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Accidental Reporter

28th December 2015

Have Camera, Will Travel

One of my former careers was developing, publishing and marketing software for the tiny flight simulator industry. This fact alone entitled me to become a very big fan of aviation, even though I’ve loved all things that fly since I was a kid.

I’ve also had a lifelong affair with photography. Whether on the road for business or pleasure I always have a camera as a traveling companion. This was the case several years ago when I was on a long haul from Grand Rapids to Sydney.

My flight by way of Los Angeles arrived at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport early in the morning. While reading the local Sydney newspaper I learned that the first commercial flight of the Airbus A380 would be arriving from Singapore that afternoon. This was exciting news to me – for years I had been following the creation of this monster aircraft. Right then I decided that I would return to airport following a scheduled meeting in nearby Silverwater.

When I later returned to the airport, the lobby overlooking the tarmac was jammed with loads of very anxious onlookers. After considerable wrangling I was able to find a small standing space next to a window from which I could view the arrival gate.

The wait was about 30 minutes. Due to the inclement weather, you could see only the faint lights of the A380. They grew larger and somewhat brighter as the aircraft approached the runway. As the aircraft touched down, the crowd broke out into cheers and applause. Flight SQ380 then hurried past us, exited the runway and made a U-turn to taxi to the awaiting gate. Down below on the tarmac, scores of workers and dozens of vehicles were on hand to greet the arrival.

I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Being able to report on the arrival of this Singapore to Sydney flight back in 2007 is another reminder to me to continue to carry a camera while traveling.

And of course I was able to use the camera to take a few sightseeing pictures as well.

Written by Arnie Lee


Note: This is a reprint of an article originally published in 2010.

For quite a few years now, the beleaguered airlines have been slowly implementing ways to increase their revenues as they try to stem their losses. Quietly, airlines have been adding fees for food, checked luggage, pillows and blankets and now Spirit Airlines proposes to charge for carry-ons. In fact, the bold European airline Ryanair, has asked Boeing to design an aircraft with more seats and fewer bathrooms. They have publicly stated a plan to charge to use the bathroom.


NOTE: This article was originally written for the maiden flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in December 2009. I’ve republished it here since the Dreamliner has been in the news quite a bit recently and is now flying commercially as part of the All Nippon Airways fleet. Boeing is now ramping up production to deliver more than 850 of these new aircraft to some 58 global airlines. Here’s a short tale of a harried and hurried reporter.

A few short years ago, the Airbus A380 was the object of an extraordinary amount of excitement. During its years of development the A380 was the talk of the industry.  I recall my first sighting of the whale-like A380. It appeared to float in the sky as it made its first landing at Chicago O’Hare. A few short months afterwards, I watched as the A380 landed in Sydney, Australia after completing the first commercial flight from Singapore. In both cases, I was a lucky camper to be able to capture these moments on digital film.

Fast forward a few years and the object of excitement is changed. On Monday December 14th (2009) I arrive at the office in Grand Rapids about 7AM and open an email message telling me that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is about to make its first flight the next day from Paine Field near Seattle, Washington. During preceding months I had been planning to witness this event, but its date was postponed several times. To put it mildly, I am totally unprepared for Tuesday’s event and start to panic.


Shooting Planes

30th November 2010

Aviation Photography
learn from my many years of practice

Over the years, I’ve shot many planes – with a camera. In fact, I’ve been interested in aviation for a long time. I began taking pictures of all things aviation at a young age and recall the excitement of visiting the airport to pick up relatives. I would race to the rooftop viewing area to catch a glimpse of the planes like these:

Here’s America’s first jet airliner, the Boeing 707 Astrojet.

Taken in 1963 at Idewild Airport in New York. The airport is now known as John F Kennedy.

Let’s skip forward 30 years to the mid-1990s when our company has already become involved with flight simulation. I find myself immersed in the emerging new world of digital photography and am now ready to marry two of my long time interests: photography and aviation. With digital, the equipment and processing techniques are radically different from conventional film photography. But the basics of photography haven’t changed much. Therefore I’m in a position to benefit from my prior photographic know-how.

The remainder of this article are a collection of tips that I hope you can use.

TIP: you don’t have to buy an expensive digital camera to take quality aviation photos. Below, I’ve listed the camera used for each photo. But you’ll see from the wide range of equipment I’ve used, that the camera’s maximum resolution isn’t all that important unless you are going to make large, printed enlargements. You’ll see that for web pages, resolutions that starting at 1.4 MP and increasing to 10+ MP are all quite satisfactory.

