Paul Bowen's job takes him to the skies to capture aircraft in flight.
Who buys your photos?
My primary business is with corporate aircraft, like Gulfstream Aerospace and Learjet, for advertising. I also supply stock photos for magazines—I’ve done more than 1,000 magazine covers over the years.
Describe your typical shoot.
First and last light are best. Everything on the ground casts a shadow, which deepens the tone of the ground—when you’re 2,000 feet above, the lighter-colored airplane pops. If sunrise is at 7:30, I get up at 4:30 and meet the pilots at 6 for a briefing on the artistic objectives, and then the pilots agree on how to shoot it safely. We have to be up in the air and in position before sunrise or stay up past sunset.
Sometimes we remove windows, doors, or hatches so I’m not shooting through glass, and I have a headset so my pilot can follow my directions—what altitude and where I want to go. Then he relays messages to the other plane, which has formed up either behind or to the side of us. I direct by increments of feet—“right 20,” or “down 10.” I’ll have him put us into orbits or whatever works best with the lighting, background, and the angle I want to capture.
The part high up lasts about half an hour, then we drop down about 500 feet for shots closer to the ground. We stay 100 feet above to shoot the target plane landing, then follow up with ground and interior shots. We’re done by 10 a.m.
Do you need special training?
Just like any type of photography, it has particular skills to learn. Everything happens quickly when you’re in the air. You’re usually flying at about 200 miles per hour, so you have to anticipate well in advance. The aircraft can do all kinds of maneuvers, so you really have to understand the medium, and a lot of that comes from experience. I started training as a pilot years ago, which helped me understand what I was asking the pilot to do in order to choreograph a photo shoot.
What do you fly in?
I shoot out of many kinds of airplanes, but the B-25 Mitchell bomber is my platform of choice. I’ve chartered 20 of them—there are about 35 flying in the world. It’s a fabulous airplane because we can remove the tail cone where the gunner used to sit, and the way the tail sticks out lets me shoot even with a fisheye lens without getting any of my plane in the shot. It’s also fast—it flies at about 200 miles per hour, so it works for shooting corporate jets.
Do you move around?
In smaller planes there’s not a lot of room, but in a B-25 I can shoot from the tail cone and then crawl behind the wing into an area called a waist position to shoot out the side emergency exit. I can also climb down into the nose, under the pilots, so we can chase a plane to shoot it from behind.
What gear do you use?
I’ve been one of Canon’s Explorers of Light since the program’s inception. My main workhorse is the EOS-1Ds Mark III with the 24–105mm and 70–200mm IS lenses, plus a Speedlite 580EX II for fill flash. I also use the 5D Mark II, and the 100–400mm lens comes in handy if you’re flying with a pilot who can’t bring the plane in close. To compensate for the vibration on a propeller plane and get a longer shutter speed for a full propeller arc, I’ll use a handheld gyro.
What’s the hardest part?
Even outstanding pilots can’t necessarily fly a photo shoot—they have to have formation flying experience. The cold and the vibrations and the low light before dawn make shooting very challenging. With the doors or windows removed, it’s windy and cold—often below freezing. I have to wear ski gear and gloves. It can also be very disorienting going around in circles looking through a lens. The first time I did it I got airsick. But fortunately that was the last time, too.