Pilot Spotlights

Photo pilot: Six questions with Alex Wells

Gentleman Husky pilot and globetrotter Alex Wells is our latest featured photographer. Get to know the Bend, Oregon resident a little better to learn how he brings to life his aerial landscape and candid photography.

Husky pilot self-portrait at evening golden hour Husky pilot self-portrait at evening golden hour Alex Wells

Many years ago while camped at Johnson Creek, Idaho, I became friends with Alex Wells. He had arrived in his Aviat Husky and parked at the far north end of the field, somewhat circumspect, just taking in the sights of a busy fly-in. Over the course of the weekend and getting to know him, my father and I both were drawn to his humor, his boyish charm, his unassuming manner, and his modesty as a pilot. Since then we've had many flying and camping adventures together, and he's proven to be one of the coolest guys I know.

Over those years I've watched his photography grow more refined, sharper and more poignant, but always the product of someone who recognizes beauty in many forms whether it be an aircraft, a mountain range at sunset, or the abandoned bicycle of a kid at a fly-in. His personal Flickr account is loaded with images of his travels from India to Mexico to London, featuring wildlife, architecture, and unique glimpses of the locals and their culture.

In recent years he seems to have hit his stride with some incredible aerial landscape imagery of his home area of central Oregon, as well as something I rarely see: candid photos of people at flying events. His ability to capture the spirit of the people of flying is nearly as impressive as the landscapes, and thus he is quite deserved to be added to the ranks of our Featured Photographers.

A decidely less impressive capture of Alex camped at McKenzie Bridge, Oregon, 2010. Photo: Zane Jacobson

When I asked him to assemble an album of what he thought was his best work, he didn't have any selfies for the lead image, so I asked him to go flying and shoot one. The next day he sent over a few, remarking: "It’s way harder than it looks!" Somehow he nailed it though.

While I'd have rather sat down with Alex over a pint to ask him a few questions about his beginnings and what makes him tick, we had to settle for good old-fashioned email.

Six Questions

BPHow did you begin flying? Were you always interested in backcountry/bush flying? Do you own an airplane? What is it that you enjoy about backcountry flying?

AWI cannot remember when I became interested in flying. I think I was just born that way. I was born near the northern shores of Seattle's Lake Washington and Kenmore Air and I'm convinced the whine of seaplane props penetrated my mother's womb. I've craved that sound ever since. As I grew, seaplanes constantly flew overhead with their sound reverberating off the lake. Flying was imprinted into my mind.

A yellow Maule banks during an evening climbout in the Nevada sunset.

While in grade school, we moved to the outskirts of Snohomish, Washington. We lived about 5 miles from town on a derelict dairy farm, bordered on one side by a broad river bar of the Snohomish. Swimming, skipping rocks and building forts on the river's edge occupied many of our summer days. Occasionally we'd hear that familiar whine of a low-level airplane reverberate off the river rock. Then, sure enough, an airplane would appear from around a river bend and skim over the water in front of us. Waiving our arms out of their sockets, the plane would scream by leaving only echo behind.

My mother seemed to spend an awfully long time running errands in town. As a result, I'd have her drop me at the local airport— Harvey Field. Wandering around for hours, I peered into every cockpit I was high enough to reach. Fortunately, there were no pilots-only fences then.

Evening light brings out the details of the Oregon Cascades. Usually, the west is cloudy and the east is clear, as is the case here. Looking north, near to far: South Sister, Middle Sister, North Sister, Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood. Black Butte stands behind (north) of the Three Sisters. A color view under the wing of the Three Sisters, looking north.

Harvey Field had its famous corn roast every summer and I'd plead to go. Parachute drops, flour-bombing contests, and helicopter rides intermingled haphazardly with incoming and outgoing traffic. Breathing in the sweet smell of roasting corn, I'd take it all in. One of the highlights was the arrival of a four-engined DC-4 to the undersized small-town airport. The huge aircraft made several approaches before finally landing. Unfortunately, it hit a dead snag on short final then skidded its tires across the roof of a hippie van parked near the end of the runway.

