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Jet Fighters and Lenses: The ISAP Photographers Meet in Las Vegas

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Written by: Alberto Riva
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Group photo of ISAP photographers under an F-5 at Nellis Air Force Base. (Photo by Alberto Riva)

Sleek as sharks, painted in sinister slate gray, the four B-1 bombers take off one by one in succession, their bone-rattling roar reverberating from the hills around Nellis Air Force Base. Following them, swarms of F-15s, F-16s, and F-22s leap into the skies towards the north, headed for the ranges where the US Air Force is holding the year’s second Red Flag, the biggest exercise of them all. It’s a bright morning outside Las Vegas, and a phalanx of photographers is standing between the base’s two runways, pointing skyward a dazzling array of long lenses. This sunny Friday is the highlight of ISAP IX, the ninth convention of the International Society for Aviation Photography, and the promise of a rare visit to Nellis plus three days of mingling with the best names in the business has attracted 150 shooters from around the world.

Two US Navy EA-6B Prowlers take off in formation from runway 03L. (Photo by Alberto Riva)

The Las Vegas gathering, March 3 to 6, put photographers with National Geographic covers under their belts together with airline captains with a shutterbug habit, general aviation pilots who never take off without a camera, museum curators with serious coffee-table books to their name, and many from the growing number of enthusiasts whose plane photos appear on the Web. Some names are familiar to the followers of Airliners.net, the biggest site for aviation images: for instance Darren Howie, famous for flight deck photos taken while piloting an Airbus 320 for Australia’s Jetstar, or Jim Raeder, whose poetic images of small planes and ultralights over the American West are among the most-viewed on the site. Others have been aviation legends for decades, like Russell Munson, whose photos regularly appear in Flight International magazine and have illustrated Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a book beloved by aviators and those who cherish the freedom of the sky.

Some of those gathered in Vegas aren’t even aviation photographers, per se. They’ve made their names, like George Lepp, shooting wildlife, or on very earthbound commercial assignments, and then found out that the fascination of those beautiful flying things was too hard to resist. The wealth of experience they bring is an invaluable help for photographers of any skill level, and a reminder that industry gatherings such as this one are useful. There aren’t many places where one can compare field notes on the Nikon D3 with Jim Sugar and find out how best to use three remote flashes to light up an F-117, or talk with Moose Peterson about the depth of field of a 300 mm f/2.8 lens – and then think, “Wow, those are names I remember from seeing their photos in National Geographic!”

Aviation shooters, who tend to like cool new gear, can often be focused on the specifications of their hardware rather than the images they can take with it. The ISAP symposium adds to the mix a demo area full of the latest lenses and cameras from Canon, Nikon and Sigma, but the reason we’re all here is to make better images – and some of the best on display in Vegas are the work of Carolyn Russo, a curator at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum who photographs airplanes from very close, turning them into objects with an organic quality, and disproving the notion that it’s a heresy to cut off the plane and put only the rudder in the frame. Yet in the end, of course, it’s all about the flying. The presentations drawing the biggest applause are those peppered with extreme air-to-air images: for example, South African photographer Frans Dely explained how he got images that feature skimming over water in a T-6 trainer and taking a Hawker Hunter down to 50 feet over the Arabian desert.

And then there are the airplanes that the ISAP members have come from all over to see in action at Nellis. Eagles and Vipers in the camouflage colors of the USAF’s Aggressor fleet, Harriers and Hornets from Great Britain and Australia, ungainly-looking A-10s with their deadly big guns, and heavy KC-135 tankers to keep them all flying, while the Thunderbirds practice high above in their spotless F-16s. Each of the departures, screamingly fast over the desert brush, is saluted by hundreds of Nikon and Canon shutters going off. The photographers pivot to follow the streaks in the Nevada sky, surely thinking about what Frans Dely told them just the day before, closing his presentation: “I hate to watch an airplane take off and I’m not in it.”

A B-1B Lancer from Dyess AFB, Texas, taking off runway 03R at Nellis. (Photo by Alberto Riva)

A B-1B applying full afterburner on takeoff. (Photo by Alberto Riva)

A Nellis-based F-15C Eagle in the “Aggressor” scheme imitating Russia’s Su-27 Flanker. (Alberto Riva)

An F-15C in the desert-toned “Aggressor” colors. (Photo by Alberto Riva)

An F-15C on the flight line at Nellis with an F-16CJ taking off in the background. (Photo by Alberto Riva)

Maj. Stahl speaking with ISAP members Caroline Sheen (L) and Kevin Hong. (Photo by Alberto Riva)

USAF Maj. Jan Stahl poses on his F-15C Eagle. (Photo by Alberto Riva)

ISAP and NYCAviation member Alberto Riva is a journalist and photographer based in New York.

About the Author

Alberto Riva



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  • Great words & photos, Alberto. Congrats. Better hang on to that Nikon. You sure know how to use it. Stay in touch.

  • Great words & photos, Alberto. Congrats. Better hang on to that Nikon. You sure know how to use it. Stay in touch.