Don’t Stop The Prop

Adam Hunt


For our November 2010 meeting Flight 8 returned from our recent field trips to Rockcliffe Airport and the Nav Canada Technical Centre, to hold a meeting in our more usual venue, the Ottawa Flying Club’s upper lounge. The occasion was a presentation entitled “Don’t Stop the Prop” by Peter Handley of Phd Creative.

His presentation focused on how to take photographs of aircraft or at least how he takes photographs in the hopes that this will improve the aircraft photos that the rest of us take.

Handley’s day job is as a graphic designer, but he has also been the official photographer of Vintage Wings of Canada for the past four years. That position gives him the opportunity to regularly get up close to their collection of vintage flying aircraft on the ground and also in the air.

Like most photographers these days, Handley shoots digital photos, not film.He mostly uses a Nikon D700 12 megapixel camera, although he has a number of other digital cameras available.He shoots all his photos in RAW format, due to its lack of digital compression, unlike other formats, like JPG.

This makes for larger file sizes, but as he points out, “storage cards are cheap”.Having the complete, uncompressed image allows him more latitude in the darkroom later in processing the images.The term “darkroom” is really an anachronism, as photo processing is done these days on a computer and not in a red-lit room full of chemicals, but the nomenclature lives on.Handley does his photo processing on a Mac using Adobe Lightroom.Handley’s slide presentation included many images showing what not to do in photographing aircraft. As the title of his presentation indicates, one of the first lessons is to not show propellers frozen on moving aircraft because it looks odd. As Handley remarked, jets can be shot at a fast shutter speed, but 1/2300 is certainly enough to make a propeller at full rpm look like it is parked. He suggested that 1/250 is a much better speed to show blade motion and to give the photo a sense of life.

In shooting air show aircraft from the ground, Handley demonstrated how a slower shutter speed plus panning the camera to follow the action will blur the background, giving a sense of motion and speed to the aircraft.

Handley went on to show many aircraft photos he has taken, demonstrating shooting at low ISOs, using perspective to advantage and to use a wide angle lens to aid composition.

One of his favourite tricks is to use elevation to advantage, shooting downwards at parked aircraft from a rooftop, control tower or even a ladder to get a new view of the aircraft that groundbound spectators will not have seen.

People are an important part of aviation and air shows, he explained, demonstrating how including people in aircraft photos can add interest and help to tell a story. In composing shots Handley emphasized not to centre the main subject, but move the aircraft or person off-centre to balance elements.

Handley admitted that some of his secrets to photographic success are to not stay still, but instead to keep moving and looking for new angles to shoot from and keeping his eyes open for details. Some situations are not ideal for photography, but with some creativity often good photos can come from bad situations.

In illustrating the interest that can be put into aircraft photographs, Handley showed close ups of the artwork composed of the metal grills on a polished Globe Swift cowling.

He also showed a dramatic photo of flames belching from a P- 51 Mustang exhaust on start-up and explained how the photo came about through a combination of curiosity from seeing the flames before, putting himself in the right location and then patience to get the shot, or rather to get the shots. Handley usually shoots a very large number of photos of each subject using burst mode on his camera.

Handley’s final advice was, like the Boy Scouts, to “be prepared.“ Some opportunities for photos only happen once, like the chance to shoot a P-40 Kittyhawk and F-86 Sabre formation with astronaut Chris Hadfield flying the Sabre.On occasions like that, it is almost impossible to shoot too many photos as you won’t get another chance, so extra SD cards are a must.

Flight 8 would like to thank Peter Handley for bringing his wealth of photographic knowledge, along with so many inspiring photographs, to the November Flight 8 meeting. We all just now need to get out there and practice photographing aircraft.