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Back in high school, Oshkosh, Wisconsin photographer Jim Koepnick used the generic exposure guide on the slide film box to set exposures on his Argus C3 camera. He didn’t know at the time that playing around with a few boxes of Kodachrone would lead to hundreds of magazine covers and an uncountable amount of published images.

He soon bought a Petri SLR from the J.C. Penney catalog to get involved with interchangeable lenses and flash. It was a logical next level, but when he landed a local correspondent gig at the Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper in 1979, he bought his first Nikon to get serious about developing the photojournalism skills that have since taken him to the very top of his niche…air-to-air photography.

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“Working those early years at the newspaper exposed me to handling a variety of assignments,” Koepnick explained. He learned lessons that have come in handy throughout his career. Because of his ability to always deliver sharp, dramatic images of aircraft in flight on deadline, his work has graced the covers of close to 600 issues of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) monthly national magazines, as well as several cover shots on other notable monthly aviation publications such as Flying Magazine, Plane and Pilot and Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine. Koepnick’s trademark shot is in tight so you can see what brand of sunglasses the pilot is wearing. With perfect light painting a gorgeous sky and composition that exudes movement and excitement, his signature images always deliver sharpness that lets you see every rivet on the plane.

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In 1984, when his role as Chief Photographer at EAA’s new Aviation Center in Oshkosh began, he wasn’t necessarily planning to shoot airplanes in flight, it just sort of happened. “That first mission wasn’t pretty,” said Koepnick. “I picked a poor background, shot backlit, and had too high of a shutter speed, which stopped the propeller when it should have had a nice blur to show motion.”

EAA soon hired Bruce Moore as their photo ship pilot, and since he was also a photographer, he looked at things the way Koepnick did and the two became a powerful team. Moore flew a Cessna 210 that allowed the baggage door to be removed, and this allowed Koepnick and Moore to up their game in terms of photo quality, mission efficiency and safety briefings.

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The first order of business is a thorough pre-flight briefing between the pilots of both the photo and subject airplanes. “I leave the pilot talk to Bruce, who mentors the subject pilot on the different aspects of formation flying and the positions we’ll be looking for,” says Koepnick. “They’ll cover cruise speeds, altitude and radio frequencies. I’ve learned to not be overly controlling from the creative aspect aside from preferring early or late light. While necessary to have a basic creative plan, one must be open to changes in clouds, light and background…and sometimes they give you the best photographs.

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Koepnick’s air-to-air photo “bag” used today depends on the plane he’s shooting from and if he’s shooting several planes on one mission. Generally, he carries a Nikon D5 w/70-200f2.8 as his main camera and a Nikon D5 with a 24-70 f2.8 to use for wider, environmental shots. All cameras use 128GB Lexar XQD memory cards, and everything has quick-release plates to mount his KenLab 4×4 gyro stabilizer.

“…be open to changes in clouds, light and background…and sometimes they give you the best photographs.”

After 28 years of “chasing light” for EAA and often in freezing temperatures with the photo ship’s open door while at altitude, Koepnick has now gone freelance, working mainly for the major aviation magazines while still contracting air-to-air work with EAA. And recently, he circled back to where it all started, shooting sports and features again for the Oshkosh Northwestern. “I’ve decided to reinvent myself this year,” he says, “shooting mostly Nikon, but also Canon and Sony, with Sigma and Rokinon for glass. I use whatever I need for the job.”

One buck Pietenpol. Shot at Brodhead 2013. Andrew King flying. For EAA Vintage.
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One buck Pietenpol. Shot at Brodhead 2013. Andrew King flying. For EAA Vintage.

On a successful air-to-air photo mission, everything will line up as planned, with the subject airplane set against the drama of a magic hour sky and the photo ship and subject airplane enjoying the perfection of synchronized formation flight. But like any other photo shoot, things can begin to go off the rails quickly, especially when flying at cruise speeds, and that’s when Koepnick and Moore really shine. As the weather deteriorates or the light refuses to cooperate, they draw upon the hundreds of missions they’ve flown together, and make something beautiful out of what could have been a disastrous waste of some very expensive airplane fuel.

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Sometimes though, when the mission seems lost, the pair of airplanes can make one final turn, and suddenly a brilliant sky explodes with color, and a perfect background emerges. It is then that intense communication between photographer and both pilots allows the subject airplane to ease into position, and in 1/60th of a second, another magazine cover is created.

Dan Pimentel has been a professional photographer since 1979, with specializations in journalism and advertising, and writes extensively as a freelance author for seven major national aviation magazines and several blogs. His Airplanista Aviation Blog has been published since 2005, and his professional photo galleries are found here. He is very active on Twitter as @Av8rdan 

For most of us, the closest we get to taking photos this cool is pressing our iPhones against the glass when riding on a flight. Anyone reading this have any experience with aerial photography? Leave a comment!

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