Photography: Tyson Rininger | TVR Photography
Interview by Roger Kemp

So here we are, Mr. Rininger. It’s been a long time. I remember us doing a similar interview some 10 odd years ago. Time to catch up and see what happened in your world in the mean time. But first, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

So glad you asked, Mr. Kemp. I’m a Taurus and enjoy long walks on the beach... This is gonna be harder than I thought...

My younger brother and I were raised Navy brats and latchkey kids with our father serving 20 years as a corpsman and our mother working as an executive administrative assistant for a well-known tool company in Southern California. My first job was working for Jaffe’s Camera in Ventura, where I was able to learn more about the industry, the people and acquire camera equipment on a budget. Although I never worked as a lab tech, some of the knowledge regarding color balance, density, processing, etc., did rub off which allowed me to explore the vibrant and whacky lighting that made the ’80’s so cool. Unfortunately, we were now into the ’90’s.

In 1996, I moved to Monterey, CA to be closer to the fine art photography world and learn about medium and large format photography from world-renown artists like Kim Weston, John Sexton, Henry Gilpin, Rod Dresser and many others who worked closely with the late Ansel Adams who called nearby Carmel his home. For a couple years, I worked for Myrick Photographic which was essentially the hub for all things photography on the Monterey Peninsula and a frequent stomping ground for some of the world’s most prolific photographers. If you needed that hard to find part or odd chemical for the darkroom, Myrick’s had it. For the next decade I would hop around to various camera stores and work jobs as an assistant photographer while still trying to keep current on gear and exercise what I could learn from our customers and mentors.

One of the photo labs that I frequently worked with in Monterey to process my E-6 and Type-R printing needs happened to be staffed by my future wife, though it would be at least 5 years before we began dating. We became a happily married couple in 2011 and share each other’s photographic interests along with exploring high-end tequilas and local wines.

So, what got you into Aviation Photography?

I wish I could say there was one defining moment, but I think it was many years of exposure as a kid that drew me to the world of aviation. Living near Point Mugu Naval Air Station, I saw some weird stuff and really had no way of sharing what I saw without the need to take a photo. I mean, we had a DC-130A that would eventually become the oldest serving C-130 in the military. It was yellow, red, white, some grey I think, and launched fluorescent red Firebee drones from it’s wing stations. And if that wasn’t cool enough, we had VXE-6 C-130’s sporting massive skis and red tails in support of the National Science Foundation (NSF), F-4’s in a multitude of colors being flown by VX-4 and VX-30, Luftwaffe F-4’s working under the ICE program, and of course the infamous Black Bunny Tomcat of VX-4 (later to become VX-9 under BRAC).

To quench my need to photograph the diversity of aircraft, I saved up to buy my first camera at the age of 13, a Pentax K1000. When my birthday arrived, my parents picked up a Sigma 75-300 lens. Not being overly knowledgable about photography, I spent what little money I had left on some Ektar 1000 film thinking the more it cost the better it must be! I photographed the 1987 Point Mugu Airshow with that stuff and naively shared those grainy images with the show’s director, Don Lewis. He must have seen some potential as he asked that I photograph the 1989 Point Mugu Airshow which included hopping aboard a Bell Jet Ranger with the doors removed to shoot the show’s layout from above. I was 15 and hooked on photography, especially the magic of flight.

You’ve been shooting for quite some time now, old man. Are there any favourite subject or events that jump out when you think about your career?

I love history and whenever it can be made or recreated, I want to be a part of it. Things like the run-up and eventual retirement of the F-14 resulted in some incredible experiences. My feet in the sand at Virginia Beach watching the last Tomcat after-burner twilight flight was nothing short of incredible; you remember that, Roger! Being on the USS Roosevelt and at NAS Fallon for their final combat work-ups, and finally back to NAS Oceana for the mass-formation fly-in following deployment; absolutely incredible!

Attending the 25th anniversary of the F-117 at Holloman AFB was another awesome experience. It started on a remote ramp with two parked F-117’s and a setting New Mexico sun. After a couple artsy shots walking around the aircraft, I asked these two ominous M-16 carrying guys if it would be ok to set up some lights for a cool dusk shot. It was hard to explain to them, so I asked for supervision while I did this and if it got uncomfortable, let me know. The guys watched with great concern as I crawled around and under these still mysterious aircraft. Once the shutter button was clicked, I showed them the image and they were all in! The next day, Richard Cooper and Kevin Jackson showed up following a delayed flight completely jealous of what we were able to accomplish. But, the icing on the cake was the 25-ship flyover along with visiting the QF-4’s on the other side of the base.

