Today we’re joyously announcing the second installment of SmugMug Films with a spotlight on heart-racing aviation photographer Jessica Ambats. Watch it now and subscribe to get first access to future episodes.
A love of flying led Jessica Ambats to an editorial job with an aviation magazine, Pilot Getaways. The publication required air-to-air shoots, and after tagging along a few times, she was hooked. Jessica learned how to direct her own air-to-air shoots and eventually became a pilot herself, sharing her love of the sky and everything that flies through it with fellow aviators and friends. She also works as editor of Plane & Pilot magazine.
Starting with air-to-air photography seems like a big leap to take.
I’ve always been fascinated by photography for as long as I can remember, but I never had any formal training. My first official introduction to aviation photography was through the International Society for Aviation Photography. They have a meeting every year, and I was able to attend one. I’d always been interested in photography and aviation, but it hadn’t really occurred to me to put the two together. Listening to speakers at the meeting was an eye-opener for me. I then worked at Pilot Getaways magazine, where I got to join their shoots and learn the ropes that way. I’ve also been fortunate to have a great mentor, photographer Russell Munson, who has encouraged me every step of the way.
Has your process changed much since then?
Over the years I’ve refined how I do things. I’ve learned how to be more directive, because you need to constantly give the pilots positioning instructions. And I’ve gotten a lot pickier about everything: the timing of the shoot, the background, and so on. Whereas in the very beginning, I was just excited to go up in an airplane and take pictures, and I didn’t focus on the small—but important—details.
Has your own training as a pilot helped improve your ability to direct in-flight composition?
Being a pilot and taking a formation-flying course helps because it gives me a firsthand understanding of the flight dynamics. This is useful when positioning my subject planes. Also, when planning the shoot, it gives greater understanding of the logistics, such as airspace restrictions, appropriate altitudes, and ATC [air-traffic control] coordination.
How do you position the subject planes?
I talk to them directly over the radio, or I relay my instructions through my pilot via the intercom. My positioning instructions are measured in feet, such as “ten feet higher” or “twenty feet back.” Sometimes I’ll also use hand signals, but in general I prefer to keep my hands steady on the camera.
You’re telling pilots to fly ten feet one way or another, which is probably very tough to do.
A movement of ten feet exactly is really hard to judge. So what I’ll do is give the first command: ten feet higher. And then I’ll watch what they do. Whatever they do, I make a mental note of what they are using as ten feet. Then I calibrate based on that.
The pilots I work with are highly experienced in formation flying, so they’re used to small adjustments. They can focus on a particular part of the photoship (the plane I shoot from) and then move their line of sight relative to that.
Air-to-air photography is a team effort and the pilots make all the difference in a safe and successful shoot.
How close do the planes fly?
Distances range from around 20 to 150 feet. I’ll move the subject planes farther out or closer in depending on the composition I’m trying to create.
You’ve got all this coordination between pilots, planes, and air-traffic control. Do you also have to coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration?
No. And depending on the airspace, we may not even need to talk to ATC. There’s no special clearance required for a photo flight. You fly within the same regulations as a standard flight.
In congested areas with controlled airspace, like Las Vegas, we coordinate in advance with ATC. We’ll also give a head’s up to local helicopter companies as well as law enforcement. They’ve gotten calls saying, “Hey, two planes are chasing each other over the Strip.” We want to do as much advance coordination as possible before shooting in a high-visibility area.
Could you walk us through your typical shoot process?
I’ll first pick a location. For the SmugMug shoot in the SmugMug Film video, it was the Bay Area. Then, I’ll plan a flight route. In the Bay Area, you can make a nice loop over Alcatraz Island, the San Francisco skyline, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Next is the hardest part of everything: scheduling a date that works for everyone. Coordinating multiple pilots, airplanes, and the weather is not easy!
Once a date is set, I’ll calculate the exact timing for everything. I’ll look up sunset times and work backward from there: What time do we want to be over the bridge? What time do we need to depart our airport to be there? What time do we need to arrive at the airport to brief and set up cameras?
As the shoot gets closer, I’ll start checking the weather forecast constantly. The day prior to the morning of, we’ll make a final go/no-go decision. If the weather looks iffy or bad, we’ll postpone it. If it looks good, that’s a go, and we’ll all meet for a pilot brief.
