When I heard President Trump was coming to my hometown of Phoenix, I knew I had a unique opportunity to photograph a very special plane — one of the two Boeing VC-25As that use the call sign Air Force One. Of course, with no special access, I had to get pretty creative to get the image I envisioned — here’s how I did it.
The first challenge is pretty clear if you’ve ever seen coverage of the President traveling. Access to any area where the President travels is tightly controlled, with no fly zones, road closures, and just a general lack of information. This meant I was really planning the photo in a general sense, given a lack of solid information and the potential for changes to occur without notice.
Since the rally was at 7PM, with Trump speaking in California earlier that afternoon, there was a pretty clear window around 4 to 6PM where he’d be expected to arrive. This was further bounded by the publication of a NOTAM showing that airspace would be controlled starting at 5:15PM. The last piece of the puzzle came from knowing the active runways and layout at Sky Harbor. With all this information, I had a pretty clear idea of the flight path they’d be taking — a super scenic glide over Tempe Town Lake and the perfect backdrop for a picture.
My biggest takeaway from this part of the planning process was to consider more than just the obvious sources of information. This is one place where domain knowledge really helps, as I didn’t want to sit around for a 4 hour window, but knowing to check airspace closures cut it down to a much more tolerable 30 minutes.
Planning the Picture
I’ve been fortunate enough to grab a number of photographs in the Tempe Town Lake area, but never specifically worked the “approaching plane” angle. This meant I already had a shortlist of potential locations to work from, but didn’t change my actual process. My top two locations were the peak of Hayden Butte, a prominent hill right next to the expected flight path, and an overlook by Governor Hunt’s Tomb.
I love to plan using Google Earth, among other apps. I’m very visually and spatially oriented, and I find that the flexibility to “dip” the camera in Google Earth makes it much easier to visualize things like mountain ranges and backgrounds, compared to maps.
Essentially I was choosing between elevation and distance to the flightpath or a better backdrop and easier access. In the end, checking out both spots from Google Earth made the choice easy — this was a photograph of Air Force One first and foremost, and being too far away would make for a less impactful image compared to a less interesting background.
Even in a place I’ve explored and photographed in the past, having the ability to contextualize locations is a great help. I’ve planned a number of my favorite pictures by working with Google Earth, and at $0, it’s a great value.
Google Earth also synergizes very well with Google Maps and Google Drive — being able to make a custom set of points of interest is a very powerful tool for planning a trip around. Essentially, using “Your Lists” and “My Maps” in Maps allows you to setup an individually tailored guidebook.
I can throw in must-eat-at restaurants, hikes, scenic overlooks, and more, all while easily being able to navigate between them at my destination. As mentioned earlier, being able to see the info is really helpful - opening up Maps on your phone and seeing the icons is a lot easier to orient with, compared to a list of addresses.
With my location chosen, next came the fun part: actually getting there. Between road closures, and Tempe’s typically terrible rush hour, I was running late. This meant what could have been a leisurely hike was more like scramble up the hill, particularly important since I didn’t have a solid idea of when the plane would actually be passing by. Fortunately, the hike was nothing serious and I reached the peak with time to spare. There’s no app suggestion here — procrastination and traffic haven’t been solved by apps, yet!
I was lucky — since Sky Harbor was still operating regular arrivals, I had a number of practice approaches. If I had gotten there with no time to spare, I’d be going in blind when it comes to lens choice, composition, and camera settings.
Capturing the Picture
My lens choice was dictated by risk avoidance — while I thought I knew the runway they’d use, being off meant the plane would be thousands of feet further away than I expected. As a result, I went with the longest lens I had around, a 70-300. Going off the approaches of the last few planes, I thought I could frame a pretty good image with Camelback (an iconic Phoenix Mountain) in the background. Going with the long lens meant quite a bit more work in post, however, as I’d have to blend a handheld panorama to get the full field of view I wanted.
Capture was pretty trouble free, with the remaining sunlight providing plenty of light for a fast shutter speed and sufficient aperture. Looking back, I could have shot with an even faster shutter speed — it was a deceptively fast approach, but I’ve not done much work photographing planes.
In post, I blended the panorama, tweaked color and contrast, and cloned out a few stray palo verde branches. While the photo doesn’t compete with some of the imagery of Air Force One, it’s a picture I’m proud of, partly because of the satisfaction of seeing a plan come together. One aspect I particularly enjoyed was getting to explore my home town with the same eye I have for a new destination — I’m excited to work on some new concepts I came up with while planning this one.
Have you worked on an image that was deceptively challenging in planning or execution? Did you use any tricks to make things easier for you?