Lessons from a Fighter Pilot That Make You a Better Photographer!

February 3, 2010

Photo Tips

Canon 1D Mk III, EF 800mm f/5.6L ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/800, Induro C314, Wimberly head

Can a fighter pilot’s experience help you to be a better photographer? I had a student ask me that recently, and at first I wasn’t sure how to answer. You see I used to work as an FA-18E Super Hornet pilot and two-time TOPGUN instructor. Now I teach photography and digital imaging at Light Photographic Workshops (formerly the Lepp Institute.)

So, sitting around with a glass of wine after class I decided to find the answer. Are there lessons learned from my aviation career that I use and could they make others better photographers?

It didn’t take long to find some real similarities. As I started to jot down a few of the flying tenets and their photography equivalents, I immediately realized some of the maxims and practices we referenced daily at TOPGUN WILL make you a better a photographer.

“Only the spirit of attack, borne in a brave heart, will bring success to any fighter aircraft no matter how highly developed it may be.” -Adolf Galland

General Galland’s statement is legend at TOPGUN. Even in the 1940s, he recognized that aircraft technology was an important factor but ultimately success in the air depended upon the “man in the box” and his level of expertise. It often surprised me how many times I would need to remind my students of this at TOPGUN. Pilots would show up with the latest and greatest aircraft, systems, and weapons and expect to win just because. When the humbled students returned bested by a superior pilot in a 1960s era jet they understood “man in the box” always matters most.

The application to photography is fairly straightforward. DSLR and lens technology is amazing and readily available. It is not uncommon to see dozens of photographers on location with the top of the line Canon or Nikon and glass to drool over. Unfortunately, thousands of dollars worth of equipment does not guarantee a good photograph.

Preparing yourself to take the best image is a combination of three things: location, good equipment, and knowledge of equipment. For many, location and good equipment are easy. But two out of three are not enough. To shoot images with drama, pop, and wow factor you must also know the equipment. As you learn your gear you must also learn the basics of photography itself. Put in the time and the effort to learn exposure, metering, the f-stops and their effects, varying shutter speeds, ISO settings, focal length, depth of field, composition, and light. To this end, shoot Manual; it will make you a better photographer. To shoot Manual effectively you must know the basics listed above. It might be frustrating but it will force you to put in the time and the effort to learn photography.

Canon 50D, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1250, Induro C314, Wimberly head

Great photography (just like flying a fighter well) starts with the fundamentals. From this strong foundation your skills will increase dramatically.

To be continued

Shoot well!


This post was written by:

- who has written 8 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Hal “Bull” Schmitt is a former FA-18 pilot and two-time TOPGUN (Navy Fighter Weapons School) instructor. He is the Director and Lead Instructor of Light Photographic Workshops. Hal’s courses and photo tours are recognized worldwide as the “Best of the Best.” Follow Hal and Light at http://www.twitter.com/Lightworkshops

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3 Responses to “Lessons from a Fighter Pilot That Make You a Better Photographer!”

  1. Soren Hedberg Says:

    Shooting in manual mode is a great tip. I shot in full manual mode for a while, and it really helped me understand the tradeoffs you need to make when getting proper exposure. I now shoot in either shutter or aperture priority most of the time, but the lessons I learned from shooting in manual mode still come in handy.


  2. Pam Says:

    As a retired fighter pilot thought you might like to see some of your comrades…okay most are AF. Check out my website then go to Personal Work>Boneyard Pilots, also “info” under that gallery. Don’t have my active F-18 guys on yet tho.


  3. Bull Says:

    Pam, very cool shots! Time for some more Navy representation.


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