Interview with Chris Buff, November 2010 Photo of the Month Winner
Originally a mid-western man, Chris Buff still walks his children to the bus in the mornings, even when the wind chill dips to a breathtaking 13 degrees outside. Hitting his own personal mid-century mark, he has been "married for nearly 25 years to a wonderful and supportive wife and have 3 children ranging in age from 8 - 16." Now living in the great state of Georgia, he laments that he recently got laid off from his full-time job "selling software as a service to enterprise clients." Though enterprise software may sound foreign and elusive to some, the cold hard fact of being laid off is something many of us can relate to. Chris now has the time to pursue a true passion: aviation. As a freelance photographer, Chris has made a name for himself in the air show industry as a creative and reliable photographer with patience, diligence and flexibility oozing from the lens.
High flying, speed demon, racing, explosive and death defying, Chris Buff's photography stands in stark contrast to who Chris Buff really seems to be. Calm, organized, calculating and astute, Chris is a well-spoken man with a healthy interest in the world above him. Ever since he can remember, Chris has been looking to the skies to see the planes fly. "It started as a kid reading books about WWII and aviation. My grandfather was in the Air Force, my mother and father were in the Air Force and Ive always been fascinated with airplanes." His admiration for flight served as a jumping off point for his love of photography. "I have been fascinated with photography my entire life...As long as I can remember, I always wanted to grab the family camera, whatever that was, shoot photos of where we were at, and in particular if it involved an airplane."
Now that he is all grown up and can afford more than what his parents allow him to borrow, Chris has evolved his love of aviation and photography into a life passion. "I am an avid aviation enthusiast, history 'buff' and a private pilot. I would love to fly more often, but the time investment and cost of flying has become prohibitive at this point, even when compared with photography! Aviation photography makes it possible to address two of my favorite interests at the same time." When renting a plane costs upwards $100 an hour just to go for a joy ride, it is easy to see how that hobby would be placed on the back burner. As a family man, Chris's reasons are more admirable, responsible and charming. "Flying is just strictly for pleasure. On one hand you have this passion, you love everything about flying, and on the other hand you love your kids. If something bad were to happen, that's a risk I have to mitigate. I have people counting on me. That's where photography comes in. At least I have the opportunity to hang around the planes and sometimes go up in them. It is a very win-win thing."
Self-taught, as so many photographers are, Chris appreciates the technological advances that have made it so easy to learn with a personal camera. Starting with Kodak's Instamatic 126 sometime in the sixties and moving up to a Yashica FRII in the seventies, Chris has run the gamut in terms of late 20th-century cameras. "Digital photography certainly made it possible to accelerate the learning curve and really made photography fun again. The feedback you receive with digital, if you take the time to study what worked and didn't, it just speeds [the learning curve] up." Chris recalls those days of spending hundreds of dollars on rolls of film and development hoping that he got at least a few good shots only to receive them back from the developer ruined, most of which he could blame on the developing process. "When you have the chance to be your own development studio with digital, it really accelerates the learning process. I don't know if it made me a better photographer but it certainly helped me learn the basics quicker. It's kind of funny; when I moved to my first digital SLR in 2005, I calculated that basically if I attended three air shows and shot an average number of images per air show, I would recover the cost of a Nikon D50 from the air shows that I worked."
In Chris's specialty, there is a large margin for error proving that mistakes can be costly. When one event can run you upwards 500-1000 shots, that is a substantial amount of film to shoot through. With digital technology on his side, Chris sticks with his trusty (and cost-effective) Nikon D300 "mounted either with the Nikon 80-400 VR or Nikon 80-200 f2.8 Ive been shooting with Nikons for more than 20 years; they've done a very good job migrating the lenses with the new bodies, whether it is film or digital." Coming off as unassuming and friendly as possible, when asked about his feelings on the Canon versus Nikon debate that has inevitably come up between photographers over the years, he responded by saying: "Half my friends, other air show photographers, shoot with Canon and it doesn't matter. It comes down to what makes sense to you from a camera interface standpoint and how the camera feels. For that matter, I've seen outstanding images from Sony and Pentax. It's the person working the camera that makes the biggest difference." Well said, sir.
