High-Flying Military Photojournalist Talks Life as a U.S. Air Force Photographer

Imagine hurtling through the clouds at 500 mph in an F-16 fighter jet, a mere three feet away from a formation of six or eight other fighters that you’re “chasing.” Now imagine that you’re a member of the U.S. Air Force and that your commander has tasked you with photographing a particular aerial display. You’ll only have once “pass” to get the perfect shot. Oh, and did we mention that your camera equipment will feel like it weighs five to seven times its actual weight because of g-force?

That’s all in a day’s work for Sergeant Larry Reid Jr., the official photographer for the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds unit. In the following video, Reid discusses his well-oiled process for photographing F-16 fighter jets in action and the joys of capturing inspiring “moments that a lot of folks don’t really get the opportunity to see”:

While Reid’s line of work obviously has its perks, he has to work hard to keep himself fit so that the physical tolls of holding up his camera gear while “pulling G’s” doesn’t hamper his ability to take photos during 2-3 hour flight missions. He also has to deal with the pressure that comes with the job; his commanding officers monitor his progress closely and he often has to be ready to take photos in any situation on the spot when summoned. In the air, events progress quickly, and Reid often has only one “pass” to get the images that his commanding officers are expecting.

“I tell people it’s a roller coaster on steroids because you’re literally pulling G’s. You’re going 500 plus miles per hour and everything happens so fast.”

To simplify things so that he really only needs to worry about making great photos in the air, Reid is always careful to bring an extra camera body, which he stores with the rest of his gear in a flight bag. Because he has to shoot through the reflective canopy of the plane, Reid wears black gloves and a dark grey helmet instead of the Thunderbirds’ standard green flight gloves and red, white, and blue helmet. Additionally, Reid drapes black cloths over his control panel and his chest to minimize reflections from shiny metals.

us united states air force thunderbirds fighter f-16 f16 jet

Reid often uses jet streams to create interesting compositions.

pan panning action plane pilot speed fast flight flying fly

And you thought panning was hard on the ground.

jaron schneider usa military photojournalist photojournalism demonstration sergeant larry reid from jet to jet

Reid often uses a wide-angle angle lens to capture as many planes in the frame as possible.

Reid makes these images using two camera bodies—a Nikon D3S as his primary and a Nikon D3 as his backup. He also heavily relies on three different lenses, which he presses right up against his aircraft’s canopy for stabilization, that provide him with maximum versatility: a 24-70mm f/2.8, a 16-35mm f/4, and a 24-120mm f/4.

“It’s rewarding to know that your top leadership entrusts you with visually making sure that the team and them are looking spot on and that the end product goes out flawlessly… when my commander comes to me and says, ‘Larry, let me see the images,’ and I can deliver each and every time, that opens doors for more opportunities to go up there.” — Sergeant Larry Reid, Jr.

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