Magazine Article


No Flying by the Seat of Your Pants
Aerial Photography Requires You're Always Prepared

Steve Collins

Steve Collins

Steve Collins

Steve Collins

Steve Collins

Thirty thousand feet over Dreamland and traveling faster than 550 knots, I climb down into the rear fueling station. I lay on my stomach, propped on my elbows, waiting. It's cramped in this position, but I'm ready for the fighters to appear through the porthole at the back of the jet. I'm thinking this moment is straight out of the pages of a Clive Cussler novel. (I've been in tighter spaces, like working inside a torpedo tube underwater-that was so compact you had to enter with your arms outstretched in front of you as your dive partner pushed you in; the only way out was for your partner to pull you back when your work was complete.)

Then the two F-16 fighters appeared, bringing me back to the mission at hand. Things were happening fast. I used a wide-angle lens, trying to capture the full view of the fighter in my viewfinder, then switching to the zoom to capture the F-16 pilot as he jockeyed his aircraft into position below the refueling arm. The boom operator guided the boom into the F-16 receiver to begin the fueling process. It looked dangerous but felt thrilling.

How I Ended Up There

This was the Fresno Air National Guard's way of sharing with its community and keeping the leaders up to speed on what they put back into the community. Community leaders and local government officials, including the police and fire chiefs, were invited passengers on the flight. The Air Force wanted a local photographer to cover the event. Luckily for me, I had a working relationship with Lt. Heather Pratt, executive officer, Fresno Air National Guard.

I do love planes, and the opportunity to fly with the fighters of the 144th Fighter Wing-on a KC-135, built in 1958-was off the charts in my book. This mission took place over the deserts of Nevada, and during the preflight safety briefing, there were references to Dreamland, China Lake, and Nellis AFB. All I know is I was getting onboard that flight and getting the shots most photographers only dream of. This photo flight was one of the most thrilling jobs I have ever had!

Gear Choices

I went back and forth on what camera gear to bring. I prefer the image quality of my Hasselblad, but weight was a concern, as was the lack of zoom lenses. The extra-wide view offered by the Nikon made the decision easy. I used a Nikon D2X for the fast shutter speeds and greater lens options; most images were made using the 17-35mm f/2.8 for the refueling portion, with some shots using a Nikon F-100 film SLR and fisheye lens.

I chose the 28-70mm f/2.8 for shots when two fighters were just off my wing, and the 80-200mm f/2.8 for close-up shots of the pilots and the other refueling plane that was flying with us. I used a flash with a bounce to illuminate the crew and gauges against the exterior, which was very bright since we were flying above the clouds and the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Preparation was important; I packed and repacked until I had everything in one bag. I brought plenty of media cards (more than 20GB of CompactFlash cards). For comfort, I packed sunglasses, and fleece clothing, including gloves. I have been on several Air Force flights where I was extremely hot, and others that were incredibly cold. Of course I brought along my Navy watch cap (black wool hat), all stowed in a green helmet bag used by pilots to carry their helmets.

During takeoff, I was seated in the very last seat in the rear of the cargo hold. The funny part was that there was a photographer from the AP along with us. I knew from experience to be in the furthest rear seat-by the action. So when the other guy got onboard, he came to me and said they told him to be in that seat; I quickly told him that's what they told me. During the flight I was free to walk about the cabin.

As we were heading back to the airport, one of the crew brought me forward, where he folded down a small jump seat right between the pilot and copilot. My Nikon F100 film camera with fisheye lens was perfect for this tight area.

I work closely with Big3D Worldwide, and they constantly need custom photography. Recently they had a client in Japan that wanted something colorful but was uncertain of the subject. I sent them several samples that included underwater and aircraft images. Their decision was to create one stunning 3D image, from multiple images, with jets in a mountain range to give depth against a colorful sunset. I used two jet shots, placing one in front of the other, to create depth. I used the mountains from another project I did for the Boise (Idaho) Airport, and sky shots from yet another job. The crew at Big3D interlaced the images and printed it on a lenticular lens. The final image was eight feet tall by four feet wide. The lenses used in 3D work are four feet wide; larger projects require the use of multiple panels.

Steve Collins has 20 years experience as a pro photographer, with both film and digital imaging. He's a former Navy Deep Sea Diver and Diving Instructor. His work has been featured in numerous photography publications. For more of Collins' work, visit