While in Mid Air, Bradley Wentzel Photographs Planes Like No Other

All images by Bradley Wentzel. Used with permission. Be sure to follow him on Instagram.

Most folks try to photograph other airplanes from the ground, but Bradley Wentzel is a special type of creative. He photographs from the air. This isn’t just a photography job, but also one of complete orchestration. “Directing aircraft in flight was the biggest learning curve,” says Brad. “With most other subject matter, you have the freedom to walk around, crouch, move forward and backwards, etc. pretty freely, but when you are in the air with another aircraft, those basic functions can become difficult. There’s no room for guess work or error when planes are just a few feet away from each other so there is a lot of planning ahead of time with all of the pilots and people involved.” If that doesn’t sound like a lot of pressure to you, then we’re not sure what does. In fact, I originally thought Bradley was piloting and photographing at the same time. But this sounds even more intense.

“Golden hour is still an amazing time of day to photograph aircraft – my preference is sun up and sun down. However, bright sunny days can be great as well, but it really depends on the aircraft and the location or background. Cloud cover can be useful.”

Bradley Wentzel Essential Gear

Bradley says:

For me, the most important pieces of gear are my lenses. You can have a killer camera body, but defeats the purpose by attaching a low quality lens. As you can see I use all Canon gear and have been shooting with Canon since 1999. I’ve shot on dozens of Canon bodies and a variety of lenses over that time and the product they make and build quality is bulletproof. Their customer service is top notch and they have such a wide selection of gear to choose from. My 50mm f/1.2 is my favorite and the one I use the most.

To be able to achieve my creative vision I need my gear to work, and the reliability of my Canon gear provides me the peace of mind to get the job done. The 1D body is great because it has dual Compact Flash card slots so I can immediately have a back up to a second card in real time. Having the secondary grip is great also, especially when shooting air to air because it allows me to switch between horizontal shots for magazine spreads, etc. but seamlessly pivot to a vertical grip for cover shots. For video, the C300 Mark ll produces such a great picture and is really versatile. I’ve tried a lot of aftermarket accessories for it, but have since reverted back to the proprietary accessories that come with the body – they simply work and are reliable.

Secondly, my Broncolor L series strobes allow me to shape the light I want on my subjects because they’re wireless, compact and lightweight. They have great technology, build quality, and a wide array of modifiers.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Bradley: I remember running around with my parents film camera when I was young teenager and just really enjoyed seeing the final results after getting the film developed. I took photography classes all through High School, which strengthened my love for the entire process – from receiving an assignment to ideating, and finally executing it. That planted a seed of what a career could look like in photography. Years later I took other career paths while always taking photos as a hobby, but it was after a cross roads in my career that I saw an option to pursue photography as a profession. I freelanced as much as I could and then took a position with a fashion and entertainment magazine, which led to contributing to several other magazines over time. I then started working as an assistant photographer for several photographers, including world renown surf photographer, Aaron Chang, and fashion and celebrity photographer, Jim Jordan to name a few. This helped me gain more knowledge, and understand the business and industry better.

“Aviation chose me. While freelancing I was hired to film several off road races for a team from their helicopter.”

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into aviation photography?

Bradley: Aviation chose me. While freelancing I was hired to film several off road races for a team from their helicopter. That team liked my work enough to offer me a full time gig shooting several of their subsidiaries, one of which involved aviation. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that was an unforseen shift in normal subject matter, but was an amazing surprise in my career and have loved it ever since.

Phoblographer: Your photos are sort of like plane portrait–some of them are action shots and some are more about showcasing the beauty of them in their environment. So what makes your mind lean towards one or the other?

Bradley: I definitely want to capture the design of an aircraft. A lot of them look beautiful even if they are just sitting statically. Countless hours of design and engineering goes into the final look – they’re works of art in their own right, so I like to highlight those designs in their environments such as runways and hangars, etc. Those types of shots are great for commercial value since it may help a client or customer connect easier to the product or company. However, planes and other aircraft have a purpose beyond aesthetics – performance. Being able to photograph an aircraft while flying is an amazing way to show off its agility, beauty, and performance – it’s a view that most people don’t get to see. Photographing an aircraft from the air is the ultimate shot to truly showcase its essence.

Phoblographer: What was the biggest learning curve with all of this?

Bradley: Directing aircraft in flight was the biggest learning curve. With most other subject matter, you have the freedom to walk around, crouch, move forward and backwards, etc. pretty freely, but when you are in the air with another aircraft, those basic functions can become difficult. There’s no room for guess work or error when planes are just a few feet away from each other so there is a lot of planning ahead of time with all of the pilots and people involved. We’ll go through the entire photo flight path before we even take off. Once we’re in the air, we’ll communicate via radio and headsets, and sometimes even hand signals – communication is essential.

Phoblographer: A lot of photographers love the golden hour, but of course, aviation is a different ball game. What’s the best time of day to photograph planes. Does cloud coverage help at all?

Bradley: I think the same rules apply to air to air photography. Golden hour is still an amazing time of day to photograph aircraft – my preference is sun up and sun down. However, bright sunny days can be great as well, but it really depends on the aircraft and the location or background. Cloud cover can be useful. Being below it obviously gives me a diffuse light, which can really help at times, but you can also punch through it and fly above the clouds, which gives a natural bounce of light on the belly of an aircraft. It also really helps provide perspective when you have clouds close to an aircraft.

Phoblographer: You tend to go for a very vintage editing aesthetic. Why is this?

Bradley: Most of the aircraft I photograph are vintage planes from the military, (warbirds) and were often iconic planes during and after wartime. So, I like to process a lot of my images to align with the style and colors of film from those eras to help connect to the past.

“Directing aircraft in flight was the biggest learning curve. With most other subject matter, you have the freedom to walk around, crouch, move forward and backwards, etc. pretty freely, but when you are in the air with another aircraft, those basic functions can become difficult. There’s no room for guess work or error when planes are just a few feet away from each other so there is a lot of planning ahead of time with all of the pilots and people involved.”

Phoblographer: Tell us about one of the most challenging moments you’ve had doing this type of photography.

Bradley: Smooth sailing so far, thankfully. However, the one thing that can always be a challenge is the weather. Depending where we are and what time of the year, weather can change pretty fast or just not cooperate. There is a lot of prep work that goes into these shoots, especially for the pilots and ground crew, so sometimes everything is ready to go and then it’s just a hurry up and wait type of scenario.

Phoblographer: What are your favorite styles of planes to photograph and why?

Bradley: Vintage jets like the F-86 Sabre, which is one of my favorites – I think they have a beautiful aesthetic. I also love the technology at that point in history where we were pulling away from radial engines, and transitioning to jet power.