CD: Chad, thanks for joining the FUSEVISUAL Project. We have known each other for years and approach aviation from very different viewpoints. Aircraft photography is a specialized niche within a niche. What is at about airplanes, helicopters, and jets that gets your motor running?
Chad Slattery: I grew up in southern California in the early 1960s, when it was the epicenter of aircraft development and flight testing. I spent my allowance on model airplanes and aviation magazines. I loved the way aircraft looked. At age 12, I mooched my Mom's Brownie Hawkeye and started making pictures of the models. My airplane phase lasted until I discovered girls in high school—suddenly airplanes seemed like a kid thing. In college I edited my yearbook and asked the photographers to teach me how to use a camera, so I could directly translate my concepts into images. When I got my first job, as a travel writer at the Auto Club, I was the only one in the department who could take pictures. Pretty soon I realized taking pictures was a lot easier, and much more fun, than writing.
CD: How did you transition to a professional photographer?
Chad Slattery: I returned from a two-year global travel stint determined to make photography a career. I held part-time jobs for four years while I built up my equipment and portfolio. Nobody ever told me about assisting—that would have been a great short-cut. Every year I flew to New York and DC to show my work and especially to propose story ideas. I was fortunate and began shooting assignments for Smithsonian and the business magazines.
CD: So you began as an editorial photographer. What made you decide to specialize in aviation and aerospace?
Chad Slattery: In 1986 the Smithsonian launched Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine. The photo editor called and said that if I knew anything about airplanes, I should send him some ideas. The next day I sent him a dozen story proposals, just drawing on stuff I remembered from being a kid. I've been shooting for them ever since. At some point I realized that not only was it my favorite subject, but because it was a niche requiring specialized knowledge, there was less competition. By 1995 I had pretty much stopped chasing any other work. Basically I'm doing the same thing now I did when I was a 12-year old boy: making pictures of airplanes.
CD: In the editorial realm, you also write, with a deep understanding of aviation and aircraft. How did you develop your writing skills to match your photography?
Chad Slattery: I've always been a relentless reader, so the writing ability probably seeped in through osmosis. I also read books by writers on how to develop stories and then tell them. Every year I re-read Strunk & White's classic book. But it takes me ten times longer to write than it takes full-time writers.
CD: Your lighting of aircraft is believable and dramatic. Tell me a bit about how you light, your approaches and the difficulties you face with interiors and exteriors.
Chad Slattery: I pray daily to Gregory Heisler, the god of lighting. He taught me that you need to create just one spot of believable light; everything else, you can go crazy with. In the air, the simplest way to get a guaranteed money shot is simply drag the picture airplane alongside for a couple of 360-degree circles late in the day. On the ground, I use AlienBees and PocketWizards at dusk to light exteriors. I also use a flashlight to paint in dark areas. The biggest challenges are getting permits to shoot on large airports, and worrying about airport security lights throwing their weird colors onto planes as my exposures get up to the 8 and 15 second range. For interiors, I mask the windows with vellum and use the diffused light as my main source, then even everything out with Photoshop in post. The biggest challenge there is placing my camera inside the tinier business jets, plus how hot they get in summer. I measured it at 120 degrees once. You have to drink a lot of water.
CD: What has been your most successful or challenging image and how did you create it?
Chad Slattery: The toughest job was a cover I created for Air & Space magazine's tenth anniversary issue. Since X is the Roman numeral for 10, and stands for experimental in aviation, and has a nice vertical shape, I wrangled sixty airplanes at California's Mojave airport. They painted part of the runway black and then marshaled the planes into a huge X as they arrived. I shot it from a helicopter looking straight down. But my favorite image is a B-58 Hustler, also shot straight down but this time from a 120-foot boom lift.
CD: How is aviation photography different from say, automotive photography or interiors?
Chad Slattery: Like any niche, you need to speak the language—to say stabilizer instead of tail, know a Gulfstream IV from a IV-SP, know how to pronounce "pitot"—that sort of thing. Above all, you have to have a good reputation; nobody is going to let a newbie come photograph his $71 million Gulfstream G650. And you have to know how to navigate permit and insurance processes at controlled airports.
CD: What advice would you give a young photographer who is in love with photography and considering a career photographing jets and aircraft?
Chad Slattery: Get a pilot's license; find a mentor; immerse yourself in aviation's history; learn Photoshop; get good at photographing people too (for editorial assignments); and develop video chops.