During the brief, we’ll cover the specifics of the flight, including takeoff/landing procedures, frequencies, altitudes, airspeeds, photo maneuvers, and emergency procedures. I’ll discuss the shots I’d like to get and review my positioning terminology.
On the ramp, we’ll configure the photoship. My pilot will remove the doors, and I’ll set up my gear. I’ll put my harness on, and we’ll launch.
In the footage you had a spare camera in your lap. You don’t try to change lenses once you’re up in the air, right?
No, that would be a bad idea. You don’t want anything loose. I would not want to drop a lens for sure! And there’s so much airflow that it can’t be good for the camera sensor. I’ll take two cameras, with two different lenses.
On photo flights, do you use any cameras besides your Canon DSLRs?
In addition to my beloved GoPros (which I mount in various spots on each airplane), I’ve been wearing Google Glass while on photo flights. I record video and take photos with Glass, but I would like to find a way to do live hangouts during photo flights so others can join in on the experience!
Do you have any tips or tricks for how you maintain your focus in such a chaotic, loud environment?
My mental focus, or the camera focus?
Mental focus comes instinctively. It’s a very intense environment. Everything happens quickly, so there’s a lot going on. You’re sitting in an open door, which can be pretty uncomfortable, cold, noisy, and bumpy.
For example, I did a shoot over the Hollywood sign with three jets that was very challenging. We flew orbits in front of the sign, and I only had a small amount of time during each orbit to get the shot. In that time I had to position three airplanes relative to each other, and then line them up with the sign, too. I have to be entirely focused on what I’m doing during the flight or I will miss the shot.
With the camera itself, I try to be really, really steady holding it. I stay out of the airstream and focus on the subject. I also use image-stabilized lenses, like Canon’s 24-105 and 70-200.
The flights are pretty intense. I’m usually completely exhausted afterward. Mentally and physically exhausted.
Are there any flights that are particularly memorable for you?
One that comes to mind was over New York City, where I’m from. It was a complicated shoot of four privately owned Citation jets and a P-51 Mustang warbird from WWII. So we had six airplanes, including the photoship I was in, flying down the Hudson, circling over the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks. As a kid growing up in Manhattan, I always looked up at airplanes as they were flying and never imagined that I’d be in one taking photos.
You mentioned that you prefer sunset flights to sunrise. Any reason why?
I’m not a morning person! And sunrise shoots in general are harder on everyone. I want to be shooting over the location at the very first light, so that means getting up way before sunrise to meet, brief, get the airplanes ready, set up my gear, take off, and fly to the location. And then the sun comes up. It can be a little brutal when I have a sunrise photo flight the morning after a sunset shoot.
But the main reason I like sunset better is that, as I usually launch an hour before sunset, the light just keeps getting better and better. You’re working into the good light. Everything gets more tuned. But at sunrise, the very start of the shoot is the best light, and it just gets worse from there. I always feel like I run out of good light really quickly in the mornings.
That said, the air is usually so calm in the mornings, and you have a great feeling that you’ve got the whole sky to yourself. It’s always worth the effort.
Do you have a favorite aircraft to shoot?
I like them all! I do. It was a real treat when I shot the Blue Angels from one of their F-18 fighter jets, but I love shooting everything from a little Piper Cub, which is a two-seat light aircraft, to a larger business jet. They all have different challenges.
On one of my Blue Angels shoots, I was in their two-seat F-18 for formation aerobatics. Their routines are intense with strong, sustained G-forces. It can be physically hard to hold the camera up while pulling Gs. I learned pretty quickly to position my camera before each maneuver started. It’s also challenging to shoot through a canopy, which may have scratches, reflections, and glare.
Any advice for those who might want to pursue a similar path?
Safety, safety, safety. Make sure you’re with experienced formation pilots; otherwise, don’t do it. It’s not the kind of shooting I would encourage anyone to just wake up one day and go do. Spend time in aviation environments first. A good place to start is at an airshow where you’ll have lots of great ground-to-air photo ops and you’ll meet other aviation photographers.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love to be in the air! There’s a great saying: “To most people, the sky is the limit. To those that love aviation, the sky is home.”
