Improving Air-to-Air Photography With Previz – A Tutorial by Matt Booty

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With the Madras Air2Air Experience aviation photography workshop approaching at the end of August, we thought that we would share with our readers one of the significant techniques that will be employed in this remarkable air-to-air photography workshop. Matt Booty, one of the participants in last year’s workshop, is a high flying employee with X-Box so naturally has a keen interest in CGI, or Computer Generated Imagery. He’s also a talented aviation photographer. Booty has merged these two gifts to develop a new way of preparing for an air-to-air photography shoot using CGI to simulate exactly how he wants the subject aircraft to present itself before his camera. By simulating the look for the pilots of the photo-ship and subject aircraft, everyone has a clear picture of what is needed and the shoot can take place in a safer and more efficient environment. Booty wrote a marvelous description of how to achieve this on his blog [click HERE], and has graciously given WarbirdsNews permission to present it here in its complete form. We will add that Lyle Jansma, the exceptional aviation photographer who created the Madras Air2Air Experience has fully adopted these principals in several of his recent air-to-air shoots, and they have proven invaluable. You will certainly be seeing these techniques fully employed when you come to the Madras Air2Air Experience this August 27th thru 30th.

All of the photographs and renderings presented here are by Matt Booty unless otherwise noted. 

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Matt Booty presents…

I recently had the opportunity to photograph a Messerschmitt Me 262 and a de Havilland Mosquito at the Military Aviation Museum near Norfolk, Virginia. Both aircraft are extremely rare; there are three reproductions of the Me 262 that fly and only two Mosquitos in flying condition. Given this near once in a lifetime opportunity, I wanted to be as prepared as possible, so I tried out using Autodesk 3D Studio Max to mock up and pre-visualize the potential shots.

Disclaimer #1: I am squarely an amateur when it comes to air-to-air photography, so nothing here is meant to be taken as expertise or special knowledge about the topic.

Disclaimer #2: I’ll use the term “pre-visualize” or “previz” instead of “plan” because planning an air-to-air photo flight requires a lot of specialized knowledge and experience about aircraft, pilots, locations, formation flying and an overarching focus on safety. We were fortunate enough to have Scott Slocum as the organizer and planner for these photo flights and he worked closely with the pilots from the Military Aviation Museum. Planning a photo flight can take days or weeks. In comparison, taking the photos can go by in ten minutes once the airplanes are safely in formation over an interesting landscape, and is somewhat the “easy” part in comparison.

Uses of Pre-Visualizaion

Creating a visual mockup of a photo flight can help answer three questions, especially when shooting two or more subject planes in formation:

1. What looks good?

Which plane should be in front? How big are the planes relative to each other? Does one formation look better than another? What angles show off the unique features of a given plane the best?

2. What lens should I bring?

Typically on a photo flight, you have one camera and one lens with you, and you want nothing loose and nothing to fiddle with once you’re in the air. (Experienced shooters will often take two cameras when possible, but I’m still working on keeping track of what I’m doing with one camera, let alone switching between two.) Given that you can have one lens with you, which lens should you take? Will the planes be in close formation? Are you trying to use zoom to compress depth of field? Are you shooting a fighter or a bomber? Software like 3D Studio Max allows you to input exact lens lengths and see the resulting field of view. This can help avoid taking a 70-200mm lens when you really wish you could have gotten wider with a 24-105mm lens.

3. How can I communicate the image I have in my head to the pilots and planners?

The Me 262 is a fascinating plane to me, and it turns out that the first Me 262 to be brought down in the air while flying was shot by a Spitfire, and the planned flight called for the Me 262 and a Spitfire to be in formation. What a chance to get a shot that recreates an actual moment in history! I pictured the Me 262 climbing up and away to avoid being shot down on takeoff (as was often the case), with the Spitfire chasing close behind. How would I explain that to the pilots and find out if it was even feasible, given safety considerations and differences in aircraft performance ranges?

Before looking in more detail at how previz can help answer these questions, a quick overview of the software I used might be useful.

