Scenes from a Desert Airplane Graveyard

I know a lot of people get freaked out in a graveyard – but to me, an airplane graveyard is even more unsettling. Few of the residents seem ready for the scrapheap. It’s like carting a 50-ish person off to a deserted lot, him in a hole and shoveling dirt on him. Too young, too much still to give the world.

Just look at these. Imagine how much money is just sitting here – and most of it was fully functional before being stripped of useful parts and left to the elements.

Even if they can fly anymore, there are still plenty of perfectly good uses. I’ve stayed in two hotel that were once airplanes – one a 747 in Stockholm, the other a Bristol freighter in rural New Zealand. I’ve dined in a great old CIA cargo hauler in Costa Rica. And think of the company that makes homes out of 727s! I would love to live in one of these! And what worth are they as scrap, I wonder. And how long will they sit in the desert before getting turned into a cola can?

Anyway, I shot these photos at Phoenix Goodyear Airport GYRt, where there’s a pretty good-sized airplane graveyard for airliners. What you’ll see in these photos are airlines from all over the world, and not a bunch of old beaters. There’s only one DC-8-ish sort of plane, and a bunch of 757s, A340s and A320 family aircraft. Sure, the DC-10/MD-11 types are past their prime for passengers. But they’re likely the oldest by a long shot.

For some of these shots, I tried going in for close shots of the aircraft to convey the sense of decay.

airplane graveyard
I had to take this photo because it shows the amazing scale of the Boeing 747 – I’m pretty sure it’s a 300 series. But whatever it is, it’s hundreds of yards behind an MD-80 and a 737 … and still manages to make them look like light twins.
airplane graveyard
This Airbus A340 makes a forlorn backdrop as a light GA plane – probably with a student pilot – comes in for a touch and go. On of my favorite things about the older Airbus widebodies is that muscle car, nose-down look.
airplane graveyard
Three widebodies in one shot: a pair of DC-10s and a 767.
airplane graveyard
Here’s a closer look at one of the DC-10s, with its door and a lower panel open. It looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic film.
airplane graveyard
The missing radome and doors of this 777-200 are just depressing.
airplane graveyard
Signs of life at the old airplane graveyard.
airplane graveyard
A tangle of winglets, tails and stabilizers.
airplane graveyard
This cannibalized 757 is a bleak husk – a mangled corpse denuded of dignity.
airplane graveyard
I can imagine having this A340 delivered to some cool piece of property and turning it into the ultimate Wandering Justin house.
airplane graveyard
The mountains make a great backdrop here.

If you think visiting an airplane graveyard sounds like fun, check out my story about running a 10K race through one of the most-famous of them all!

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.

Five Ways to Make Your Vacation Photos Interesting

vacation photos
This photo is complete and total BS. It’s squashed from a wider shot to increase the relief. So don’t go to the Wind Cathedral in Namibia expecting to snap your own vacation photo like this.

I’m going to show you a valuable skill today: How to make your vacation photos interesting.

Now, many people these days use Facebook to show their vacation photos. This post assumes that’s your vehicle of choice. Still, even if you do something else, a lot of what I say here will apply.

Alright, let’s get this started.

Be discerning.

I don’t care if you took 7,351 photos. I don’t want to see all 7,351. If you want to make your vacation photos interesting, upload the absolute best of the best. Eliminate photos that are virtually identical. Keep group shots where you and a few people are saying cheese to a minimum. And honestly, far better photographers than you have photographed the world’s greatest landmarks – so seriously consider whether anyone needs to see yet another shoot-by-the-numbers photo of the Sydney Opera House. Pitch the blurry and boring. There. Now you’re down to about 84 photos (if you’re anything like me).

vacation photos
Just a shot of a cool moment. I could probably use a little bit of light photo editing to bring the colors out a bit … this looks a bit blue.

Say something about your vacation photos.

Like I mentioned earlier, far better photographers than you have shot the same place. Hell, some of your friends may have already been there. So say something about your experience, and what your photos will offer. DO NOT just name the place. You can be smirky and give your album an Upworthy-like clickbait name like "You Won’t Believe What Happens When I Go to a Thai Ladyboy Show!" Or you can play it straight – "Hiking in Jotunheimen, one of the coolest places I’ve ever been." Just offer a glimpse into what people will see in your vacation photos – and stay away from linear recitations of what you did that day. Nobody wants to read an itinerary.

Vik

Caption your vacation photos, already!

I have this one photo I took in Vík í Mýrdal. I love the little white church, the towering green mountains and the sunlight filtering through hazy air. But the most remarkable thing about it? I snapped it 10:45 p.m. That boggles the minds of people from lower latitudes. And you’d never know this without a caption – the right caption adds context, humor, information -- something.
Look, we all get lazy and skip the caption. I get it. But captions can make all the difference.

Look for Moments, Not Places

The bucket list mentality equals photos that suck. Tourists file like little ducklings to their destinations, snap their photos and herd themselves back onto the bus when the guide tells them to. They get the exact same photos because they’re thinking about places, not moments.
Let me give you an example -- I was just walking around in Hanoi, and I took a little bridge out to a Buddhist temple in the middle of a small lake. People were praying and bowing before an alter. Incense curled into the air and interacting with the light just perfectly, and I got this cool shot of people praying. This isn’t a landmark like Ho Chi Minh’s tomb or the Cu Chi Tunnels. But there was a perfection in that moment that made a far more interesting photo than you’ll usually get snapping a major landmark. There are ways to be creative with shooting landmarks, though. I’m not much good at this, so maybe you can pitch in with some ideas.

vacation photos
It took just a little bit of editing to compensate for not getting my camera settings perfect. But I resisted any urge to exaggerate the colors.

