Paul Bowen

Paul Bowen
Air-to-Air Photographer
By Matthew Sinclair

Paul Bowen is staring through the viewfinder of his Canon EOS-1D X as a jet, only 50 feet away, speeds directly at him at 200 mph. Luckily for everyone involved, the plane into which Bowen is strapped is speeding away at the same speed. This delicately choreographed dance is one with many partners, all of whom are following the deliberate lead of Bowen, while making their own expert adjustments.

Bowen conducts this aerial ballet by radio, communicating with his pilot, the lead plane, who then relays Bowen's directions to the target (chase) plane, which is simultaneously being tracked and studied carefully through Bowen's viewfinder and one of his L-series lenses.

Air-to-air photography involves capturing aircraft in action in mid-air, from a second, airborne aircraft. In other words, you have to go to your subject. If you want to photograph a pro football player in action, you don your trusty red vest and go to a football game; if you want to photograph a great white shark in action, haul your shark cage out of mothballs and charter a boat to Mavericks. Now, if you want to photograph an aerobatic pilot as she loops and corkscrews her way through the air in a vintage P-51D Mustang called "American Beauty," you strap yourself into a second P-51 Mustang and prepare yourself for a wild ride, complete with the requisite 4 Gs. At least that's what you do if you're Paul Bowen.

This may sound a little extreme, and it would be for a novice, but Paul Bowen has more than 40 years of experience controlling his exposures and guiding teams of aviators in order to capture an unabated view of both aircraft and broad, expansive, scenic contextual views. "All air-to-air shoots are a partnership," Bowen says. "I don't say this out of humility, I say it out of reality—it is a team effort." This partnership allows Bowen to ask his pilots to move their airplanes in increments of feet, allowing the envisioned image to be created exactly as Bowen chooses.

In an air-to-air shoot, safety is the name of the game. As such, Bowen insists that the pilots he works with are formation-flying experienced. "I do consider the pilots the heroes of the team." Without the heroic abilities of these pilots, Bowen might be a little more hesitant to ask for the nose of a propeller-driven plane to fly as close as 10 feet from his lens.

"It's critical and mandatory that we have formation-flying-experienced pilots with us," Bowen says. "That way, we don't have to worry about them putting their propeller into our airplane, which would just ruin our day."

While a high level of pilot experience is a must, Bowen must complete a preflight checklist that includes briefings to ensure that the artistic goals, as well as all known safety concerns are discussed, instead of waiting for them to become an issue in mid-flight.


TF-51 Mustang, known as "Kentucky Babe" - CHECK!

Shooting platform?

A World War II-era B-25 with the tail-gunner glass dome removed (Bowen's favorite shooting position) - CHECK!

Artistic briefing?

Bowen lays out his artistic goals for the flight to give his team a glimpse of his vision. - CHECK!

Safety briefing?

A team consisting of formation-flying-experienced pilots and Bowen and his assistant, Tom Jenkins, discuss possible concerns and leave the final say on maneuvering with the pilots. - CHECK!

Warm clothing?

You could easily confuse Bowen for someone about the hit the slopes, or maybe even compared to George Costanza in his puffy jacket, but make no mistake—this man will be far above the slopes. - CHECK!

Photographic equipment?

Bowen's usual gear bag reads like most photographers' B&H wish lists:

  • Canon EOS-1D X DSLR
  • 2x Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs
  • Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens
  • Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens
  • Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens
  • Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens
  • Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT flash

- Check and CHECK!

While Bowen can choose from an impressive collection of professional Canon L-Series lenses, he generally relies on his two favorite lenses, the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and the 24-105mm f/4L IS USM.

"I love grabbing the 70-200mm, and that would probably be my first choice, but it would not be a successful shoot without the 24-105mm," Bowen reveals when asked if he has a favorite lens. "As for my clients, I need to give them more space to work with... I usually shoot in tight the way I am visualizing, and then I rack it out and shoot it wider so that an art director can play with it."


The EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM covers an angle of view between 84º and 23º on full-frame cameras. On a cropped 1.6x sensor, focal-length equivalency is approximately 38.4-168mm. An Image Stabilizer offers up to three stops of compensation for camera shake, making this lens an effective tool for handheld shooting. It contains one Super UD element and three aspherical lenses, which reduce distortion and chromatic aberration across the zoom range. Optimized Super Spectra coatings suppress flare and ghosting. The result is a sharp image with high contrast and true-to-life colors, even at a wide angle. This lens requires a minimum focusing distance of 1.48', and autofocusing remains swift and silent powered by an Ultrasonic Motor. An 8-bladed aperture maintains a natural softness to all out-of-focus elements.

Image Stabilizer
Ideal for handheld work, IS Optical Image Stabilizer allows use of shutter speeds up to 3-stops slower with no perceptible increase in image blur.

Super UD and Aspherical Lens Elements
Constructed with one Super-UD glass element and three aspherical lenses, this lens minimizes chromatic aberration and distortion. The result is excellent picture quality, even at wide apertures.

Ring USM
Ring USM (Ultrasonic motor) uses ultrasonic frequency vibrations to drive responsive, near-silent high speed auto focus. Good holding torque stops the focusing lens group with precision without overshoot. Full time manual focus override is available without having to switch out of AF.


Bowen was once even told by a magazine editor that due to the high quality of recent digital cameras, they didn't need him to shoot verticals for their magazine covers anymore, the editor would simply crop a vertical out one of the many horizontals he could shoot instead. "Of course I didn't do that," Bowen divulges, "but it was a huge compliment to the cameras and it reminded me that I need to give room to the art directors for them to play with."

As for the lenses, Bowen reiterates, "I love the 70-200!... I can get really graphic with the 70-200 and get a lot of in-your-face, powerful-looking shots." This "in-your-face" look allows Bowen to isolate the target plane in what could be a vast and potentially overpowering backdrop. This isolation lets Bowen capture his "flying sculptures" while bringing out the personality of the airplanes. Air-to-air photography does bring with it many different challenges, but it also carries with it a lot of the same rules that apply to portrait photography. "You know, it's amazing, you can change the personality of the plane, just like you could a person, by the lens you use and the angle that you're shooting."

It is, however, important to note that Bowen is not photographing people, so if he does want to play with perspective and distortion he has much more latitude and all the tools he needs to do that. This is where the extremely talented pilots really come into play, allowing Bowen's working distance to shrink to as little as 10 feet while maintaining the full action of a plane in mid-flight.

"We don't want to distort the plane and make it look silly, but the reality is, sometimes we will put a wider angle lens on that stretches the nose of the plane or gives it a slightly different look, and there are times when the client absolutely loves it," Bowen explains. "We try to give them [clients] a lot of variety, so I don't mind interpreting their airplanes, their sculptures-their machines-the way that I see them."

So with all these great lenses to choose from, how does Bowen decide which lens to use?

"It's almost more determined by what the background is than what I want the subject to look like," Bowen explains. "If I want a wide view of the background, I'd shoot a relatively wide lens and pull the plane in closer to us to keep the plane fairly large. It depends on whether I want a lot of background or not."

The quiver that is Bowen's equipment bag would not be anywhere near complete without the Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. This lens allows for quick adjustments, from a wide scenic shot to a tighter, more concentrated shot without having to switch lenses.


"What I love about the 24-105mm is the image stabilization, but I really love that range," Bowen says, as he describes how he shoots with the layout and design team in mind: "I'll shoot verticals and horizontals, but I'll also come in fairly tight, and the 24-105mm allows me to do that without going to the 70-200mm.

"If I'm in the cockpit of a Mustang to shoot another Mustang doing rolls and loops and formation aerobatics and I can only take one lens with me, I'll take 24-105mm," Bowen says. Canon's Image Stabilization system certainly aids Bowen in making many of his images as he, and most shooters of moving subjects, prefer to avoid using a gyro or tripod in most dynamic shooting situations. "Image Stabilization certainly helps a lot," Bowen says, "I'm not on a tripod or any kind of a base-I'm cradling the camera."

