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Photographer Dylan Van Graan: ‘I’ve loved aircraft all my life’

You can almost hear the thunderous roar of aircraft emanating from the exhilarating, mid-action shots captured by photographer and life-long aviation enthusiast Dylan Van Graan.

We discovered Dylan as part of our ‘100 Days. 100 Commissions.’ initiative and were blown away by his breathtaking aviation photos. Here he speaks to us post-commission about how he got started in photography, his approach to photographing airshows and reveals some top tips for budding aviation photographers along the way.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into photography.

From a day job point of view, I’m in the medical diagnostics field, involved in the commercial side of life. I’ve been working in the industry all my professional life and after my studies, I started out as a laboratory scientist and moved on as time progressed, first as a service engineer and then as an application specialist working for large IVD manufacturers.

Quite a long story but in short I’ve been interested in photography since I was a kid. The bug really bit when I started rock/ice climbing after leaving school and I acquired an old Canon AV1 camera and a 50mm lens that were at that time, older than I was! Since then, my photography ebbed and waned with interests ranging from owning a darkroom to not taking any photos for months on end. Some years ago photography developed into more than a simple past time and here we are.

What photography gear do you use?

I’ve been a Canon guy for as long as I can remember and for some time I’ve been shooting on an EOS 70D body with their EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L (push/pull) for my action work.

As an avid hiker, the Canon setup tends to be a bit heavy and as soon as the Fuji X-T10 arrived I invested in Fuji for mainly my landscape, city and astro work. I do have a variety of other Canon lenses and will often switch between the two systems when shooting at home or when I don’t need to carry it all up a mountain with me.

How did you go about learning photography techniques?

I’m mainly self-taught. I started my journey in photography at a time before info was readily available on the net so most of my foundational knowledge came from reading books. These days I will spend a lot of time online looking at reviews for equipment and learning about advanced photography/editing techniques. E-books and webinars are firm favourites.

Airplanes are the main focus in many of your photographs. Where does your passion for aviation originate?

I’ve loved aircraft all my life and still vividly remember my first visit to a local airshow with my dad. We also accompanied him to the airfield at a time when he was a radio control aviator and these experiences cemented my interest in aviation.

Now we live close to what is likely the oldest operational military air-force base in the world, which also happens to be the home of the South African Air-Force Museum. As part of the museum’s activities, they host a fly-day on the first Saturday of every month (Pre-COVID) during which they display various airworthy examples of aircraft in their collection. I happened to visit the museum one day with my camera in hand and the images I took home were OK, so I was hooked. That has now been some eight years ago, and I still love spending time next to the flight line.

It also seems as if photography of this nature comes naturally to me, unlike say landscape, which I find to be hard work to get decent results.

Photographing a subject travelling at high speeds can be a real challenge. How do you capture these incredible mid-action shots?

Get comfortable with disappointment!! Once you’ve made peace with the fact that you will be trashing as much as 25% of your images, more on a bad day, you can focus on practising the techniques required to up your keeper rate.

Start with panning, this one is most likely to get the best of you in the beginning stages. I’ve actually learnt to listen to the plane as it passes in an effort to keep the subject well in frame.

Next, you need to practice shooting handheld. To get a plane or helicopter’s prop or blades to blur we usually shoot at shutter speeds longer than 1/250th of a second. The old adage states that you are best shooting at shutter speeds faster than your focal length i.e. when shooting at 100mm your shutter speed needs to be at least 1/100th of a second to help limit motion blur. Consider that we typically shoot at shutter speeds slower than 1/250th, at focal lengths between 300-400mm on a crop sensor body, effectively ‘increasing’ the focal length past the range stated above.

Shooting handheld will cause by far the most discarded images after a long day in the sun.

I can almost hear the readers say “the guy should use a tripod or monopod”. Landscape photographers use tripods to ‘slow down’ the process of making images. Believe me, things happen very fast at an airshow, being slowed down is not an option and you simply cannot get the angles required with a camera mounted to anything remotely stationary.

This brings me to the last step, you should not only know your gear but be comfortable changing settings fast. Prop or blade driven aircraft cope well with longer shutter speeds, the jet-powered kind not so much! I have missed absolute belters because I forgot to change shutter speeds in time for a high-speed pass.

Finally, I have a little secret to share, DO NOT CHIMP, during a display. You will miss a one-off flare drop by a locally developed attack helicopter right in front of you, guaranteed.

What message/feeling do you hope people get from viewing your images?

Grace, beauty and power! An occasional comment in the line of, “WOW those guys are close!” helps.

What are your typical post-processing steps for retouching your photographs?

