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Air-to-Air Photography, Capturing Planes Up Close & Personal

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There are millions of airplane buffs out there – they study the planes taxiing at the airport, go to tracking websites, and even visit airshows to see their favorite ones in action. Similarly, there are millions of photographers around these days. Not professionals, but in the age of smartphones, everyone is taking pictures of everything, and some are aspiring to turn their hobby into a profession. And then there are a lucky few who have managed to combine their love of airplanes with their passion for photography to become professional aviation photographers.

In SmugMug’s short film, Jessica Ambats – Pulse-Pounding Aerial Photography, we meet one such lucky person. To think of her as a photographer is a bit like describing Indiana Jones as a university archeologist professor. It is true that she produces beautiful photography, but at the same time, she’s also doing it in amazingly risky circumstances. The film describes itself as “pulse-pounding,” and that is no exaggeration. She’s literally zooming around in small planes – with the side doors removed! – flying right next to other aircraft as they speed alongside, to get the perfect up-close and personal shots of aircraft in motion.

Jessica has always been the sort of person who, even as a child, would instinctively look up whenever a plane passed overhead. As she remembers, “Something about aviation drew me in.” Photography had always been a fascinating hobby, too, and obviously, taking pictures of planes on the ground was a big part of her early activities. But then a few years ago, when she was working for Pilot Getaways magazine, she attended a meeting of the International Society of Aviation Photography, and she was instantly hooked on the concept. She had never before realized how closely her two passions could be combined.

For this SmugMug video, she arranged a photoshoot over the San Francisco Bay Area, featuring the city skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge, and of course, the other planes flying along with her. When they reach the right altitude and it is time to start taking pictures, her co-pilot takes over, and she straps herself into one of the back seats. And the amazing part is that the plane is completely open to the elements – they literally remove the doors before taking off! Her small aircraft is constantly buffeted about as the wind howls by, and all while she’s leaning out, watching for that perfect view, that perfect formation to show itself.

The video is full of literally pulse-pounding action footage showing Jessica directing the various aircraft this way and that, trying to get the right backgrounds in with the best views of the planes themselves. With epic understatement, Jessica acknowledges, “It’s an intense environment. It’s noisy, it’s windy, it’s cold.” But you can tell she just loves it. “I’m a pilot, and I’m a photographer, and being able to combine the two with what I do is just amazing.” In fact, with each shoot, she gushes, “I’ve got the best seat at my own personal airshow.”

Of course, to pull off aerial photography in this manner requires an entire team. It is not flying around, taking random photos, and hoping for the best. On the contrary, her shots have already been thought out and pre-planned while the team was still on the ground. Jessica works with some of the top pilots in the world, and together, they use small models to plan out their flights and where they should be in relation to each other. In the air, she is constantly communicating with the other pilots over the radio, coordinating their speeds and positioning so that she can get the right shot. These planes fly quite close together, anywhere from 20 to 150 feet, and her vocal instructions can be quite precise. “I need you to be about 10 feet higher” or “Twenty feet back.” It is totally a team effort, and she says that as a pilot herself, it’s just awe-inspiring to watch this skilled team perform.

When people see her photos, they always ask, “How did you take that photo?!?” It’s a question she loves to be asked because it means that the image really struck someone, really connected with them personally. The question also shows that the picture is pretty amazing because no one can imagine being in the spot to capture such a photograph. And that’s what makes aviation photography so unique. It is difficult for a non-professional to even guess how it could be done. In Jessica’s words, “What makes air-to-air photography different is that you’re up there with this flying machine in its natural element.” Just like you should go on safari to truly photographically capture elephants in the wild, you need to actually be in the air to properly photograph airplanes.

This video is a plane enthusiast’s delight because Jessica shoots so many different types of aircraft, in so many locales. She photographs historical military aircraft, sleek experimental designs, crop-duster planes with colored smoky plumes trailing behind them, and even the Blue Angels in their F-18 fighter jets. And the action footage is fast and impressive as the planes fly in close formation, then suddenly bank and start doing their fast maneuvers. She has done photo sessions over New York City, Las Vegas, rugged desert mesas, and the St. Louis Gateway Arch, just to name a few.

For equipment, she’s a huge fan of her Canon DSLRs, equipped with their image-stabilization lenses because the airplanes with the wind and open doors cause the cameras to vibrate too much. For video, she loves her various GoPros, which she has mounted in strategic parts of the plane. The shoot itself is always a big physical challenge, but she says the hardest part of all is trying to coordinate everyone’s different schedules with the unpredictability of the weather. On the day of the shoot, the team makes the go/no-go decision as a group first thing in the morning. Everyone needs to buy in, or it’s off. And at the end of the day, Jessica is wiped. “The flights are pretty intense. I’m usually completely exhausted afterward. Mentally and physically exhausted.”

But Jessica is in her world, and she has found her special calling. The thrill of the shoot seems just as fresh each new time she takes off. “It’s amazing to be sitting in the back of a photo ship with the doors removed, watching the world pass by below. … I’ve found what I love to do, and I see myself doing this forever.”

Read SmugMug’s exclusive interview with Jessica:

Check out Jessica’s Portfolio and Print Shop:

About SmugMug

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