Another pinch-me moment was working with General Atomics on the Predator-C, or “Avenger” project. Here was a new stealthy, jet-powered UAV that no one knew anything about and I had free reign to play with this thing. We did a couple cool night shots in the freezing desert using a cherry picker that was rested atop a tow vehicle since it was too windy to trust the stability of the crane. The next day, Wayne Handley stuffed me into the back of his Cessna 180 with the baggage door removed and we proceeded to conduct an aerial shoot of this pilotless wonder. All the rules used for a typical air-to-air mission were basically discarded and new ones invented. The lead would fly on the subject with the subject’s “eyes” being safely on the ground in a modified shipping container. Seeing this thing pull along side our plane was surrealistic to say the least.

Most recently, I had the honor of documenting the first Air Force One making it’s way across the country. The Lockheed Constellation which was dedicated to transporting President Eisenhower sat in an Arizona desert relatively unknown to all but a few. I had always wanted to see a Constellation fly and hopefully photograph one someday, but for it to be the first AF1 was truly and honor and an incredible experience. Mid America Flight Museum’s, Scott Glover, brought his newly acquired B-25 to act as the photoship on the journey from Marana, AZ to Mt. Pleasant, TX. It was about a 4-hour flight and more of a documentary than a photo mission. It was challenging to understand that positioning the aircraft precisely was not going to happen. It was more of a ‘get what you can’ kind of goal since the primary mission was to get the aging aircraft to Virginia safely.

One other opportunity that was just as cool, but not quite as historic include Sean D. Tucker’s, “Every Kid Can Fly” program where disadvantaged teens can escape the challenges of a rough upbringing and explore the thrill of flight. Seeing a few of them continue the program long enough to get pilot licenses of their own was truly inspiring.

You’re not solely an aviation photographer, you have a job at the Monterey Aquarium as well, correct? Is there any overlap in those two opposites?

After 20 years of volunteering as a photography assistant for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, they did eventually decide to hire me. It was that or a restraining order, but I think hiring me was cheaper. And while there are no airplanes at the Aquarium, the photographic challenges are certainly transferrable to the world of aviation.

When most people hear the term “aviation photography” they automatically jump to pictures of airplanes. While that’s mostly true, an airplane is nothing without the pilot, the airport, the engineers, the manufacturers, the people, etc. To be a photographer capable of covering all aspects of aviation, you must be diverse. My responsibilities at the Aquarium are extremely diverse! On any given day I could be asked to capture studio photos of our gift store merchandise, executive portraits, nighttime events, candid images of volunteers and guests, architecture via new exhibits and buildings, and of course all of our amazing creatures which include exams, exhibits with extremely difficult lighting, wildlife imagery in the Bay from sharks to whales to birds. It is a never-ending list.

Understanding how to get the most out of these various situations and conditions only helps with capturing similar situations in the airshow and aviation industries. Case in point; photographing vendors, volunteers, spectators, statics, sponsors and more at an airshow during the worst mid-day lighting is one of the most challenging things you can do as an aviation photographer. Knowing how and where to add light as well as post-processing techniques can make all the difference when it comes to making a sponsor look good at a show and the Aquarium challenges me daily when it comes to understanding those techniques. Airshows aside, even manufacturers need non-aircraft photos which include employees, assembly processes, specialty parts, conveying the manufacturer-customer relationship and much more. These are all good skills to have as a photographer.

Of course it goes without saying I receive lots of panning practice as fish swim from side to side.

Is it still possible you think, making ends meet doing solely aviation photography?

Great question, yes…but you have to be different and marketable, and you need to pay your dues before you can get there.

Let’s face it, we’re a dime a dozen. Anyone with an iPhone is a photographer now and aviation photography requires trust. It may take you ten years to build a reputation in the industry to a point where people know you and are willing to spend lots and lots of money on gas with you as their trusted photographer. It’s a slow road and that’s actually a good thing.

Take time to learn about aircraft and how to behave around them. Build rapport with the pilots and flight crews. Learn to love not having any money for a while as every shot you take will be expected to be done for free.

Of course that won’t always be the case and during the first few years, you can work on setting expectations. When it comes to free work, there will always be that exception where the good deed outweighs the need to eat, but at the same time there are instances where it is best to stand your ground, even if it means losing business. The key is, once you give away your work it is very difficult to go backwards and institute a fee.

This leads to one last tip; learn how to run a business. As photographers, we are artists. Our brains like pretty things, not numbers. To be successful in any industry you need to know how to operate like a business. Take a course on accounting, business management, etc. You don’t have to earn a Master’s Degree…unless you want to, but a few educational courses on learning to invoice, determining your cost of doing business, overhead, market rates, etc. are essential!

We all have moments of euphoria and disappointment, but if photography is truly a passion to you, you’ll overcome even the worst times.