That depends on how old the machine I’m working on is, it determines how many coffees it takes to upload and back-up some 3,000 images from a single day’s work.

Jokes aside, I will rarely start any editing before all the images are moved from the SD card and backed up to at least three drives. Not an overkill if you have multiple days of shooting to look forward to or if you’ve been commissioned to write an article about the event.

Following the necessary admin, the culling starts. I usually try to limit my selects to about a dozen images per show. I’m a stickler for details and if the image isn’t sharp and well-composed it does not make the cut, even if it breaks my heart to drop a less than perfect attempt.

Next step would be editing the RAW image, tweaking the colour, saturation, contrast and sharpness. If I’m in the mood I would often do a gritty, high contrast B/W conversion.

I am a bit of a rebel when it comes to towing the editing ‘party line’ so my favourite weapons of choice have become Affinity Photo and Capture One. Particularly Affinity on the iPad of late.

How did you discover Affinity Photo and what inspired you to start using it?

Honestly, I needed a powerful editing solution for doing composites on some images I had taken. Our friends at Adobe weren’t an option and I tried Affinity Photo as an alternative. I think someone might have mentioned Affinity Photo in a post on Google + at that time. I got on the BETA version and loved what the application brought to the table.

Affinity Photo on the iPad was heaven-sent, as according to my wife at least, I have an iPad glued to the palms of my hands! I only realised the power of Affinity Photo when editing the lunar eclipse mentioned below, the resulting image made me a convert.

We love your composite image showing the stages of a full lunar eclipse. What inspired you to do this and how long did the image take to create?

This one is interesting and frankly, I have a love-hate relationship with this image. It was supposed to be a time-lapse of what was to be the most impressive lunar eclipse of my lifetime. Can’t really recall why it ended up as a composite but I think I got the setup wrong somehow, the issue might have been focal length related.

Anyway, I ended up with a perfectly timed series of eclipse images and after spending some quality time online with your colleague James I managed to crank out the resulting composite.

Why do I hate the image? Look closely, the moon is out of FOCUS! I mean seriously, if there was motion blur I would feel better, that lady moves much faster than you would expect. But out of focus!? Still like the result though.

Tell us more about the image you submitted to 100 Days. 100 Commissions. Where was it captured and how much editing went into creating the final image?

This was shot taken at the African Aerospace and Defence show, better known locally as AAD. This is a bi-annual show that represents the largest air display this side of the equator in Africa.

The image is of a military C-130 dropping flares at the end of a high-speed run that starts at the back of the crowd line. The C-130 display usually involves a few flyby’s and other ‘tricks’ related to its function in the air force, after which the aircraft departs from the display area and heads off in the distance.

When you attend these shows often enough you tend to become sceptical of the finality of any display. This occasion was no different with the C-130 circling around the back of the crowd at a distance far enough to allow the flight line to become comfortable with the lull between displays, not expecting to see this plane again until it comes in to land.

The pilot opened up the throttles all the way as he headed back into the display area at high speed and a low level, from behind the crowd. Before they had any idea what was happening he was on the other side of the airbase, pulling into a climb and dropping his flares.

As mentioned the old hands at airshows have become sceptics and I happened to keep track of the plane as he came around towards the back of us realising that the pilot wasn’t done yet. It’s an old trick but never gets boring, especially when it catches the crowd completely unaware.

As for the editing, I can only say, too much! Getting it perfect for submission took what feels like 175 tries! Airshow season here in South Africa happens to be during winter and this being Africa, dust and haze tend to be major issues during air shows. So apart from the usual RAW editing, comprising the tweaking of exposure, contrast, sharpness and the like, I paid a lot of attention on getting the colour to come to its full potential using selective colour adjustments as well as tweaking saturation and colour temperatures. All done on the iPad by the way.

In your opinion, what qualities make a good photographer?

For a long time, I would have said talent. These days I would lean towards someone who can’t help but create and who is willing to fail and learn on their way to meaningful results. Especially if those results align with their passions.

“For a long time, I would have said talent. These days I would lean towards someone who can’t help but create and who is willing to fail and learn on their way to meaningful results. Especially if those results align with their passions.”

What are your ambitions for the future? How would you like your photography to progress?

I would like to write more and teach people about the different forms of the art that I love. I hope that soon my blog will start helping people get better at the faster side of photography.

One project that I would love to spend more time on is one where my wife and I want to create a cookbook with all our favourite recipes and give it away as a gift to family and friends. I will be doing the photography of course.

To see more of Dylan’s stunning photography visit his website and check him out on Instagram.