The vast array of digital cameras make taking aviation photos very forgiving …. and very inexpensive – verging on free. And with instant development that’s faster than a Polaroid, the built-in color LCD gives you immediate feedback so you can try again when you need to reshoot. You can hardly miss using a digital camera with silicon film and a computer as your darkroom.

The first digital camera that I used was a single lens reflex (SLR) called the Olympus C-1400L. With a resolution of 1.4 MP and 3x zoom lens, it produced very acceptable images. To take the photo of the Beech B200 below, I was standing behind a chain link fence. You can clearly see the vignetting of the image (shadow) at the upper left corner due to the fence. TIP: avoid fences Click the thumbnail below of the Beech B200 to see an enlargement. You’ll see that the photo is quite sharp and has a lot of detail. So you can see that 1.4 MP is quite adequate for photos that are destined for web pages.

Olympus C-1400L

Beech B200 at Lake Tahoe (KTVL) taken with C-1400L in 1998.
1280 X 1024 pixels (1.4MP)
A few years later, I graduated to the Olympus C-2000 with 2.1 MP resolution, also with a 3X zoom lens. The picture of Lake Mead was taken on approach into Las Vegas. TIP: sit by the window From my window seat, I was able to capture the rugged shoreline of the Colorado River / Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. The resolution here is fine enough to capture the boats skimming across the water. Minimize the glare by keeping the lens close to the window surface. If the sunshine is falling on your window, you may not be able to take quality shots since the glare may be excessive. When you’re ready to take a picture out of the windows, sometimes the direction of sunshine is a matter of luck.

Olympus C-2000
Lake Mead shortly before landing
in Las Vegas (KLAS) taken with C-2000 in 2000.

1600 x 1200 (2MP)

Aircraft normally make left-hand traffic – left hand turns on the approach to landing. So before the flight from Paris to Nice, I requested a window on the left side of the plane. This would allow me to see the approach to the airport over the blue Mediteranean. Had I been sitting on the right-hand side, I would be looking at a lot of sky as the pilot made left-hand turns! TIP: choose a window seat on the left side of the aircraft

Olympus C-2000
Flying downwind leg for landing in
Nice Cote D’Azur (LFMN) taken with C-2000 in 2000.

1600 x 1200 (2MP)

Many photos of aircraft are taken through the window of an airport terminal. While this is often the most practical way to get your snapshots, shooting through the glass introduces an extra layer which can degrade the final image. TIP: when possible, get out from behind the glass Many airports have rooftop viewing areas which not only are glass free but get you closer to the the action. On the roof, you may have views of the tarmac that are totally inaccessible from the terminal below.

Pentax Optio SV

Shot from the rooftop viewing area at

Amsterdam Schiphol (EHAM) taken with
Pentax Optio SV in 2003. 2592 x 1944 (5MP)

Many of the most impressive aviation photos are of planes that are either taking off or landing. TIP: take shots of takeoffs and landings For takeoffs, wait until the nose wheel is lifting off the runway. For landings, wait until the main wheels are just making contact with the runway. With a little practice you’ll hit it just right.

Canon Digital Rebel

Shot from the Sunset Blvd viewing area at
McCarran International (KLAS) taken with

Canon Digital Rebel in 2005. 3072 x 2048 (6MP)

One common complaint is that photos taken with digital cameras often lack contrast. TIP: boost contrast with software This problem is often solved after-the-fact after you’ve transferred your images to the computer. Many photo editing programs offer the “auto levels” feature which enhances the contrast, adjusts the white balance and make the overall photo snappier and more pleasing.

Olympus 720SW

Kalamazoo (KAZO) taken with Olympus 720SW in 2006. 2304 x 3072 (7MP)
Same shot enhanced with Photoshop Elements (auto levels) to make it more “snappy”

When shooting with lower cost digital cameras, there is often a delay between the time you take the first shot and the camera is ready for the next. If the delay is lengthy, you may miss an important photo. More capable cameras are able to capture multiple shots rapidly. TIP: be patient and don’t hurry the shot Very often, you’ll get the best shot by waiting patiently until the plane passes at the closest point to the camera. Below, you can see that by waiting for only a short time I was able to capture the right hand shot with much more detail.

Canon 20D

Shot a few seconds apart at Grand Rapids (KGRR) taken with Canon 20D in 2005. 3504 x 2366 (8MP)
For action shots, you’ll need to use a high shutter speed. TIP: use a shutter speed high enough to stop the action A shutter speed of 1/300 or shorter is usually able to stop the action. Most digital SLR cameras have a sports mode which can be used to photograph flying aircraft. With other digital cameras you can set the shutter speed manually. The fast-moving A-10 below was shot using the sports mode.

