So You Want To Be An Aviation Photographer?

June 28, 2015  •  1 Comment

In November 2003, I set out on a journey with no idea where the road would lead. I was 27. And I was going into the United States Navy. I knew only a few things about this journey; I was going to be an Air Traffic Controller, I was excited, and I had met enough people along the way who either pushed me, or encouraged me to begin this endeavour. I also knew that I wanted to document my time in the Navy.

In 2004, I bought my first camera, a Nikon D70. I was stationed at NAS Meridian in Mississippi. I had 2 very busy runways and thousands of acres of woods, swamps, and forests to shoot in. I knew nothing about photography. I had no knowledge of PhotoShop. I had no concept of post processing. I also didn’t care. I had nobody to shoot with, and therefore, nobody to impress.

As I started to shoot, I discovered that I had a talent. I had “The Eye”. I chalked that up to “Access”. Being able to stand, literally, on the edge of a runway with an 18-70mm HAS to lead to remarkable images, right? But I discovered shots that I liked. I found that others responded to my feeble attempts at photography. This inspired me and inspired me to learn about PhotoShop. Then I learned about Lightroom. Then, I started to learn about the marriage that happens in a camera to produce images. Backwards? Perhaps. But, in that, I discovered my passion in aviation. I loved controlling airplanes. I love flying airplanes. But more than both of those, I love creating images that resonate in people.   

10 years later, I have created hundreds of thousands of images from every corner of the planet. I have failed. A lot. I have succeeded some. But I have learned far more than both of those combined. Here’s a few of the things that I have learned about this industry:

1. Don’t quit: At anything. Ever. This is not just an aviation industry lesson, this is a life lesson. If you fail, fail on your terms. If it’s time to walk away, do it how you want to, but don’t ever quit. Quitting wrinkles your soul.

2.Know Your Passion: Knowing your passion will keep you from quitting. Knowing your passion will be the only thing that keeps you going when things suck. If your photographic passion lies in aviation, make sure that you know it for sure because it’s a hell of competitive and unforgiving industry. If it is for sure, then just don’t quit. Set your goals and work towards those goals.

3. Everything Has Some Suck In It: No matter how cool you think someone’s life, career, or situation is, everything has some suck in it. Everything. I’ve been around people I thought had the “coolest” lives (Operators and other Special Ops personnel, Pilots of varying sectors, Corporate and Local Leaders, Athletes, and Politicians), and the one thing I’m consistently reminded of is that “Everything Has Some Suck In It”. How this applies to the Aviation, and more specifically the Aviation Photography, industry is that there are days that are miserable. Getting great shots isn’t simply about "right place right time". Great shots take planning, persistence, effort, and sometimes, a level of discomfort. The shot below was taken when it was 100 degrees and 85% humidity in the late afternoon of a Mississippi summer. The weather was abysmal, the mosquitos were as big as bats, and it was just a very crappy day to be out shooting. I had worked a full day, and could have EASILY gone home and drank a beer. I chose to be out shooting.

A quick note about this photograph; this was literally one of my very first pictures that I ever took. I was on a Nikon D70 with an 18-70 kit lens. I had visualized this image for months before getting my camera and being able to go shoot. It has been used on many Base, Naval, and DoD publications. One of my favorite images for so many reasons. 

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail: Push your limits. Push your equipments’ limits. Go shoot in terrible light. Go shoot at dawn or at night. Figure out exactly where that threshold is in your equipment. The greatest thing about photography in 2015 is that you’re not paying for film. Figuring out what you, and your equipment are capable of will only serve to make you a better photographer. I know exactly what equipment I need when I go shoot. It saves me a lot of time, the need to carry a bunch of excess crap into my shooting area, and allows me to maximize my time while shooting. All of those things, collectively, increase my enjoyment level.

4. Know Your Equipment: This includes all of the post processing software that is available. It is not uncommon for me to use 5 or 6 different pieces of software to process one image. I have worked my post process procedures into a science. Time is money; I can shoot an image and have an image proof ready for a client in about an hour. Google, YouTube, and other publications are your very best assets in learning how to work on the fly.

5. Equipment Matters: At a major airport, plan on 300mm minimum to capture anything outside of the fences, unless you're fortunate enough to have LAX as your home airport. Inside of the fences, you can shoot a 70-200 with no issues. This is one of the things that is what it is.

5. Access Matters: It just does. The best aviation images are the ones that make the airplane look larger than life and like they’re going to fly out of the camera, or the screen. You need access to do that. How do you get access? A solid body of work. And relationships.  

6. Relationships Matter: For me even being a Vet, a former controller, and a pilot I am often at the mercy of Airport Operations, or other Airport Management types. Being polite, courteous, and professional will assist you in being invited back to shoot at your most prized locations. Cops. Be nice to Cops. What you are doing may be an issue for some LEO's. Being a douche to them will get you run. Always. Extending your hand and introducing yourself will get you a smile and a wave next time they come by.
Aviation is a tiny place and word travels fast in our circles. Bad stuff ESPECIALLY. We spend A LOT of time talking to other aviation types. If someone’s a douche, chances are that the person that you didn’t ever want to find out will find out about and push back with equal or greater force. Or tell their friends, like me. It’s happened. More than twice. Again… Polite, Courteous, and Professional. Always. And always assume that the person that you’re talking to knows the person you’re wanting to build a relationship with.

This is doubly important when it comes to building a clientele. People, in general, will let you down and disappoint you. People also have their own lives going on, and a big deal can get shelled overnight for seemingly "no reason". Being professional, polite, courteous, and persistent will not only build a customer or client, but will build your reputation and, more importantly, repeat customers who will recommend you to their friends. That matters in this business. A lot. 

Aviation is a fickle mistress. For someone new to this industry it can be a challenge. Hopefully these tips will allow you to increase both your knowledge and enjoyment. Please comment with any questions or topics that you would find beneficial. Thanks for reading!


I have been a professional photographer for over 20 years and every word of this blog is true! There are days that everything falls right into place, the sky is clear and the winds are favorable. Other days have not been so great, from crashes that claim live or destroy aircraft to rainy days the only time yo have seen that particular aircraft to anything in between, make the best of both days. If it is pouring rain, work on your marketing or editing skills, if clear, shoot away.

Thank you Mr. Ryan for your words, I hope all aspiring photographers and some old ones as well will read this and keep the batteries charged!!
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