Aviation Dream Jobs: Aviation Photography

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John Slemp of Aerographs Aviation Photography started taking pictures in 1984 as a hobby during his time in the Army. After leaving the service in 1989, he went to school for a year and a half to get a grounding in advertising photography before he began a career as a generalist—taking pictures for everything from advertising campaigns to magazine editorials. He worked under other photographers for several years before striking out on his own. In 2001, he began shooting aircraft and hasn’t looked back since.

“In a visual sense I find the myriad shapes and sizes of aircraft fascinating and organizing those contours within a camera frame can be quite the challenge,” he said. “In addition, keeping in mind the background, the light on the subject, and controlling it all in a limited time and space can test any photographer’s mettle … and that’s if the aircraft is on the ground! Put ‘em in the air, and the challenge becomes even more dynamic, as you are now working within a three-dimensional space.”

Eye of the Beholder

Leading up to a photoshoot, John has a lot to think about. There is equipment to consider: what cameras to bring and what sorts of lighting will be necessary to supplement the natural light at the airport. The equipment needed can change a lot based on the types of photos desired and the subjects photographed. Then there’s facility access to discuss, weather to watch and adjust for, and aircraft and personnel availability to organize. Finally, once all of that is sorted out and the moving pieces and persons make it to the same place at roughly the same time, John can begin taking pictures.

For a professional photographer, there is a lot more going on than point and shoot. Photos are taken with an eye on the end goal—meaning goals need to be established beforehand to make the best use of time and resources. The photographer needs to give the client a good selection of different looks to choose from. Photoshoot days can sometimes be long ones, John says. For one two-day commercial photoshoot, he shot 24 different setups, which resulted in more than 2,300 images.

Changing Times

Once the images are taken, John moves on to the second major part of his job: image processing. These days, he spends about 65 percent of his time on processing the photos he takes. That wasn’t always the case. John says that in the earlier days of his photography career, he could drop his film off at a lab, collect the developed images, and just pick out the ones he wanted to send to the client.

Now, his images are digital rather than film and he uploads them to his computer and processes them himself. Unlike most everyday photography where the camera settings do the processing automatically, commercial photographers shoot RAW files, which basically means that the image is saved exactly as it appears to the camera’s sensor.

The Art of Processing

Without the camera automatically processing the images, the RAW files usually look a bit flat, but they allow the photographer to use his own eye and artistry when doing the processing. The result of the choices made during processing is a style unique to each photographer. John says even biology plays a part in how a photographer approaches this part of their work—everybody sees the world a bit differently. He himself is a touch color-blind, which he has learned to adjust for in his photos.

When it comes to creating finished images, John says he likes “punchy,” saturated colors. He’s had more than one person tell him his photos look almost like paintings, although that isn’t something he pursues consciously. According to John, style is a developmental process, evolving and changing over the course of a photographer’s career.

Subject Matters

Some of John’s favorite things to photograph include vintage aircraft, particularly the 1930s art deco designs. He also has a fascination for World War II aviation. However, he says he realized early on that it is the people that make it all go—he takes quite a few portraits of the folks that make up the aviation industry and has learned quite a bit about the history—and characters—involved in flight by listening to the stories of the people he photographs.

“The history surrounding aviation is really a history of our country, and that intrigues me greatly, which is probably one of the reasons why I enjoy photographing older aircraft as well. It combines business intrigues, personal fortunes, wacky ideas, showmen, risk takers, authentic military heroes … and that’s for starters! With all the color, characters, and the ever-changing visual tableau, it’s a wonder more photographers don’t pursue aviation as a specialty. The places it can take you, the people one can meet, and the possible experiences one can have all combine to create a more balanced view of the world.”

Some of John’s favorite people to photograph have been Neil Armstrong, Patty Wagstaff and Bob Hoover. Recent projects he’s worked on include collaborating with an array of museums and individuals to photograph World War II bomber jackets and taking portraits of Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs).

You can hear more about John’s career and photography in this podcast or see more of his images on his website: aerographs.com.