Canon 20D

A-10 landing at Nellis AFB (KLSV) taken with Canon 20D in 2006. 3504 x 2366 (8MP)
Get the lighting right. For maximum detail, you’ll want to make sure that the sunlight is shining over your shoulder as you shoot. TIP: keep the sun shining over your shoulder Backlighting (light coming from behind the subject) makes for great silhouettes and shots of the sun, but it usually hides or obscures the detail. For best results, keep the light behind the camera.

Canon 5D

DC-9 departing Grand Rapids (KGRR) taken with Canon 5D. 4368 x 2912 (12MP)
Now is a good time to take the camera out of its case and head on down to the airport. I’ve found the best way to gain proficiency is to take shot after shot after shot. Afterwards, review the captured images to see your results and adjust your techniques accordingly. After all, digital film is free.

For other examples, visit our Photo Gallery that has hundreds of other aviation related photos.

To view another fantastic site with very impressive photos taken by talented photographer Ralph Duenas and other members, visit Jet Wash Images

Quick Definitions

MP – megapixel (million of pixels) – measurement of camera resolution (e.g. 3504 pixels x 2366 pixels = 8,290,464 pixels = 8 megapixels)

SLR – single lens reflex – a type of camera that allows you to view the subject directly through the lens

LCD – liquid crystal display – a small viewing screen that displays the subject, the captured image (or both)

Author: Arnie Lee Unless otherwise noted, photos are from the author’s personal collection.
Earth Day 2010
… 40 years and still counting
Note: This recently updated article was adapted from an article written for Earth Day 2007.

April 21, 2010 

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the first earth day. Here’s a personal recollection of some of the memories with photos that have followed me since this global movement was in its infancy.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano*

On a daily basis owing to my job, my thoughts are usually centered on the topic of photography, aviation and airplanes. But recently, a few things happened to jog my memory and I was carried back to the first Earth Day of 1970. Stick with me. I’ll get the other parts soon enough.

From the time I first started reading his compelling and humorous books, novelist Kurt Vonnegut has been one on my favorite authors. He died in April 2007 shortly before the original version of this article was published. With his passing I made it a point to listen to my favorite NRP radio station and to read the newspaper articles about one of America’s funniest writers of the 20th century. I also made my way over to the local bookstore to buy a few Vonnegut books so as to refresh my slowly failing memory with a few of his lesser known works.

The news coverage of his life and death had my mind wandering back to the late 60’s and early 70’s when I was a student at the University of Michigan (U of M) in the small city of Ann Arbor. Somewhere in that time frame, Vonnegut was asked to be “Writer in Residence” at the University. As one of the most widely read authors of the 1960’s generation, he was sure to have a large, welcoming audience among would-be writers studying at the U of M.

He sometimes frequented a small, local campus restaurant called “The Brown Jug” where he’d have breakfast and smoke lots of cigarettes. It was popular lore that he claimed smoking to be the slowest form of suicide.

My wife Kris, then a student and part-time waitress, was also a Vonnegut reader. On occasion, she would wait on him in the restaurant. She admitted, that owing to her hearing difficulty, she was not a very good waitress and therefore frustrated the celebrated writer with her (lack of) service. More to the point, his purpose on campus as writer in residence ended when he left prematurely declaring something to the effect: “I’m leaving Ann Arbor since I have nothing much to teach you about writing.” So it goes.


To put things in the proper perspective, 1970 was a very vibrant, exciting and yet conflicted era. I’m reminded of Charles Dicken’s quotation in my high school year book which aptly describes the period: “it was the best of times and it was the worst of times….we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way”. This was the period of Viet Nam and Kent State, living off the earth and making peace, hippies and long hair. We were contemporaries of heavy metal, Motown, James Taylor, Woodstock and The Beatles music. With this as a backdrop, we happen upon the Earth Day 1970 teach-in at the U of M.

Not long after Vonnegut’s departure from the campus, we were treated to a free music concert. The popular folk song artist Gordon Lightfoot came to town to perform for more than 12,000 screaming students in one of the large stadiums at the University. Gord had had been drawing large audiences around the US, Canada and Europe with his classic Canadian Railroad Trilogy (click for lyrics), a poetic ballad describing the building of the railroads across Canada and the difficult tradeoffs between developing the economy and keeping the land pristine for the future. His music was great back then and to this day, I remain a Lightfoot fan. I was so much the fan that two years ago I traveled to Las Vegas (by myself since no family member wanted to accompany me) to hear him in concert at the Orleans Casino. And I ended up staying for two of his performances. Would you believe that I even have a life size poster of Gord which I gifted to myself courtesy of the advertising manager at the Orleans?