Thousands of windmills pepper both sides of the Columbia River as it flows west, dividing Oregon and Washington.

Finally down, but out of runway, it pirouetted to a stop. Fuel gushed from the outboard wing in a huge white smelly arc where the snag had punctured one of its tanks. There was some panic but I just smiled at all the excitement while taking it all in. Hearing the horn of our wood-paneled station wagon I knew it was time to go. Riding home I asked if I could take flying lessons. Surprisingly, mom said, "we'll see." I did take some lessons soon thereafter but since I was only 13 at the time, it took me a long while to finally get my license. Eventually I did; I still smile at the smell of roasting corn... and AvGas.

Alex's 2004 Husky A1B in the background, upstaged by wild daises just off the runway at Johnson Creek, Idaho.

BPWhat are your other adventure hobbies/passions? Do you shoot photos of those as well?

AWMy wife is an independent business consultant and works from home. I am her part-time assistant. Her work has given her the opportunity to do some extensive international travel and I have been able to accompany her on many of her trips.

About 8 years ago, she took a 6-month job in New Delhi. Just before we left, I decided I needed to take advantage of the trip, get some better gear, and take photography more seriously. I ordered a camera and two lenses from B&H Photo in New York. The shipment arrived arrived 2 days before our departure.

Somehow this dog walking the flight line at the High Sierra fly-in sets the scene better than most subjects. Low sun, dust, and bush planes for everyone.

Although we had been to India and seen the poverty and filth before, having a camera at my side forced me to see things from a different perspective. Immediately I saw India differently: as a more beautiful, vibrant and happy place. It was filled with friendly people who approached me to have their picture taken— if only to see it on the back of the LCD. I spent hours talking to locals; surrounded by laughing children, curious adults, and passers by. With my camera, I struck out each day exploring places I would have never otherwise gone. Railway stations, shantytowns, the labyrinth of Old Delhi's dark passageways and its ancient spice market provided for long, hot, photography-filled days. It was an unforgettable experience where I learned photography in a trial-by-fire way. I can't wait to go back.

I am an avid downhill skier. Although Mt. Bachelor is only 20 minutes away, I make an annual trip to Whistler, which I prefer. The scenery is spectacular, but I don’t do any photography while there. I'd rather just be in the moment, enjoy the terrain and keep the camera gear at home. I have found in many activities, you're either participating, immersed in doing it or, you're thinking photography and shooting other people doing it. It's hard to do both well. Plus, I hate lugging the gear with me.

World-famous climbing destination Smith Rock, just north of Bend, Oregon, is bathed in the golden evening sun.

BPYour photography is amazing. What are you looking for when you shoot? What makes you pull out the camera when you're out flying? Unlike many other aviation photographers, you often turn the camera on the pilots when they're not in the cockpit, capturing some good candids. What are you looking for there?

AWAlmost every time I get the Husky I have my camera with me. Not only that, but I have it pre-set with settings I know will work. Generally, I set the ISO and aperture, and have the shutter speed on auto. With that, I am about 90% of the way toward a getting a usable shot. Then, when I take the shot, I do simple adjustments with the exposure compensation dial. And I take multiple shots.

Almost home.

I used to click away whenever something grabbed my attention, however, the results were disappointing. Over time I've learned that taking a good shot from the plane is essentially the same as taking a good shot anywhere else: you need good light. With aerial photos I am finding less is more: Perfect flying weather does not necessarily make the best photos. Instead early morning or late evening sun creates a lot of side light and shadows. The resulting contrast adds depth to the photo and brings it to life. Add some clouds and you have lots of drama.

The dust-filled afternoon light casts an interesting glow on a Cessna Skywagon, with a Lake Amphibian turning final in the background.

At fly-ins, I try to turn the camera to people. Most attendees shoot airplanes so I try to focus on people enjoying the event. I like to use a wide-angle lens as much as possible as it has a distinct taking-it-all-in look. But, I find wide-angle lenses a challenge to use. Invariably, some distracting element creeps into the frame and spoils the shot. Nonetheless, I have had some success and enjoy the challenge.

