Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Katsuhiko Tokunaga

Katsuhiko Tokunaga

Aviation photography (Japan)

"Orchestrating dynamic moments at 30,000 feet"

Aviation photographer Katsuhiko Tokunaga was born in Tokyo on January 13, 1957. Since his first in-flight photo shoot aboard a U.S. Air Force T-33A in 1978, he has specialized in air-to-air photo shoots. He has extensive experience in official photo shoots for European, American and Asian aircraft manufacturers and various air force and navy operations around the world. Aside from his native Japan, he has published collections of his photographs in the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Thailand, Turkey, Chile and Austria.

Air-to-air shooting: photography at dizzying heights

What do the words "aviation photography" bring to mind? Just as automotive photography means cars running at full throttle, aviation images are of airplanes cutting through the sky. All good photography requires talent and skill, however within the aviation genre, there is one particular type of image-making that requires the most time, planning and technique: air-to-air photography. In air-to-air photography, the photographer shoots one airplane while flying in another. This is extremely difficult and expensive, limiting the pool of qualified photographers to only a few. In general, most aviation photographers capture planes taking off from an airport, which to me is no more than shooting a car exiting a garage. This is unfortunate, because the heart and soul of aviation photography is in the sky. I believe aviation photos must use the sky as a backdrop in order to express an airplane's true nature.

I have been an aviation photographer concentrating on air-to-air photography for more than 30 years, shooting everything from helicopters to fighter jets. When it comes to shooting jets air-to-air, I am one of about ten qualified photographers in the world. Out of those, perhaps two or three of them are independent professionals like me who don't belong to an airplane manufacturer or military/governmental organization. This is a very specialized and exclusive field of photography, with a very specific niche market.

As my professional career began to develop in the late '70s, I mainly worked for magazines. Then, as my air-to-air shooting opportunities grew, I became known overseas and started working abroad. Currently, most of my work is for advertisements promoting military and commercial aircraft manufacturers, as well as a variety of air forces around the world. Although I am based in Japan, each year I spend more than 300 days out of the country working.

I always try to capture the dynamism of airplanes, but my first priority is to fulfill my client's requests, whatever they may be. For example, a French manufacturer that I worked for recently requested photos that visually depict their small aircraft's ability to land safely at the small London City Airport. Using a client's request as a starting point, I explore how I can best express airplane performance through images.

A complete dedication to safety

An air-to-air photo shoot costs an enormous amount of money. For example, the fuel to fly a single fighter jet costs around $25,000. Now imagine the budget for everything, including maintenance, pilot training and many other elements. The final sum can be hard to believe.

Why do European manufacturers hire a Japanese photographer like me? The reason is simple: a safe and efficient photo shoot is more important than anything. A photographer's international transportation expenses are nothing compared to the total price of the project. If the client is satisfied, it is all money well spent.

Airplanes soar through the sky at incredible speeds, so if there are any miscalculations or mistakes, we can't simply stop and instantly return to the starting point. What's more, even small miscalculations can cause massive accidents. Safety must be first in one's mind, and photographers who push the envelope too much in the hope of obtaining a certain image will not find work in this field. No matter how intense or thrilling a moment you want to capture, the safety of the pilots and planes must always come first. There are many ways to take the same kind of shot — some of which are risky and some of which play it safe. I will always choose the safest way, and I now have the experience to make a shot look exciting while still playing it safe.

Staging dynamic moments

When it comes to air-to-air photography, pre-planning is more crucial than the picture itself. In most cases, the planes can only be in the air for approximately an hour, and therefore I must plan accordingly. Planning each step from takeoff to landing and spending the flight time efficiently are the keys to a successful photo shoot.

I usually prepare 10 to 20 shooting programs for each flight. Only after checking the unique conditions of the shoot can I organize the safest and most efficient program. The most important factors are the character and cooperation of the pilot. This planning process has required years of experience to perfect. Let's say I'm going to shoot a picture of three fighter jets perfectly positioned in the frame. The timing and position of the planes must happen exactly as choreographed. If each plane hits its mark at the exact moment we planned, there is only a fraction of a second when all three planes are in my frame. Once they move out of position, it takes precious minutes for them to rejoin the group. In cases like these, I must plan procedures in which I shoot a single plane first, and shoot the three together at the very end.

From my experience, I have come to understand how pilots fly, and since I consider safety first, I ask them to fly as they usually do during their training. The photographic sense of dynamism and intensity comes from a combination of safety and timing, not from taking risks. I can stage dynamic moments by discovering creative combinations in the frame.

