In the calm before the storm the air felt cool and damp. Always valuable to give heed to a sign foretelling a change in our high desert weather. Forecasters predicted the coming event far in advance, and soon it would hit. In the hours before the developing cloud cover began to blot out the pale winter sun, I found myself airborne in a small plane.
As Bill cut the throttle, we cruised to a slower speed of about 60mph. When the door was open, so I could get clear shots without obstructions, the blasting cold air continually filled the cockpit. It didn’t take long for my fingers to become slightly numb holding the cold metal camera body. Soon felt like I was holding a small block of dry ice. But below, splashes of intermittent light were dazzling between cloud shadows. Forgetting my discomfort I zeroed in on making aerial landscape photos.
In the past, I had used the versatile Canon 24-105mm lens. For this flight I mounted my 150-600mm lens, made by Tamron, onto the Canon camera body. This is a lens that sits inside my camera bag more than it should. It’s a long, make that very long, lens, measuring 17 inches from the tip of the lens shade to camera body mounting ring.
My friend and pilot, Bill Niehues, has been taking me up for aerial photo adventures for a few years now. I felt comfortable asking him. He said it’s fine. Just don’t let it get in the way. The plane is not large. Between my legs I must leave room for the joy stick to move. It’s vital in keeping the plane aloft. So, bumping it or restricting its movement is really not a good option. I had never used this lens in the plane before, and was curious how the experiment would pan out.
After lift off we followed the deep canyon of Wet Beaver Creek tracing its course eastward, passed over historic V-Bar-V ranch, and circled back to look down on ancient ruins atop Sacred Mountain. Near the end of our flight, after being airborne an hour and a half, we were returning to the Sedona Airport. The patches of light below us now moved faster than before as they raced up and over progressive ridge lines like a stampede of storm-crazed cattle. The wind vigorously cracked the whip chasing the last pockets of light over the Mogollon Rim toward Flagstaff and on to majestic Grand Canyon.
Bringing the big beast to photograph the pre-storm drama began to pay off. With the twist of the zoom ring I brought the red rock formations in close and cropped out everything but the point of most visual impact. The telephoto lens also compresses space, so it stacked together two different ridge lines making a more dynamic wall of stone. Atop the formation, the jagged edges stood crowned by regal light against a shadowy background.
The plane is not always a smooth ride and the long lens multiplies any movement. To get a crisp, sharply-focused image is a real challenge. After making a few camera adjustments I was shooting at 1/5000th of a second, f/7.1 at 1600 ISO. The settings delivered the best results possible. Yes, the high ISO caused more grain/noise than a landscape image shot at 100 ISO from a tripod. But a long lens in a small plane with a brewing storm and an open door drawing in the winter cold while gripping my camera with numb fingers…. Well, that might be a little overly dramatic, but you get the idea.
Sometimes the most peaceful-looking landscape photos have the most dynamic stories behind them. And this is one of those photos.