I learned to fly as many have, with money from an insurance settlement. That same windfall also paid for a used camera and three lenses. The two arts seemed made for each other and I was eager to combine them, but it didn’t take long to find that being unskilled at both disciplines and barely familiar with either kind of equipment guaranteed poor results all around. My first flight with the camera was embarrassingly short and not especially safe, the few pictures I took amounting to blurry fuzz. Both flight and film cost more than I could frugally afford, illustrating the need to develop these skills separately, at least a little, before trying to combine them.
Results did improve as years passed until neither passion interfered terribly with the other, but of course there’s always more to learn. Then that first camera died weirdly, as so many things do, and I could only afford to replace it with what was then called an instamatic. Surprisingly, this technical step ‘down’ brought unexpected breakthroughs! The simpler device enabled more consistent, if lower resolution images, and strapping it to my wrist while holding it outside the canopy window eliminated those pesky reflections that spoil so many otherwise wonderful aerial photos. More importantly, ease of handling saved brain space, always a limited commodity, and led to more artful flying, thus more and better pics.
The most challenging subject for aerial photography might be other aircraft, and not for technical reasons alone. Catching moving targets from a moving platform has its difficulties, but often the worst problem is psychological. It’s impossible to get a good picture of a plane that’s always running away, which is what amateur air-to-air becomes in many cases. All pilots should understand that formation flight must be by prior arrangement, but briefing beforehand won’t help much if the pilot you’re trying to shoot won’t let you come within a half mile. It’s even more frustrating when, for whatever reason, the glider you’re in sinks below and the other pilot climbs unthinkingly away. Sad truth is, some of my best air-to-air trophies have come by way of subterfuge, sneaking up on the ‘victim’ before they knew it.
Then I got lost and ended up in California where bigger, more spectacular landscapes provided richer visuals, and outcomes improved proportionally. Costs, however, also continued to rise. During one season of collecting panoramic mosaics, I joked that I was single-handedly supporting the Kodak Corporation. (Didn’t help; they were about to go belly up anyway.)
Eventually my trusty little SureShot got so full of desert dust it was beyond repair — just as digital cameras came available at a comparable price. This though, exposed the awkward fact that I did not have or even want a computer, without which digital photos hide forever in the camera. But it was the nineties, and things were changing fast. Not even a luddite can evade the neutering allure of technological advancement, Lord knows I’ve tried.
So I gritted my teeth and bought a low-end PC that I scarcely knew how to operate. (Two things to say about that travail: curse whoever invented the invisible WRONG button, and thank Heaven for CONTROL ALT DELETE! The rest remains an ongoing ordeal.) Good news? Profligate shooting sprees cost nothing, plus it’s now possible to quickly crop, enlarge, enhance or otherwise alter images, and never regret the wasted ones.
Nowadays everybody has a camera in their pocket whether they know how to use it or not. Stills, video, and practically infinite rolls of ‘film’, so it’s a very different game. But from my vantage in the rear seat, I still see people doing all sorts of things to sabotage their own work. So here’s the simplest of advice for anyone shooting digital in the air. Unless you really know your stuff, don’t bother trying to compose a perfect frame, don’t even use the viewing screen. Just square your camera with the horizon and take twice as many shots as necessary. You can shamelessly dump the skeezy ones later.
Also, if someone else is trying to capture you for posterity, stay within radar range!