Lighting an Airplane at Sunset for a Photography Session

Most studio photography is done on relatively small scales. A person or an object is lit, usually with between one and three lights that cover the breadth of the subject. Shooting something large is an entirely different story. There isn’t a soft box large enough to cover the size of legendary photographer Joe McNally’s (unpublished) project for National Geographic, which he discusses in this video from AdoramaTV. Here, he describes in great detail his method of lighting a plane in an airspace hangar:

Even if it was possible to photograph this aircraft with a simple few-light setup, that method clearly wouldn’t flatter it at all. Its complex shape demands a much more precise way of painting the plane with light—one which will accentuate the sharp, sleek, modern shape and emphasize its futuristic feel , and the technology that it represents.

The secret is speedlights—lots of them. In this shoot, McNally mounts six simple off-camera flashes to the rear of the fuselage, and sets them on remote trigger (“slave”) mode. This light wraps itself around the wings, which separates the body from the background. He then places two more flashes inside the front wheel well, and aims all eight of these units down towards the ground. Because the tarmac is off-white, the light bounces off of it and fills the shadows on the plane’s underside. They also flood the floor, brightening it against the dark wheels and creating stark contrast which also helps to make the plane stand out. All of these speedlights are covered with CTO (color temperature orange) gels, which mimics the tone in the sky and complements the blue and purple hues of the sunrise.

aircraft photography

The front of the craft was lit by two soft boxes – more specifically, strip lights, which are long and skinny, placed on a horizontal axis along the wings. These are only meant to cast a slight glow which will define the edges; the shot itself uses a fairly wide aperture and slow shutter speed in order to light the object chiefly with the ambient natural light coming from the newly brightening sky. Because of this, the blazing sunrise is allowed to reflect off the top of the plane, capturing the rich, cool colors that juxtapose the warm orange tones.

aircraft photography

The shot was taken in California, at China Lake Naval Air Station, with a 26mm lens and using a 1/2 second exposure at f/5.6. The time of day is an important factor in the image not only because of its visual elegance. As McNally mentions, the article he was creating the image for was called “The Future of Flight”, and it was about the emerging technology that built this aircraft. In this picture, he uses dawn of the day as a type of pathetic fallacy, with the weather imitating the theme that he wants to illustrate—the dawn of a new type of machine, and at the same time, of digital photography in the National Geographic world.

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