Photo: Combines tilling a field

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photo: Photographer Jim Richardson

Photograph courtesy Jim Richardson

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

It happened again the other day. It's gotten to be predictable.

A visitor to our gallery was looking at this little ballet of combines in western Kansas and asked how I ever got them to line up so precisely. The precision of it always seems to fascinate people, and they assume that I was somehow magically able to click the shutter at just the right moment.

At such moments it's always a good time for a little reality, so I proceed to give them a little lesson in aerial photography. (Probably more than they want but then they shouldn't have asked.)

Actually, getting the combines to line up is no trick at all. Combines start at the edge of the field and work their way into the center. Sooner or later they are going to go past each other and just as predictably they are going to line up in just the position you see here. I didn't have to do anything.

Being there at the moment when it happens is the hard part. And that falls into two separate skill sets. First is getting into the air at the right time under the right conditions. Despite most people's assumptions I don't do a lot of photography out of a helicopter. Most of it is from a small plane, which comes down to both cost and availability. A lot of the places I photograph are nowhere near anyone who has a helicopter, and many shoot budgets won't absorb the cost of a Jet Ranger anyway. (Think $700 to $1,000 per hour.)

So I go looking for a Cessna, usually a 172 or a 182, which has a high wing so you can see down with a (relatively) unobstructed view. You can't photograph looking through a wing. Before you take off, make sure the little strut in the window has been unscrewed so that when you open the window to take a picture it will open all the way. The windstream will usually keep it out of your way. Then, realize that the strut is going to be in your way a lot of the time. So the best shooting angle is slightly toward the back of the plane. You can get a good 24mm horizontal field of view without including the strut, the wheel, the tail or the wing. But just barely.

By the way, you find an airplane by looking in the yellow pages for "Flight Instruction." These are the folks who most likely have a Cessna. Or look around for a nearby airport and try to find the FBO, the fixed base operator. That's who runs the airport. They'll know who operates out of the airport and where you might find a plane. And one more thing: you don't want to "charter" this aircraft. That has specific, legal licensing meaning in the air travel world. Just tell them you want to go up and take pictures, hiring the plane and a pilot. (Expect to pay $125 to $200 per hour.) If you can't find a high-wing plane then don't bother going. Don't believe somebody who says you can shoot out a hole in the window of a low-wing plane.

Generally you don't want to get up high. High equals hazy in aerial photography. So stay pretty low, usually at about 1,000 feet [300 meters] above ground. (Note that if you are flying out of Denver where you took off at an elevation of 5,000 feet [1,500 meters], this would be an "altitude" of 6,000 feet [1,800 meters] above sea level.)

Air is clearer in the morning and usually not as bumpy. But, as for this shot where harvest happens in the afternoon and evening, you may not have a choice. Everybody tells you that you need a super high shutter speed, but not necessarily and not always. If you have calm air you can get away with a surprisingly show shutter speed. I've had two page spreads in National Geographic shot at 1/8 of a second. (That was a really calm evening.) But don't lean your arms on the aircraft window or seat. That will pick up vibration. And the longer the telephoto, the tougher it will be to hold steady. The lens will have to be inside the plane to avoid buffeting from the slipstream.

Most of all, focus on finding shapes and subjects to make real compositions. It's real tempting to just shoot away—it all looks great from the air. But when you get back and look at your pictures they all seem to be of inconsequential, tiny stuff.

Now for the second part of the skills I was talking about. That part is the skill of looking for the predictable and being there when it happens, already set up, waiting with your finger on the trigger. In this case it was seeing what was happening with the combines out there on the plains near Goodland, Kansas, and how they were working closer and closer together. I could see it coming.

The particular trick in this case is a little bit of aircraft physics. If you have your pilot do a very tight banking turn, you essentially stay above the same spot on the ground. That's what I did with the combines, instructing my pilot to get into a bank over the spot where the combines were headed, AND TO STAY THERE! No gentle little turn, too wide of the mark. No shooting one shot and then pulling away. STAY THERE! (I've never gotten sick doing this stuff but it does wear me out after a couple of hours.)

Taking that tight turn meant the image was rotating in my viewfinder, but I could line up the rows of wheat, then rotate the camera a little to keep it all straight. When the combines were 20 feet [six meters] apart I hit the motor drive and let it run until the combines were well past one another. Back at the light table (this was film), it was then a simple matter to pick out the frame where they lined up. Simple!

Now, I don't really give those poor folks back in the gallery this whole lecture. Just the juicy parts. Even so I sometimes think they are disappointed that it wasn't done by some sort of supernatural skill or magic. Too bad. They're missing the true nature of skill and talent.

As for me, I'll take predictability over luck every day of the week.

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