Anyway, traveling back to 1970, we understood that Lightfoot’s appearance was part of what was to be part of the first Earth Day teach-in, a gathering of some 50,000 in Ann Arbor to discuss, educate and find solutions to environmental problems created by the earth’s inhabitants. From all of the excitement and the energy which went into the production of the first Earth Day teach-ins, many of us believed that we were on the verge of saving the environment.

As an economics student, I was counting on a future career that would revolve around conservation, ecology and recycling. At the time, I was deeply serious about this course of study. I studied writings from the likes of educators and humanists Kenneth Boulding, Buckminster Fuller and E.F. Schumacher and took courses such as remote sensing of the environment and cost-benefit analysis.

My great enthusiasm for all things environmental waned some time after graduating with a degree in Natural Resource Economics. It was fully a year later that I was still trying to find a job in this nascient field. Instead, I ended up in the computer business. So it goes.

As I usually stay away from public discussions about politics, I won’t comment on how well or how poorly the earth’s inhabitants have done to improve the environment over the past 40 years. However, like others, I have observed a very large and urgent movement in recent years to resurrect many of the same or similar ideas from these earlier decades that call for a change in our lifestyles.

As a side note, the Boeing 747 jumbo jet was introduced to the world at about this same time. Its launch was just coincidental to the first Earth Day.

So what does all of this rambling have to do with aviation and photography? {Among other topics, our company is involved with both flight simulation and photography.}

Well, to continue in the same vein, I thought it might be interesting to look at several aircraft and compare their individual environmental impact. Here’s a table that I compiled from publicly available data.





Fuel /


Boeing 727-200
1840 gal/hr
Boeing 747-100
3700 gal/hr
Concorde SST
6700 gal/hr
Airbus A300-600
1670 gal/hr
Boeing 747-400
3380 gal/hr
Airbus A320-200
800 gal/hr
Boeing 737-800
790 gal/hr
Boeing 777-300 ER
1800 gal/hr

Acknowledging that the raw data in the above table is open to much discussion, it is still interesting to compare gross numbers. When Earth Day 1 was held, the most was the most widely used aircraft of the time was Boeing’s 727. As you can see, the fuel consumption per passenger of the three-engine 727 was more than double that of the twin-engine Boeing 737 used as the daily workhorse today. As already noted, the original Boeing 747-100 appeared about the same time as Earth Day 1. And its fuel consumption was comparable to the Boeing 727. We see that today’s Boeing 747-400 has 20% better fuel economy today than its early predecessor.

As it is today, noise pollution was also a concern in 1970. Pushed by local community noise abatement regulations, many airports placed restrictions on night time operations giving us more quiet sleep time. At the same time, aircraft manufacturers were making continuous reductions in engine noise. By some accounts, we’re told that engine noise is 50% less than in 1970.

The industry has been on the right track over this time period. And preliminary estimates for the next generation Boeing 787, Airbus 350 and Airbus 380 promise even more improvements in fuel and noise.

I suppose we can draw some comfort from the fact that today’s aircraft are clearly more efficient today than the aircraft of 37 years ago. And look, we’re no longer flying the Concorde SST which had an atrocious fuel burn. But concerning the environment, the world today flies a significantly larger number of aircraft each day than were flown back in 1970. Yes, it’s true that we’re moving more passengers over longer distances and at faster speeds. But the unspoken costs to the common community for this mode of transportation are the continued high requirements of limited fossils fuels and the contribution of the fuel burn to global warming. In the Kurt Vonnegut tradition, it might be nice if we could become “unstuck in time“- go back and make a few corrections to the decision making of the past 40 years to steer us on a slightly different course.

Those of you who are fans of flight simulation might take at least a little pride in the fact that your hobby helps preserve the environment as compared to real flight. While the manufacturing of computers and computer usage do have an impact on the environment, the impact is not of the same magnitude as the manufacturing and operation of aircraft. So you might consider all types of computer simulation as a modest way to help from further damaging the world around us.

On the photography side, we can credit the overwhelming adoption of digital cameras for saving the environment from millions of rolls of film and the required chemicals to develop the the film. In addition to the great quality of digital technology, we benefit from a huge reduction of harmful photographic chemicals.

