On-line Aviation Photo-databases…

… do you sell your soul to the Devil?

Nothing like starting out with a controversial title, is there?

You could say that I have had my fill of one particular on-line aviation photo-database this week, I’ll not name it because I still contribute towards it. I have seen too many folk thrown all their toys out of the pram and ask for all their images to be removed from the offending site. On the face of it, it’s your last act of defiance but when you look at it another way, it’s a bloody stupid thing to do, after all you sweated blood, sweat and digital tears getting those images you have onto that site, so you may as well leave them there and enjoy some free hosting.

For a long time now, the seemingly stupid rules that seem to govern these sites, whether stated or tacit, has been a particular bug-bear of mine and quite frankly have ruined aviation photography, turning almost everyone into a bunch of clones, taking the same kind of photo time after time after time. I rebelled against that crap years ago and I consider myself fortunate, finding a place where they would put up with my style of photography.

Anyway I decided to run an little experiment today, to compare my style of composition against what is expect of me.

Well what is composition anyway, to cut the crap it’s the way you place the elements in your picture to make it interesting. After good exposure it is the most fundamental thing in photography, it is what makes you want to look at a photo and there is the first stumbling block, for most aviation pictures are no more than “record-shots” or trophies. Look at me I saw (and photographed) X, Y or Z aircraft, which is fine. Every spotter worth their salt has been somewhere interesting and seen some very interesting aircraft but the vast majority of our photos just record what they have seen. A digital spotters log-book if you must.

It’s only natural that you would want to crow about seeing that really interesting aircraft by posting the photo onto an on-line aviation photo database, making everyone envious, wishing that they had seen it. (I’m as guilty as the next man on that score)…. anyway I digress.

Composition, well for some reason or other and I wish that I really knew the answer, the aviation photographers seem to demand that photos submitted should be centered in the frame and closely cropped, without any regard for composition whatsoever. I have thought about this and I can only come to one conclusion and at this point it may seem to insult the reader but I can see no reason other than it standardises composition so the screeners don’t have to know or even think about the real aspects of composition… in other words to make it idiot proof.

Think on it. A screener has to get through a number of images to maintain their quota, some are quite high, but if you take a hard look at the logistics, looking properly at an image takes somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds, a screener will only look at an image for something in the region of five to ten seconds. To screen say 10 images at 30 seconds each is five minutes, compared to a minute for a brief scan of those same ten images.
They have to otherwise they will not get through their quota. It is possible to form an opinion in that time, whether you like it or not but not as much as you need more time to work out what’s wrong with it. Incidentally one of the best give-aways for an un-sharp, (boy do I have that piece of lousy English language) picture is if it has writing on it. The human eye is instinctively drawn to writing and automatically expects to read it and if if there is something wrong with it then it is pretty quickly flagged up in the brain, eyes water and a conclusion is drawn to reject the image.

So composition, to make the screeners life easy someone in their infinite wisdom decided to standardise their sites requirements for where the aircraft is placed in the frame, insisting that it must be centrally placed in the frame and from then on, it is a classic case of “monkey-see, monkey-do.” Someone copied another because they have seen another doing it so it must be right without ever questioning why and the whole hobby goes down the plug-hole.

Back to the experiment.

A classic on-line aviation photo-database composition. Close cropped and centered.
G-WEND PA-28RT, Scone

You have an equal sandwich of sky and grass with a lovely Cherokee filling in the middle.
But who wants to look at a load of boring grass, a third of your image is taken up with something you take for granted, once you have seen one blade of grass then you have seen them all! So why not compose things differently?

The same shot just placed a bit lower in the frame reducing the boring foreground and increasing the background and now you can see better what kind of day it has been. It wasn’t that bad, a bit of sun but with lots of towering Cumulus clouds, which usually means a bumpy flight with the possibility of bad weather to follow. Notice that it is still close cropped.
G-WEND PA-28RT, Scone
To digress, I regularly saw photos in screening that were 1024 pixels wide and the distance between the aircraft and the left and right frames was only 10 pixels. That is only 1% either side, and that’s real crap composition in my book.

How about looking at another example?

Bulls-eye composition.
N3110J Maule, Scone

Placed lower down, near the bottom third and a bit wider cropped. The wing and shadow act as lead-in lines drawing your eye towards the fuselage, which does not happen in the first photo.
N3110J Maule, Scone

I know which version that I would want to look at.

How about another?
G-SENS EC135, Scone

Placed lower down, a lot less boring concrete this time and a bit wider cropped, the stain on the concrete also acts as a lead-in line enhancing the composition
G-SENS EC135, Scone

Do you remember what I said about the writing being a dead give away?
Well this one failed the test, I stupidly used f/4 for the aperture and take it from me the registration is out of focus, not un-sharp but out-of focus because it is out of the depth of field, or in other words, your aperture only has a limited range where the focus is acceptable. You can use this creatively but you run the risk of incurring the wrath of the Focus Police and a subsequent rejection.
G-SENS EC135, Scone


Everything that I have said about my style of composition and my thoughts about the on-line photo databases will no doubt be considered blasphemy by somebody. If you want to continue to have your photos accepted onto these on-line aviation photo-databases then you must pay the price by knuckling down and doing what you are told, jump through the hoops when asked and then everything will be rosy.
Discent is frowned upon, question a screeners motives or the reasons why photos gets rejected earns you no friends.
Do as you are told and you need never think about your photography again, a lot of people have become very successful on these databases by towing the line, just continue to bang-in your photos and get them accepted but ask yourself just one question…

What makes my photos any different to the guy standing beside me?


Ultimately, there only is one way to maintain your integrity and that is to have a web site of your own, which is a great idea but please remember this, no one wants to look at a bad photo. You have to be very self critical with your work before posting a picture on line… and no one gives a damn how far you walked through an alligator infested swamps, fought-off an untold number of angry natives, dodged numerous security checkpoints to get your photo if the end result is crap.

There is a certain kudos being able to contribute to an on-line aviation photo-database but you may be better self-promoting your photos hosted on the likes of Flickr through Facebook Groups. By the way NEVER post a picture directly onto Facebook, you really do sell your soul to the devil doing that… read their T&C if you don’t trust me.

Anyway, have fun, it’s your hobby after all and don’t let other people tell you what to do because there are no rules in photography, just something that was dreamed up by simpletons to make their life easier. It is up to you to make good photos and it is up to you to decide which guidelines to obey.

Mair tae come


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