Photos: Awesome aerial imagery from a (20-year-old) Silicon Valley stunt pilot
Menlo Park native Michael Mainiero shoots—literally—at a higher level
It’s not exactly a hidden secret that the San Francisco Bay Area is a field day for photographers. Between the landscapes and the landmarks, the region is profoundly photogenic in numerous ways. Yet, in a bit of an Instagram-age paradox, a lot of the regional imagery can seem homogenous at times, as shutterbugs all gravitate to a lot of the same subject matter, like moths to a picturesque flame.
A couple months back when The Six Fifty was producing a feature story on the nearby San Carlos Airport, we were all a bit dazzled by the aerial imagery of local photographer Michael Mainiero. Nicely composed, well-lit and highly dynamic, his photographs captured a wide variety of aircrafts shot from the sky (known in the biz as “air-to-air photography”) against sweeping views of our local landscape. More notably, his photographs simply didn’t look like much of anything we were accustomed to seeing around the Bay (or on Instagram, for that matter). Sure, we catch the Blue Angels every autumn, but Michael is uniquely positioned to get shots from a rarely-accessible vantage point; namely—from 4,000 feet above our heads.
As a 20-year-old pilot with parallel ambitions in photography, Mainiero is yet another of the interesting airborne individuals ascending from the aviation community of the Peninsula’s San Carlos Airport. Curious to get some insight into his photography and local origins, we caught up with Mainiero while he was recently earthbound.
So looking over your work, I’m really curious what came first — your interest in flying or your interest in photography?
They both developed separately around the same time, so it was kind of a mix. When I was young I was always into mechanical-type things. And my dad was a photographer, so he always had a camera around, and as I got older I’d take his camera out on family trips.
Independently, I picked up my interest in flying while I was pretty young as well…probably when I was about 8 or 9 years old. And then it just happened that later on I connected with some photographers at aviation events, and from there I started figuring out a way to combine the two.
So in terms of flying, you learned via the Young Eagles program out of San Carlos Airport?
That’s actually an international program now, but there’s different chapters, with one at San Carlos. And that’s how I first got into actually flying airplanes. I did all my pilot training at San Carlos through their Flight Center. I started officially training as a pilot when I was 15. And then I took my private pilot check ride on my 17th birthday.
What are your current qualifications as a pilot these days? I thought I saw the term “stunt pilot” in your bio somewhere.is that accurate?
I do some aerobatics. That’s just a side thing I do for fun and some extra experience. But I’m currently a corporate private jet pilot. I fly out of Hayward and Palo Alto most of the time; flying 8- to 10-passenger business jets for both cross-country and international work.
So then when did your interest in photography merge with your interest in flying?
The first air show I went to was in 2010 and that was also just after I had gone for my first flight. And I brought a camera and I was taking pictures there on the ground with a little point-and-shoot camera.
When my flying side of things started taking off and I started actually going to the airport and hanging out and meeting people, close to the same time was when I also started doing photography at these events as well.
So what’s the learning curve for this type of photography, and what are the challenges of being up there and getting good shots?
In a general sense, the way I work is we take an airplane that has big removable cargo doors, and we take the doors off. So I’m not shooting through glass, I have a big opening about five feet wide by about four feet tall. It’s basically a big hole on the side of the airplane that gives me very little restrictions to deal with.
Now, that said, I wear a full body harness that I tie into — I’m attached to the airplane — and I usually sit on the floor cause it gives me more maneuverability. But that can all take a bit to get used to … if it’s bumpy or you’re in a turn with the door down, that can freak some people out. And it’s loud, it’s windy, it can be freezing — that can be a challenge.
Because it’s loud, I wear a headset … to relay any commands and basically work as an aerial director to position the airplane that I’m in over subjects, such as backgrounds (over the beach, or over the Golden Gate Bridge). So I’m thinking about those aspects and thinking what it takes to put you from where you are to where you want to be in 30 seconds or a minute. And you also have to think about where you want the subject airplane to be in relation to the background.
Looking at your images, I was also surprised by how good the lighting is from photo to photo…
The majority of my shooting is done in the evening. We are always shooting for that golden hour, so the hour before sunset. There’s a lot of timing that goes into it.
In terms of the landscapes, I would think the Bay Area is almost ridiculously rich in terms of the possibilities?
It really is. In fact, I have to think sometimes — “where haven’t I shot in the Bay Area? Because I’ve shot in a lot of the locations.” Or, “how can I shoot this in a way that doesn’t show the same object in the same way?”
I have a couple guys I work with that fly a few different airplanes, so if we’re just going out shooting for fun (rather than a formal professional shoot) we’ll say, “well, we went out over the bridge last time, let’s go down the coast instead.” Or, “hey, it just rained and the hills in the East Bay are bright green, let’s go in that direction.”
In that regard, is there a certain shot on your wish list that you’ve been hoping to get?
There’s a few that I thought about which would be really fun to do. Not all of them are necessarily shots of background objects, some of them are just shots of different types of airplanes. I’ve shot a lot over San Francisco, I’ve shot over the bridge dozens of times.
I have a friend who has taken some really cool shots over the Vegas strip in the evening … And I’d also like to really shoot in the Pacific Northwest and the Seattle area, just because there is a lot of really beautiful terrain to shoot around.
So here we are in the age of drones, and I’m wondering if you see similarities with what you do to that kind of photography, or if you see it as something very different?
It’s separate. If I was taking pictures out of a helicopter that would be one thing, but then again drones are restricted in that they can only go 400 feet for legal operations. So I could go up to 1000 feet in a helicopter and get a different angle. I’ve gone riding with friends who have helicopters, so I have shots looking straight down at Sutro Tower. I have shots looking straight down on the top of the Transamerica Pyramid, where it literally looks like you are standing over the building looking down. You could easily do that shot with a drone, but it wouldn’t be legal. So that’s one aspect — is that you are working in different capability levels.
And then with any of the air-to-air work you just period can’t do it with a drone. You don’t have the speed or the control, you can’t go as high…you just don’t have the capability with a drone.
The Bay Area, and the Peninsula in particular, has a notable aeronautics history, and mindful of the community at the San Carlos airport, I’m curious how you regard the public’s perception of the aviation community?
I’ve been involved very closely with aviation for about 8 years now, and people across the board don’t realize what the aviation community is, especially in the Bay Area. It hasn’t helped that we’ve had issues with noise complaints and other operations that have upset residents.
But if you look at what aviation was back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even prior to that, it was such a big deal to travel on an airplane, and now everyone takes it for granted and if it shows up 30 minutes late everyone is mad. Aviation is held in a different public view today than it was 40 years ago. But one thing that the general public doesn’t get to see at all is the actual community that the aviation community is, which is different from really anywhere else.
It’s a giant family and it is a very supporting community. If someone shows interest and initiative, people are there willing to help. And that’s one way I have been able to progress in my career so far at such a young age. It really is something special that people don’t realize.
[Portions of this interview were edited for length and clarity.]
Follow Michael Mainiero’s work (and flying adventures) on Instagram @mamainiero