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Air to Air digital compositing

Air to Air Digital Compositing

Sometimes you just don’t get the opportunity to get all the planes you need for a feature shot in the air at the same time, and same airspace, be it due to weather, lack of formation rated pilots, where an aircraft has unexpected down time for safety, and so you may end up with shots from the ground, or air to air with them separately.

You don’t have to keep those separate shoots apart if you keep elements of perspective, lighting and for this industry, sensible mindfulness of what to expect from aircraft in formation. This can be as simple as ensuring you don’t Photoshop aircraft so close that their props would be damaging the other aircraft in formation, to ensuring you don’t pretend an F-18F SuperHornet can fly slow enough to formate with a Tiger Moth.

Before I begin, I’ll explain the background of the image I’m compositing. We’ll use some of our archive images to illustrate a Mitsubishi Zero trying to escape from use of a WWII tactic still taught in dogfighting schools today.

While the Thach Weave  (also known as a Beam Defense Position) is an aerial combat tactic developed by naval aviator John S. Thach of the United States Navy, first used in 1942 as a defensive tactic for the under-powered Grumman Wildcats, it proved so effective that it was soon taught to fighter pilots of the rest of the US Navy, and to the USAAF. The below graphic explains the basic version of the weave, where the faster aggressor aircraft (in red) tries to fire on the Wildcat on the left and follows it through to the right side of the weave and then right into the line of fire of the second Wildcat doing the reverse side of the weave, which forces it to dive and allows the allied fighters to chase it (which is where out image concept appears).


Source images for the below composite were all shot on a Nikon D4S with the superb Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens at the 2014 EAA Oshkosh with just the Texas Flying Legends Museum Mitsubishi Zero and FG-1D Corsair (duplicated)


Layers used here, top to bottom.

Layer three is only the spin of the Corsair prop. Images were shot at higher speed than my usual air to air due to the focal length (600mm) leading to the dreaded ‘mid-air emergency prop’ appearance.
It’s basically just created via making an oval path to match the yellow prop tips, making a new layer, adding an inside stroke of the pixel count to match the size of the prop tip stripe, then fill the rest with black. Select what you have on that layer, then make a mask of it. Then feather three matching deselections of that in the mask and brush it out.

Layer two is the Corsair on the left and it’s masked so that the props can be brushed out non-destructively.

If you’ve been deep-etching via using eraser you’ve possibly already encountered the hassle of losing pixels from part of an image and noticing well after the maximum number of [undo] can be backed up. Use the masking tool instead, because you can always brush in or brush out details later if you decide you’ve got to retail a detail rather than cut it out. The screenshot below shows how you can create a mask. I selected the pixels around the aircraft with magic wand tool and then clicked the mask button in the layers palette. Details can then be refined with airbrush by painting in greyscale within the mask itself. You aren’t then restricted to just black or white, but rather a gradient between the two allowing for fades of layer details.

The distant Corsair layer has been added and deep-etched via the very basic erasing of pixels around the aircraft. Selecting sky around the aircraft also selected parts of the aircraft as well and shows why I prefer to work with masking instead.

The Zero and Sky layer was the original background however simple masking out of the sky of this allowed the New Sky layer to show through from behind.

I picked a cloud top image photographed from about 30,000ft over the Pacific with a Nikon D800, 24-70mm lens, which is the only image here not at 600mm focal length however it scales to work well as the background.

Grading for these was quite basic given the three aircraft were shot from the same vantage point, in the same direction with the same light within the space of about five minutes. The background Corsair had to be lightened, and the new sky straightened.

If you want to push it one more step that aids in putting the whole feel of the shot being ‘as shot’, create a virtual copy of the PSD of your composite in Adobe Lightroom, and then work with global adjustments to give some more atmosphere to the image. Here I’ve reduced the Vibrance and softened the highlights, lifted shadows and desaturated the yellows and oranges, before adding Split Toning to the finished shot. Split Toning lets you warm or cool (tint) the highlights and shadows separately, so I’ve warmed the highlights to give more afternoon glow, and cooled the shadows. A Gradient filter is used to warm the cloud layer further and to push the colour depth.

Finally, adding a little bit of grain and a Post-Crop Vignette just applies a little bit of vintage lens appearance and the image is then complete.

Here’s the final image with the extra grading completed. Click through the image for the HD version.


For static works you often find far more complexity in trying to match hues and tones of background subjects to the foreground. Deep etching this Buchon wasn’t the part of this piece that took the longest, rather getting the blend of foreground to background grass to match and for the perspective of elements to match. The aircraft was shot in Oshkosh Wisconsin in front of a crowded carpark with shops behind the cars. It had a new background dropped in from the HARS Museum and airport in Illawarra, New South Wales.

Surf Life Saving Queensland’s Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter Service

The Eurocopter EC135 ‘Livesaver 45’ photographed for Surf Life Saving Queensland.

Surf Life Saving Queensland‘s Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter Service is one of the oldest community-based helicopter rescue services in the world.

Key roles performed include:
Sea-based search and rescue, delivered through coastal surveillance patrols;
Land search and rescue;
Fire service support;
Winch rescues and Australian Search and Rescue (AusSAR) tasks;
Disaster response deployment when required.
You can support this service via the following link: https://heroix-au.everydayhero.com/charities/3688/donate
or book a place at the fundraiser lunch in October: https://www.highflyersclub.com.au  
More info for the EC135 (now known as the Airbus H135) available here.

