Beechcraft T-6C Airplane

I was fortunate to be able to attend the 2012 “Salute to Veterans” airshow during Memorial Day weekend in Columbia, Missouri. The airshow attracted thousands of onlookers to see aircraft dating to the World War I era as well as newer aircraft that included modern jets. Most planes were available on the tarmac for close viewing by admirers and photographers like me.

The black and white photo discussed today shows a section of a Beechcraft T-6C airplane. The section photographed was located behind the cockpit.

The T-6C, a single engine turboprop built by Hawker Beechcraft, is used extensively by the Air Force and Navy for basic pilot training. I liked the plane because of its importance to our military and also because it displayed a T-6C symbol on its side. Including things in photographs that help identity them is something I try to do whenever possible and the T-6C symbol provided that opportunity.

The Scene

The photo equipment which I took to the airshow consisted of a 4inch x 5inch view camera, four lenses, a regular bellows for three lenses and bag bellows for a wide-angle lens, black & white film, a 1-degree light meter, colored filters, a heavy wooden tripod (for most photos), a smaller lightweight aluminum tripod (for tight spaces) and a two-wheeled cart to transport everything across the huge tarmac.

A large number of photographers attended the airshow and I believe that I was the only one who used film rather than digital capture. I certainly was the only photographer to use a view camera rather than a small hand-held camera. Surprisingly, I saw practically no photographers using a tripod other than me.

Reactions of people to my view camera and film were interesting. Many younger photographers took one quick look at my “outdated” equipment and seemed to dismiss me as someone who was not credible. Older people tended to watch me work and seemed to take me more seriously than they did other photographers.

This paid off handsomely since several older people went out of their way to cooperate for my photographs. One high-ranking retired pilot who was 92 years old walked across the enormous tarmac to pose for my portrait of him next to a specific airplane. Another pilot moved his huge bomber aircraft to a different location for my photograph. In fact, he moved the bomber twice to get the view that I wanted. Overall, I think my large, old-looking (but not actually old) photographic equipment created good opportunities for me.

Shortly after arriving at the airshow it became evident that most photographers were making similar photographs. They tended to photograph whole aircraft on the ground or airplanes flying high above. Those subjects are certainly reasonable for an airshow but I decided to concentrate on making different photographs – smaller details of aircraft. After all, many airplanes have beautiful lines and interesting textures. The photograph discussed today is one of those.

The T-6C airplane was painted a very dark blue color with a dark orange-red stripe and a white T-6C symbol. I had walked around the plane earlier in the day but did not photograph it. When I looked at the plane later, the sun had moved and direct sunlight splashed onto a small area of the plane’s side.

The sunlit area was close to the T-6C symbol and I liked how direct sunlight drew attention to the symbol. Sunlight also grazed part but not all of the orange-red stripe and added considerable visual interest to it. A large bolt also was bathed by direct sunlight to produce a nice shadow. The sunlit bolt and its shadow contributed substantially to the presence of direct sunlight on the plane and added front-to-back depth to a subject that was quite flat otherwise.

Overall, I thought the small amount of sunlight that fell on the airplane made its beauty more intense and more dramatic.

Composition

Rivet patterns on airplanes can be quite interesting and I had already composed a few images to emphasize them on other aircraft. Rivets are especially important to today’s photograph because they contribute to visual flow in the image.

The sky was bright and clear so the rivets and sheet metal reflected plenty of light even though the airplane was painted dark blue. I used rivets, sheet metal lines and the stripe to compose an image that had strong visual flow from left-to-right. I thought this was appropriate since the front of the airplane was located to the left of the image and air flowed left-to-right when the plane flew. Rivets also were aligned vertically in the composition to serve as a visual reminder that airplanes climb vertically into the air.

One advantage of using a tripod is that composing an image is slowed and the photographer usually takes more time to contemplate details. After I composed the basic image that I wanted, I spent about five additional minutes refining its composition. Those five minutes allowed me to notice small things that improved the composition.

For example, I noticed a wonderful reflection above the photo’s centerline near its right edge so I moved the camera slightly to include the reflection in my composition. I thought the reflection improved the composition for a couple of reasons. First, it helped support left-to-right visual flow. Second, the source of the reflection is not revealed so it adds an “unknown” element to an otherwise “nuts and bolts” photograph. The unknown element was especially appealing to me because I’ve always felt that flying incorporates a bit of magic. I thought the reflection provided a nice touch.

Overall, I believed the composition was quite good. Next, I had to decide how to expose the film.

I knew the image would benefit by separating the dark orange-red stripe from the dark metal around it. Fortunately, I was shooting black & white film so colored contrast filters could be used to alter the tones of colored objects at the best time to achieve maximum image quality – during exposure. I had an orange-red filter that closely matched the orange-red stripe. I knew this filter would lighten the stripe substantially so my first decision about exposure was made.

I was unsure about how to expose for the majority of the image area – the dark blue paint that was not illuminated by direct sunlight. Since those areas of the plane were very dark, my first inclination was to expose them for Zone II (very dark with little detail). However, I worried that poor image quality would result if I misidentified the darkest area so areas that were even darker would be inadvertently exposed for Zone I (nearly black) or Zone 0 (pure black). That mistake would cause a large portion of the image to become blocked black and uninteresting.