3D Studio Max

Autodesk 3D Studio Max (Max for short) is a complex, expensive software package used to create photorealistic computer graphics imagery (CGI) for everything from video games to architecture to big budget movies. I learned Max as part of my work in video games, and started out using version R4 running under DOS (before Windows!). I used it here because it’s what I know and I have a personal copy at home. While Max can do extremely complex animations and simulations, my working knowledge of it is focused on polygonal (“hard surface”) modeling and some basic to intermediate rendering and lighting setups (I know how to use probably 10% of what it can do). However, this turns out to be useful for this kind of pre-visualization, because the goal is not to create photorealistic imagery but rather to have an accurate representation of the aircraft in formation and a system that can handle real-world lens lengths.

There are a number of other 3D modeling and rendering software packages available, some of which are free, such as Blender and Google SketchUp. The only features needed are the ability to create or import 3D models of aircraft and the ability to specify real world camera lens lengths.

3D Aircraft Models

When I started out mocking up the Me 262 and Spitfire shoot, I wanted to focus on the previz and not on building the airplane models, so I bought the models from the commercial site TurboSquid. There are also dozens of sites with free 3D models that can be downloaded. You can pretty much find anything out there from a low rez, inexpensive model to a movie-ready high rez model, depending on what you want to pay and how much cleanup, format conversion and general polygon wrangling you want to do.

Here is the Spitfire model I bought on TurboSquid. It’s more detailed than needed, but it came with very well done texture maps and was a “clean” model that didn’t need a lot of work to import (not always the case), so it was worth the cost to buy it.

plane 01

Remember, though, that the goal is to prepare for what you want to shoot and how to communicate your creative ideas with the planners and pilots, so high fidelity is not needed, and you don’t need to pay for 3D models. To prove this point, I set out to build a P-38 from scratch as quickly as possible.

I started by getting the three-view plan and the specifications for the P-38 from Wikipedia:

p-38 01 p-38 02

Then I built a very rough, polygonal model of the P-38:



This level of detail is more than adequate for previz work, as long as the dimensions are accurate and the important shapes are in the right place. Adding a simple texture map fills in some detail if desired:

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Anyone with experience creating custom aircraft paint schemes in a flight simulator would be able to create 3D models suitable for previz.

Finally, don’t forget the photo plane. This a place where detail and dimensions especially matter, as we’ll see later.

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After finding and importing the various aircraft models, the next steps are to size them all to match their real world dimensions, place them in a 3D scene in Max, and add cameras for the photographer location and for the locations of the pilots in the subject planes.

example 01

Now let’s get back to the three uses of this kind of previz:

1. What looks good?

2. What lens should I bring?

3. How can I communicate the image I have in my head to the pilots and planners?

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What Looks Good?

The most basic use of 3D previz can be to try out various combinations and formations of the aircraft you’re going to shoot. Our planned subjects were the Me 262 and the Spitfire, so I started trying out various formations and a couple of different lens lengths. One thing I noticed right away is that the Me262 is about 8 feet wider than the Spitfire, which could influence the shot composition.

spitfire_me262_mockup_50mm spitfire_me262_mockup_135mm_break spitfire_me262_mockup_B_100mm_break_2 spitfire_me262_mockup_B_70mm_camera_match_01 spitfire_me262_mockup_B_70mm_camera_match_02 spitfire_me262_mockup_B_85mm spitfire_me262_mockup_B_70mm_camera_match_06 spitfire_me262_mockup_B_70mm_camera_match_05 spitfire_me262_mockup_B_70mm_camera_match_04 spitfire_me262_mockup_B_70mm_camera_match_03 spitfire_me262_mockup_B_100mm_break

Everyone will have their own creative opinion about what would look best, but based on these quick mockups, I started thinking that the Me262 should be in front and the Spitfire in back, and that both planes look better when viewed from above looking down, rather than from below looking up. I also started thinking that both would look better with one of them banking, rather than both “parked” in level flight.

Another interesting thing that prviz shows quite accurately here is that when shooting out of the side door of the Bonanza A-36, if the subject planes are above the Bonanza, the horizontal stabilizer of the Bonanza will likely be in a lot of the shots. This may or may not be a problem (it can be painted out in Photoshop), but it’s good to know about ahead of time, especially if it ends up overlapping or obscuring part of the subject plane. When the 3D models of the aircraft are accurate and to scale, and the cameras are placed in real world positions with real world lens settings, this system can be useful for showing you ahead of time where you might run in to occlusion problems. For example, when shooting out the side windows of a B-25, the tail and the wings on either side of the shooting position can restrict the kinds of shots you can get, and previz would show that pretty clearly as you started mocking up shots.