Boeing EA-18G Growler

Boeing EA-18G Growlers arrive at RAAF Amberley.

Inclement weather this morning affected any opportunity for quality flypast photo-ops, but VIPs welcoming the arrival of the new Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft to RAAF Base Amberley included the Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, together with Air Vice Marshal Steven Roberton, Air Commander Australia, and president of Boeing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific, Maureen Dougherty.

Minister Payne said the arrival of the Growler provides a potent and technologically advanced new capability for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). “We are the only country outside the United States operating the EA-18G Growler and the full fleet arrival represents a significant leap forward in joint electronic warfare capability,” Minister Payne said.
“This is an amazing achievement for the ADF. These aircraft are able to support the full spectrum of Defence missions, including operations with coalition partners. The EA-18G Growlers will work with Army and Navy to deliver a networked joint force able to manoeuvre and fight in the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies said he was extremely proud of all the personnel who have worked on this project both in Australia and overseas. “The delivery of this capability shows what our Defence Force members are capable of alongside our US counterparts,” Air Marshal Davies said.
“The US Navy has been very generous in their training of our aircrew and maintenance teams, and we have cemented our reputation as credible coalition partners. Australian Growlers have already conducted successful weapon firings and integration flights with RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornets and US Navy EA-18G Growlers as part of Operational Test and Evaluation. We have also had the graduation of the first Operational Transition course.”
“Through our partnership with the US Navy we are already planning to keep Growler at the forefront of electronic attack capability throughout the life of the aircraft.

Magic Hour – why we love it

Magic hour, which realistically only lasts only a few minutes either side of sunset or sunrise has long been my favorite time of the day to capture many forms of photography. Why? Depth of colour, the fast changing hues through the sunrise or sunset, and the softness of the light all lead to options for lighting a subject that you can’t match in the middle of the day.

Air to air photography also gains from shooting at magic hour.

RetroBomb Magazine editorial

All cameras have technical limitations on dynamic range (the digital range giving details on file from pure white down through to black) which is primarily why I chose to work with the Nikon D800 as my primary day to day camera a few years back. The 14+ev range of the sensor is still hosting one of the widest dynamic ranges on the market, and when it’s a 37MP file we have a giant amount of detail to work with.

While this means it’s one of the best cameras for shooting under the harsh midday Australian sun, where I’m happiest is in the air during what we call magic hour. Having the huge dynamic range of the Nikon during magic hour means we’re getting massive amounts of shadow detail while still shooting fast enough to keep the movement of the aircraft captured sharp and without sacrificing highlight data.


RetroBomb Magazine editorial

Huge thanks to the crews at Fighter Pilot Adventure Flights for the bookings that scored us the shots on this post as we shot promo for Brisbane Valley Airshow.

Kat and FlyWaco at Archerfield

Decades – The Blue Angels

We just worked out that Jorgo flew with the Blue Angels ten years ago. It was well before GoPros and I refuse to comment on the audio track.

We’re going to hunt for the original still files to share with you soon.

Classic fun with FlyWaco

RetroBomb Magazine editorial

FlyWaco by Mt Beerwah Mark recently got to shoot air to air with FlyWaco, part of the Fighter Pilot Adventure Flights group.

While appearing to be a vintage biplane, the Waco Classic YMF-5 is a modern build and offers a seductive combination of performance, style and exclusivity. Even with this exalted pedigree, the WACO represents a new pinnacle for the marquee: it has been sharpened, refined and rethought in every detail. The result is an aircraft that offers thrilling levels of performance together with luxurious accommodation for three people.
Top Speed: 214 mph
Wingspan: 30′ 0″
Length: 23′ 10″
Built: 2001
Introduced: 1934
Unit cost: 420,000 USD
Manufacturer: Waco Classic of Michigan, USA
First flight: August 2, 1932
Number of seats: 3

The promotion shoot for FlyWaco and the Brisbane Valley Airshow last week took us over the coastline after a quick weave through the Glasshouse Mountains.
RetroBomb Magazine editorial

RetroBomb Magazine editorial RetroBomb Magazine editorial

We had previously shot FlyWaco for RetroBomb Magazine editorial.
Kat and FlyWaco at Archerfield Natarchia


Why book the pros?

It’s a common misconception that aviation photographers will fly and photograph ‘just for the ride’, and that anyone with a camera (or even a smart-phone) can produce images that are usable for advertising or publishing. Why pay?
We at Aerial Pro, aren’t just snappers, but dedicated professionals. Personally I have a few thousand hours of actual flying, with more formation time than most aircrew. I not only bring professional SLR’s to the shoot, but a wealth of experience of actual flying (even formation at night, IFR and extreme low level), photo backseating with various civilian aerobatic and warbird pilots, and military display teams, and GA pilots. We have an ‘eye’ for what looks best, and can help plan the sortie so that the look is achieved. Saving money by getting a friend to shoot it for free, actually wastes your time, money and fuel. You don’t hire a Taxi driver to race your multi-million dollar Formula 1 car.  If you want the best possible images, with the least possible risks, the smart choice is to book AerialPro for professional, safe, technically on point and artistic work. Contact us now. 

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  • Mike Jorgensen