After photographing the U.S. Navy Blue Angels for three decades, longtime Pensacola News Journal photographer Tony Giberson has one rule for capturing the action at air shows — try to get a shot that no other photographer will have.
“I try to come up with something different at each show, but it’s tricky. You have to challenge yourself,” said Giberson, whose favorite shots include people reacting to the awe-inspiring performances.
Tens of thousands of Blue Angels fans will gather on Pensacola Beach this week to watch the six, F/A 18 hornet pilots perform their high-speed passes, precision formations and other breathtaking maneuvers. Many will try to capture the action through videos and photos.
The News Journal spoke with Giberson and others who frequently photograph the team to gather tips for amateur photographers to get the best images of the action.
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Giberson, a Pensacola native, has worked as a staff photographer at the News Journal since 1996. He started shooting the Blue Angels in the mid-1980s.
Giberson recommended shooting from various locations throughout the week to capture the jets and the beach at new angles. He said some of his favorite beach shots have come from the balconies of tall condominium buildings.
“You are looking down on (the jets), it is a whole new look,” he said.
He also suggested trying to shoot the jets as they are finishing high-speed turns or banking to capture their vapor trails in the photos. Shooting at a high shutter speed, 1/1000 or faster, will help to freeze the action of the jets, which fly at speeds of up to 700 miles an hour in the demonstrations.
Giberson said photographers should be patient and follow the action with their lens before taking a shot. Also, it is best to meter the light for the surrounding beach and not the sky.
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“Be mindful of your meter readings, because the sky will fool the camera,” he said.
Photographer Jessica Grey has one of the coolest jobs in the Navy as a Blue Angels staff photographer. Grey, a petty officer, is in her first season with the team. She previously worked in video production on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.
“When I came here, it was a steep learning curve to even shoot photos of the jets because they are going so fast,” she said.
Grey said she prefers to shoot from the show’s center point, the location where the jets pass during their manuevers.
“That is where the passes are the most precise,” she said.
The weather can make a big difference in the quality of her images, she said.
“If there is a lot of moisture in the air, the smoke lingers and makes the images blurry. It is just something you have to roll with,” she said.
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Her goal as a member of the photography staff is to have one her photographs featured on an annual team lithograph, a widely distributed poster featuring the jets flying above an iconic location.
While the Navy provides high-quality equipment, the equipment is only as good as the skill of the photographer behind the lens, she said.
Grey said the team uses cellphones for a lot of its videos and some of the images it distributes on social media.
She recommended anyone trying to capture the show with a cellphone use the video function instead of taking still photos with the phone because it is easier to capture the action through video.
Regardless of what equipment a photographer uses, the only way to get really good is “practice, practice, practice,” she said.
Grey said it also helps to be familiar with the demonstration routine. She has memorized the music played during the demonstration.
“I listen to the music and I’m prepared for each maneuver that is coming up based on the song that is playing,” she said.
Pensacola News Journal photographer Gregg Pachkowski shot his first beach show in 2016. Although Pachkowski has more than 20 years of experience as a photojournalist, he said shooting the Blue Angels was a new challenge.
“The biggest challenge was because they were moving so fast. When you are not familiar with the show, you don’t know what to expect,” he said.
Pachkowski’s favorite thing to photograph is sports.
“Shooting the Blue Angels is like shooting sports because of the action, but you can see a play developing in football. Because the Blue Angels are going 700 miles an hour, it is hard to anticipate and get set for the shot. Without knowing the routine, it is easy to miss something,” he said.
Pachkowski said it is sometimes helpful to have a shot in mind. One of his most popular photographs is of the Blue Angels flying over Palafox with the city’s five flags in the background and an eyeglass-shaped sign in front.
“I knew they were going to be flying down Palafox and I was looking for something unique. I knew the five flags were in front of the post office and then I noticed the eyeglasses,” he said.
Photography is about a relationship between the photographer and the equipment, he said.
“The equipment is more sophisticated than it has ever been so the chance of getting a good image is better, but you still need the photographer behind the camera,” he said.
Pachkowski joked that he sometimes feels like a Secret Service agent when photographing air shows because he is constantly scanning the crowd to try to find someone who might make a good photo.
“You are looking for someone who is really excited. To get a good reaction shot, you need to be good at reading crowds,” he said.
Like Grey, he suggested using cellphones to shoot video rather than photos.
“But never use the zoom function when you are taking cellphone photos,” he said. “You are throwing away pixels. You can always go back and crop after.”
Courtney Sweeden began photographing the Blue Angels when her husband, a aviation technician with the Navy, was stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Station in March 2016.
Sweeden had previously taken photographs of aircraft at bases in Jacksonville and in Hawaii.
“When we moved to Hawaii, I really got into it. I think it was the combination of the aircraft and having some great backdrops because of the landscape there,” she said.
After moving to Pensacola, Sweeden started spending time at all of the Blue Angels public practices at the base.
She got to know a lot of the volunteers who coordinate the practices for the National Naval Aviation Museum and eventually starting volunteering as the program’s photographer. Sweeden routinely shoots the practices and the museum’s pilot autograph sessions.
Following the action is a key to getting a good shot, she said.
“I’ve gotten good at panning. I keep the right eye on the sky and the left eye in the camera’s viewfinder. It is something I have gotten better at over time,” she said.
Some maneuvers are easier to photograph than others, she said.
“Try to shoot the maneuvers that are a little bit slower,” she suggested. “The delta breakout has got to be one of the prettiest maneuvers they do and it is one of the easiest to capture.”
In the delta breakout, the jets break formation and fly upward in various directions, leaving contrails that look like a giant fan in the sky.
One of the most difficult maneuvers for Sweeden to capture was the loop break cross, when the six jets perform a high loop in formation and then break apart in different directions heading down.
“They are high up in the sky and then they come down and break apart. They are at least 5,000 to 8,000 feet. To get them that high up and have an image that was crisp and clear, that was when I knew I was starting to get good,” she said.
Like Pachkowski, she said zooming in with a cellphone is never a good idea.
“The more you zoom, the worse your shot is going to be,” she said.
Mel Rogers is both a retired naval aviator and an amateur photographer. Rogers, who flew the P-3 Orion for the Navy, starting photographing the Blue Angels from the balcony of his 14th floor beach condo.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right to get some got shots,” said Rogers, who has also photographed the team at Pensacola NAS.
Rogers likes to give his photographs as gifts to friends and family members; one hangs in the lobby of his condominium building.
His favorite image is of two of the jets flying together with one inverted.
“It looks like one airplane,” he said.
Rogers suggested using various lenses and seeing what works best. He said it is also important to hold the camera as steady as possible. He sometimes uses a tripod or braces himself against the balcony railing.
Although Rogers, a former flight instructor at Whiting Field Naval Air Station, has years of experience flying, he doesn’t think that helps him to photograph the jets.
“I think luck has a lot to do with getting a good photo and using a high shutter speed,” he said.
Rogers has been into photography for many years. He jokes that he was taking selfies before taking selfies was a thing. When he did his first solo flight in 1974, he took a photo of himself in the cockpit.
Sometimes, what makes a good photograph is simply what makes the photographer happy, like the cute photo Rogers took of his young granddaughter wearing a Blue Angels cheerleading dress at a recent air show.
“That’s one of my favorites,” he said.