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Interviews

Flying with legends:
life in the clouds with John Dibbs

July 2016

Photographer John Dibbs has a passion for classic aircraft and turned a boyhood dream of flying with iconic warbirds into an incredible career. He reveals to CPN Editor David Corfield the challenges involved in capturing those mighty legends of the skies and how his Canon DSLR system gives him that all-important creative and technical edge...

“I never take this job for granted. Never.” John Dibbs is at pains to point out that while his day job is up there on most people’s bucket lists, it’s a job he takes extremely seriously. “It’s because of the amount of preparation, paperwork and co-ordination that goes into every flight of a classic aircraft,” he says. “People might say that I have the easy part, just taking the picture; but let me tell you, the pressure to photograph these aircraft from another aircraft, just a wingtip away, is immense because you know you’re not just facing your own set of technical challenges, but you’re also representing everybody else on the ground who worked so hard to make these shoots happen.”

Eyes to the sky

John’s passion for aircraft began as a child. Thanks to his father, himself a keen aviation enthusiast, the young Dibbs quickly became just as passionate about these legendary warbirds. “My father grew up in the UK in Harrow, right next to RAF Northolt, during the Battle of Britain period. He used to watch Spitfires and Hurricanes take off and when I came along he showed me how to build models of them. So I got completely hooked on aircraft from a very early age.”

© John Dibbs/The Plane Picture Company
© John Dibbs/The Plane Picture Company

Iconic WWII warbirds captured in one incredible frame. From top to bottom: Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, Curtis Kittyhawk. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens at 78mm; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/16, ISO 100.

He continues: “When I left school I wanted to follow a creative path so I started working in a fashion studio in Covent Garden as a runner. I got exposed to all different types of photography there and that gave me an opportunity to make choices as to what kind of photography I wanted to do. I saw that everyone in the world wanted to be a fashion photographer and that didn’t really appeal to me. As luck would have it the studio also handled the design work for British Airways and I noticed that it was almost impossible to get any decent shots of aircraft, in particular the air-to-air element. I realised that was a niche I wanted to get into, and so I started to explore that path. At the time I worked as a volunteer at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, taking images of plane restorations and being involved in that world brought me some fortuitous opportunities which I started to turn into a career.”

Early days in the air

Those early days, making contacts and working as a volunteer at the airfield allowed John to refine his technique as an aircraft photographer. The results were often hit and miss, as he is the first to admit: “My first ever air-to-air shoot was in 1989. I’ve now done over 1100 sorties as a photographer but back then I was scared of heights and scared of flying. Put a spider in there with me and that would have totally finished me off...”

“I was shooting with film back in ’89 and even now I get sweaty palms thinking about it. My very first sorties were nerve-wracking and I couldn’t wait to get the films back. I would drive into London and go to a processing lab called Metro which was open 24 hours a day and just sit there until 2am to see the films developed because I couldn’t bear the wait. I had to see if I’d got the shot. Everything was manual; manual focus, manual exposure, the lot.”

© John Dibbs/The Plane Picture Company
© John Dibbs/The Plane Picture Company

Two Mark 1a Supermarine Spitfires flies together in glorious evening light. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 41mm; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/5.6, ISO 100.

He continues: “Digital has been a revelation and a relief as I know instantly whether I’ve obtained my desired result which in an air-to-air environment gives very few second chances. Every ‘moment’ is distinctly different. Additionally with the camera sensor’s huge latitude you can get results previously not possible with film. The relief knowing that I have got the shot in the can – or on the card as it is these days – is the best feeling by far. It still is.”

“There is no room for error, ego, or whatever, in my environment. It requires 100 percent concentration at all times from all parties involved whether that’s myself, the cameraship pilot or the subject pilot. I often work with the same cameraship pilot, Tim Ellison, and he and I have developed a real understanding together and even though we don’t talk much in the air – we don’t need to – Tim knows exactly how to position the plane for the angles that I need. He’s an ex-military pilot and loves the challenge.”