Find Jessica online:
Photo credit: David Farr
Our next live webinar is designed to help busy people like you tame that photo mess and get your memories archived safely online. In one hour, you’ll learn how to go from a cluttered shoebox to a gorgeous, safe and secure website that you’ll be proud to show off to friends and family.
This basic webinar is perfect for those of you still looking for a place to keep your photos, or if you already have a SmugMug site and haven’t figured out how to get your site organized in a way that makes sense.
When: Thursday, January 30th, 2014
Time: 8:00 PM Eastern Time (5:00 PM Pacific)
How: Register now!
If you can’t make it, no sweat: We archive our webinars for easy viewing at any time. Subscribe to our video tutorials on YouTube.
Are you ready to take control of your photos again? See you there!
Holy moly, SmugMug fans! Because of your amazing support, SmugMug’s been picked as a finalist for the 2013 Crunchies Awards.
Pinch us, it’s real!
We’ve been bootstrapped for 11 years with millions of customers and billions of happy photos. Would you help us take it all the way and become the “Best Bootstrapped Startup” of 2013? If you think we are and want to make your photos proud, we’d love to have your votes again.
- Simply visit the Crunchies site and start voting now! You can vote once a day through 11:59pm PST, Sunday, January 26, 2014.
SmugMug’s always been known for support, but your votes have shown us what “support” really means. Thank you for all that you’ve given us over the years: your comments, your shares, your likes, your stories, your ideas, and above all the glaring hard truth when we needed it most. We’d never have made it this far without you.
Today marks the release of our first installment of SmugMug Films with a spotlight on creative portrait photographer Benjamin Von Wong. Watch it now and subscribe to get first access to future episodes:
Two years ago, Montreal/Toronto-based photographer Benjamin Wong was a mining engineer who took pictures on the side. In 2012, he quit his engineering career and threw himself into photography full time. He’s now an award-winning photographer admired for his “epic, surreal, fantasy storytelling.” Today with the official launch of Ben’s spotlight in SmugMug Films, he’s shared more details about himself, his background, and exactly how he crafted those exquisite angel wings.
1. How did you get your start in photography?
I had a job at a mine in Nevada (USA) when my girlfriend at the time broke up with me. I figured if I didn’t find a hobby, I’d go crazy. The idea to take pictures of the stars came to me, so I went to Walmart and bought my first point-and-shoot camera. I didn’t do very well, so the next chance I had, I drove to the next city over and bought my first DSLR.
I brought that camera around to everything. But the first time I got paid to shoot an event was a very significant part of my mentality shift.
Another photographer asked whether I would be interested in shooting an event for pharmaceutical students. It was $250 for five hours of shooting. At the time, I wasn’t actually geared up for shooting events. I had an 18-200. I borrowed a flash from a friend. I basically had a flash, a slow zoom lens, and a model clause to make myself look more professional.
At the end of the day, what was special about this event was my realization that I could earn money doing what I love. And that’s when I really got into it. I bought a bunch of new equipment. Got business cards made right away.
Shooting events was fun, but it wasn’t a passion, so I quit the events business and launched myself into creative portraiture. My creative portraiture grew, and I started the Von Wong brand in 2010. The next biggest transition was when I quit my day job. I woke up one morning and said I know I’m not going to do engineering for the rest of my life. So in 2012, I quit. Having the financial support of my mining engineering career helped me make that leap.
2. How has your photography changed since you first started?
Shortly after I picked up my first camera, I started a 365 project and planned to take a picture a day for an entire year. But instead of doing self-portraits, I wanted to take portraits of other people. The motivation behind the project was to grow and learn, but I soon realized I didn’t have time. I was working 10 hours a day at my engineering job. Every day I’d get up, go to work, spend the day thinking about a concept, get home, set up my lights, eat, shoot the concept, edit it, and post it. I’d be up until 2 or 3 in the morning, then I’d have to go to work the next day. It was exhausting. I set a milestone for myself of 100 days, and when I hit it, I shifted gears toward doing larger productions. I started putting more emphasis into cool locations and people, and making each shoot really count.
3. How do you choose your locations and find help for these large productions?
I travel for people, not places. I stay on people’s sofas and do what they do, so I connect with the people.
