamed in the California sun, and then the race was on to beat a storm headed toward Van Nuys airport. When the exteriors were finished being shot and the plane once again hangered, Guy Noffsinger finished his assignment by photographing the plane’s posh custom cabin for the interior designer’s sales piece.
It’s a typical shoot for Noffsinger, 45, who says he owes his career in professional aviation photograph to his years in the Navy. He enlisted in 1985 after graduating from high school in Colorado Springs, and kept attending military photo schools that eventually qualified him to do electronic news-gathering. The payoff, once he was a civilian again, was an ongoing contract to produce special HD video projects for NASA, one of which was a 90-minute program on the history of the space shuttle program featuring William Shatner. Today, with a couple of university degrees under his belt, he works out of Ashburn, Virginia, shooting stills and videos for clients including VISA, Acura, Paramount Pictures, Ricoh, American Express, Xanterra and Warner Brothers. He’s also developed a niche market in aviation photography and he’s eager to share some of that expertise.
Arthur Bleich: How did you get into aviation photography?
Guy Noffsinger: In the Navy, I was assigned to many ships, including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, and became fascinated with photographing planes. I began to experiment with different techniques and some of them produced really powerful images of military aviation; I was hooked.
AB: What goes into a typical aviation assignment?
GN: A client will ask for its private jet to be photographed. Usually it’s in a location with a distracting or unattractive background, and the assignment is to either change the background to some other airport location in the world or better yet, make it appear to be flying. This saves a lot of money on fuel costs while at the same time giving a unique look to the aircraft image in the sales brochure where it will be used. So, on a day with nice weather, with models or not on hand, the shoot begins.
AB: Let’s start with the interiors. They look pretty straightforward but obviously they must be done in a very tight space. Do you shoot actual interiors or mock-ups?
GN: Never mock-ups. About 70 percent of the images are used to sell the aircraft in question so the potential buyer wants to see exactly what they are getting for their $40 million. The remaining 30 percent is used by companies looking to charter the aircraft to business and wealthy leisure-travelers. Because the fuselage width is generally less than five feet from window-to-window, a wide-angle lens just above 16mm on my Canon 5D Mark II is a must.
AB: Doesn’t that give you distortion?
GN: I personally prefer a fast lens (f/2.8) that zooms a hair over 17mm to remove as much of the “fish eye” distortion as possible. The remainder can either be cropped out or repaired using the various lens-correcting Photoshop plug-ins.
AB: What about lighting?
GN: Depending on the length of the aircraft fuselage, the amount of cabin artificial light and the quality of penetrating window light, long exposures in connection with remotely triggered flash heads are often required. Lighting and accurate color rendition is critical. If the interior is beige but looks like a peach color to the prospective buyer, your client has lost the sale.
AB: How much “post” on the interiors do you usually have to do?
GN: Sometimes interior cabin lighting bulbs differ from another and must be corrected; insulation that may be loose and not caught beforehand must be “fixed.” Then it is up to the particular client if they want the windows to be solar white, blackened or have an image “shopped” onto the glass.
AB: What’s usually your biggest challenge?
GN: Adequately managing the expectations of the aircraft owner as to what is and is not possible. Sometimes ethical factors must be explained as to what constitutes a cosmetic “tweak” in Photoshop compared to what realistically exists on the jet so that the result is not a flat-out lie.
AB: How do you shoot your aircraft exteriors?
GN: All of them are shot on the ground. Due to tight budgets, an aircraft can be easily photographed in 15 minutes; it’s putting it in the sky so it looks like it’s actually flying that takes time. Knowing how the flaps should be set, the empennage [tail assembly elements] in proper location—getting all the things right that other pilots and buyers of these über aircraft will spot.
AB: How much “post” time are we talking about?
GN: My creative task is taking those images and using HDR (High Dynamic Range) to blend all the lighting to reflect more closely what the human eye sees. It’s a daunting challenge, but I try for a 48-hour turnaround to get them to the client or ad agency.
AB: You mastered air-to-air photography before budgets became so critical and many photographers are pilots or have access to aircraft. What advice can you give them?
GN: First, consider the weather. Most aviation industry folks like to see jets with “happy” clouds and not menacing storm fronts. While storms may look super cool to photographers, it does not sit well with people that have to fly, as it means a bumpy ride and doesn’t conjure up that warm and fuzzy feeling—more of a “you’re turning green and…oh no!” Speaking of making a mess, make sure the plane has been washed before you go flying; no one likes a dirty jet.
AB: Once in the air, then what?
GN: Plot a specific aerial route usually transiting four or five locations that would make interesting or complimentary backgrounds behind the aircraft, like landmarks. Then pay attention to the direction of light because you want the sun (most often) at your back so that the subject aircraft is lit by it. Morning and evening rays can add drama to the photo. The consideration of shadow use is also key because it adds a third dimension and, up close, can make the aircraft look very cool.
AB: How about technical details?
GN: Do you have the appropriate glass (long and fast stabilized lenses)? Will you have a chase plane that is fast or slow enough to maintain a parallel position? Does your shooting window have imperfections in the glass that could obstruct your shot? Do you need to rent an aircraft with specialized photographic periscopes or removable doors (a helicopter most often)?
AB: And after touchdown?
GN: Some other thoughts can come in later in the post-production phase such as adding slight motion blur to the tail or wing tips to subtlety emphasize speed and adding contrast to make details and lines on the fuselage pop.
AB: Finally, would you suggest that beginning pros add aviation photography to their repertoire?
GN: If a burgeoning pro has a passion for aircraft, joining the International Society of Aviation Photography should be their first step. Adding some aviation images to your portfolio can never hurt because the field of “Pros” is getting larger and with the economy lagging, niche photography can often help pay the rent. I am truly fortunate to have a core group of aviation companies that keep me in business and flying around the country doing something I love.
To see more work by Guy Noffsinger visit yourphotoguy.com. He has also produced the video titled How to Make a Documentary which is available on bhphotovideo.com.
Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He does assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts digital photography workshop cruises. Visit his Digital PhotoCorner at dpcorner.com and his workshop cruise site at dpcorner.com/cruise.