“There I was at 30,000 feet with machine guns blazing…” Okay so that’s not true, but the flight was still incredible. The B-25 Mitchell was a medium bomber used during World War II. The early model B-25B was known for the Doolittle Raid which quickly put Japan on notice after they had attacked Pearl Harbor. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle trained pilots and led this daring raid on April 18, 1942. Sixteen B-25B’s flew from a carrier deck on a one-way bombing mission directly over Tokyo.
The B-25J Miss Mitchell is a later model that is one of about 40 still flying and when I learned that she would be offering rides near me I had to take advantage of this limited opportunity.
Research prior to the opportunity
My first step was to call a photojournalist friend who had flown on a B-17 and B-24 and I asked him some questions. Would I be able to move around to take photos? How long would the flight be? Is it worth it? His answer was “Yes” and that I should definitely go.
This flight would be a personal photo project for me. Having been an aviation enthusiast my whole life, I knew quite a bit already about the B-25. My father had served in WWII and this was his favorite airplane from that era. I know that he would have taken the opportunity to fly on this aircraft in his lifetime if he could have. So during this flight, I would be thinking about him and how intense this must have been to be 18 or 19 years old and flying off to battle.
I wanted to create images tailored to the subject and the history related to it.
The old saying goes, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” or in this case fly in it.
Reading up on the interior of this aircraft, I started thinking about where the best vantage points would be. The final images would be black and white to give a dramatic feel. I also knew that I wanted to carry a minimal equipment with fewer distractions during the flight. Then, I also taped down the lens hood so that it would not come loose.
Taking the photos
I don’t photograph using HDR often, but as a photographer, you should be able to use a variety of techniques. High Dynamic Range (HDR) was the best option because of the wide exposure range of the scene. The dark interior of a military aircraft and bright sunlight outside during the flight would prove challenging if I did not do something to compensate. Fill flash would decrease that exposure range and it was certainly one alternative, but flash is not the look that I wanted for this personal photo assignment.
I made the decision to use auto exposure bracketing (AEB). I took some test images to help me find the number of images that it would take for each sequence and the amount of exposure difference between each frame. Those test images were taken inside a car with a black interior in my driveway, at approximately the same time of day as the flight would be.
Neighbors were questioning my sanity as I took these test photos with the windows rolled up on a hot day. But the end results would be worth any questionable looks. I decided that brackets consisting of three frames for each image at -2, 0, and +2 would give me the look that I was going for. By shooting in high-speed continuous mode this would be a short burst of images that would later be combined into one.
After some additional research looking at images of propeller driven aircraft, I chose a shutter speed of 1/90th or slower to blur the props sufficiently. I wanted these images to convey a sense of motion when a viewer looks at them. These decisions were made before the flight, but there were others that would be made during the flight itself. For example, the ISO would be variable depending on the lighting conditions.
Flight Day was almost here and realizing over the final week that the B-25 was separated into a Forward Compartment and an Aft Compartment I had to consider both before the flight. I knew that the best photo opportunities would be riding with the pilots and gaining entry to the plexiglass nose section. The pilots would make the final decision about who rides where after our flight briefing. So not wanting to leave that selection to chance, I hand wrote on a blank business card “Cockpit Access – definitely legit” and I drew a “Kilroy Was Here” cartoon on it as well. Would it get me access to the Forward Compartment?
We got there very early the day of the flight and I gave my handmade card to the pilot, who got a good laugh out of it. Long story short- I did fly up front. One of the other passengers that showed up early told us that his father was a top turret gunner on a B-25 during WWII so that’s why he wanted to fly on this aircraft. He was also chosen to ride up front.
Inside the plane
This aircraft was incredibly noisy with the massive radial engines so close and directly on either side of us. We all wore headsets to listen to the pilot and co-pilot, but their concentration was primarily on flying the aircraft, as it should be. There was not much sightseeing chatter but they would keep tabs on our time (we had approximately 6 minutes to switch between interior seating locations after we took off). Starting out in a small jump seat for the takeoff and I was the first one into the nose or gunner/bombardier position. Sliding on my back pulling hand over hand on the railing through a tunnel (with my camera on my chest) to get into the nose just as the pilots had briefed us during the preflight.