And I pull together resources significantly from social media. As I’ve invested in meeting my fans and giving back to them, that’s grown into a powerhouse in the sense that I can go to any country in the world, say, “Hey guys, I’m in town, let’s hang out,” and most of the time someone replies.
I usually go to a place with a certain intention or starting point, and it grows. I have a spark of inspiration—location, a model, a cool studio, a performer — there’s always one single point around which everything ignites and from that point forward, everything else needs to be found. Someone knows some place who knows something. It’s about staying open to possibilities and opportunities.
The fallen angel shoot I did with you guys is a great example of this. I was actually looking for an opportunity to go on vacation, and Kelly Zak had reached out to me through Facebook for a critique — and we ended up chatting about shoot ideas. I said I’ve always wanted to create a fallen angel, and she said, “If you come to Florida, there’s fallen angels for you!” I figured I better get on a flight.
Right before Florida, I’d been traveling around a lot. Kelly was caught up with school work. So when I landed, we didn’t have much planned, so we went scouting right away. The first place she drove me to was this amazing, magical-looking forest. Which is funny because for the Floridians it’s probably the most common tree they have, a Spanish oak tree, I think. For me, it was so magical.
Given the beauty of the location, I thought, “Why don’t we increase the concept?” Have two fallen angels, and a bunch of mystical creatures. One thing led to another, and Kelly started enlisting classmates in the film school. We had costume designers, makeup artists. I started asking fans through social media if they’d like to be a part of it. And the whole thing took off from there.
We pulled this entire shoot together in about eight days. We had a good time, and we basically became a family for about a week.
4. How did you make those fantastic wings in so short a time?
The wings were made out of a type of plastic you use for packaging. We just cut it up and layered it. The broken wings were filed down using razor blades. Then we took charcoal and blackened the edges, each wing tip individually. The whole thing was put together using hot glue. Kelly did the research, looking up cosplay tutorials on how people would strap on wings. Since I wanted the angels to be topless, this meant they couldn’t wear a harness or anything. So they had to come up with a creative solution, which ended up being clear bra straps.
5. What are some of your best in-front-of-the-lens tips for special effects?
Birthday sparklers for light trails. Flour for snow. Smoke bombs for portable smoke. Cloth/Vaseline on the lens to create foreground texture in your image. Water guns for portable rain. That’s all I can think of off the top of my head!
6. You attribute a lot of your success to having a great social network and being able to find what you need within it. How were you able to build such a vast network?
Slowly but surely. That’s really what I did. There’s no big success trick other than continuously uploading content.
Before I was doing behind-the-scenes blog posts, I was posting a new photo every day while I had my day job. Day after day of putting out new content. And my shoots are extremely social in the sense that people like to hang out and be a part of them. So at the end of the day, I would always tag all the people who got involved, which helped disseminate information. Then add on the behind-the-scenes videos and that’s ongoing social-media exposure. After I quit my job and traveled for a couple months, I started building my international exposure, which allowed me to start feeding my blog. Every week I would put out a new blog post. Lots and lots of work. I started doing workshops and speaking engagements. Any time somebody asked to do an interview, I would do it. Really just nonstop trying to build this network.
There was no massive unannounced peak—no surprise where it felt like okay, I’ve made it, and it started snowballing. It’s always been very consistent growth. And the minute I stop posting, the minute I stop sharing, then everything stops.
7. What social channels have been the most successful for you?
Facebook, hands down. I use Twitter. YouTube is the best for videos. I’ve used Flickr. I’ve used all of those, but I don’t think anything’s really come out of those channels. It’s really been Facebook for me.
8. You are very involved with all aspects of your shoots. How do you find time to do all the social outreach as well?
I think people overestimate the amount of time I spend on the computer editing. I think I spend on average only ten to twenty hours of editing a week. A bulk of the effort that’s allocated to a shoot really takes place in the preproduction, production and social aspects of it. The actual shoot and postproduction becomes just a single step on the way.I work so much through collaborations, and I came to the conclusion that if I wasn’t going to be making a video, if I wasn’t going to be making a blog post, then I wouldn’t be giving back what people were giving to me. If I wanted people to look at that work and broaden its reach, it was worth it to do big, elaborate projects but fewer of them as opposed to many small projects that wouldn’t have all that extra media support. A lot of effort goes into making an interesting blog post or following up with the creative content.
