“My four-year-old daughter is making her first journey on an airplane later this week. I’m making a slideshow of pictures to show her how the process of flying works so that she won’t be nervous when we go to the airport and board the plane. May I make a picture of you to include and show her how nice people are at the airport?”
That’s been my opening line as I run into people doing their jobs at airports around the country for the last few weeks, and as I share some of the pictures from my travels on social media (search #AirportPhotowalk) I get lots of comments being amazed that I got access or permission to photograph in the cockpit of the jet, or with the TSA agent at security, etc. But getting permission to do these things is simple, and here are four tips to make it easier for you, too.
The first key to getting access to photograph anywhere you desire is to simply be kind and ask nicely. For a few years, now, I’ve regularly been photographing my pilots in the cockpit, as well as lots of other airport related stuff (my original article is right here). All I do is smile and say, “May I make a picture of you in the cockpit?” And when I’m done I say, “Thanks so much!”
I’m simply interested in making a picture of interesting people in an interesting place. That’s it. There’s no agenda, and I’m not being sneaky about anything. I think if I were, they’d see it, and turn me down. I’ve been turned down…once. Another time, the pilot and copilot said, “Sure, but I don’t want to be in it!” And promoted vacated the cockpit while I made a picture. Often, the pilot says, “Sure, but why don’t I make one of you in the driver’s seat!” He often lets me wear his hat, too.
I’m 35 years old, but I’m just having a good time enjoying my flight, and I’m just being genuinely me. Don’t be nervous–the worst that can happen is they’ll say, “Not this time.” Be genuinely you, and I think you’ll have good results.
This can be the deal breaker. If you ask someone who is busy doing their job to stop and let you make a picture, you’d better be ready to do it with minimum impact on their work. If I get a yes, and then set down my bag, open it up, hmm and hah over which lens to use, and then pull out a big camera, I’m likely to have that yes turn into a no.
You need to have everything ready to go–the right lens, and for the most part the right exposure too. All you should do when you lift that lens to your eye is focus and shoot. Don’t waste their time.
Here’s a quick shooting tip: use aperture mode with exposure compensation to make things fast. Remember that when shooting something dark, like a TSA agent in a dark blue shirt and black pants in front of a dark colored wall, you need to set the exposure compensation darker. When shooting someone in front of big windows with daylight outside, you need to set the compensation brighter, to the plus side. For cockpits, in the daytime, plan on brightening the compensation by at least a stop. The light coming in the windows is quite bright compared to the rest of the cockpit. Overall, it’s pretty dark, though, so plan to shoot at ISO 800 or so to get a fast enough shutter speed for a sharp picture. If I want the whole cockpit, I need to use a lens at least as wide as 30mm on a full frame camera, but don’t feel like you have to get the whole cockpit every time. Just be ready with your camera so people can get back to work quickly.
Have a Purpose
I learned long ago that having a particular purpose for a picture makes it much easier for people to say yes. When you have a purpose, like making a slideshow for my daughter (and believe me, no one can say no to this little girl) people focus more on what you’re doing and less on their reluctance to be in a picture. No one wants to be in a picture, but everyone likes to be helpful.
What kind of purpose can you have? Anything goes, but be genuine. You can always say, “I’m practicing my photography, and you’re in an interesting spot of light; may I make a picture of that light falling on you?”
I’ve attended Scott Kelby’s terrific “Shoot Like a Pro: Reloaded” seminar several times recently (a terrific class, and I highly recommend you attend), and he has a great suggestion along this line that has opened several doors for him in impossible to photograph places. He suggests you do a book project. Plan a book of photos in a theme and ask ahead of time if you can have access so that you can add to your book, or, better still, work on the next book. This means you’ve got a book in hand to show people real photos that you’ve made in real places, and that’s powerful because it’s genuine and tangible and believable. When we hold a picture or book in our hands, it automatically gains credence and will open doors for you. Scott says it so much better than me, and you’ve just got to go to the seminar.