“The planes basically became like family to me,” narrates New York City-based aerial photographer Vincenzo Pace, about his immersion into the world of aviation as a child. Much like myself, he’s been a lifelong aviation enthusiast and is also a photographer whose aerial work has been published worldwide. Exciting as it looks, shooting air-to-air isn’t for the faint of heart, but the results by skilled photographers like Vincenzo can be astounding. He tells us about how he fell in love with airplanes and when he took the leap to take photos of them from an aerial perspective.
I’ve worked in aviation for over a decade and a half. But even as a toddler, I was able to spot aircraft and identify airlines by their tail logo from very far away. I’d say being in a family that’s given over 150 years of aviation service helped me build my interest in it. Unlike in most major cities, Dubai’s international airport (DXB) is located right in the heart of the city. It thrives on the heartbeat of the hundreds of flights that move through it each day. And while plane spotting is frowned upon here, you can still see takeoffs and landings as you drive outside the perimeter of the city. Something from my childhood that I remember vividly is seeing the runway at night for the first time. I was very young and didn’t realize that we were just across the highway from the airport. While visiting a store there, my father took me outside and made me peek between two buildings. Across the dark alleyway, the sight that greeted my eyes was nothing less than magical to the young boy I was. Aircraft were taxiing to line up for takeoffs, and it blew my mind that I was standing just a few hundred feet away from them. Maybe that one moment set me up for a lifetime of interest in aviation. Being airborne myself while photographing aircraft is still on my to-do list, and I thoroughly enjoy seeing the work of contemporary specialists such as Vincenzo, who do this regularly.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Vincenzo Pace
Vincenzo told us:
The stability superior focus capability and the ability of shooting up to 30fp helps ensure an 80%+ keep rate of photos from a shoot. The Sony Gear is also superior in supporting photography in lower light conditions, allowing me to bump the ISO more than I would with Canon or Nikon with minimal noise issues below ISO 1600.
The Phoblographer: Hi there, Vincenzo. Aviation and photography are both very close to my heart. Please tell us about yourself and how you followed the same path too.
Vincenzo Pace: Thank you for the honor of being interviewed for your fine publication regarding my aviation and photography interests!! I am thrilled to share my thoughts about this wonderful community and craft. I am a lifelong aviation enthusiast born, raised, and currently based in the Queens section of New York City, on the doorstep of JFK Airport. I am a first-generation Italian-American, with my parents originating from the Southern Italian City of Bari. I received my University education at NYU, holding a degree in Political Science. While my dream as a child was to become a pilot, my career destiny landed in another sector, as Management Professional in the NYC Construction-Development Industry. I have managed several iconic projects for my firms over the past 15 years, first and foremost being the Project Lead for key elements of the World Trade Center Redevelopment in Manhattan. Having witnessed the events of 9/11/2001 from the streets of Manhattan as a student, it was a special privilege for me to serve on this historic development project for New York.
Currently, I am a Senior Project Executive for the New York Multinational Construction Consortium. My passion for aviation and my career talents have converged, and I now serve as one of the leaders of my firm’s airport construction group, handling a portfolio of clients and projects at all three major airports in the NYC area (JFK/EWR/LGA.) My interest in photography developed as a child, when my Dad, a casual film photographer, brought me to the soccer pitch of the NY Cosmos (Part of the NASL, the 1980s version of the US MLS) to watch him take photographs of the soccer players in action during their matches.
The Phoblographer: Aviation is a fascinating field with a lot of interesting areas. Where did your interest in it begin? What made you want to become an aviation photographer?
Vincenzo Pace: It was also during this childhood period that my parents started bringing me to see the airplanes at JFK International Airport. Back then, the Old International Arrivals Building, which was later developed into IAT/T4, had an observation deck. My parents brought me there on weekends to admire all the airplanes, from 747s to the DC10 to Concorde. Living in Howard Beach, Queens, in the middle of two major arrival and departure flight paths, also provided me the opportunity to see aircraft fly past my house daily. The planes basically became like family to me.
I started aviation photography back in 2005 when I met members of a local NYC Plane Spotting Group. I started out with a decent point and shoot camera and with that started merging two passions together–planes and photography. This was all at the dawn of the digital camera age, so there were a lot of challenges versus the relative ease that we experience shooing digital today. I managed to even get some of these early photos on airplane photo upload sites, like Jet Photos back then. Although I never stopped taking pictures of airplanes, career priorities sidelined much of my aviation photography activities for several years. In 2018, I was approaching my early 40s and decided I needed to actively engage in fulfilling free time activity. At the time, with the encouragement of friends and an employer who wanted their management staff to embrace their enjoyment of their free time, I made the decision to once again become active in the aviation photography community. I made an investment in Nikon camera gear.
This solid lineup of gear allowed me to quickly and prominently re-commence an active role in aviation photography, with a focus on high distance shooting at JFK. This included what has become my signature shot, the SKORR4 (Canarsie) Banking Departure Shot off of Runway 31L at JFK. This shot required a lot of skill, stability, and high zoom lenses. This SKORR4 angle also shows off the dramatic engineering marvels that these aircraft are.
The Phoblographer: When did you decide that you wanted to photograph aircraft while in the air yourself? What was that decisive moment?
Vincenzo Pace: Back in 2018, I came across an air-to-air photo from JFK of my favorite airline, Alitalia, taken by my now good friend and aerial photographer Ryan Patterson. I messaged Ryan about the photo, and a great friendship developed from that one marvelous photo. When we first became friends, we both agreed that as soon as I felt my talents met the challenge, I would embark on my first aerial photography session with him over JFK.
The Phoblographer: Tell us about your first air-to-air photoshoot? Where was it, how scary (or not) was the experience? Did you come back with memorable images?
