One of the fun things about being home has been archive diving. Doing this, I have a whole round of emotions that kick in. Stupefaction, as in, “Man I shot a lot of pictures!” Horror, as in, “Holy shit, did I shoot some garbage or what?” And, occasionally, pleasant surprise, as in, “Wow, I never even looked at that picture, and it’s actually pretty good!”
When I shot the Aviation cover story for National Geographic in 2003, it was the first all-digital story in that venerable magazine’s history, and the take was ultimately incorporated into the Library of Congress. Having ones and zeros show up as pictures instead of little Kodak boxes definitely raised some eyebrows and blood pressures within the yellow border. To me, digital newbie at the time, it was no big deal. The D1X in my hands felt exactly similar to the Nikon F5 I had been shooting, except it had this cute little television on the back of it. What’s the fuss?
In January of ’03, I made a picture of the X-47A at China Lake NAS in the early hours of the morning, under a gorgeous California sunrise, mixing in some minor amounts of big flash with a whole bunch of Speedlights clipped to the undercarriage of this pilotless aircraft. It’s one of those pictures that has stuck around a bit.
In 2012, at Pax River NAS, I made another picture, this time of the X-47B, again at sunrise. This one also had a mix of flashes, and, because this aircraft had grown in size from the A series prototype, I asked a crewman to grab a flashlight and be in the pic for scale. This picture has sat on my hard drives now for nine years, and I don’t remember ever using it, or even, looking at it until I pulled it to run over on our Instagram account this weekend.
One of the reasons I might not have returned to the take is that in the darkness, Mr. Genius Thunderthumbs shifted the D3X into Jpeg fine, with no raw companion. Yep. My editor told me to batch ’em as TIFFs and shut up about it. Which I did. Until now. 🙂
Arranging, as it always does for sunrise pictures, began in blackness around 3am-ish. Position the plane, hang the lighting. Race the rising light in the east. Again, blessed with a great morning. The tow truck here pulls the plane at 3:24 am.
Shutter speed for the flash mix in pre-dawn was 1/1.6th of a second, so I was very tripod dependent. Later, as the sun came up in a ball and I had more shutter speed for a long glass shot, I used the performance aspect of the Systematic Gitzo to get a low angle and myself as a sandbag for additional stability. Definitely a job for a big, steady tripod.
These pictures are definitely cousins in the realm of the way they were lit. They also have a kinship in that Nat Geo didn’t publish either of them in the magazine.
Memories and missteps from the archive. And a long journey with a camera.