Exclusive Interview with Legendary Executive Aircraft Photographer Nick Gleis

by PBJ Staff / Jul 10, 2013

Nick Gleis

Photographer Nick Gleis is known worldwide for his work in a number of industries.

First and foremost, Nick Gleis is known for his aircraft photography. He has photographed over 800 private jets — ranging from the Lear 20 series to Boeing 747-400s. To date, he has photographed over 200 Gulfstream aircraft alone.

For over 30 years Gleis has provided exclusive photographs of private jets for such original equipment manufacturers as Gulfstream, Boeing, Falcon Jet, Cessna, Bombardier, Eclipse, Lear, and others.

As an expert in private jet photography, Gleis has managed and delivered thousands of photographic properties for a wide variety of purposes – and he has produced highly customized photographic wall décor for major corporate displays around the globe.

Gleis has also engaged in many in-flight, air-to-air missions — capturing the images of flying aircraft by using such chase aircraft as a B-25 Bomber, a Lear 35 with special optics, and Gulfstream IIIs and IVs.

Gleis has been featured in such photography festivals as the Brighton Photo Biennial in the UK — and articles about his work have appeared in such international publications as Wired Magazine, Gulf Life (Middle East), Un Jour Magazine (France), Gawker (UK), China National Travel Magazine (China), The Telegraph (UK), Airplanista Magazine, Business Jet Interiors International (UK), and Playboy magazine.

He is a five-time winner of the highly distinguished Auorea Award for Professional Photography, and he has won many other national and international awards.

Questions and Answers:

Paramount: How did you begin with aviation photography and why did you choose to specialize in aviation photography?

Nick Gleis: In 1979, I was the Director of Photography for a company in California that received a contract to produce completion progress photographs of a private Boeing 727-200. The project took about a year to complete, and when it was time for the finished photographs to be taken the president of the completion center requested another photographer. The project coordinator and I had become friends, and he pointed out that my contract stated I would have to be paid either way.

Photographing an airplane is a completely different animal than any other type of photography. I actually had to re-shoot it several times to get it right. Once I did, there was no need to bring in another photographer.

That was the first and last time I’ve ever had to reshoot an aircraft.

Private Jet Interior

Paramount: You’ve been taking photographs for over 30 years, with major changes from black & white to color and then to digital. Tell us about the transitions, and how you adapted to the new media and also which is your favorite and why?

Nick Gleis: As you can see in my Bio, most of my technical training came from famous black and white nature photographers, such as Ansel Adams. Much of my early work was in black and white — and Ansel’s zone system was my primary influence. For over 30 years I used the 4×5 view camera with a film format for the overwhelming majority of my images.

Minor White was a protégé of Ansel and he coined the word ‘Previsualization.’ This means you aren’t simply recording what is there. You are previsualizing the final outcome of the printed piece – and the way you expose, develop and print the image makes it become a reality. To this day every image I take is previsualized and the elements are then gathered together to make my final photograph.

Taking photographs of small and medium-size aircraft with a 4×5 view camera was cumbersome and difficult, but the view camera was the only way I could produce the top quality images my clients demanded. In all aspects of my career the image quality was — and still is — my top priority.

Private Jet

During the 80’s and 90’s when I was using mostly color negative film, I had no choice but to capture the images on a single sheet of film. The interior of an aircraft usually has multiple light sources, and those sources inevitably have different colors. The human brain tends to treat the light sources as the same color, but in reality the glowing gases that make electric light are vastly different in their color temperature.

So I developed a method of multiple exposures on the same sheet of film. I also used special filters with each exposure that allowed me to produce color prints that were a good record of the aircrafts’ actual interior colors.

It took me many years to get beyond the difficult technical aspects of photographing airplanes. But finally I was able to concentrate on the feeling the viewer should get when seeing the final image.

After all, the purpose of the photograph is usually to help the clients sell their work, whether as interior designers or completion centers. Or the image will show a potential buyer or charter client what the interior really looks like.

Even today, clients tend to think of a photograph as a mere record of what is there. But if that were true you could hire any photographer and achieve the same results from each one. Photographs, by their very nature, are subjective. That is because photography is an art form. Many different elements must be blended together to produce an image that gives the viewer a good sense of what the interior looks and feels like. By the late 80’s I started to really capture the ambiance of the interior, rather than simply record what was there.

