Lighting Aviation History

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A B-17G Flying Fortress sits on the ramp at Porter County Regional Airport in Valparaiso, Ind., Tuesday, July 30, 2013. The World War II era aircraft, built in 1945, currently tours the country as part of the nonprofit Collings Foundation. Three 600 watt strobes were used to light the aircraft.

When the opportunity presented itself to capture some dramatic portraits of a B-17G Flying Fortress I recently flew on, it was one I absolutely had to take. After all, how often do you end up with a World War II bomber as your subject with few, if any, restrictions? The propellers in my mind started turning on just how I could grant visual justice to such a deserving piece of American history.

Fresh from my trip to the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, I realized this was a great chance to capture the very streamlined aircraft in a clean fashion – using Link’s selective lighting style at night to eliminate background distractions. To add another twist of difficulty to lighting a 70′ long airplane, I decided to use my Crown Graphic 4×5 film camera and Kodak Tri-X 320 ISO film as my primary means of capture.

With the stakes set high, I arrived at the airport just before sunset to begin setting up. The biggest hurdle (and initial stress factor) I had to overcome was the availability of electrical power. While I was prepared to use my Vagabond II battery system, the full power I’d likely be shooting at with up to 3 600 watt strobes meant that I’d get very few pops before the battery died.  Luckily, I was given access to a power outlet on the ramp.

Airport ramps are really large places, and even with the outlet being relatively close to the B-17’s parking spot, I still had to use nearly 600′ of electrical cable to deliver power to the plane area, and to then fan that power out to the three lights I used.

Most of the images I shot of the B-17 utilized the above lighting setup.

In conjunction with a Sekonic L-758CINE light meter, I used my Canon 6D as a “digital Polariod” of sorts to check the angles and the falloff of the strobes as I set them up. Most of lights were almost 100 feet from the aircraft, necessitating very high powers given the film speed and aperture I chose. The test images shot on the 6D also served as a backup to the “keepers” on the Crown Graphic.

With the sun down and just a bit of ambient light left in the sky, I set up the Crown Graphic 4×5 camera and began to compose the first frame. Even in what we’d consider to be comfortable lighting conditions, making things out while focusing using the camera’s ground glass can be very difficult (the view there often looks much darker than real life). In dark conditions to begin with, the view through the ground glass is usually black.

Pre-focusing on the B-17 using the Crown Graphic’s ground glass. At right is a flag on a c-stand set up to block flare from my sidelight.

To make things easier to see, I had an assistant stand right at the aircraft and light whatever I was focusing on using my Minimag XL50 LED flashlight. This technique became invaluable, as it would have been impossible to focus without the flashlight’s reference.

I used Pocket Wizard Plus units to sync my lights to both cameras, interfacing with the Crown Graphic’s lens contacts using a special cable from Paramount. Even with my farthest light being almost 200 feet away, the freshly-batteried Pocket Wizards didn’t miss a beat.

One of the frames from the Crown Graphic. I was happy that the runway and taxiway lights (which are just behind the aircraft) became almost invisible on film at the 1/400th shutter speed I was shooting at.

Despite all the work that went into the contrasty, black and white film images shot on the Crown Graphic, my favorite image from this shoot ended up being a color digital one from the 6D (at the top of this entry). The blue clouds really make this frame pop, and provide a nice background for the aircraft awash in hard, contrasty light.

Despite my careful use of flags to block lights from flaring the Crown Graphic’s lens (which seems to be especially susceptible to them), one snuck through and ended up in my wide shot (above, at right). It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for me, though I’ll have a hard time cropping it out of larger 16×20 prints with my current enlarger setup.

A detail shot of one of the B-17G’s massive 1200 horsepower engines.

This is most of the gear I used on the shoot. Unique images like the ones in this series take hours of preparation with not only logistics and access, but also with the equipment needed to pull them off. Photography encompasses so much more than the camera and shutter release.

Posted in Aviation, Large Format Film, Lighting Design, Photography by Guy Rhodes on August 2nd, 2013.

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