While he prefers to shoot with his Nikon D300 (and take winning photographs with it), Chris keeps an unlikely companion in his kit. "This may surprise you but it would be my iPhone 4. A very valuable resource for downloading airport diagrams, maps, sun positions, GPS coordinates, recommended camera settings and so on. Useful in ways I never imagined. It gets used a lot when I'm out and about." When one of the biggest technical obstacles to overcome in aviation photography is lighting and its constantly changing nature from one end of the runway to the other, any help is welcome. Chris's iPhone allows him to be more spontaneous with his photography. When asked if he ever goes out with a "final shot" in mind, he made clear the difference between his freelance work and his work for fun/learning. "As a freelance photographer, it depends. If I'm on assignment, yes; I will often have a certain end product in mind. If I am shooting for fun, I just look for something I find interesting. In some cases, [World Airshow News] will say 'We need a photo of this particular event, of this team or performer's act'; in that case you are going for a very specific shot. It's tough. The explosion has to be on time, the plane has to be on time, the photographer has to be on time and everything has to be ready. It's tough." Chris laughs his way through that last statement, almost as if he is simultaneously realizing how good of a photographer he is to be able to nail that shot again and again.
With that difficult of a task, you would imagine there would be a significant amount of post-production editing. "If the shoot has gone really well and I have correctly dialed in the exposure and white balance, my post-production is minimal. In fact I am able to perform the majority of my processing with Nikon Capture NX2. That said, aviation photography is often challenging, especially the harsh, mid-day lighting conditions, so long days in post-production are not uncommon." Imagine the worst lighting conditions, pile on top of that airplanes moving against that light traveling at an insanely fast speed mixed with the possibility everything gets thrown off by a goose in the frame; that is Chris's life. "It seems that every airport in the entire country is situated so that you'll be shooting directly at the sun all day. What happens in [post-production] is cropping and level adjustments. And that happens probably half the time. The other half of the time, you are shooting into the sun, have huge swings in lighting from one end of the runway to the other. I shoot everything in RAW, trying to get the best possible results out of that image. Ironically, that picture I was fortunate to win the contest with, I was shooting towards a very unfavorable part of the sky and ended up adjusting to that. Otherwise, the kinds of adjustments I'll tend to do are using Photoshop to remove birds in the background, a trash barrel next to the runway, and other things that tend to be more involved." Quick to tell a funny story, Chris interjects at the irony of his post-production habits. "I had a rejection letter from another photo contest, refusing the picture because they said they didn't accept heavily Photoshopped images. I just chuckled. It was just a lot of good timing and preparation." Well, we would certainly say so. The picture in question is below.
In terms of inspiration, Chris looks no further than the start of the runway. "There are a lot of people I shoot with that really do some outstanding work. We see each others' work and it pushes you. Everyone is quite generous with sharing tips. The feedback you get, the desire to improve. Competition as well, trying to get a shot in the same publication or website. It is quite a warm and generous community of photographers." Upon learning that the interviewer's spouse was Active Duty Military, Chris instantly takes pause to thank the service member for their sacrifice. He reverently exclaims that one of the real pleasures of shooting air shows "is getting to interact with a number of people from the Armed Forces of the United States and elsewhere. I've had the pleasure of meeting some really outstanding people, gotten a chance to be friends with some of them; just some remarkable people serve our country. Just really makes you feel good about the people that are on the front lines of our country."
His appreciation for these men and women certainly shines through in the respect he shows for the planes in which they fly through his photography. Chris is just that kind of guy; not once did he come across conceited; not once did he try to promote his own work despite being interviewed about it; not once did he hesitate to talk about the success of his peers. He is a humble man. "I know that I am never done learning. Each time I shoot and then review the photos I learn something new. I find it a fun and rewarding process. It's a cliché, a pad answer, but the reality is: if you think about it, if I look at the shots I took 20 years ago and I look at them today, I think 'Wow! Those are really mediocre.' You have to constantly work to get the best possible images you can." In his quest towards constantly learning, Chris branches out into more artistic endeavors when time permits. "There are times you will capture an image and immediately you say 'Wow, that's a good shot.' At other times, the shot isn't necessarily my favorite, but it appealed to somebody. I think a big thing is if you take the time to study what you like as far as the types of photos, the look and feel that you like, and study the results you get against the settings that you use, you can't help but learn from it."
For his winning shot (see below), Chris used his Nikon D300 with a Nikon 80-400 VR lens. Shot near his current home, Peachtree City played host to the 2010 Great Georgia Air Show. On assignment for World Airshow News, Chris was on a mission to shoot the entire air show from start to finish. "I'm a contributor to the magazine that caters to the airshow industry, and so that was one of my assignments." Upon seeing a familiar figure streak across the sky, he wanted to "capture the power and sleek lines of this amazing fighter plane, the F-15C Eagle." When asked if there was anything he would have done differently, recognizing how good the final product really was, all he asked for was a bigger budget. "It would have been helpful to have a longer, prime lens. You can never have too much lens." Well, now that Chris has won November's contest, he got just that: more lens. A Tamron SP 70-300mm Di VC USD lens with a Nikon mount, to be exact.
To see more of Chris Buff's photography, check out his websites and the magazine he works for, all linked below.