What’s Your Niche: Aviation and Aerospace Photography

By David Walker

Los Angeles-based Chad Slattery, who has specialized in photographing aircraft for editorial and commercial clients for nearly three decades, describes how he got started, how he works and what it takes to succeed. ?

PDN: How did you get into aviation photography? 

Chad Slattery: I was shooting for Smithsonian when they launched Air Space magazine in 1986. Lee Battaglia became its first photography editor. I’d worked with him before and one day he called up asking if I knew anything about planes. Well, I was a total aviation geek as a kid, biking to the airport every weekend to photograph aircraft. So I sent Lee ten story ideas and most of them led to assignments.

PDN: When did you start shooting aircraft in flight?

CS: In 1994 Clay Lacy [an operator of private jets] was looking for a backup photographer to do air-to-air photographs from his Learjet. George Hall recommended me. It was addictive, and I decided to start concentrating on aviation and aerospace subjects. [Editor’s note: Hall was a leading aviation photographer who died in 2006.]

PDN: When did you start shooting interiors of corporate jets?

CS: Professional Pilot [magazine] hired me in 1996 to photograph John Travolta with his Gulfstream. The company that designed the jet’s interior saw the shots and asked if I photographed business jets. I had photographed architecture for Sunset magazine and figured an interior is an interior, right? So I said, “Yes.” 

PDN: What are the markets for business jet photography?

CS: There are four main clients: corporations that make the planes, the completion houses that do interiors, brokers who market previously owned jets and charter companies who provide on-demand flights. 

PDN: Is there a market for photos of celebrity-owned private jets?

CS: Not from me. This niche is all about privacy and discretion. I don’t even ask who owns the aircraft I’m photographing. 

PDN: What are the rates like?

CS: From $1,500 for one exterior and two interiors of a small Citation Mustang to $6,000 for complete coverage of a private Boeing 747, and up to $7,000 a day for a multiday air-to-air campaign. 

PDN: How do you promote yourself?

CS: I attend the National Business Aviation Association’s annual convention to keep up with the people and planes. This industry is based on trust so referrals and word of mouth are critical. 

PDN: What’s the most appealing thing about this niche?

CS: It’s built on trust. From the avgas [aviation gasoline] lineman to the mechanic to the photo chase pilot to the control tower, we trust our lives to each other. You do business with a handshake. In 20 years, I’ve never been stiffed. 

You also have to know aviation. You can’t grab a Nikon and start low-balling [your] way into the field. No jet broker wants to tell his client that some bargain $300 photographer just killed a $100,000 pitot tube [an airspeed measuring device] on his $40 million jet by using it as a foothold. 

PDN: What cameras do you use? 

CS: I just switched from Canon’s EOS-1Ds Mark III to the EOS 5D Mark III. Ninety-five percent of my shots are made with the 17-40mm, 24-105mm and 45mm TS-E lenses.

PDN: What special gear do you need? 

CS: For air-to-air of aircraft with propellers, I use a Kenyon KS-6 gyro stabilizer—it steadies your camera during the slow shutter speeds you need to keep the blades from looking frozen in mid-air. On the ground, you need gobs of PocketWizards to trigger multiple strobes that light business jets at dusk. I love perspective control lenses for exterior beauty shots. And I carry a Pelican 7060 police flashlight for light-painting wings and engine inlets. It’s got a long throw with perfect daylight color balance. 

PDN: Light painting? How long are your exposures, typically? 

CS: My favorite ground shots are made during twilight. I can open the shutter for 20 seconds at f/5.6, trigger the strobes once or twice, paint in details with the flashlight and get a deep-blue sky that the jet pops out against. 

PDN: What are the costs of getting into this niche? Aren’t they high?

CS: There are the costs [for the equipment mentioned above], plus liability insurance for airports, and props: Baccarat flower vases, for instance. You can’t go cheap in a Gulfstream. Custom Bose headsets. Carabiners and climbing harnesses to hold you in helicopters. And the newest, biggest, fastest CF cards, because an air-to-air shoot can easily burn $1,000 a minute. You can’t afford to wait for the camera’s cache to download.

PDN: How do you learn to do the air-to-air work when expenses are $1,000 a minute?

CS: Most professional aviation photographers were mentored by someone already doing it.

PDN: Can you describe a typical air-to-air shoot?

CS: The Legacy business jet shoot was typical. I was in Wolfe Air’s photo Learjet. We joined up at 12,500 feet and flew a giant oval over northern California. We directed the Legacy towards the light and generally kept it flying straight while we maneuvered forward, behind, below and above it. I sat at the front window holding a remote video console that triggered a moveable Canon 5D mounted in an under-wing pod. Depending on where the Legacy was, I shot through the window for side views, or remotely with the pod when the plane was behind us. We flew 90 minutes and I made 850 exposures.

PDN: Do you composite your air-to-air images to make the backdrops (clouded skies, landscapes) more dramatic?

CS: I usually know what backdrop the client wants. Boeing likes its intercontinental jetliners flying over the ocean. Northrop Grumman needs its surveillance aircraft above desert terrain. HondaJet wanted its jet breaking through the clouds. But art directors do often add elements in post-production.

PDN: Describe the biggest technical challenges, and how you overcome them.

CS: In the air, photographing helicopters from another chopper is hard [because] helicopters vibrate like crazy. The gyro helps a lot. On the ground, the main challenge is reliably triggering eight or ten strobes when I light a huge business jet. My camera sits just six inches off the ground on these huge concrete ramps; it’s just the worst environment for radios. But the new PocketWizard Plus III transceivers have a repeater function that finally made them never-fail triggers.

PDN: What advice do you have for photographers who are interested in this niche?

CS: Study aviation history, read the trades, have a strong photojournalism background, earn your private pilot’s license, develop great post-production skills and learn to light.

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