I first learned of
Peter Bowers because of news coverage
of his winning the Experimental Aircraft Associations (EAA) 1962 design contest for his single-seater
Fly Baby homebuilt airplane with its unique foldable wings. That
allowed the plane to be easily towed to and from the airport rather than needing to pay for
hangar or tiedown space. Another unique feature is its all-wood construction - including the
landing gear undercarriage. I actually bought a set of plans and construction manual for the
Fly Baby Biplane that Bowers later designed based on the Fly Baby monoplane; alas, I never
did build it. Peter Bowers was an aviation historian for Boeing Aircraft in Seattle, and as
such he was an expert in photographic methods. He was also a model airplane designer, builder,
and flyer. He revealed some of his immense knowledge in this 1957 article (which was prior
to his Fly Baby fame).
Part 1 of a 3-Part Series
By Peter M. Bowers
Bowers and file that contains 20,000-negative collection.
Airplane photograph collecting's on the upswing. Here one of the world's best known authorities
takes a positive stand on the negative question. 1st of 3 parts
Airplane picture collecting is a specialized hobby of relatively recent origin. It began
in the early 1930's, when a number of individuals interested in planes began taking pictures
and trading prints and negatives. While there has been no Amateur Aircraft Photo Exchange
since the mid-30's, the number of active participants has never been greater than now. The
"Golden Age" of the hobby was reached around 1938, when most airports and airplane factories,
as well as military bases, were wide open to the public and when the military security measures
resulting from the approach of World War II were not yet in effect.
North American P-64 is "rare" item because of few built (6), non-standard
camouflage pattern, general inaccessibility.
Background detracts from technical value of Berliner-Joyce OJ-2 photo without
adding compensating interest; collector has to accept such drawbacks or pass up shot.
Humans spoil view of Roscoe Turner's Wedell-Williams Racer as a "technical"
photo but add atmosphere when considered as an "activity" scene.
Flight views (Bowers here in Mooney Mite) add greatly to the interest of
picture but require facilities generally unavailable to average collector.
Camera angle can do much to improve a picture.
Author holds 616 overhead to improve composition of "activity" shot of
semi-final heat of 1951 continental Race.
Flight view of blue and yellow Piper PA-11 taken with Orthochromatic film.
Ground view of same color scheme taken with Panchromatic film and yellow
Distance of camera from subject has great effect on perspective and distortion.
Notice how other planes in lineup are blanked out by first Cessna L-19E in line in close-up
This is much better from collector's standpoint.
Prime subjects for all collectors are such rare and unusual aircraft as
this one-of-a-kind Loughead Alcor.
Background, lighting, and personnel combine to make this an extremely poor
technical view of WW-I Albatros D-3 but create atmosphere that is the dominant feature.
Unusual or incorrect markings on a "common" airplane increase value of
photo. This North American Harvard of RCAF has special markings on wing and tail and mismatched
wing and fuselage Insignia. Yellow filter darkens sky, lightens plane's yellow color scheme.
Solid background helps a technical view at times. Dark interior of hangar
emphasizes coloring and contour of Japanese "Tony" with Chinese insignia.
Airplane picture collecting has much in common with the universal hobby of stamp collecting
in that there is a large amount of trading carried on among individuals, the subject matter
lends itself easily to specialization, and there is the satisfaction derived from completing
a particular series or running down a long-sought "rare" item.
This three-part report will cover the three essentials to be dealt with regardless of the
degree of specialization-various photographs, classification and filing of negatives and prints.
Airplane photo collectors, as distinguished from data collectors, are divided into two
classes: negative collectors and print collectors. These articles will deal primarily with
the problems of the former.
While there are a number of photo agencies that cater exclusively to the print collector,
the negative collector's job of getting to the planes to photograph them himself is becoming
increasingly difficult. The ideal spot is the small airport where the spectator can still
come and go pretty much as he pleases. Aircraft are accessible there, and activity is such
as to permit leisurely selection and setting up of subjects.
