The first thought that comes to mind staring at the photograph above is: This has got to be fake. The B-2 stealth bomber looks practically pasted onto the field. The flag is unfurled just so. The angle feels almost impossible, shot directly down from above.
And yet, it’s real, the product of lots of planning, some tricky flying, and the luck of the moment. The photographer, Mark Holtzman, has been flying his Cessna 206 around taking aerial images for years, since before the digital-photography days, and he’s developed his technique for just this sort of shot.
“The plane is my tripod, and it is a moving tripod,” he told me. In fact, the way he took this photograph was literally half-hanging out the window of his plane, his Canon 5D Mark III fitted with a 70–200 mm lens, working the rudder pedals on his craft to put himself in position to fly right over the bomber, as it approached at 200 miles per hour from the opposite direction.
As a dedicated amateur photographer, I spoke with him about the sheer improbability of this photograph, the nerdy technical details, and how you get the authorities to let you fly your Cessna over a B-2.
Alexis Madrigal: First, how do you get cleared to be in that airspace? Is it restricted?
Mark Holtzman: Most of the time, they have a TFR, temporary flight restrictions. Above that, I can fly. But I’m always talking with them. It’s run under the Pasadena Police, so I get a clearance. They don’t want anybody just flying around during a big event like that, even though you theoretically can. So I was on a discreet frequency, the same frequency as the B-2, talking to them. They know me now.
Madrigal: How high are the military jets flying?
Holtzman: Minimum altitude anybody can be is about 1,000 feet. So, they are roughly 1,000 feet above the people. I was about 2,500 feet above them.
Madrigal: Were you using a pretty huge lens?
Holtzman: Well, the lens I had out was a 70–200 mm lens, but I was really at the 70 mark on it because my goal was to catch the whole stadium.
Madrigal: So that’s the picture as you took it right out of the camera, or did you have to crop it?
Hotlzman: I always crop it a little. I had to rotate it a little. In the uncropped version, I had the whole stadium, plus some of the parking lot. Unlike film, the way you shoot digital is you shoot wider and crop it in. It’s hard. Things are happening really quick. It’s very fluid. I’m flying at 100 miles per hour. They are flying 200 miles an hour in the other [direction]. So, that’s 300 miles per hour. Things happen really quickly.
Madrigal: How fast are you shooting? What’s the shutter speed? (A typical indoor iPhone photo might be exposed for one-tenth to one-30th of a second.)
Holtzman: I’m always over 1,000 [that’s one one-thousandth of a second—or very fast]. It’s always safer to be there when you’re flying.
Madrigal: Can you give me a little more on the logistics of catching the moment?
Holtzman: First you have to figure out what you want to show. For me, my goal was to put the B-2 inside the stadium, preferably in the grass. And I don’t want to block any of the names or other stuff. For this picture, if you block the flag, it takes away from it.
So, first you’re trying to find the B-2 as it is flying toward you. Everything is fluid. I am moving around. They have to be on their target and you have to be on yours. There are no shortcuts. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Madrigal: One thing that makes this image so spectacular is that it feels like you shot it straight, straight down onto the bomber. It’s such an unusual view.
Holtzman: It was pretty much angled straight down. But to be honest, I was just going for the picture. I had my son with me in the backseat so I could make sure that one of us saw the plane coming in. Because things are happening and sometimes you don’t focus on them quick enough. But once I’m on shooting, I’m kicking the rudders around to try to put the plane wherever. My feet are always on the rudders and I’m always moving. [Update: For those worried about Holtzman’s safety, he flies with a copilot. His teammate that day was Sevak Sargsyan, an experienced commercial copilot.]
Madrigal: It’s like you said, your plane is your tripod.
Holtzman: I’m moving the plane around and sticking my head out the window. And then I’m moving the plane, kicking it around left and right to get what I want. It’s not like I’m in a blimp right above it waiting for it to fly.
Madrigal: When I first saw it, I thought maybe you’d mounted the camera to the bottom of the plane.
Holtzman: I do have a camera hold in the bottom, but I almost never use it. I need to keep a literal eye out for this thing and then watch it through my lens, then kick the plane anyway that I can. It’s a handful. It’s the challenge. Where he ended up, I started rolling it over to get [the plane] inside [the stadium], so I could get a vertical picture. I hate to say the word, but I am totally oblivious to where my plane is aiming.
Madrigal: Are you literally hanging out the window?
Holtzman: I try to stay inside because I don’t need the wind buffeting me. But I am oblivious to everything else except getting that picture. I get into a zone.
Madrigal: That’s when photography becomes more of an athletic pursuit.
Holtzman: It’s like the photographers in combat when they are overseas. They can get themselves in harm’s way because they are looking through a camera. You do get that way up there. But there is a lot of thought going into it before and we’ve been pretty successful. When I saw the flag go open, my eyes lit up. I knew I had a nice picture, if I could get this guy in the frame. But it’s luck. It’s just timing.
Madrigal: What do you think it costs you to do one of these flights?
Holtzman: Just the gas alone is $100 per hour.
Madrigal: What’s your background? Military aviation or just learned to fly? And how’d the photography get in there?
Holtzman: My background, I grew up taking pictures. My dad took pictures. We had a darkroom. Then I got my pilot’s license at 17. In Burbank [California]. My background’s in music. That’s what I’ve always done. Then I worked in a family business, as a lifeguard, as a paramedic. I wasn’t going anywhere with the family business, so one day I just decided to become an aerial photographer. I’d never met an aerial photographer. I didn’t know they existed.
Madrigal: This was a while ago?
Holtzman: This was back in the days before digital. There I was taking a camera up. No GPS, using a Thomas guide to find where I was going. You find the site, hopefully, sometimes you didn’t. Then you’d bring your pictures in and get it developed and then a day later, you see what you got. In retrospect, I can’t believe I did that. Then, when digital came along and GPS came along, it was instant gratification and you could find things easily.
Madrigal: Have you dabbled in drones?
Holtzman: No. It’s just not what I do. I don’t want to be a wedding photographer either. I’m not against it. The low-altitude videos are wonderful. Unfortunately, in California, in Los Angeles, everyone thinks they are a cinematographer, so a lot of people are flying around and a lot of it is illegal and can be dangerous. My son calls them just a different tool, but for this kind of stuff you couldn’t use them to do it.