In his specialty of air-to-air photography, Bowen faces many unique challenges. One such challenge is the limited range of suitable shutter speeds he can use; this is especially difficult when shooting prop-driven planes.

"If you're shooting a propeller-driven airplane, generally speaking, based on the rpm, you will get a full prop arc at 1/80 of a second or slower. If you really want to be safe, it's 1/60 of a second," Bowen explains. "If you're in a vibrating, moving-around, bouncing airplane that's pretty slow, the thing you don't want to do is stop the prop or it looks like it's about to crash."

So, when shooting a prop plane, Bowen has a working shutter-speed range of 1/60 to 1/500. This slower shutter speed will let the propeller make part or all of the rotation, creating motion and, in some cases, a full disk on the nose of the plane. This is where Canon Image Stabilization comes in handy, allowing the target plane, which is, ideally, staying relatively stable in its position to Bowen's lens, to remain sharp while the relatively slow shutter captures a very graphic and unique disk from the rotation of the propeller.

The other key issue Bowen deals with is the sheer temperature in which he is forced to photograph at such altitudes. "The other problem is the cold; it gets colder by about three and a half degrees for every 1,000 feet you go up. So if you're doing a sunrise shoot and it's 50 degrees on the ground, and you go up 10,000 feet to shoot, all of a sudden its 30-35 degrees colder and you're in some pretty cold air. You've got the doors or the windows off, so now you've got a wind-chill whipping around inside the airplane and it's below freezing. It's a very uncomfortable environment. Add the vibration and motion to the whole thing and that just compounds the difficulty."

So how does Bowen deal with the freezing-cold temperature? "Physically, I prepare for it as if I'm going snow skiing", Bowen says. "I may wear ski bibs." Bowen even found himself on an unplanned aerial shoot in Minnesota, following a fresh blanket of snow that created an irresistible backdrop. Being unprepared to deal with the brutality of minus 5 degrees, not including wind chill, a borrowed snowmobile suit was a life saver, even if it looked silly, Bowen remembers. "I looked like Ralphie's Brother in A Christmas Story; I've got the hood and big gloves and gloves within gloves," but he got the shots.

Thankfully for everyone involved, the cold doesn't have to be endured for too long. The fleeting quality of first and last sunlight rarely keeps Bowen and his team in the air longer than an hour and a half.

"As far as the [photographic] equipment is concerned, I give up before the equipment does." Bowen explains. "The real problem is that the cameras get cold-soaked, just like the airplane gets cold-soaked, and I don't care if you're wearing gloves or not, you're holding on to a big block of ice and your hands get really cold."

Paul Bowen carries within him one more challenge that may or may not apply to others, but this is a unique issue for someone who has chosen a career as an aerial photographer. "I'm afraid of heights," Bowen reveals, "which my wife cracks up at..."

So how does a photographer who is not a fan of heights get into the open tail of a B-25 and make images of speeding planes thousands of feet above the earth? Perspective. "Basically, if I'm up on a three-story building and I have to crawl to the edge of the hangar to shoot down, I am crawling and I'm uncomfortable, and if I get within 5 feet of the edge my legs get wobbly, but I could be up 10,000 feet with no problem," Bowen says. "If I fall out of an airplane at 10,000 feet I know what the result is going to be—I'm gonna die. But if I fall off the roof, I just might get hurt really badly, and I don't want to get hurt."

So how does a man who is, by his own account, afraid of heights get into aerial photography, much less thrive in a very specialized and demanding industry? Hard work and passion. "I treat every assignment as if it is the most important assignment I've ever had, so I try to push myself every time," Bowen says. "I'm not trying to document the airplanes, I'm trying to evoke an emotion... that's the hope. What I want them [the viewer] to do is look at my images and say, 'Oh my gosh, I wish I were there right now,'  and then, afterwards say, 'Oh look, it's a Lear jet,' instead of simply seeing the image as a document of the aircraft."