Wow! What a great view! I did not expect how isolated it would be though, as the pilots could not be seen from there. I shot as many photos as I could, looking around as much as possible until I heard the pilot inform me that it was time to switch. Back through the tunnel, I then moved to the seat behind the pilot. It was a tight squeeze trading places and grabbing a quick photo as the next person slid through the tunnel for his turn up front.
The seat behind the pilot had a great view also but there was no air coming in from anywhere and it was getting a bit warm, especially since we had on flight suits. The pilot and co-pilot traded off who had their hands on the yoke as they shared flying duties. We were banking and circling over downtown Savannah. Firing off frames 3 at a time, still using auto exposure bracketing, carrying only one camera and one lens to minimize what I needed to keep track of turned out to be a good decision for me on this flight. The experience was a bit overwhelming, so in this case, less equipment resulted in better photos.
Time to switch seating positions again and the new view was from behind the co-pilot. We banked the opposite direction and flew over the Talmadge Bridge which is the big landmark here that I was hoping to see “in our sights”. I fired off numerous frames as we passed over it. Taking as many photos as possible I realized that I was now getting close to having my card full. Preflight photos were on a separate card which was in my bag on the ground. I started out the flight with a fresh card and was not carrying a spare because I didn’t want to risk losing a card that would have images on it. Everything was going according to plan even though I had to be more selective with my photos until we landed.
We turned and headed back to the airport. I was busy taking photos so we either greased the landing or I just didn’t notice it. It seemed smooth to me and we taxied back to where we had started. We then realized how hot it was and we were all soaking in our flight suits. I had carried a photo of my father in my shirt pocket. The flight was awesome.
Workflow – image processing
You can recreate the look of these images by using the following steps.
The first step in processing is to download the images. Everyone has their own workflow and mine starts with Phase One Media Pro for initial capture and review. Download the image files and batch rename all of them. I like using this software because of the catalog function, and the crispness and clarity of the images when they are previewed. The View in Light Table feature lets you compare images side by side, to see which ones are really the sharpest.
Adobe Photoshop can be used to add metadata to all images such as captions and keywords to help in any future image searches. Additional metadata can always be added later to individual images with more specific details if needed. For this particular assignment, I created full resolution jpegs from the RAW files. Once that was done, I began selecting the “Best of” images because those were the only ones that I would continue to edit.
For the HDR step, I loaded each set of bracketed jpeg images into Photomatix Pro to combine them (alternately you can use Lightroom’s merge to HDR function). There are many presets available with this software and tutorials elsewhere so I won’t go into detail on that, I will just tell you what presets I used.
In the Preprocessing options, I chose Align Source Images and Crop Aligned Images. For the Processing part, I chose the Exposure Fusion Natural preset on most of the images and saved those merged HDRs as TIF files. The Natural preset gave a good contrast that would allow my final images to have detail both inside the aircraft and outside in the bright sunlight. I did not make any other adjustments in Photomatix Pro but you can experiment and select from many options. Could I have done more post-processing in this app? Absolutely, but I already had a plan in place to use Photoshop for that.
Converting to Black and White
When I took my test images and got the look that I wanted, I created a Photoshop Action for the black and white conversion. The advantage of creating an Action is that you can get easily repeatable results.
After opening the merged TIF image in Photoshop, these are the steps used to create the action:
- Create a duplicate layer (leaving the original layer untouched).
- Convert the duplicate layer to a Smart Object.
- Under Filter select Camera RAW Filter.
The magic happens at this point, and the following adjustments were made for each image:
- Basic Exposure: -10, -10, 0, +28, -30, +35, 0, 0, +30
- Tone Curve: 83, 96 (midtones); 192, 196 (highlights)
- HSL/Grayscale: convert to Grayscale -4, +25, +25, -4, +28, +9, +15, +4
- Split Toning: 0, 5, 0, 39, 8
- Effects: Post-crop Vignette – Highlight Priority, -7, 50, 0, 50, 0
Click OK when you are done and save a version as a PSD file. You can always return to this PSD file and make further adjustments to the Camera Raw Filter because it is a Smart Object. Flatten the image and save a version as a full-sized jpeg.
What would your ideal assignment be? Please share in the comments below.