If you imagine an aerial battle between two fighter jets, for example, images of close combat come to mind. Today's high-tech fighting jets, however, would never be in such proximity to each other. Therefore, I must set up a situation that will look like close combat to the viewer. For example, I sometimes use a flare, which is a flaming cartridge that combat jets will release to escape an attack from a heat-seeking missile. Everything in my images is the result of meticulous calculation — there are no unexpected moments. If you see something in my image, I can tell you that it was planned that way.

It is vital that I give the pilot an accurate and explicitly detailed description of the timing and position I need him and his plane to execute. It is possible that an ideal imaging opportunity could appear spontaneously during a flight, but it would be extremely difficult to shoot at that exact moment. By the time the moment is recognized, it's over. Planning and setting up in advance is a must.


Through teamwork comes new forms of expression

Capturing images of airplanes is somewhat like playing team sports: it's impossible to execute alone, and I feel far more satisfaction when I have achieved a goal through teamwork. A photographer and a pilot collaborating and combining their professional expertise 100 percent: the joy I get out of this is extraordinary.

With each new job, I visit different countries and work with people of different nationalities: from America and Europe to the Middle East and Asia. Whether on the ground or in the air, the interaction I have with people who possess such a wide range of experiences and perspectives makes each new assignment a unique experience.

Although I have more than 30 years of experience in aviation photography, I still feel that there are more possibilities in this field than I will ever be able to fully discover. Air-to-air photography is essentially the combination of the three dimensions: pitching, yawing and rolling. However, there is plenty of room for creativity and exploration since the movement of flying objects such as airplanes is not limited by the surface of the earth. Pursuing these new possibilities should bring about fresh ideas.

I work with the Swiss Air Force's aerobatic team every year, and each time we explore new ways to shoot by experimenting with timing and arrangement. This challenge is now becoming my lifework. It may sound simple, but it has much more potential than we originally thought, and has presented me with many unexpected challenges. With so many factors at play, it is impossible to predict how a picture will look until you actually capture it, but this is an exciting part of the job. I always enjoy exchanging ideas and trying new things with pilots.


The advantages of shooting digital in the cockpit

The greatest improvement to digital cameras has been picture quality. Also, the light sensitivity can be changed at any time, which was unimaginable with film cameras, when a roll of film had a fixed ISO. We can now photograph objects that were impossible to capture on film. When I shot with the Royal Thai Air Force, I raised the sensitivity up to ISO 2000.

I shoot all my photos in RAW, never in JPEG, mostly using the shutter priority auto-exposure. I keep the white balance set to automatic, because I am rarely fixed to one spot for an entire shoot.

In post-production, I try to make as few adjustments to the exposure as possible. White balance, however, frequently needs adjustment, as the color of light can quickly change with the weather and altitude. Moreover, I shoot through the canopy, which is the glass between the cockpit and the sky. This canopy is frequently tinted or reflective, so I must adjust for this, as well. I need to enhance the transparency between where I am in the cockpit and the plane I'm shooting.

I choose autofocus or manual focus depending on which gives me sharper images. Autofocus is faster and more precise, but sometimes there are scratches or dents on the canopy. When this happens, I must use manual focus because the camera may focus on these marks on the glass.

When shooting in the air, the g-forces make the blood heavier, and slow down its flow to the brain. This causes a lack of oxygen in the brain, which hinders its proper functioning. In order to prevent this, I go on board wearing an anti-g suit, just like the pilots. An anti-g suit has built-in inflatable padding, which inflates under the g-force environment and squeezes the body from the waist down to prevent blood from pooling in the lower part of the body.

During the film camera era, I would stick ten or more rolls of film in the pockets of this tight suit. Changing film in the cockpit was high risk. Reducing this risk is another contribution of digital cameras.

What's in my camera bag

Cockpits are tight, cramped spaces filled with machinery that restricts my movement, so I go aboard with as little equipment as possible, always considering safety first. Changing lenses for different subjects is possible on the ground, but for aerial shoots, I limit the variety of lenses I use to be safe.

On a typical flight, I bring two camera bodies: a D4 and a D800. If the plan involves inverted flight with an aerobatic team, I only bring one camera body, because the negative g-force causes my equipment to float around. I normally use an AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED and an AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED. I also bring along an AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G and an AF Fisheye-NIKKOR 16mm f/2.8D if necessary.