Vincenzo Pace: In October 2019, my friend and noted aerial photographer Ryan Patterson introduced me to the world of aerial photography. Fittingly, our first aerial session together was over JFK and EWR Airports. It was an incredible experience, with a very supportive team at JFK ATC that helped provide the clearances to safely and effectively take pictures over JFK. I was hooked on this niche within the Aviation Photography Realm. This experience was memorable for many reasons, including photographing aerials for the first time at my home airport and catching many iconic aircraft that would no longer take to the skies as a result of the pandemic.
At first, I was very anxious flying in a helicopter with no doors, but all the safety protocols and being with an experienced group put me at ease. As soon as the helicopter lifted off, I felt like I was floating on air. Since that memorable day, I have been on 20 other aerial photoshoots over Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, Anchorage, Chicago, The California Desert Boneyard Airports, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and additional times over JFK and EWR.
The Phoblographer: Typically how much planning goes into an air-to-air shoot? Who are the major players involved in setting up such a shoot for you?
Vincenzo Pace: An air-to-air shoot requires different levels of planning. LAX is great for the beginner aerial photographer, where everything is pretty much coordinated for you by the helicopter company. Other cities are much more complex and require advance coordination (sometimes weeks and months) with the helicopter company at a particular city, if it is even offered, and specific, professional pre-planning with Air Traffic Control. Although the results may be rewarding, one should always prepare for a last-minute scrub due to poor weather or an airport that is reluctant to have these types of photoshoots in their airspace. The vast majority of Air Traffic Controllers at airports that I have conducted aerial photography over have been professional, accommodating, and extremely welcoming to my aerial photographer colleagues and me into their airspace.
The Phoblographer: How do you tackle factors like haze, air temperature, etc., to get amazing images while shooting up there?
Vincenzo Pace: Whether shooting from the ground or air, the weather is almost always a factor. My personal preference is to always shoot in good lighting conditions. Given the cost and uniqueness of the photos, I will do my best to carefully plan aerial sessions, even with a few days’ notice, around good weather conditions. I have shot from the air in all seasons, and the most important factor is having the proper sun angles at the airport in question to ensure a properly lit photo. Heat haze for me is less of a factor from the air but always becomes an issue from the ground, particularly in the warmer months. To avoid this, I tend to avoid shooting in mid-day and stick to the few hours after sunrise and before sunset to ensure well-lit photos and little to no heat haze issues.
During the winter and from the air, some mid-day shooting is very feasible, depending on the sun angle from where one is shooting.
The Phoblographer: If you had to pick one photo as your most memorable, which one would it be and what’s the story behind it?
Vincenzo Pace: Among the thousands of photos that I have taken, one from March 2019 stands out to this day. It was a rainy Sunday, and I had no thoughts of taking photos due to the horrible weather. Late in the afternoon, the rain had stopped, and I noticed the sky clearing on the horizon. At the same time, I noticed on the FlightRadar24 app that the Alitalia Flagship Boing 777-300ER had just pushed back. JFK departures at that time were on the runway where I could get a dramatic shot of an aircraft with the iconic JFK Tower. Having only 15 minutes before the Alitalia jet departed, I rushed to the location on the beach near my home where I would get this photo. My only anxiety was that the sun would not peak through the clouds to allow for a properly lit photo. As luck would have it, minutes before the Alitalia jet reached the runway for departure, the sun came out with a dramatic cloudy post-storm backdrop to shoot against, to my joy. The scene of this magical photograph had all of the elements of a photo I prefer: a properly sunlit aircraft, a contrasting background with the bonus element of the iconic JFK Tower in the scene. I was very proud of the resulting shot and also was honored that this photo was the first of many shared online by Alitalia and published in the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera.
The Phoblographer: Is there a lot of competition in your field of airborne photography, or are there just a handful of established players?
Vincenzo Pace: First, let me say that the overwhelming majority of the aviation photography community is positively enthusiastic, with its members putting in a lot of heart and soul into their passion for airplanes. They come from every corner of the world from diverse backgrounds and age groups. I am very humbled and proud to have interacted with and met many of these wonderful photographers and enthusiasts. That being said, there is a fair amount of competition in the Aviation Photography field. While I respect the spirit of competitiveness to “get the shot,” I feel that some of this competition lacks professionalism and is driven by ego. With the advent of social media, particularly Instagram, this level of toxicity has unfortunately been driven to a new low where a small but prominent minority of the community prioritizes popularity, aggressive selling tactics, likes, and followers over a greater sense of community that professional photography is renowned for. Although I consider myself a professional aviation photographer and have been published numerous times and have media licensing agreements for my photos, I choose to donate any proceeds I make from my photo publishes to charity, as I already have a successful, unrelated career where my income comes from. I am an aviation enthusiast at heart and never lose sight of that core ideal of what airplanes and aerospace mean to me. My advice to any entering the aviation photography world is to just go out there, practice your photography, enjoy the friends and surround yourself with positive people to share this great passion with!
The Phoblographer: What are some of the locations and aircraft you still haven’t captured, which you’d like to some day?
Vincenzo Pace: With the pandemic starting to hopefully subside, I would like to increase my international travel and photograph at some of the iconic airports around Europe, such as in London, Amsterdam, Zurich, and Innsbruck, as well as visit airports in Asia such as Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo. There really isn’t an airport I wouldn’t be interested in visiting, so my long-term goal is to visit every airport globally that has a flight from my home airport of JFK.
While I principally shoot commercial aviation photos, I would like to increase my portfolio of private jets and, more prominently, military aircraft. I hope to attend a number of military aviation events in the coming year, like [Exercise] Red Flag that takes place in the western United States.