Even if I correctly identified the darkest area and exposed it for Zone II, variations in dark areas of the airplane would not be separated well enough to produce adequate texture. Since the majority of the photograph was quite dark, poor texture in dark tones would produce a lifeless image.

Why was I worried that dark tones would be separated poorly? Recall that I was shooting film. Poor tonal separation in Zone II was inevitable because the response of film to light is linear only near midtones of the exposure curve. Tones near the ends of the exposure curve (very dark and very bright tones) respond nonlinearly to exposure so poor separation occurs. Poor tonal separation in dark and bright areas sounds like a disadvantage but it can be a great advantage, too. For example, nonlinearity in bright areas of film helps avoid “blown” highlights that often result with digital cameras (digital devices are substantially linear through the whole exposure curve).

Personally, I seldom view film’s nonlinearity as a disadvantage during image capture but it certainly was a disadvantage for the photograph discussed today.Ifdark areas occupied only a small portion of today’s image, nonlinearity would not have been a concern. However, today’s image was dominated by dark tones so good separation among them was needed.

I decided to avoid the film’s dark nonlinear toe by exposing to place dark areas of the airplane closer to the linear mid-section of the film’s exposure scale. This would provide better tonal separation in my “raw” image (the film). I planned to darken tones later during digital editing when tonal adjustments are thoroughly linear.

Consequently, I placed tones from shadowed dark paint on Zone IV (slightly darker than middle gray) rather than Zone II (very dark with little detail). When I did that, my light meter indicated that the orange-red stripe fell mostly on Zone VI (slightly brighter than middle gray) if the orange-red filter was used. Bright reflections from rivets and other metal areas fell mostly on Zones VI – VII (slightly brighter than middle gray – bright with good detail). Normal (N) film development was appropriate.

If dark areas of the plane had been placed on Zone II, bright areas would have fallen on Zones IV-V and the film would have required N+2 development to lighten bright areas two f-stops to Zones VI-VII. Developing the film N+2 also would have brightened dark areas but only very slightly so the plane’s dark tones would have remained compressed in the toe of the exposure scale.

Depth-of-field demands for this composition were minor because the subject included only a relatively flat section of the airplane. The airplane was stationary so I was free to use nearly any f-stop and shutter speed. This freedom allowed me to improve the composition with a view camera adjustment even though it required a smaller f-stop (and thus longer shutter speed) to achieve adequate focus.

Left-to-right visual movement was a key element of the image and I wanted to emphasize it. Consequently, a swing adjustment was used to move the film slightly to exaggerate left-to-right parallax in the image. That is, left-to-right visual flow was increased by causing dimensions to appear larger on the left than on the right of the image. This is most apparent for the stripe which seems wider on the left and narrower on the right. Similarly, rivets seem to be larger on the left and smaller on the right. Using a view camera certainly requires more effort than using a small hand-held camera but it also allows important adjustments to be made during exposure. Today’s photograph is better because a swing adjustment was used with my view camera.

A 1-degree spot meter was aimed through the orange-red filter to obtain final exposure readings for the scene. The camera swing adjustment necessitated a smaller f-stop to achieve adequate focus but depth-of-field demands remained minor for the relatively flat plane. The meter offered numerous f-stop and shutter speed combinations and I selected a shutter speed of 1/30 sec and an f-stop of f/22. I exposed one film and was confident that my image was beautiful and different than most images acquired at the airshow.

Scanning/Editing/Printing

The 4inch x 5inch film was scanned at my usual resolution of 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth to produce a black & white digital image of nearly one GB in size. The scanned image is shown below without any editing.

It is obvious that the image is quite flat. Its gray level histogram showed that pixels were distributed in four main groups: (a) the T-6C symbol was nearly white, (b) most of the stripe and light reflections from rivets or edges of sheet metal were brighter than middle gray and had good detail, (c) most dark areas of the plane were slightly darker than middle gray and had good detail, and (d) the narrow gap associated with the airplane compartment at the lower left was very dark.

I was lucky that pixels in the four groups did not overlap much. This meant that I could modify the tones of each pixel group more-or-less independently of other groups by modifying the section of the curve for each group separately.

First, I made a quick Levels adjustment to the whole image. A Levels Adjustment Layer was opened in PhotoShop and named “Global Levels.” The histogram for the whole image showed that pure white pixels (255) were present but the darkest pixels in the image had a gray level of only 15 rather than 0 (pure black). Consequently, the white histogram slider was kept at 255 but the black slider was moved from 0 to 52.

This adjustment meant that pixels with gray levels of 15 to 52 became pure black. Those pixels were present only in the narrow gap of the compartment at the lower left. The absence of texture in the gap was okay since its area was small and pure black values were appropriate for the gap. The Levels adjustment created darker and richer tones for large dark areas of the airplane. The T-6C symbol, stripe and light reflections remained bright, as desired. The image below shows the result of the Levels adjustment.

