Jessica Ambats on air-to-air photography

Photographer and pilot Jessica Ambats is one of our expert panel of judges for our Private Jet Photography Awards. She is one of the world’s best known in the field of air-to-air photography, the art of photographing aircraft while in the air on another aircraft. 

Her spectacular aviation photography has been featured internationally on many magazine and book covers, and she was awarded the top designation of “Best of the Best” by Aviation Week & Space Technology.

When she’s not taking photos of airplanes, Jessica is flying them. She is a multi-engine instrument-rated pilot with a seaplane rating and tailwheel endorsement. Jessica is also the editor of Plane & Pilot Magazine.

We asked Jessica about her work and her tips for aspiring aviation photographers.

© Jessica Ambats
What do you love most about your job?

Photography is about a sharing a moment. You capture a moment and extend it forever. In the case of aviation photography, it’s a passion.

I’m a pilot. I’m a photographer. So I’m very fortunate to be able to combine my two passions with air-to-air photography.

Flying is freedom. Flying offers a new perspective on the world. It’s an amazing feeling to be in control of an airplane. From the moment you leave the ground to the moment you land, it’s all you.

Which do you prefer, flying or photography? 

Flying is my first love, but if I can’t be at the controls of an airplane then taking a photo of it is the next best thing!

A good photograph is one that inspires someone. To learn to fly. To take their own photos. To follow their passions. When people ask me “how did you get that?” I know that my photo has made them pause and think.  That is a successful photograph.

Can you tell us more about air-to-air photography as a specialism and how you approach a shoot? 

An air-to-air photo shoot consists of a formation flight of two or more aircraft, where the photographer rides in the lead airplane and gives positioning instructions to the subject airplanes.

A huge amount of coordination and planning goes into each air-to-air shoot.  I define a clear vision before each flight, and then take the necessary steps to make that vision a reality.

Air-to-air photography offers a view of an airplane that you don’t normally get to see. It’s an amazing sight to watch an airplane flying off your wing and the world passing by below.  Your image captures an airplane in its element. My goal is to bring that perspective to the ground for others to see.

© Jessica Ambats
So there are a number of other people involved in a successful air-to-air shoot? 

Yes, air-to-air photography is a team effort. In the air, the photographer acts as the director, but it’s the pilots that make the difference in maintaining safety and in getting a successful image.

It’s absolutely critical to use experienced formation pilots. I have the honor of working with awe-inspiring pilots. As such, my photos are not just about the airplane. They’re about the pilots too. I try to capture the emotion of an aviator in the sky – huge smiles mixed with intense concentration – doing what they love.

There must be a lot of physical and logistical challenges involved?

Yes, there certainly are challenges.  You’re at the open door of an aircraft so it’s noisy, cold, windy – and you may be sitting in an awkward and uncomfortable position. It’s sometimes bumpy and you have to hold steady when using a slow shutter speed.

It’s a dynamic environment. You need to position a moving aircraft with a constantly moving background. You always need to be thinking several steps ahead.

I love the challenge of shooting mismatched aircraft. You have to contend with different airspeeds and fuel requirements. Your composition has to account for different sized airplanes.

© Jessica Ambats

What advice would you give to aspiring aviation photographers?

Get out to the airport and shoot. Ask other photographers questions. Don’t let your gear limit you. Even if you don’t have pro-level equipment, it’s possible to do decent work and grow as a photographer. Knowing how to set up the shot is more important than what camera you have.  Think it through beforehand and plan accordingly.  Have fun experimenting. I learned a tremendous amount through trial and error.

See more of Jessica’s spectacular photography and behind-the-scenes videos from some of her shoots.


Inspired by Jessica’s work? Enter our Private Jet Photography Awards 2013 (the awards recognise private jet photography across a number of categories, not just air-to-air).