Stop editing the hell out of your vacation photos

Excessive photo editing ruins travel. The Internet overfloweth with jokers who use High Dynamic Range and Photoshop to turn photos into cartoonish versions of reality. And you get excited, book the trip, arrive and then find out it’s not truly a rip in space and time where every color is vivid and every sunset is the color of orange blossom honey.

Edit photos to make them closer to what you saw with your eye, not to exaggerate. Here’s the truth – my photos sometimes need help because I am a hack photographer. Once in awhile, I get lucky with an image like the one I snapped of Elijah on his horse. That came straight out of my camera with not a single adjustment to the colors. This is pretty damn rare for me, especially since I often shoot in challenging light. The thing is, reality is just fine without being turned into a caricature. Nature doesn’t need you to make it awesome. And all that tinkering is a lie. So stop it. Tell the truth with your photos.

Essentially, everything I’m saying is … tell a story. With your photo choices. With your captions. With your album names. What would you add about making vacation photos more interesting?

 

The Kangaroo – A Spotter’s Guide

Hold still, Skippy! My one half-decent wild kangaroo shot. And I’m not even convinced it’s not actually a wallaby.

A kangaroo in the wild is nothing like what you see in the zoo.

Stealth and speed kept me from getting many good kangaroo photos. I tried hard, everywhere from Kakadu National Park to the Atherton Table Lands.

First off, imagine the setting: Forest lands, often dotted with termite mounds. When you scan the terrain, you’ll see the trees. And you’ll see the termite mounds. Things get interesting, though, when a group of "termite mounds" starts to move. Fast. Their body shape at rest is an amazing camouflage.

From a distance, a good-sized kangaroo can look like a big ol’ termite mound.

Now, just set aside your notions of how a kangaroo moves when it’s hell-bent to get away from you. Forget everything you imagine about a placid, languid bounce.

Instead, imagine a furry missile streaking over the land. From what I could see, they fold their upper bodies parallel to the ground. They push off with their hind legs and project their considerable power back rather than up. The result is a tremendous burst of speed – and little chance for the camera I carried at the time to catch any action: My Fuji superzoom was great for landscape, but was just overmatched for trying to catch a fast, quick, camera-shy creature.

So if you want to photograph Skippy, remember these tips:

  • Be quiet
  • Be patient
  • Use an SLR
  • Bring a big, honkin’ lens, no less than 200 millimeters.

Aviation Photos – The 161st Air Refueling Wing/Phoenix Sky Harbor

Too big to fit in the frame - a 161st Air Refueling Wing KC-135.

Aviation photographers love any chance to get close to the action. And being on the ground level next to one of the runways at a major airport? Excellent. And if the vantage point is at a military installation? Jackpot!

A few years ago, a work event offered me that chance. The only downside is that I hadn’t yet advanced to using a digital SLR. I took these aviation photos at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, right at the home of the 161st Air Refueling Wing of the Arizona National Guard.

This excursion yielded some great perspectives of the 161st Wing’s KC-135 aircraft. I also grabbed some shots of a 727 and a brightly painted corporate jet. I also got some of the usual 737 sorts of aircraft that are the mainstay of Sky Harbor air traffic – not exactly the sort of thing that excites aviation geeks, I know. But the runway-level perspective turns them into a little something different.

Back from a flight.

My photo friend N. Scott Trimble was also there. I’d love to see what someone with his skills took home from the same place. Of course, with the sheer volume of images a working photographer generates, I expect most of these are long-gone from his hard drives. Then again, he is an aviation geek who might’ve squirreled a few away.

Now that I use a Pentax DSLR, I’d go crazy for another chance at some ground-level aviation photography at Sky Harbor.

The 727 - a blast from the bast.
A cool boulder with malachite - and some little airplane in the background.
The International Jet Dream Chaser takes off.
The tailboom in its upright and locked position.
Two of a kind.

Lessons Learned from 2 Years with a Pentax Digital Camera

This is what you can do with a Pentax DSLR.

Just before my trip to New Zealand (which was so awesome that I still can’t shut up about it two years later), I got a Pentax K-100 Super camera. It was my first digital SLR, and I learned tons from toting it on my misadventures.

And it’s given me some insight about the new entry-level Pentax, the K-x. Here’s my in-depth look at my camera and what it’s taught me to expect from the K-x.

New Zealand for the Photographer

tongariro mount doom
A few hearty shrubs are the first appearance of non-human life near Blue Lake.

New Zealand for the Photographer
Travelers who love taking photos will come home from New Zealand with some of their best-ever images. Here are three places you shouldn’t miss if you want to take photos worthy of framing and hanging – and maybe even selling. Also included – a few basic gear tips.
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Iceland for the Photographer – Tips and Locations

A glacier lagoon filled with icebergs.

Iceland for the Photographer
If you like traveling and taking photos, put Iceland high on your list of destinations. From people to landscapes, you’ll find plenty of amazing sights to aim your lenses at.
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