Back to that passion of photography, you have a great eye. Is that pure talent, or also education, trial and error and experience?

I wish I knew what pure talent was. I think it comes down to nearly 30 years of exposure (no pun intended). A friend was looking at some iPhone photos I shot of a recent trip to Mexico. Initially, I didn’t tell him they were shot on the phone so he automatically assumed I had brought my camera gear with me to document the trip. He was stunned to find out he owned the exact same equipment I did and that these images could be had by anyone. It all comes down to seeing the light and understanding how it works.

I think my skills come from education and experience. I’ve only attended one photography class in my life, but enjoy seeing other genres of photography and applying those techniques to aviation. Some work, some don’t, but being different is what artists are all about. You will fail more than you succeed, but it makes success that much better.

Many know I tilt my photos when purists prefer a straight horizon. This was learned from the automotive industry where cars at rest are often photographed with a slight lean to invoke movement or acceleration. Why not try that with aircraft? Architecture often involves symmetry, so why not focus on the symmetrical aspects of an aircraft or the juxtaposition of nearby flight crew? Fine art and nature photography brings out the best in our surroundings, so why not include those amazing billowing cumulous clouds in the background or the small field of flowers next to the ramp?

Of course being obsessed with photography has it’s downside. I am unable to sit underneath a ceiling fan without trying to guess what shutter speed would result in a fully blurred disc. I am currently seeking therapy on this matter.

How would you describe your style, both in shooting as well as in editing?

Oh man...
Um, well... when creating the image, I think technical qualities come first, such as using the Rule of Thirds, insuring there is some prop blur, spacing in front of the aircraft to insure the perceived motion is not impeded, sharpness, etc. So long as all of those factors are successful, the artistry follows. That can include getting a tight shot or a loose one if the background allows, tilting the camera, choosing between horizontal and vertical (I mean, you do want to have an image on a magazine cover, right? Achem - vertical! Jussayin.)

When it comes to editing, less is more. I see HDR stuff, composite images, over-edited and oversaturated photos, and that’s totally fine if it’s what you’re aiming for. Sometimes I will over-edit a photo and make it painterly, but you won’t see me inserting the moon when it wasn’t originally there or Photoshopping an image to the point of being inaccurate or telling a different story than what was originally portrayed. I do my best to stay within the realm of editorial photography rules.

There is however one exception to this rule and that was the creation of my “Reminisce” book. In an effort to revisit the past, both in an aviation sense as well as pay homage to my darkroom days, I selected a number of images to be converted to black & white. The process involved more than hitting the “desaturate” button as I wanted to incorporate contrast filters, dodging, burning and more. Additionally, I wanted the images to be true to form and accurate for the day, so only those aircraft present in the days of black and white photography were chosen.

Could you describe your editing workflow?

I wish I could say the lab does it, but those days are gone.

All and all, it’s a pretty straightforward process and probably archaic by some photographer’s standards.

Firstly, I’ll download all the images into a folder with the name of the show or event with a RAW subfolder. From there I’ll start sifting through the photos marking them with a 1-Star, 3-Star or 5-Star in Adobe Bridge. (I’m sure many of you use LightRoom and that’s great! It’s a wonderful program, but it is very similar to what Bridge offers and that’s just what I’ve come to know…so both programs will accomplish the same task.) A 1-Star image will eventually find its way into the trash. A 3-Star has potential with a bit of work, but may be soft or require a bit of attention to correct the composition. These will eventually become my second tier images. The 5-Star images are tack-sharp and easily editable. I can confidently place these on my website for customers to order 20x30’s or sent out as press releases or a finished commercial project.

Once the images have been gone through, the 1-Stars are tossed and the editing begins on the 5-Stars. Now, to be clear, a 1-Star image is completely unusable, not just a little out of focus. Why? This industry is tough and dangerous; we lose friends and aviators every year. If I have a photo of a performer, aviator, photographer, friend, etc., and the image could have use in a memorial or funeral - as sad as that sounds - I will keep it.

Short Story - When I worked in a camera store, there was a customer who came in to pick up her prints. As I had done a dozen times earlier that day, I handed her the package of prints and negatives and gave her a bit of space to thumb through them privately. A few minutes passed when I noticed her break into tears. When I asked if everything was ok, she showed me the photo that churned up so much emotion. It was of her four or five-year old son who had been killed by a drunk driver a few months earlier. As it turns out, this was the last photo of him. He held the disposable camera in both his hands as he spun around in circles and managed to take a photo of himself. The photo was slightly fuzzy and in most cases, we probably wouldn’t have printed it as the lab charges by the print, but thankfully we did or else she never would have known it existed. It was this moment that illustrated how important photos can be and even though it may not be a great photo to you or I, it was a memory captured that could mean the world to someone else.

