Air to air - Philip Powell
Philip is a British born photographer based in the East of England. He started as a film photographer back in the early 90's before changing career and ending up in television as a location lighting cameraman and director. Having been employed by the likes of Discovery and the BBC for over a decade, his love for stills became reignited by the purchase of an X100. Discover how he uses Fujifilm cameras to capture stunning aerial imagery.
Where were you born and where do you live now?
Originally I'm from Bristol in the west of England, its a very creative town. When I was growing up as a kid you were either an artist or a musician or both; it would seem. I took the camera path after an unsuccessful dabble in the music world. I now live near Cambridge on the East side of the country, its a short train into London and around 40miles to the South of where I live.
What are the most important things you learned while working for television and film?
Oh, that's easy, get organized! Television is a tough industry with brutal schedules often working six day weeks and 14 hour days. The plus side is you get to work in close collaboration with the elite of the creatives and technicians in the country and observe how they work and cope. The thing you notice is how relaxed people at the top of their game are and how they can have fun on the job. They simply are not stressed at all.
One key way to avoid stress on a shoot be it a video or stills shoot is to have a high level of organization. By being organized and well prepped, you now have freedom of movement and headspace to be creative. So, when I say get organized let me explain and give some examples, one would be to have all your equipment tidy in the bag. Have a place for everything and everything in its place and have it all labeled. Also having backups of everything, batteries, cards, cables, etc. So as and when issues arise you can instantly solve them and move on in seconds rather than hours. I would also highly recommend practice in advance with any new piece of equipment, so you are not fiddling and fighting with gear when you should be creating. Also have your day scheduled, a plan for that morning, a plan for the day a plan for the week and type it up and print it out. Now, don't feel restricted by it, you don't have to stick to the plan at all, but It will help you relax as you are not thinking what should I be doing tomorrow.
What’s the craziest thing that happened to you in flight?
Crazy is not a word I like to associate with flight; I like to keep it all predictable and safe. However, if I had to think of some hairy moments where things might not have gone well should we have not acted decisively, I guess I can think of a few instances.
Like, while shooting over the frozen shoreline of Chicago one winter, I spotted a flock of geese up ahead; we were going to hit head on, so had to break it off that shoot for a while. On the last shoot in Colorado, the subject plane lost its engine. We had to break off for a while they dealt with the issue. So I just waited in radio silence until they had it under control. They managed to get the engine restarted after five mins or so, and I let them make the decision whether or not to continue the shoot.
These are just day to day incidents that you need to drill for, and you just get on with it. This type of photography is inherently dangerous. You simply have to limit and manage the risks as much as possible and then base your decisions to go or not go based on what you know. I have flown to the USA a couple of times filming the journey. When you do that sort of Europe to USA trip in a small single engine aircraft, there is a point in that route over the North Atlantic near Greenland where, should you have an engine failure, no-one is coming to get you. Due to the remote area, you are well out of range of any emergency helicopter. Should you have to ditch in the ocean, you are dead for sure, having around 13mins of useful consciousness in the sea and even with the survival suits on you will only have say 4-6 hours at best. It's best not to think about those things when you are doing the job.
What’s your opinion on drones and drone photography?
I like the idea of using drones for air to ground work. In fact, I have used them before for some of my video work. They are perfect for the odd shot or to supplement footage, in a sequence. They can offer a unique perspective, just don't overuse that would be my advice. However, for shooting air to air as I often do, they are just not there regarding specifications for what I might need. I'm often flying over 30mins out just to reach the location of the right backgrounds for a particular shoot and then I could be shooting for around 30mins and then we have the 30mins flight back. So that's well over the current the battery life of a typical quadcopter drone. Plus on my last shoot, for example, I was operating at altitudes well over 10,000 feet as that was the elevation of the mountains and we needed to fly at around 100mph due to the minimum safe maneuvering speeds of the subject plane. So unless we used some sort of multi-million dollar military drone as a camera platform, there is no way that it would be possible. Once you factor in the cost of using something like that, we are back to asking "why not just sit in a small plane and take the door off".
For how long have you been using Fujifilm cameras?
I started down this Fujifilm path with the X100S when that was released, but didn't start anything serious in the stills world until the Fujifilm X-Pro2 came along, then I knew it was time to get serious.
What were you using before and why did you decide to get one?
Nothing digital, I was a film shooter and worked with 4x5 a little, I loved my Rolleiflex 2.8 and my Nikon FM2. I had walked away from all stills work. My filming work was taking up all of my time at that point in my life, and I had sold all the film camera equipment. The purchase of the Fujifilm X100S was a return to stills cameras for me after a 10 or so year hiatus. As to why I decided to get the X100S, well that's simple, I just liked the look of it. I had no idea about Fujifilm cameras, my only experience of them at that point was using a Fujifilm GX680 in the studio when I was an assistant back in the 90's.
Can you tell us a bit more about film simulations and why it’s a benefit in your workflow?
The Fuji film simulations are a wonderful addition for any photographer; I like the NegS for people photography. However, on the commercial aviation work, I do I will use Velvia. It's very common for the client and or agency staff to be looking over my shoulder as I import the images. I will often ingest images immediately after landing from an air to air shoot, as I like to get the card transfers out of the way as I am de-rigging the aircraft. So, I rather like how Lightroom will flash up a quick preview with the film simulation applied as it imports files, this helps make the images pop. Marketing people that are often on set with me are still not used to looking at Raw files and won't understand seeing flat Raw or even underexposed images where I'm looking to protect highlights for example. This punch to the colors I get from using the Fujifilm Velvia film simulation goes a little way to reassuring them that I'm not a total idiot.
Any piece of equipment you are missing and wish Fujifilm would announce soon?
I think it's unwise to play the waiting for the next big thing game. One thing that happened when I became a professional is I didn't obsess about the next bit of kit anymore. You just need to get on with the work and make do with what is at hand and do it to the best of your abilities. If pushed for an answer, I would love to see a medium format mirrorless compact system with leaf shutter lenses to use on my personal travel work.
What do you like to photograph when not hanging out the side of a plane?
Photography for me has always been about the same wonderful thing, exploration of the world. In my professional career, I get to go and meet interesting people and see behind closed doors. The camera is my ticket into people's lives, an excuse to walk somewhere I might have otherwise not been able to step. So when I'm not working on commercial jobs, I still enjoy that sort of thing. I like to travel and explore new cultures. The main focus or my personal work recently has been an ongoing project documenting the people of India. I like to spend time with my subjects and get to know them.
What do you enjoy doing when not taking photos?
I recently learned to scuba dive while working on a shoot in Australia. However, I have currently banned myself from taking a camera underwater as I feel It might compromise my safety until I become more proficient at diving. So, currently one place I like to go and explore without my camera is the underwater world.
Where can we see more of your work?
Sadly there is no record at all of anything I have done previously while working in television, and when I think back, that's a real shame. However earlier this year I decided to change that and start blogging some personal work and a few professional jobs. The website for that is here www.philippowell.uk and my Instagram is here @philmphotographic