Photographing Aircraft in the Museum

Posted on Wed, January 25, 2017
  • by: Eric Long, Photographer
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As a photographer at the Museum, my job is to make our artifacts stand out in images. This can be a challenge with the type of lighting in our galleries and the limited amount of time I have to shoot before the Museum opens. Over the years, however, I’ve found ways to optimize the lighting and my time to achieve my goals.

To get the most out of a photograph, many of us wait for the right conditions. Take shooting outside for instance. I prefer to shoot on a clear, bright day, where the light helps show detail, shape, and color. On a cloudy day, I’d expect to see flat lighting. Flat lighting doesn’t show shape or detail and produces bland colors. Because our primary concern is preserving our artifacts, we often display them with flat lighting. In many of our galleries, artifacts are lit with either direct or soft light. Neither is ideal. As a photographer, my goal is to bring the ideal lighting from a clear, bright day inside.

By dramatically taking control of lighting, I can make an artifact stand out. To do that, I have to know how light changes the appearance of different surfaces like metal, wood, and fabric. A perfect example is the SR-71 Blackbird. This is an aircraft that was designed to avoid radar and deflect light. I often see visitors using their flash when taking a photo of the Blackbird, but using light head on causes it to be absorbed or reflected off the aircraft’s surface. 

This is how you would see the aircraft on display.

Instead of lighting the aircraft from the front, I use light from behind so that the shapes and contours of the aircraft can be seen thanks to the light that is reflected off its surface. You can see a great example of why this works by taking a closer look at telephone wires along the side of a road. In normal light, the telephone wire appears exactly as it is, black wire. But, as the sun sets the wire appears to glow because the angle of light has changed and you can now see the reflection of light coming off of the wire.  

Equipment

Before we get into shooting, let’s take a moment to talk about equipment. In the digital world of today, I choose a camera with the largest megapixel sensor and the widest variety of lenses. I personally use a Canon 5DS with a 50 megapixel sensor, yielding an image that is 144 megabytes in size. In comparison, a 6 megapixel camera would yield an 18 megabyte file (large enough to print an 8 x 10 print at 300 dots per inch). While there are larger format cameras on the market, I find this camera provides high quality images at a more affordable price.

I use a Bogen Studio tripod for support. I find it provides less vibration than smaller tripods. Then, connected to the camera is a device called a CamRanger. The CamRanger sets up a wireless signal between my camera and tablet. I can fire the camera from my tablet and see exactly what my lighting is doing. I can also change all of the camera functions from the tablet without touching the camera, allowing me to roam and shoot. I also have a radio remote unit on the camera which fires a strobe unit.

I am shooting with professional quality studio strobes, a 2400 watt Speedatron and 1200 watt battery-operated Elinchrom. The battery- operated strobe allows me to roam with the light and not worry about electrical outlets and extension cords. The strobes help me to control ambient light. By shooting at a high shutter speed and small aperture, for depth of field, I am essentially cancelling out the gallery lighting and using my own. I find this equipment allows me to be creative in my lighting and shoot a variety of images that are later combined in post processing. 

Why do I work this way? I have three hours to work on shooting artifacts in the building before the public arrives. Setting up all my lighting to take one shot takes too much time and equipment. By remotely firing the camera and changing my lighting, I can cover more views and shoot more artifacts and then use the rest of my time processing the images.

Step by Step

Recently, I was photographed the Aeronautica Macchi C.202 Folgore, an Italian World War II aircraft on display at our Museum in Washington, DC.

This is the view the public sees standing on the second floor of our World War II gallery. As you can see, the plane is sparsely lit and much of the light falls into the shadows.

To start, I like to find lighting that best separates the object from the background while still giving the object shape and color. I light the edges of the aircraft (edge light) and then fill. I use a strong back light to edge light the artifact and also light areas that I will later fill.  In the case of this aircraft, I needed to raise the light to the ceiling from behind the plane. This casts a strong edge light along the fuselage, canopy, and also lights up the wings. Often, I use a single stationary light that stays in one place.

I then use a battery-operated strobe unit and move it around the aircraft. With the addition of an above-camera light and the strobes, I get an overall exposure.

I use another exposure on the back landing gear and portions of the fuselage and under carriage that are not lit by my above-camera light.  

Then, I use a light that produces a glare on the fuselage. I use this exposure last to help add the feeling of a metal surface. In doing so, I’m taking the principles of outside light over the course of a day and applying it to a single artifact.

In post processing, I work with the raw, or unprocessed, files in Photoshop CS6 to adjust color, sharpness, and tone. I usually begin with the back-lit exposure and then copy it onto another exposure. I take the best from that second exposure capturing what the original exposure is missing. I do this with each exposure, sometime decreasing or increasing file information. 

I should take a moment to note that many cameras and lenses offer image stabilization. The stabilization causes the elements in the photograph to move incrementally to adjust for any instability in the camera. If stabilization and auto focus are not turned off, the different exposures often do not line up when each image is layered on top of each other. It’s a tedious and sometimes impossible task to line them up—reshooting tends to be an easier solution.

This method of photography and post processing allows me to take the best from each exposure to create a stellar image of our artifacts, outside of the gallery lighting that exists.  Here’s the final product.

You can see more of my photography through our GO FLIGHT Photo project.

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