And back to editing...

Once the image is opened in Adobe Bridge, I’ll adjust the contrast, sharpness, saturation, add metadata, work on minor shadows and highlight details before opening it in Photoshop as a 16bit RAW in ProPhoto color profile. Once in PS, I’ll do a bit of dodging and burning if needed, get rid of dust spots, clone in the Where’s Waldo guy (Just kidding…seeing if you’re paying attention), Unsharp Mask, convert to 8bit Adobe RGB and save as a .Tif file for archiving. I rarely do much more than this.

As for file naming, it’s pretty basic as well. Files may look something like this: Mugu09_a10_1234.tif - Point Mugu 2009, A-10 Warthog, original RAW image file _1234. Sometimes I’ll add a little more info to make it easier to find through Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or even easier to find in my own archive via keywords.

That is quite the explanation, thanks for the detailed descritpion. As for creating your work in the first place, what kind of equipment do you use?

Currently I use Nikon equipment including the D5, D810 and D800 as well as my favorite go-to lens, the 24-120mm as well as 14-24 2.8, 70-200 2.8 and a 500mm f/4. for work here at the Aquarium, I’ll use a fast 50mm 1.8 or a 105 2.8 Nikkor macro lens and an assortment of strobes, both Nikon SB-900 & SB-910 as well as an army of Vivitar 285’s a Pocket Wizard radios. For larger shoots, I have a Dynalite pack and head system as well as a much larger Speedotron system to light up our exhibits. When Air-to-Air missions are presented, I’ll attach a Kenyon KS-6 gyro.

Why did you make the switch from Canon to Nikon? WHY?!

Yeah, I was once one of those guys who made fun of Nikon users, in good taste of course! But they woo’d me over to “The Dark Side” a few years back. I was at the Reno Air Races when Scott Diussa, Bill Fortney and Bill Pekela insisted I try out some equipment. I was honestly impressed. Add to the fact my gear was getting older and just about all of it was ready to be upgraded or replaced. So, my decision came down to sticking with buying all new gear from Canon or making the switch and getting all new Nikon gear. Quite frankly, Nikon was there for me numerous times when I needed it and Canon was slowly exiting the scene, so I went with Nikon.

It took a good two years before my muscle memory was retrained since operating a Nikon was the polar opposite to Canon. But what I did find was that there was less editing, images were crisper (even with internal sharpening turned off) and the saturation on a RAW file was close to reality as opposed to my Canon gear that lacked hardly any saturation to the point of shooting grey scale. A lot of post production was needed to make the images pop from my Canon 5D. The strobe system has always been superior with Nikon and only added to my flexibility with nighttime aircraft photography. All and all, it was a tough decision, but I think it was the right one for me.

There seems to be a push towards video lately, ever thought about going that route yourself?

I certainly have! Unfortunately there’s quite a learning curve on the video editing side of things which has taken a back seat to the never-ending photography requests with both aviation and the aquarium. If video projects were to supplement some of the photography assignments, I’d be more proactive.

The tools are there! I have a wonderful Kessler Crane slider system, perfectly capable DSLR’s, GoPros, microphone systems and the software. Some of these I put to work doing time lapses, but our in-house video team does most of the video work.

Lastly, do you have any tips for aspiring photographers?

There are so many one-liners I could throw in here that would be just as applicable to winning a marathon as it would be to a photographer, so I’ll do my best to avoid them. Chances are, you’ve heard them all before anyway.

Perhaps the the one thing that helped me most was that I was never alone in my venture. My parents supported me completely, despite the fact that I’m sure they wish I had become a doctor, but they supported me. My friends have always been supportive and encouraging as well.

There will be moments of frustration, poverty and stress. If photography is a true passion, you’ll get past it and eventually move on to jubilation, excitement, pride and hopefully success. Too many photographers don’t value themselves or their work enough and suffer the negative side of the industry. Treat your photography as a business and not a charity. Believe me, it’s easier said than done, but often times saying “No” to a potentially bad job will get you more respect than saying “Yes” and better jobs will follow.

Lastly, don’t financially kill yourself over trying to obtain the best gear. For the past 15 years, I’ve worked with high-end amateur-level cameras such as the Canon 5D and Nikon D800. Only recently was I able to acquire a pro-level DSLR, which is the first pro camera I’ve operated since the Canon EOS-1V film camera back in 2002. Learn to get the most out of what you have. Often times, I will go so far as to challenge myself with one fixed-length lens. This allows me to narrow down my options and concentrate on the subject. Sometimes, too much gear can weigh you down both physically and constructively.