Front Row Center--Inside the Great American Air Show

THE TITLE OF this book is as inspired as the photography, by American pilot and aviation journalist Erik Hilderbrandt, setting a new benchmark for anyone aspiring to excellence in air-to-air work.

THE TITLE OF this book is as inspired as the photography, by American pilot and aviation journalist Erik Hilderbrandt, setting a new benchmark for anyone aspiring to excellence in air-to-air work. Hilderbrandt's images are mind-blowing: full propeller arcs and so close-in that you can imagine the chain saw sound as the blades chew into the camera ship. Shooting at sunset with only the propeller getting the last lingering low rays of sun, and cropping the image so tight that it must have hurt him to do it, he has turned out a masterpiece in the cover shot. He says in his introduction that it was taken during the first week of shooting and set the tone for the whole book--he's dead right!

Like most top names in air-to-air photography Hilderbrandt uses a $2,600 soft-ball-sized gyro-stabiliser fixed to his camera. Like U.S. aviation photographer Paul Bowen--who creates the best air-to-air photo art of corporate jets--he has turned his own ultra-specialised photography into an art form. Because the gyro soaks up vibration, you can shoot at very slow shutter speeds--below 1/30th second. Some aviation photographers say that shooting as slow as 1/4 second, hand-held, is quite possible with these gizmos.

As the book's subtitle 'Inside the Great American Air Show' implies, Hilderbrandt set out to photograph and capture the essence of the U.S. airshow scene. He spent five months covering sixteen airshows and shooting 450 rolls of film. Most U.S. photographers seem to have a real problem finding a publisher and Hildebrandt, like many before him, decided to bite the bullet and risk self publishing. Most books of this genre are thin on words, but this author can write. He lets us into his photo-platform secrets and some of them hold some surprises. You'd expect him to use a B-25 for those classic head-on shots, or the DC-3 as a good steady platform with a nice big door or window for shooting an aerobatic team, but the fact that he shot from a Cherokee Six, minus the baggage door, for a stunning low-light head-on of an Extra 300 was an eye-opener to me.

The images are so sharp that I contacted the author to ask if they were computer enhanced. Hilderbrandt explained that all his images were 'processed' through his computer's Photoshop software and some blemishes, like distracting elements in the background, were taken out from about five per cent of them. But, he challenged, "I can only say that the ones that look retouched are not, and that the details that were changed had nothing to do with composition. Those that were tweaked had distracting elements such as roads in the distance or background sign posts or aerials that divided the image."

The subjects featured are typical airshow aeroplanes, from warbirds to aerobatic machines, from flying in the right- hand seat with one of the Snowbirds CT-41 team to flying alongside Old Rhinebeck's WWI classics. But the images in this book that really impressed me weren't the ones of the warbirds so much but those full-arc-of-the-prop shots of cutting edge piston powered aerobatic machines. In particular, one full page shot of a CAP 232--the sky is an intergalactic blue and it looks as if it was done in orbit.

Front Row Center is just as much a pilot's book as a photographer's--it's going to appeal to both camps and will be the industry standard for superb air-to-air photography for years to come.

Most Read