9. Has the social reach of your shoots ever surprised you?
Yes, a shoot that I did last year. In September, my agent, Suzy Johnston + Associates, received an e-mail from a woman who was terminally ill, asking if there was any possibility of getting a photoshoot and if I’d be able to photograph her in a way that made her feel beautiful and healthy.
I was leaving in a few weeks to go to Seattle for creativeLive, and she was on a time clock because with each passing week she was getting weaker and more frail. We had to make it work quickly. I gave her a call the next day, and in about 10 days we got makeup, hair, and location together. It was her first photoshoot ever.
Afterward, I wrote a blog post about it. I really wrote it more for her than for anybody else. I wanted to create a nice little memory for her. The Internet picked it up, and it became one of my more popular posts of the year, which was, for me, a very big surprise.
Through this experience, what really struck me was that I could not only inspire, and teach about the process, but on top of that, I could create images that matter, that can touch people. These images were created to bring my fan’s dreams to life, but I felt so alive, too. Doing something that matters makes all the difference. That’s something I would like to incorporate more in my work this year.
10. Have you ever been stumped for inspiration?
It happens to me just as much as it happens to anyone. You can’t always be inspired. You have to keep growing and putting things together even when not inspired, so make plans and follow through with them. Do I always feel inspired? No, but setting the wheels in motion and filling the time when nothing is happening, that’s important. Give yourself something to do.
11. What advice would you give to a photographer who was just getting started?
In the artistic and creative world, the biggest thing you have to fear is yourself. If you stop feeling inspired or you stop feeling motivated to do whatever it is you’ve decided to do, then you’re going to lose ground, you’re going to lose traction. No matter how great your business plan is, if you don’t want to do it anymore, everything will come crashing down.
My relative success has been a combination of the journey, the sharing, the inspiration, and the work, but not any one thing would have made it go as far as it has. You really have to make sure you love what you do. No one wants “mediocre.” They don’t want a Jack of all trades. They want “special.” They want the “best” at one single thing. And the only way you can be the best is to love what you do.
You only have one life. Make the most of it.
Find Ben online:
One of the requests we’ve heard time and time again from you over the years was the ability to visually organize all of your photos and galleries from one screen. So that’s what we did in the New SmugMug, and we keep hearing from Smuggers using the new site-wide organizer just how essential it is to their everyday workflow.
Whether or not you believe in making resolutions at the New Year, we think it’s worth it to try and be more organized, no matter when. More time, less digging, easier path to your favorite memories – What’s not to love?
New SmugMug gives you 5 layers of organization, too, which means you can sort your photo up to 7 layers deep. That’s a lot of trips! (and weddings, and soccer games, and…)
Without further ado, here are the 4 best reasons why you should try out the Organizer and how it’s a ginormous step up over the Legacy way of doing things. And since we’re intent on sharing tips, there’s a few of those thrown in to help you find your way around, too.
P.S. Are you still using Legacy SmugMug and want to try the new Organizer? Get started now by migrating your account, or read our FAQ for answers to the most common questions longtime SmugMuggers have asked.
In the last year we’ve put out a lot of posts on this blog: product announcements, tutorials on taking better photos, tips to make more moolah and articles on how to get the most out of SmugMug.
So in case you weren’t glued to every moment we typed here, we’re sharing one last chance to catch your top 5 favorite articles that you may not have seen:
1) 5 Lies Your Camera Likes to Tell
2) How to Make a Photo Blog
3) The Save Photo Reminder
4) 5 Killer Locations for Your Portrait Sessions
5) Guide Your Guests to the Gold
Why confuse your site visitors? We picked some of the best examples of beautiful, easy-to-navigate sites on SmugMug and show you just why they work so well. Read more >>
And since we’re talking about recaps, it only makes sense to share the “top” five of the more subtle articles that deserve a second round in the spotlight! Here they are:
1) How to Succeed in the Business of Love
2) Why Events Are Best for Your Business
If you’re a pro with a Business account, Events are our #1 favorite tool that you probably don’t know about. Here’s why they work, what your customer will see, and some tried-and-true suggestions for integrating them into your portrait and wedding workflow. Read more >>
3) 5 Things Your Client Needs to Hear
Are your subjects happy? Confused? Confident in your ability to get the shot? Here are our pros’ top tips on what to tell your models so that you have a successful photo shoot… and they have a great time, too. Read more >>
4) How to Make your Visitors Feel at Home
Having a great website is more than just throwing some photos up on the web. Here are our suggestions for creating a helpful, pleasant experience for the people who browse your site. Clients, too! Read more >>
5) How to Organize a Photo Walk
Our photo-fiend-friend Scott Jarvie is known for his ability to rally local photographers to get up and get out shooting! If you’d like to take action and inspire your photo-neighbors to go snapping with you, here’s a few planning tips to get you on your way. Read more >>
We hope you have a safe, warm, happy and thoroughly joyous holiday!