Here is the basic setup in Max along with a higher quality render with some clouds added:

example 01 example 02

So does this all actually work out in the real world? The mockup above is shown with a 100mm lens, and here is a photo from the actual shoot, taken at 125mm.

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Alert readers will be thinking right now, “But, that’s a P-51 not a Spitfire!” Turns out that the Spitfire had engine trouble on the day of the shoot, so the P-51 went up instead.

What Lens Should I Bring?

In general, you want to make sure that you will be able to get shots with the whole aircraft in the frame. If you took a 100-300mm lens to shoot two aircraft in loose formation, you might not be able to do that. Because Max lets you input both the physical size of your camera sensor and the lens length in millimeters, it can be a valuable tool for showing how large the aircraft will be in the frame with a given lens length.

example 06 example 07 example 08

Something that Scott Slocum talks about is the “tunnel” or “cone” in which the planes have to fly to stay in the shot. As you go from wide to zoomed in, the tunnel narrows and the planes have to stay in a smaller and smaller tube in space to stay in the shot. This can be important to communicate to the pilots; if you’re after a compressed field of view at 200mm, then the subject planes would need to be lined up in a fairly constricted formation, which could be easier said than done depending on the aircraft types, turbulence and safety considerations involved.

cone 01 50mm cone 03 200mm cone 02 100mm cone 04 300mm

Communicating Ideas to Planners and Pilots

It can be useful to think about what the pilots in the subject planes will see, as they will be thinking about proximity to the other aircraft, about performance and maneuvering issues and always about safety. Obviously, this system is not a flight simulator and can in no way stand in for a pilot’s experience and judgement. But it can be used in a general sense to show the pilots what kind of shot you’re looking for and where in general you’d like the aircraft.

If we go to our “stacked” formation with the Spitfire behind and above the Me 262, we can see what the Me 262 pilot sees and what the Spitfire pilot sees:

example 02

example 03

example 04

example 05

Let’s look at a different formation, with both planes below the photo plane. This is one of the early mockups I did to try out general formations:

example 06

And here is a photo I took from the actual shoot, at 95mm:

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Now, let’s look at a mockup of what the Me 262 and the P-51 pilot saw from their point of view:

example 09example 10

Getting the Shot

Getting back to what started this all for me… I wanted a shot of the Spitfire chasing the Me 262, showing the historical adversaries locked in an aerial duel. Here is what I mocked up:

example 11

I had no idea if this shot was even possible. Would it be safe to have the Spitfire below the Me 262? Would it be safe to have the Spitfire anywhere near the exhaust of the Me 262’s jets? Could the Spitfire pilot roll from side or stay in a bank? Here is the schematic view of the formation that I made to share with the pilots during the creative briefing:

example 12

And here is what the above formation looks like to the Spitfire pilot:

example 13

Thanks to a lot of input from Scott Slocum and the pilots involved, we were able to brief a formation that would allow something close to this. The Me 262 would fly in formation off to the side and below the photo plane while the Spitfire did Dutch Rolls (or “rolling on a heading”) behind the Me 262.

And here is the shot that I got!

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Conclusion

This post is meant to share what I learned using 3D software to think about what kinds of air to air photos would look good and be possible in the real world with a given combination of planes. These rare warbirds cost thousands of dollars an hour to fly and photo missions require complex planning by experienced professionals, so in my opinion, it’s best to make every minute of actual shooting time count! Once everything comes together up in the air, it can help to have some general idea of what you want to shoot and what the limitations could be. Please let me know any ideas or comments that you have, as I’m sure there are many ways this system could be improved.

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WarbirdsNews wishes to express our extreme gratitude to Matt Booty for allowing us to reproduce his incredibly intuitive and helpful article. We hope it helps some of you in your efforts as air-to-air photographers. The Madras Air2Air Experience is bound to be a great opportunity to test out your skills. We will soon be hearing from Lyle Jansma on the curriculum he will be presenting at the workshop, which Scott Slocum will also be attending as both lecturer and photo-ship pilot.

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