Large municipal airports with heavy airline traffic seldom provide good hunting because
the planes are usually parked in fenced-off areas and the loading areas by the passenger terminals
are not open to spectators. Although many such fields have observation decks, they leave much
to be desired from the photographer's viewpoint. Best hunting at large airports is to be found
on the private and business flying side of the field, where access to non-airline planes is
Almost all collector-photography is done on the ground with the plane motionless. Occasional
action shots are obtained of taxiing or takeoffs and landings. Few amateurs can enjoy the
specialty of air-to-air photography, which is nothing like shooting "sitting ducks" and, involves
many problems other than mere photography. (Editor's note: mostly money.)
All aircraft have two periods of maximum interest to the collector - at their debut and
when very old and few remain. Other airplanes of continuous maximum appeal are one-only models,
specialized types such as racers, and standard models with unusual modifications or markings.
From the average collector's standpoint, however, military jobs are overall the most interesting
- but the most difficult to photograph.
First item to consider is military security. In general, transient military or naval aircraft
have long been off the restricted list so far as external photographs are concerned, but new
models being tested by a manufacturer located on the field, or planes parked in a restricted
military area are strictly taboo. To sneak unauthorized photos of them is to risk confiscation
of equipment and possible fine or imprisonment.
In compensation for the "Off Limits" status of military aircraft, there are public displays
of the latest service types on such occasions as local air shows, Armed Forces Day, and "Open
House" days at air bases. In addition, approved views of latest models are usually released
by the manufacturer or the Department of Defense as soon as they are flown, and these can
be obtained and copied.
Trading is the most practical way of increasing the coverage of a negative collection.
The individual cannot possibly cover all the air fields in the country for rare or interesting
subjects, nor can he attend all the exhibitions of the latest military ships. He need not
lose out, however, so long as he has correspondents who can cover distant territories. Trading
is a natural extension of the "take-it-yourself" method, in which the common practice is to
take ("shoot" in the jargon of the hobby) as many extra negatives as possible of an interesting
subject so that a supply of duplicates can be accumulated for trading.
Trading usually starts on a small scale when a new collector encounters another at the
airport. Other contacts are made through this source, and the field begins to expand. Another
way of obtaining correspondents is through membership in such aero-enthusiast organizations
as The American Aviation Historical Society, 175 Clarie Drive, Concord, California.
For trading to be successful, uniformity of negative size among collectors is essential.
The world-wide standard in roll film is size 616 and 116, which produces a negative 2 3/4"
by 4 1/2". Some photographers use 3 1/4" by "4 1/4" or 4" by 5" film packs or cut film, but
these can generally be printed on 616 paper. Reasons behind the choice of 616 are that it
has a rather long and narrow proportion, which is most compatible with the composition of
the average plane when photographed on the ground, and the size is sufficient to show good
detail on a contact print. Few serious collectors use 35mm black-and-white, largely because
of filing difficulties and the fact that all prints must be enlargements. However, a brisk
trade in 35mm color slides has recently developed.
While few collectors bother to formalize it in writing, it is generally understood that
full rights to subsequent use of a negative are part of the trade. The recipient is free to
dispose of it as he pleases, and can credit the photograph to himself if he gets it published.
Copying is the only method for building up an extensive historical negative file. Since
the hobby did not get started until the early 1930's, very few privately-owned negatives of
earlier planes exist. However, good copyable prints are available from negatives in government
agency or manufacturers' files. Most of these are 8" by 10", and easily copied by standard
roll film cameras with the aid of floodlights and a copying attachment. Similar prints, to
a minimum of 3", can be copied to 616 size but it requires more specialized equipment.
Most collectors are technicians rather than artists, and more interested in obtaining a
view that shows off technical details to best advantage than in obtaining an impressionistic
picture. Where the artist would want striking angles, and deep black shadows, the technician
seeks angles with as little foreshortening or distortion as possible, and wants his shadows
soft so underside detail can be distinguished. The artist likes to include people and other
objects to improve the composition and add scale and human interest, but the technician goes
to great lengths to photograph the plane completely in the clear.