Many of you told us that the full-screen homepage slideshow was essential to your website. We’ve got something new we think you’ll love: A full-screen slideshow for your pages and galleries!
How does it work?
We’ve added a brand-new background tab to your site customization, which means you can easily add a single image, a series of single images or a slideshow as the background of your homepage.
Additionally, Power, Portfolio and Business users can add unique backgrounds to other pages on their site: Folders, Galleries and Pages. This background sits behind the other content blocks that you’ve added on the page, exactly the same way that a color, texture, or graphic added from the Theme tab currently does.
How do I get started?
1) Open up your Customization and look for the new “Background” tab in the Customize panel.
2) Choose where your new background will show. By default, your ‘background’ will be inherited from your entire site but you can display something across every page on your entire site, have it live just on your homepage, or make it appear on every single Folder or gallery page.
3) Choose the background type. To add a full-screen slideshow to your homepage, open up the drop down menu to choose the Slideshow option. Be sure the “Homepage” location is selected, too:
Note: Choosing “None” will evert your background to whatever is set in your Theme.
4) Save your new goodies by Publishing your changes. That’s it!
Can I customize those slideshow options?
Of course! You can set:
- your images
- playback speed
- transition type and speed
- a splash image to be used to entertain your viewers while the full slideshow loads
What else can I do with the new Background tab?
You’re not just limited to slideshows. Choose the “Photo” option to add an edge-to-edge photo to the background. We recommend setting it so that your visitors see a new image each time they visit your site!
To do this, create a gallery of background images, or select photos from several different galleries on your site. Opting to change the photo “every visit” gives your site a fresh new look each time your fan comes back.
Tip: Be sure that your selection of images play well with your text colors!
Is there anything I should watch out for?
These background images sit behind all of the content blocks on the pages to which that you add them. They will lie under your navigation menus, Galleries Blocks, Text Blocks, and so on. To avoid a completely cluttered experience, we recommend that you remove existing content blocks from your page if the slideshow is the focus of that page.
Is it available on MY SmugMug account?
Yes! Once again, all SmugMug users will be able to add background images or slideshows to their homepage. Power, Portfolio and Business accounts (levels that include additional customization options) will also be able to change the background content on any page on their site.
Where can I learn more about the new Background options?
If you still have questions about this feature, our brand new help page is there to help you. So are our Support Heroes!
So sit back, enjoy the (slide)show, and let us know what you think in the comments below. Don’t forget to share what you’re designing, too, as part of our ongoing Show Us Your SmugMug contest.
Did you know that SmugMug has a separate Sorcery blog? From time to time our Engineers will take you behind-the-scenes of something we’ve just built, or share some of the valuable insights we’ve had while investigating a particularly tricky fix. If you’re interested in the technical nuts and bolts of what powers our site or if you just want to hear what’s making our hearts beat a little faster, check it out! Their latest post deep-dives into The Phantom Renderer, or “how to make sure SEO works in the new SmugMug.”
Originally posted on SmugMug Sorcery:
Possible solutions were thrown around: do we duplicate our code in PHP? Use an artificial DOM? What about PhantomJS? Duplicating code would be a monumental effort and a continued burden when writing new features. Initial tests of fake/artificial DOMs proved unreliable. A small prototype Node.js web server that hooked into PhantomJS proved promising. Node.js’ async model would be perfect for handling things that wait for I/O like rendering webpages. We came up with the project name ‘The Phantom Renderer’ soon after.
I spent a few days whipping up a prototype proxy server to test with that worked like so:
- Node.js web server accepts a…
View original 1,149 more words