The digital advantage

John has used Canon all his professional life and rates the build quality as one of its biggest pluses. “When I first came to the USA, Canon lent me its very first EOS-1D digital body and I used it to shoot four F-16 fighter jets over Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. I also took my old EOS-1 film SLR with me to compare and it was only later, back in the office, when I looked at the scan of the slide and the digital file side-by-side that I realised that the ISO 50 Velvia film I was shooting with had finally met its match. I was unsure about digital at first and I remember that day distinctly. It was an epiphany. I scanned the 35mm slide and zoomed into the tail of one of the F-16s and focused on a tail light. Then I opened the digital file of the same aircraft, shot at almost the same time, and zoomed into the same spot to compare; not only could I see the light on the tail light, but I could even see the curly filament inside the bulb! At that moment I realised the benefit and the power of digital.”

© John Dibbs/The Plane Picture Company
© John Dibbs/The Plane Picture Company

Supermarine Spitfire Mark Vc, allocated to the British-based Czech 312 Squadron on September 11, 1942. Taken against the iconic white cliffs of Dover.

“And now we are just in another level completely,” he continues. “The EOS-1D X and 5D Mark III that I use produce such smooth results, with incredible detail and such a fantastic tonal range. The images I want to take are the kind where the viewer feels they are right there at the heart of the action. I want my pictures to take people beyond the armchair and see stuff that they would never normally see. And Canon helps me do that.”

Citing an example of the cameras’ durability, he explains: “I will shoot at plus five or plus seven G sometimes and that’s pushing it for a human being, let alone a camera. The fact that the mirror can go up and down at plus seven G, seven times heaver than normal on the ground, is amazing. I shot some American F-22s in Alaska back in February this year and it was the coldest I’d ever been – minus 20 degrees Celsius on the ground. I was wearing six layers of clothing and hanging out the back of a cargo aircraft to get the pictures. At that temperature the camera batteries were getting tired quicker than normal and so I would hold the 1D X body against the heating duct in the back of the cargo plane so that the batteries would warm up and work just enough to get the shot. When humans cease to function the Canons still deliver a perfect result. That’s what I love about them.”

© John Dibbs/The Plane Picture Company
© John Dibbs/The Plane Picture Company

Wing walking with the Crunchie display team. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 64mm; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/13, ISO 100.

“And as for lenses I use the EF24-70mm and EF70-200mm f/2.8 L-series zooms. They are both phenomenal performers and superbly sharp, ferociously good lenses. I just bought some new glass and am about to try the 200-400mm super telephoto zoom and I’m really excited about that. The EOS-1D X Mark II is next on my list and I’m told it will blow my socks off. But it’s got one heck of an act to follow.”

Characters and cockpits

John is quick to point out that each aircraft is different, even when they are the same type. “The more I flew with these old warplanes the more I realised that they all had their own distinct character. As you spend time with them you see them reborn; they are restored to totally authentic specification, even down to the rivets being in wonky places as they were built in haste during the war. They all have traits and characteristics, even personalities. The Hurricane looks like a bulldog, for instance, when it’s on the ground. You can’t help but get emotionally attached to planes like that.”

“There is a definite challenge in going up in the air and getting this stuff. You have to fight for every frame; it doesn’t just magically happen. My philosophy is to always come back with something better than last time and that’s the challenge I give myself. I want to inspire people with my work; this isn’t about my images per se. My work is a conduit to make people look and read about the aircraft and what these pilots went through. My ultimate mission is to show off the excellence of other people.”

Biography: John Dibbs

John Dibbs

John Dibbs, along with wife Pam, established the Plane Picture Company in London in 1993 with the aim of providing comprehensive photography services to the aviation industry. Now based in Seattle, USA, the business continues to deliver innovative and stunning imagery as well as offering a range of aviation consultancy services. John has flown over 1100 sorties photographing all manner of aircraft from historic warbirds from Spitfires and Hurricanes to modern fast jets and commercial airliners.



Showcase

Boeing 777 passenger plane captured perfectly nose-on. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens at 100mm; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/11, ISO 100.