In the early 90’s, people were beginning to scan transparency materials to produce digital images. Transparencies were the staple of the commercial photographer because lithographic printers used them exclusively to produce brochures and other printed materials.

Private Jet

By 1990 Adobe had released the first version of Photoshop, and soon scanned images were beginning to be manipulated from the desktop computer, rather than from a $100,000 image manipulator. When I made inquires to various companies about scanning color negatives virtually all of them had no way to accomplish that with pleasing results. There were many reasons why color negative material was a superior choice to transparency material, but the commercial industry was stuck on transparencies and the mountain was not going to move.

Finally I worked with Millers Color Lab and Eastman Kodak to develop a reliable method to scan color negative material, produce a digital image, and manipulate the image and output back into a color negative to make photographic prints. In the mid 1990’s digital technology was clearly beginning to take hold of the photographic field.

Once I was giving a demonstration to a design firm on the latest digital imaging capabilities. Afterwards, one of the designers approached me and said something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “The image manipulation we saw today is truly fascinating and I’m sure as time goes by we’ll see many more new things, but remember it’s just another tool in your bag. It will never replace all the things you’ve learned. It will only allow you to go that much further with your images.”

For the remainder of the 90’s I purchased various digital cameras, but the technology hadn’t reached a point where I could use a digital camera economically for commercial purposes.

Then, in late 2002, Canon introduced the EOS 1 Ds — an 11 megapixel full chip camera — and film went the way of the dodo bird as far as my work was concerned.

Similar to other revolutionary technology, the changes that ripped through the industry weren’t all good. But today’s images are vastly better than film in every way. When I hear people say that film is better and they actually miss it, I attribute that to either lack of knowledge of the digital world, or they‘ve been growing old with the monks of Tibet for the past decade.

Private Jet Interior

Paramount: Are you a Mac or PC person?

Nick Gleis: Like most artistic or graphically-oriented people — I use a Mac.

Paramount: These days cameras are everywhere – on computers , on phones, and almost everyone has a digital camera these days. With so many people taking pictures and posting them everywhere, do you feel that photography is losing its value as an art?

Nick Gleis: The experienced digital photographer has unlimited ways to create images that weren’t possible even 15 years ago. We photographers can offer clients even better images now — and we also have dozens of new ways to present them.

But the bad news is that the digital camera has bred the acceptance of mediocrity. I have overheard clients say things like, “We don’t need to get a photographer for that — just use your phone.“

Truly great images are still a wonder to see, and designers and other aesthetic-minded people realize how important a great photograph is to selling their work. But it’s a bottom-line world and the bean counters are in charge. Maybe eventually even the accountants will realize that a great image has real value and adds to their bottom line.

Private Jet Interior

Paramount: Do you carry your camera with you most of the time, just in case you see something you want to capture, or do you plan a shoot?

Nick Gleis: I almost never carry a camera with me unless I have some sort of plan to use it. Throughout most of my career I was using a 4×5 view camera placed on a tripod that weighed a little less than a small automobile. I plan my shots — and when I finally bring a camera in I’ve already previsualized the final outcome. The camera is just the hammer to pound the nail in.

There are photographers out there who get on an airplane and take photos of absolutely everything right down to the throttles in the cockpit. Then they deliver the images with very little, if any, digital enhancement. Some clients get excited initially about having 30-40 images of their Gulfstream, but then they use three or four of them and just throw the rest away.

I choose to finish my shots. I don’t overuse Photoshop, but I do make all the images as perfect as I can. But there is a fine line between the perfect look and the computer-generated look. It has taken me years to find that line. Again — “It’s just another tool.”

Paramount: What is it that truly inspires you?

Nick Gleis:


The First Commandment of the Ten Commandments of Photography by Nick Gleis is “Lighting is everything.”

I can easily take a dull image and make it unique and interesting by simply lighting it properly. Photography is simply capturing light — and the feeling the light brings to a two-dimensional plane.

The rules of lighting are the most important thing to know as a photographer. Once you know and understand the rules of lighting then, if you choose to, you can throw all of them — or part of them — into the trashcan if you like. What matters is telling your story in a dramatic and interesting fashion.