This past week we’ve seen how the activity of a single volcano in remote Iceland demonstrates the fragility of the global environment. The ash clouds produced by the eruption of Eyjafjallajoekull has created a cascade of disruptions in Europe. Not only has air travel been severely affected, but other commercial enterprises such as food suppliers and medical services have suffered.

To underline the impact of air travel on the environment I found a study that compares the carbon dioxide emissions from European aircraft operations and the volcano. According to the report, the daily CO2 output from daily aircraft operations is 345,000 tons compared to that of the volcano. I won’t disagree that this may be an unfair comparison – the public benefits from air travel while it’s questionable whether the pubic benefits from the volcano eruption. However, this exercise illustrates one of the costs to society from air travel.

As Mr. Vonnegut reiterates from his Slaughterhouse Five, so it goes.

For those of you who have the inclination, here are few links to Earth Day sites.


Author: Arnie Lee, former flower child and President of Abacus

*Eyjafjallajokull volcano photo used under creative commons license by Narisa via Flickr.
Unless otherwise noted, photos are from the author’s personal collection.

Address any comments about this article, to Arnie via email

Canadian Railroad Trilogy

By Gordon Lightfoot

There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run

When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun

Long before the white man and long before the wheel

When the green dark forest was too silent to be real

But time has no beginnings and history has no bounds

As to this verdant country they came from all around

They sailed upon her waterways and they walked the forests tall

And they built the mines the mills and the factories for the good of us all

And when the young man’s fancy was turning to the spring

The railroad men grew restless for to hear the hammers ring

Their minds were overflowing with the visions of their day

And many a fortune lost and won and many a debt to pay

For they looked in the future and what did they see

They saw an iron road running from sea to the sea

Bringing the goods to a young growing land

All up through the seaports and into their hands

Look away said they across this mighty land

From the eastern shore to the western strand

Bring in the workers and bring up the rails

We gotta lay down the tracks and tear up the trails

Open your heart let the life blood flow

Gotta get on our way cause were moving too slow

Bring in the workers and bring up the rails

Were gonna lay down the tracks and tear up the trails

Open your heart let the life blood flow

Gotta get on our way cause were moving too slow

Get on our way cause were moving too slow

Behind the blue rockies the sun is declining

The stars, they come stealing at the close of the day

Across the wide prairie our loved ones lie sleeping

Beyond the dark oceans in a place far away

We are the navvies who work upon the railway

Swinging our hammers in the bright blazing sun

Living on stew and drinking bad whiskey

Bending our old backs til the long days are done

We are the navvies who work upon the railway

Swinging our hammers in the bright blazing sun

Laying down track and building the bridges

Bending our old backs til the railroad is done

So over the mountains and over the plains

Into the muskeg and into the rain

Up the St. Lawrence all the way to Gaspe

Swinging our hammers and drawing our pay

Driving them in and tying them down

Away to the bunkhouse and into the town

A dollar a day and a place for my head

A drink to the living and a toast to the dead

Oh the song of the future has been sung

All the battles have been won

Oer the mountain tops we stand

All the world at our command

We have opened up the soil

With our teardrops and our toil

For there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run

When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun

Long before the white man and long before the wheel

When the green dark forest was too silent to be real

When the green dark forest was too silent to be real

And many are the dead men too silent to be real

Action Tip #3

11th January 2010

There’s beauty at 30,000 feet and 600 miles per hour. Here’s how I’ve been able to capture some of this beauty when I’m flying way up high.

Up, Up and Away Suggestions

  1. Ask for a window seat on left side of the aircraft. Approaches to landing are most often made with left hand turns.
  2. Turn the camera’s flash off.
  3. When the light is dim, set the ISO to 800 or higher.
  4. Avoid shots when the sun is shining directly at the plane’s windows.
  5. Rest the camera lens gently against the window.
  6. For takeoffs and landings, you’ll need to use a shutter speed of 1/250 or faster.
    At cruise, you’ll be able to use a shutter speed of 1/125.

On an early morning flight we passed over the Rockies. The snow capped peaks make for a great contrast to the dark mountain base.

Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft passes through the lower layer of clouds on the way to open skies. The sun is starting to peak through the upper layer.

Here’s another attractive formation in the Rockies. I was lucky to have the warm color of the morning sunrise shed its even light on the mountains.

There’s beauty closer to the earth too. Here’s a shot of a picturesque river on approach to the Munich Airport.
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