The Making of “Wingman”

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PPA Imaging Excellence Image & Finalist
For the World Cup of Professional Photography
by
Mark McCall
M. Photog., M. Artist., Cr. CPP

When I was growing up, there was a county airport within a stone’s throw of the family farm in Slaton, Texas. I’d gaze through the chain link fence at the vintage American aircraft arriving for small county air shows. Having a keen interest in history already, watching articles of American aviation history was just icing on the cake. About that same time, I had developed an interest in photography as well. The mold was set.

Years later, when my son was old enough to go to air shows, I would pull him through the show in a wagon that doubled as a photo gear hauler. It was our Dad/Son time and he became quite the expert on military air power as he got older.

About 2004, I began to tinker with the idea of blending aircraft images into dogfight scenes depicted in my history magazines. Without regard for direction of light, color harmony or composition, I entered my first attempt that year into Texas PPA print competition on the suggestion of another photographer and wouldn’t ya know? It went Loan. And so it was. I’ve been humbled to have been recognized for my high school senior work, wedding images and my commercial work, but it’s the aircraft images that people remember.

Years later, I’m still honored when an image I’ve conceptualized is recognized in print competition, but my approach to making them is surprisingly simple. First, I get the “look” or the “idea” for the final image from something that inspired me, such as a scrapbook of art.

Military aircraft usually fly in pairs so there’s usually more than one plane in the final Image. Conceptualizing is the fun part. I try to make this as historically accurate as possible, which can be challenging. Not every plane shared the sky with one particular type of another. Knowing which planes flew during a particular era helps a lot.

In the scene, one plane will be closer to the viewer than the other, so that plane must be shot with a wider-angle lens. Aircraft in the background will be shot with a longer focal length. This will render the final image more believable as it’s captured as your eye would have seen it naturally. Although not done that way for this image (both images were the same focal length), this is my normal routine.

I’m also watching the direction of light. Once I have the two aircraft images chosen, people, railings, carts, wheel chocks and other items are removed. I regularly shoot storm clouds from my roof when a storm is rolling in, especially gloomy, blue rain filled clouds with some direction of light, avoiding cloud images that have hard, crisp or contrasty lines that separate varying tones. I also avoid “busy” clouds, often going for smooth, soft clouds, yet abundant in drama.

Once I have the two aircraft images chosen, people, railings, carts, wheel chocks and other items are removed. I always capture war birds from several, slightly different angles because I don’t always know the exact angle that will work best.

On my print competition hard drive is a folder called “Clouds” another called “Skies.” Each one is filled with thousands of images that get called up as needed.

Walking the tarmac at Canon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico, I was struck by the menacing look of the A10 Thunderbolt II in a near head-on profile. A virtual flying machine gun, she’s an imposing subject. I always capture war birds from several, slightly different angles because I don’t always know the exact angle that will work best. Better to have too many images than not enough.

Once I have the two aircraft images chosen, people, railings, carts, wheel chocks and other items are removed. This includes props if working on an older aircraft. Props are reintroduced to the image later after they are spun digitally.

Once everything in the space between the aircraft and myself are removed, I will start punching from the background. I’ve tried every type of masking tool, background removal tool out there but nothing did as well as I could do it myself using the polygonal lasso tool, set to .3-pixel feathering… just click and drag… click and drag. Yes, it is time consuming. But this is the craftsman part of the process. I go around every antennae, light, and control-surface. Detail is important. The image is then saved as a layered PSD.

Once everything in the space between the aircraft and myself are removed, I will start punching from the background using the polygonal lasso tool, set to .3 pixel feathering… just click and drag… click and drag.

After combining the planes with the background, ensuring light is falling in the same direction all around, some tweaking is often necessary. I will move the planes around to find the best composition. Banking one or both planes adds drama. A heat signature in the area behind the engines mimics the exhaust gases from the plane and adds to the realism and believability. This is achieved with Photoshop’s Filter Gallery under Distort>Glass or Ocean Ripple.

A detail enhancement filter gives the image the “illustrated” look. Sometimes I will paint the image using the mixer brush in Photoshop. When trying this yourself, brush the detail filter off the sky. It will make your clouds too “gritty.” For added impact, give the clouds a slight painterly look. A mat with colors from the image and my personal “beveled” stroke round out the image.

The resulting image has the three main things that I preach during the Print Competition Boot Camps: (1) Primary Subject, (2) Secondary Subject, (3) Story between the two. Sometimes they can be tied together with the title.

“Wingman” has been awarded Best Commercial Image from TPPA, Loan designation from IPC, and finalist USA entry at the World Cup of Professional Photography. The image hangs in the art collections of several USAF installations.

Mark McCall is a boutique portrait and commercial photographer in Lubbock Texas. Mark was the 2014 President of Texas PPA, was awarded PPA’s National Award in 2017 and holds the Imaging Excellence Awarded with 30+ Loan images.