Topnotch photographers who realize a return on their hobby by selling prints for publication
recognize specialized markets for each type of picture. In general, technical articles dealing
with the planes themselves, full-scale or model, use the technical, uncluttered; in-the-clear
photos. For adventure or other general-interest articles, people and "atmosphere" are very
Backgrounds are a major headache. Many photographers deliberately pass up a picture possibility
because the result would not be up to their personal standards. However it is a good idea
to take at least one shot for record purposes if the subject is one that may not be available
later on. Many collectors have found themselves quite unhappy, for having passed up a particular
plane, thinking they could shoot it later under more favorable circumstances only to find
that they didn't get another chance.
Frequently it is possible to move the airplane to a point where the background is more
suitable, but be sure that you have permission! When it cannot be moved, it is sometimes possible
to pick a camera angle where the subject itself blanks out most of the background. The closer
the camera, the more the plane will dominate and mask the background. However, the closer
the camera, the greater the distortion from foreshortening and perspective.
In some cases a solid background will make a plane show up better than will an open horizon
and clear sky. Upper parts of that fade into a sky background because of prevailing light
conditions or coloring may stand out clearly against a dark background. At other times many
in-the-clear shots are spoiled by people in the way, either spectators or ground crew. Sometimes
they will move when asked to, but more often the photographer will have to wait for an opportune
moment when the majority are out of the way, or pick an angle that will minimize the personnel.
These situations call for patience, and the collector with the best overall quality in his
photos is the one who has the time and patience to wait until everything is just right.
Photographically airplanes are like people, and the "best" camera angle for one may be
entirely unsatisfactory for another. As in any kind of photography, about two thirds of the
picture is the photographer's "eye" and the way he uses it to set the picture up. Since aircraft
photography is very specialized, the photographer's ability will be reflected more by his
familiarity with aircraft than by his specific knowledge of photographic processes.
But we must admit while the aeronautical know-how is of prime importance in picking the
right angle, knowledge of certain photographic tricks can do much to improve a given picture.
For example a light-colored airplane that fades into an ordinary sky background can be made
to show up by darkening the sky with a filter. Filters, and a choice of color-rating for black-and-white
film, can do much to bring out color schemes. For instance, a blue-and-yellow airplane will
appear to be of one medium shade if photographed on Orthochromatic-type film (Ansco Plenachrome
and old Eastman Verichrome), but the colors will contrast on Panchromatic film (Ansco Supreme,
Eastman Verichrome-Pan, Super XX, Tri-X), which darkens the blue and lightens the yellow.
When shooting in-the-clear technical views, it is desirable to have the plane "clean";
that is, controls centered, flaps up, canopy closed, no tie-down ropes or wheel chocks. Some
of these items, like a deflected rudder, can easily be corrected before shooting, but closing
canopies or removing tie-downs should not be done without permission. Some collectors believe
the ideal picture shows the plane "clean" but with a pilot in the cockpit and the engine running;
others prefer everything completely static. Both types usually have to settle for something
less than their ideal. Generally ground personnel, the plane's condition and background force
compromises on both technician and artist.
In comparison, airplane photography is relatively inexpensive. The aero-specialist is interested
primarily in the plane, and finds it easy to resist the pure photographer's tendency to go
overboard for better and more expensive equipment and the necessary supporting accessories.
Since most craft are shot in the open under a fairly constant range of light conditions, the
collector soon learns from experience his exposure settings, and except in the case of critical
color film can get along without an exposure meter. Airplanes are of such a size that they
must be photographed at distances beyond 25', so estimating the range is no problem and elaborate
devices such as coupled range finders can be ignored. Once the basic equipment has been purchased,
the only direct cost is for film and chemicals, plus such indirect costs as transportation,
postage and the intangible item of time.
but no fun.
The next installment will discuss the problems involved in properly identifying the negatives
and prints in your collection.
Posted November 11, 2017