Next, a Curve Adjustment Layer was opened and named “Global Curve.” Sections of the curve that corresponded to each pixel group identified previously were adjusted separately.

The T-6C symbol was largely but not totally white and I wanted to emphasize its texture slightly. The section of the curve that corresponded to pixels with gray levels 230 – 250 was bent slightly downward to darken bright pixels while leaving pure white pixels unchanged. Although the tiny web image provided here doesn’t show it, this edit created important texture in the symbol that is visible in prints.

The section of the curve that corresponded to pixels from small light reflections (e.g. rivets and edges of sheet metal) was bent upward to brighten the reflections. This edit added quite a bit of life to the image.

Next, the airplane’s dark (but not black) areas were tackled. My goal was to darken these areas while simultaneously increasing their contrast to enhance texture in the airplane’s dark areas. This was accomplished by changing the shape of the curve section that corresponded to the airplane’s large dark areas from linear to S-shaped. That is, the darkest region of this section of the curve was bent downward to darken the darkest pixels whereas the brightest region of this curve section was bent upward to lighten brighter (but still dark) pixels. This edit created considerably more texture in the airplane’s large dark areas although it is difficult to see texture in the tiny web image provided here.

Finally, the narrow gap of the compartment at the lower left was darkened very slightly by bending the darkest section of the curve downward. This helped emphasize the shape of the gap a bit more.

The result of the curve adjustments is shown below.

Next, I turned my attention to the broad stripe that was colored dark orange-red on the airplane. The stripe was lightened considerably by using an orange-red filter during exposure but more visual separation between the stripe and the dark metal surrounding it was needed. I also wanted to increase the feeling of direct sunlight on the airplane’s side. PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the stripe and a local Curve Adjustment Layer was opened for the selection and named “Stripe Curve.”

The curve was adjusted in two parts. First, the brightest areas of the stripe were lightened by bending their section of the curve upward. Second, the section of the curve that corresponded to rivet shadows on the stripe was bent upward but less than the previous adjustment for the brightest areas of the stripe.In other words, all areas of the stripe were lightened but rivet shadows were lightened less.

This increased the tonal difference between rivet shadows and brighter areas of the stripe to strengthen shadows on the stripe. The result of this adjustment was a notable increase in the feeling of direct sunlight on the plane.

The image shown below includes the curve adjustment for the stripe.

Lastly, local retouching was performed using PhotoShop’s Burn and Dodge tools. The original image layer (image from the scanner) was duplicated, named “Retouch” and placed directly above the original layer. Numerous edits were performed in the Retouch Layer to darken or lighten areas of the image.

The large area of direct sunlight was brightened with the Dodge tool to increase the presence of sunlight. Similarly, the large bolt to the left of the T-6C symbol was brightened to increase the presence of direct sunlight on it.

Some dark areas of the airplane were brightened slightly to increase tonal uniformity across the sheet metal. The edit is not easily visible in the tiny image shown here but it made the plane feel more solid in prints.

The left edge of the film had a defect which created a somewhat bright vertical stripe near the image edge. This area was darkened by burning to reduce its visibility.

Some rivets and some bright lines between metal sheets were brightened. This increased the visual importance of the plane’s structure.

Lastly, the visibility of a row of rivets at the image bottom near the right corner was reduced. Similarly, the visibility of a few rivets along the right edge of the image was reduced, too. These edits helped push the viewer’s eye back into the image.

The final edited image is shown below.

For me, this photograph has a wonderfully intense feeling and provides a beautiful view of an important airplane. Prints of this photo look good at nearly any size (11inch x 14inch or larger).

Summary

I believe this photograph provides an intense and beautiful look at an important airplane. To achieve good tonal separation in large areas of the plane, dark areas were placed quite high on the tonal scale where the film’s response is nearly linear rather than being placed on the darker nonlinear toe of the film. Tones on the film were darkened later during digital image editing to take advantage of the substantially linear tonal scale of digital devices. This combination approach produced plenty of texture in the final image for large dark areas of the airplane.

Any comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, the image composition or its workup will be appreciated. For a slightly better view of this photograph, visit here. To see a few other photographs from the airshow, visit the gallery, “Salute to Veterans Airshow.”

Randall R Bresee

One thought on “Beechcraft T-6C Airplane

  1. I enjoyed your image and lessons that went into creating a luminescence feeling in a low-key scene. Particularly meaningful to me was your placement of the dark blue, your planning for and creating the 1) “white” (red-orange) stripe, 2) T-6C symbol, 3) the rivets’ highlights and finally 4) the centerline of the plane (upper center of photo).

    I do wish you could share the other image(s), especially of the 92 year old pilot. Although it might be a digression from your main course, some of us look forward to viewing other aspects of a shoot.

    Finally, I would appreciate two screen captures of your “Global” curves adjustments: the T-6C and the rivets’ highlights. I just want to learn how you did that on a global adjustment–your curves can’t be used in my work, but your lesson can. You might consider emailing me, as others may not be interested in this specific request.
    Please continue writing about your observations of the tonal differences in images. I thought your comments of tones in separate and distinct groups to be quite helpful in motivating me to become more perceptive in analyzing my future photos.

    Like

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