Today’s world has changed. Photoshop and digital images have redefined the way we produce images — but great lighting and the previsualization method will always remain paramount.

Private Jet Interior

Paramount: What advice do you have for somebody who wants to pursue aircraft photography?

Nick Gleis: In today’s world photography is a very tough road. Again, anyone with a smart phone thinks he or she is a photographer. There are many more fruitful ways to make a living. But if a person couldn’t be talked out of it, I would simply state my Tenth Commandment of Photography: Carefully listen to comments by people you admire artistically — and cheerfully disregard everyone else’s chatter.

Also look at many different works by many different photographers. Find the ones you like and admire. Then study their techniques and images — not to copy them, but to draw from their vision and stir up your emotions. Never stray too far away from your own feelings. They are always the best indicator of what is right and wrong.

Paramount: What is your most memorable moment as a photographer?

Nick Gleis: I am truly one of the luckiest people on the planet. I’ve worked very hard and had an exceptional career. In fact, I’ve had so many memorable moments I’m currently writing a book about them.

Once I was photographing the British Grand Prix. I was supposed to capture images of Michael Schumacher — the greatest Formula One driver who ever lived. His Highness Prince Hakeem asked me to take the photographs for his private sports center. I would be the guest of Scuderia Ferrari and have full privileges.

Now I‘ve been a long-time Formula One fan, and during the 80’s I photographed many F1 races for a company named Photocorp. But Michael Schumacher was — and still is — the greatest driver ever. I was standing in the Ferrari garages where no other photographers were allowed to go during qualifying — and I had an out-of-body experience. There was Schumacher sitting in the car with a computer screen dropped down in front of him. He was studying the sector times of the other drivers with the intensity of a wolf stalking his prey. I will just never forget that feeling and being give the opportunity to capture that moment.

Private Jet

Paramount: Do you use software such as Aperture, Lightroom, or Photoshop to enhance your photos after you shoot them?

Nick Gleis: About 90% of all my image enhancement is done using Photoshop.

Getting on and off an aircraft quickly is very important to having a successful shoot. The client needs that aircraft — and I’m often in the way. So today about 50% of my work is done in principle photography, and the remaining is done in postproduction.

Paramount: Do you use any special techniques or equipment and what are your favorite cameras and lenses? What are your goals in regards to your photography?

Nick Gleis: I’ve photographed over 800 airplanes, so I have a rather large bag of tricks. There is an old saying in photography: Always use the longest lens and slowest ISO possible under the circumstances.

I come pretty close to sticking to that rule, but I also just prefer long lenses. They provide a compression that gives the image a bigger-than-life look. I carry a wide selection of lenses and choose one depending on the perspective it provides — and how feasible it is to use under the conditions.

Private Jet Interior

Paramount: What lessons has your work life taught you?

Nick Gleis: Expect the unexpected. Corporate aviation is a moving target. Everything changes all the time. After all these years very little surprises me — unless someone were to say, “Sure, take all the time you need — and here is a blank check.” Now that would be a shock.

Paramount: What or who is the greatest love of your life?

Nick Gleis: I have a ranch in Virginia. My ranch is my baby — and I love all the things she gives me.

Private Jet Interior

Paramount: If you were given the chance to photograph any aircraft, which one would that be and why?

Nick Gleis: I’d like to photograph the space station. I‘ve flown in or photographed virtually every kind of airplane, with the exception of the space shuttle or a fighter jet landing on an aircraft carrier. I‘ve even piloted the Goodyear blimp.

But the only thing I haven’t done is visit outer space. I’d love to do that and take my camera along. I’m ready — let’s go!

Paramount: First thing you would do if you won the lottery?

Nick Gleis: On my way to the Ferrari dealer to order my new 458 I would have to give Virgin Galactic a call. At that point I’d reserve a first-class window seat on the first available flight to space. Wow — what a ride that would be.

777 Cockpit

Paramount: Is there anything else that you would like people to know about you?

Nick Gleis: I hope that people will read my book. I think it will be worth their time.

For more information about Nick Gleis and his work please visit http://www.BizJetPhotos.com.

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