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Chasing the Dreamliner – A Lesson in Aviation Photography

aviation photography

Nearly everyone in aviation photography is trying to get nice shots of a Dreamliner in the air.

This is reason # 6,579 why my wife thinks I’m weird, I thought as I headed out the door, camera and monopod in-hand.

I had just explained to her that, on this sunny Sunday, I was off to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to take a photo of an airplane. Well, not just any airplane – I’d heard that American Airlines was testing two of its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft out with practice runs. And that Sky Harbor was one of the spots.

aviation photography

Here I am trying to get artsy with a Dreamliner photo. This is the most-distant shot I got; but even from so far away, the huge upswing of the wings screams “Dreamliner.” The wings droop down considerably on the ground.

I consider the Dreamliner one of the prettiest commercial aircraft to ever fly. And Sky Harbor is unlikely to see many of them since it’s essentially an overgrown regional airport … and the Dreamliner is made to fly far – I’ve flown San Jose-Tokyo, Shanghai-Los Angeles and Houston-Chicago on one (OK, that last one isn’t very far). This was a rare chance to see a Dreamliner in my home city.

Now, I’m an opportunist of a photographer. I’m the sort of guy who will hear about something, do a little bit of web browsing in sites like FlightAware.com, grab his camera and go. I imagine better-prepared people who truly think of themselves as aviation photography experts will dive into tail numbers and flight plans – maybe even tune into a scanner.

aviation photography

The flag makes in interesting foreground object in this Dreamliner shot.

Me? I stepped outside my door, looked south to the Sky Harbor flight path a few miles away. Oh, and I grabbed my Pentax K50 and an old 70-200mm autofocus lens. This thing is old, cheap but very good – one of the reasons I started Pentax was because its cameras are backward-compatible with old lenses – and they have the image stabilizer in the body. One more thing before I pipe down about Pentax – the K50 is also weather sealed.

Anyway, I noticed that planes were landing from the west … and muttered dark curses. That means I had to drive a bit further, and navigate one of the most unpleasant parts of Phoenix to get a shot.

aviation photography

The light poles, powerlines and billboards were making me crazy.

The area west of Phoenix is a study in blight. That, and it’s criss-crossed with tangles of powerlines, dotted with ugly building just tall enough to be in the way and infested with billboards. On the other hand, it traffic was landing from the east, I could: plunk myself on a bridge over Tempe Town Lake; sit atop a nice sandstone butte; maybe even scale A Mountain. The options are numerous, and far more scenic.

As it was, I found a decent place to park … a fenced-but-unlocked mass of crumbled asphalt smack between the two southern runways, and the northern runway. This presented a bit of a problem – I wasn’t sure where the Dreamliner would land.

aviation photography

My favorite one since it was so up-close and personal.

My gut feeling: It would come into Runway 8 since it’s the longest. But I wasn’t sure – I kept sprinting into good positions between the flight paths, trying to ID each aircraft as it came in to see if I could get in decent position for a photo. FlightAware gave me a good idea of the arrival time, but you know how that can go.

After a long parade of 737s, small Airbuses and CRJs, I finally saw something coming in with the distinctive upswept wing I associated with the Dreamliner. It was lined up for Runway 8 as I guessed … and damn, was that thing graceful in the air – and noticeably bigger even from distance. I had the powerlines and billboards to content with, but that’s life. Maybe I’ll be able to catch a future Dreamliner landing from the east side.

Overall, I’m happy I caught a few shots of the American Airlines Dreamliner. I did some minor contrast correction, and got a bit artsy-fartsy with one of the shots. I don’t feel like any were spectacular, but aviation photography isn’t easy. I need to spend more time getting the shutter speed just right so all the details come in nice and sharp, but without being too underexposed. I’ll have to try another time for that perfect shot.

There are probably locals who know better places to catch some good photos. I hope they’ll read this and share a few tips with me.

4 thoughts on “Chasing the Dreamliner – A Lesson in Aviation Photography

  1. Peter

    Hey Justing,

    you did pretty much what I did recently. Normally I go to an airport and shoot all the planes coming in and/or out of this airport.

    Recently I was heading to Sea-Tac just because of IcelandAirs airbrushed plane called Hekla Aurora.
    What a beautiful plane and I went out just for this one.
    The day it should arrive, it was 2 hours delayed and at that time it would be already dark. I had to reschedule for the next day and trying to get a departure photo. Which worked out pretty good. Seattle airport doesnt have a lot of really good spots. I love San Francisco way more or even Munich 🙂 Another great one is LAX where they come in right and low over your head.

    I love aviation photography and yes I get into registration numbers 😉 All this watching planes and figuring out the right model helped me sovling a geocache challenge 🙂

  2. Wandering Justin Post author

    Ha, ha! I could tell that you’re my kind of character! I’ll bet Sea-Tac is great. Do you ever go out to Paine Field?

    I’d love to spend some time at Keflavik (I really like the 757) and at Incheon or Tokyo Narita.

  3. Peter

    Yeah I’ve been a couple times out there and also numerous times on the boeing factory tour. It never gets boring 😉

    I have to go out there when they move the planes accross the freeway. Do you know where i can find a timetable for this or is it just trial and error 😉

  4. Peter

    BTW:

    If I make it ever to Phoenix I will give you a buzz and we can go and take some pictures together 🙂

    Or let me know if you will be somewhere along the west coast…

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