When did the interest in aviation and particularly aviation photography begin?
Interest in military aviation began when I was a kid, reading ‘Commando comics’ and other related material. I would feverishly read about the exploits of the Luftwaffe and allied aces - Blitzkrieg, Battle of Britain, North Africa, Middle East, bombing campaigns, night fighters and more. As I got older, I would scour old paper shops in search of international magazines like Aviation Week & Space Tech, Flight International, etc. My goal to join the IAF formed slowly as I grew up - though it would not turn out as I planned. Even though I was the only child of my parents, they encouraged me to pursue my dream. I was interested in warfare and technology over the years from WW-I to the 1990s. I read the big fat books I "earned" - as motivation for excelling in academics and elsewhere - Mom and Dad would take me to Strand Book Stall (famous in Mumbai) and would buy me the books I selected. No one from our family has served in the Defence or Air Force anywhere - so even my relatives find my passion for aviation very surprising. The photography part of it would not be discovered by me till around 2002 - after my job made me land in the Bay area of San Jose, California - and the first air show was just next door at Moffett Federal Airfield.
How difficult is aviation photography?
The most difficult part of aviation photography is to be able to carry the load of a couple of big lenses and a couple of cameras strapped to you, and walk miles starting early in the morning till evening (Just kidding!).Each aspect of photography - be it landscape, portraits, macro, sports - has its own pros and cons. Likewise with aviation photography. There is some luxury in other forms of photography where one controls lighting, angles, times - aviation photography has no such luxury. One is limited by the field layout, a good position to select from the flight line, and timings. There are no retakes in aviation photography apart from photographing static aircraft on the ground. The weather keeps varying, yielding different results even if an act repeats itself at different times in the same day. Since there are no retakes, one has to be absolutely certain that the camera settings are right. Panning with the subject, and knowing what are the interesting angles to take pictures of - waiting for the right moment when the pilot rolls his aircraft or turns tight, makes rapid pitch changes, etc. are earned out of experience. In my opinion, it is the most unforgiving but the most exciting and thrilling.
What equipment do you use?
I had a Minolta camera, and made some investments in a 300mm to begin with, and slowly built my gear to a 500mm lens. The digital revolution was around the corner, and I purchased my first digital camera: the Olympus C70UZ, and clicked a Blue Angles crossover with one shot and nailed it. I started with a D70, and a 70-300mm at the time, renting an 80-400mm whenever I could for the major air shows I went to. I bought a used D2Hs and used that for sometime. I sold all my Minolta camera and lenses, Olympus camera and Nikon D70 to buy a D200 that had been introduced, and bought myself an 80-400mm lens instead of renting it - now that I was a regular user. Slowly over the years, I saved and bought the 200-400mm Nikon lens. I then sold my D2Hs and D200. In 2008 I bought a D3, and a used D300. In 2009, I got myself a D700. In 2011, because of Aero-India, I bought myself a 500mm lens. And just before going to Belgium for an air2air shoot, purchased a used D2Xs.
What advice do you have for newcomers in the field of aviation photography?
Get the right gear. One can go with a lower end camera to begin with, but save money for investing in glass (read lens). The camera bodies keep changing, glass remains forever - that's one lesson I was taught by my friends Takayuki Tei and Glenn Bloore along the way. Heeding their advice I saved for almost a year and some odd months, and bought the 200-400mm VR lens, which was worth it. Get lens with image stabilization. Shoot in RAW mode - think of the analogy of negative and finished photo. RAW image is the negative and the finished JPEG image is like the photo. Get a camera body with a good Noise reduction since noise increases with higher ISO settings. Shoot with continuous focus tracking. Try to go to air shows, and take loads of pictures initially. That is where digital helps you a lot. One can walk away with a few pictures and delete the rest at no extra cost unlike film. Once you know what you want, then over time, the number of pictures in a day will start scaling down, since you automatically develop a selection criterion in your mind before pressing the button. Slow down for the props, and speed up for the jets: Shoot slow shutter speeds (1/200, 1/100 or below) for propeller aircraft to blur the prop and switch to higher shutter speeds for jet aircraft. Remember to switch back and forth. Post-processing is as important as taking a sharp nice picture. Although aviation photography in India is more "dangerous" and can get you into trouble easily without effort because of the security situation, try to align with spotting groups (there is one in Bengaluru called the Bangalore Aviation spotter group) that are recognized and practice aviation photography there. Outside India, in some places like Europe, or USA it’s less forgiving and easier.