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BPDo you ever think: "This shot is different or innovative"? Or do you just fire away and sort it out later? How deliberate are you with your composition?

AWI tend to shoot what I like. But, after saying that, I think what I like has changed. Many times I will frame the shot, and not even trigger the shutter. I guess I have become more discerning and experienced after taking so many boring shots. I am certainly more careful than I used to be. I try to check the perimeter of my frame for any distracting intrusions and I change camera settings (ISO and aperture) more often— trying to match them to the current lighting conditions.

Smoke from a nearby forest fire settles in the cool morning air amidst the mountains of Oregon's Grant County.

I get more innovative with a wide-angle lens. A wide angle has a uniqueness that is fun to exploit as it can have both foreground elements and the main subject in fairly sharp focus.

BPWhat's your favorite piece of kit/gear? What's your go-to body/lens/filter configuration for cockpit and/or for ground-based shooting?

AWI was a Canon shooter for years but my Canon rig was just too big and difficult to stow safely in the Husky. I was due for an upgrade and I wanted something smaller and easier to handle in the cockpit. I finally settled on a mirrorless system; starting with the FujiFilm X-E2, then moving to the X-T1. The cameras are essentially the same inside but the X-T1 has many more analogue controls. While flying, the last thing I want to do was navigate through cameras menus. The X-T1 helps tremendously.

A crowd of spectators at the 2015 High Sierra fly-in cheers on a Super Cub in the STOL drag contest. Combining action with candid photography is harder than it seems.

Shooting mostly aerial landscapes— scenes shot from a vantage point only an airplane will allow— I lean heavily on the prime Fuji XF 35mm f/1.4 R. Generally, I do not include any part of the airplane in the frame and I find the 35mm focal length to be ideal. It captures a fairly wide scene, but is narrow enough to shoot between the wing strut, wheel, and prop arc.

Lately, I have been experimenting with the prime Fuji X F90mm f/2.0 R and have been happy with some of the results. The 90mm produces a more narrow view and has less of a landscape look. I am still perfecting its use. We'll see how things work out.

The shimmering blue surface of Lake Billy Chinook revealed by a hole in the clouds.

Occasionally I use a prime Fuji XF 14mm /2.8 R which is the widest lens I own. It is almost impossible to use the lens without some part of the plane in the frame. These elements can add context to the shot but sometimes I find them distracting. That being said, the wing struts can create a frame-within-a-frame look and focus the viewer's attention to the main subject of the scene.

Everyone knows what it's like to be the kid on a bike at a desert fly-in, hauling ammo for the pumpkin drop.

Moving from one system to another is an investment. At the time I made the switch to Fuji, they had a limited number of lenses to choose from. And, at the time, there were very few zooms available (they have an excellent selection of high-quality lenses now.) The zooms they did have tended to be significantly more expensive and I stayed away from them. That is why I only mention prime lenses above. Initially I thought primes would be simply a way to start with the Fuji family. However, I have fallen in love with prime lenses! While shooting from the airplane, zooming is just another thing I do not have to do. It sounds crazy, but I am actually enjoying not zooming. Zooming takes two hands and while I occasionally use two hands, it is still nice to have one available for the flying.

The sagebrush of central Oregon casts a long shadow when the sun is low in the sky.

BPAre any of your photos for sale to the public? What if I wanted a poster of one of your shots for my hangar? How would I go about getting that?

AWI have not made any of my photos available to the public. I want to, but I haven't found a good way to do it just yet. If anyone is interested in any of my photos, you can contact me directly through my website's contact page: www.alexewellsphotography.com.

View the entire gallery

Zzz

Zane Jacobson

Zane Jacobson is the founder/editor of Backcountry Pilot and currently flies a variety of rental aircraft around his home area of Portland, Oregon while continuing construction of his Bearhawk.

Website: www.backcountrypilot.org

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