Signature Vortex Images

It was exactly this hard work and experimentation that led Bowen to happen across a new technique in his air-to-air photography. This technique has yielded some of the most breathtaking images of aircraft ever made and created what is now regarded as Bowen's signature style. "Whether I've chosen it or not, what's become known as my signature photo shots are my 'vortices' images," Bowen says. "It's the most fun to look at year after year. I think artistically and visually, they're the most interesting, and it adds an element of motion without doing any retouching to speak of... it's happening on every flight on every airplane, but you just can't see it, it's only revealed when there's smoke, or clouds or fog, for it to be seen."

Bowen recalls, "That really happened by happenstance—I was in the tail of the B-25, and we were off the coast of California; they have the marine layer [low-level clouds] there that is very smooth on the top and there's nothing underneath as you're out over the ocean. So we started dipping down on top of it, with me in the tail of the B-25, we're going about 200 mph and the target plane is a jet that is just kinda wallowing, almost like a boat that hasn't quite gotten on step, it's just kinda hanging back there, nose high, plowing along the top of the marine layer. I thought, 'wow, this is cool... let's get down a little lower and see what's happening,' and that has become my signature shot." In finding a way to visually share the often invisible aeronautics around every plane, Bowen has found a way to document the partnership between some of humankind's most advanced technological creations and some of the natural world's most beautiful creations together in one image.

"Not only are we up there, kind of from God's perspective, seeing the serenity of this beauty, but we've also got this cool airplane up here, too, that we get to play against this beautiful thing... I like to see the contrast of God's creation and man's creation." Bowen elaborates, "You've got this high-tech metal, sleek machine and then you've got this organic soft beautiful creation being lit beautifully in the background and the contrast of the two is pretty fascinating."

It is this gratitude-filled enthusiasm to create and share his breathtaking work that has recently brought Paul Bowen the greatest professional honors of his career. These two great honors come from Flying magazine and The San Diego Air and Space Museum. Thanks to Flying magazine, Paul Bowen is now known as #47, at least around his home. This is not because he is predestined to become president, but rather because he was recently named as #47 on Flying magazine's "51 Heroes of Aviation."

So how does a man who is not an astronaut or engineer-or even a pilot-make the list of Flying's "51 Heroes of Aviation?" The list includes aviation giants such as the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, John Glen, Chuck Yeager, Bessie Coleman, Donald Douglas, and Igor Sikorsky, to name a few. It is Bowen's dedication to making stellar photographs of aircraft from an up-close and personal point of view and the eagerness to share this unique point of view with the world, allowing us to fly with him—and without the nauseating, freezing, death-defying part, of course.

"It is amazing; I'm so humbled to be in the company of these unbelievably historic figures... I think the reason they included me was that I've been able to capture what I have and share it with others. It has brought a service to aviation that allows people who aren't in aviation to appreciate the art of aviation," Bowen says. "I'm blown away that they would even consider me, and the fact is that I could come up with 51 more people who could be in front of me on that list, without a doubt." Bowen jokes that "my kids now call me 'Number 47,' but they also love that Harrison Ford is #48 and we kiddingly say, "It will be the only list I'll ever be ahead of Harrison Ford on."

The second great honor to be bestowed upon Bowen, in the fall of 2013, was his unexpected induction into the San Diego Air and Space Museum's Hall of Fame. These amazing honors have found the surprisingly grounded Bowen a little flat-footed, as he describes, "I really am humbled by it; I mean, I'm just a photographer and I'm surrounded by heroes and I think I'm there for comic relief or something," but he confirms, "It's the frosting on the cake."

Even with decades of experience in air-to-air photography and more than a thousand magazine covers, Bowen's unique point of view continues to evolve, allowing all of us to continue seeing the air from a whole new perspective.

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Hi Paul, Thought you might like to see this. I don't think I'm ever going to be your competition, but it's a time and place most people never saw. ESA