Playing with Fire

Apparatus Photography
with Jeff Hawkins

By Michael J. Legeros


This month, an interview with collector Jeff Hawkins on the subject of apparatus photography. Jeff is the Sales Administrator and Marketing Manager for Performance Specialty Vehicles, a Virginia-based dealer of American LaFrance, MedicMaster, Road Rescue, and Medix Specialty Vehicles. Jeff is also a volunteer firefighter with the Chickahominy Volunteer Fire Department in Hanover County, Virginia. He is married and resides in Henrico County, a suburb of Richmond.

Mike: How do you shoot fire apparatus?

Jeff: With a camera.

M: Film or digital?

J: Digital.

M: What kind of camera?

J: Canon EOS Digital Rebel SLR, 6.3 megapixels.

M: What kind of lens?

J: I use the lens that came with the camera, a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6.

M: Which side of a truck do you prefer to shoot, driver's or passenger's?

J: My preference is the driver's side when composing a formal photograph.

M: Standing or crouching?

J: It depends on the type of apparatus. Shorter vehicles such as ambulances and brush trucks require a different approach than the larger pumpers, rescues, and aerials. Sometimes I crouch down for a low angle, but I usually try to have the camera at about eye level of the average person.

M: Do you use a tripod?

J: When shooting formal delivery photos, yes. If I'm just visiting fire stations, then no I don't lug it around.

M: Do you stand parallel to the front bumper? Ahead of the bumper?

J: As a rule of thumb, I stand at approximately a 45-degree angle to the front and left side of the vehicle. A little trick that I learned on the older Freightliner models (i.e. FL60, FL80, etc.) is to position yourself so that you are looking straight down the right side of the front bumper. Try this and you'll see what I mean.

M: How does the angle affect the background?

J: If Iím shooting the rig in front of a station or other structure, Iíll spend some time composing the shot so I avoid any angles and lines of the building intersecting with the edges of the apparatus. You want a distinct difference between the apparatus and the building, so they don't appear to run together anywhere in the picture.

M: How important is lighting and avoiding shadows and glare?

J: Lighting is paramount. Shadows are totally unacceptable in my book. I have waited up to 30 minutes for the sun to come out before taking a shot. Full sunlight makes all the difference in the world. Glare from the sun is usually not a problem, however I recommend that you avoid midday shots in order to have a more direct angle of sunlight. I also try to avoid shots late in the day when you start seeing the orange glow from the setting sun.

M: Fire trucks have a lot of shiny surfaces. What about reflections?

J: Experience has also taught me to pay close attention to reflections, especially with trucks that have hinged doors. For example, if youíve got a white car parked nearby, the reflection in those compartment doors will be very obvious and distracts from the photo. Again, this is one of those things that I take into consideration before snapping the shutter and it often determines my exact positioning when taking a shot. Another trick is to roll down the windows on the driver's side. No exposed glass means no glare and something less to worry about.

M: Do you prefer apparatus posed or on scene?

J: Posed, especially if the image will be used for marketing purposes. Should I happen upon an incident, I can always take advantage of the action. Emergency scenes almost always produce interesting results.

M: Lights on, lights off? Compartments open, compartments closed?

J: Lights off, however I have done a few artsy night shots with apparatus posed in the station with the lights on. I have to admit that a Roto-Ray looks really cool in a time exposure! Compartment doors should remain closed unless you are taking a specific photo to highlight how the equipment is mounted, or if you are documenting other features.

M: How many shots do you take?

J: On average Iíll take two or three photos of one truck. I've got it narrowed down so I know exactly what I'm looking for even though I'm using digital media and not wasting film. For new deliveries that I photograph for PSV, I typically shoot about 20 or 25 different images of the apparatus. This includes all four sides, cab and compartment interiors, pump panel, dunnage area, hose bed, front bumper, and any accessories. When the images are posted on our web site, the different perspectives gives prospective customers a complete and comprehensive overview of the apparatus. The images also make great reference material for pre-construction meetings and other design related tasks.

M: What should you avoid when shooting a piece of apparatus?

J: First and foremost, take pictures that you will be satisfied with. Remember, we all have our own style of photography. Next, try to maintain a clean background with no obstructions, especially overhead wires and light poles. These tend to detract from a photograph. I also do a few things to clean-up the shot, such as straighten any cab mounted spotlights, arrange the Roto-Ray in an upright triangle fashion, and clear the dashboard of helmets, clipboards, or other clutter.

M: Do you have special considerations for printing or publishing in black and white?

J: As several publications print my new delivery photographs in black and white, I convert the images to grayscale using Adobe Photoshop. I also tweak them a bit if needed. When shooting, it has been my experience that utilizing bright sunlight and a nice blue sky really does wonders for black and white photos.

M: Let's move onto etiquette. What's the best way to approach firefighters and ask if they'll pull their truck out?

J: If at all possible, call ahead and let the crew know that you are coming. This makes life so much easier by allowing them to keep their schedule clear during a certain time frame. It also often builds anticipation among the firefighters that a photographer is coming by to shoot the trucks. Of course, calling ahead is not always possible, particularly if you are from out of town.

M: Do you recommend mornings or afternoons, weekdays or weekends?

J: My first rule of thumb is to try and avoid meal time no matter what day of the week. Being a volunteer firefighter myself, I can assure you that public safety personnel donít always get to eat at "proper" meal times and most donít like to be interrupted by a photographer. Most of my station visits are on weekends due to my work schedule. However, based on the experiences of other photographers, it seems that one day works as good as another.

M: What else can you advise about station visits?

J: When you are finally face to face with someone, always introduce yourself and be polite. Let the crew know up front that you would like to photograph one, several, or all of their trucks. If the crew is in the middle of training or other activities, ask if you should return at another time. Maybe later that day, or later that week. Never push the issue, as their job comes before our photography. Hopefully you'll be welcomed at the station and things will proceed from there. Itís been my experience that the first thing most crews like to do is take you on a tour of the station. Always accept the offer. Remember this is their second home, not just some place where they work.

M: What are other good places to take apparatus photos?

J: Dealerships are a great place to take apparatus photos. If you have an apparatus dealership nearby, develop a relationship with someone there. They can help you by moving or positioning apparatus. As with station visits, try to call ahead and make an appointment. This ensures that either your contact or another staff member is there to both pose the vehicle and answer any questions. Always remember to obtain permission before venturing onto someone elseís property. Iíve got a regular group of photographers that keep tabs on our new deliveries and I can always expect a phone call wanting to set-up a photo shoot ASAP after new apparatus arrives.

M: Do you you prefer to shoot at the time of delivery or later?

J: My preference is after the truck has been placed in service. Often you can utilize the station as a backdrop and, more importantly, the truck has equipment on it, such as hose, ladders, hand tools, etc.

M: Do you have a good system for storing, indexing, and managing all those digital picture files?

J: Absolutely. This starts with naming the file. What I have found that works best is to title the digital picture file as location, unit, date, and photographer. For example:  "Henrico County, VA Engine 7 Aug 21, 2004 Jeff Hawkins.jpg." Next, I'll store the file in a folder categorized by state, county, department, and station number. Finally I burn everything to a CD for archiving.

M: What are the best ways to publish or distribute apparatus pictures?

J: I think we can all agree that the Internet is hands down the best venue for sharing photos with others. There are a number of buff sites that I post to along with the fire department and company sites that utilize my photos.

M: Which sites are those? And do you have other favorite sites?

J: Primarily I post to and Additionally, Mike Martinelli's is a fantastic gallery of quality apparatus images. Mike is obviously very dedicated to this hobby and it shows in his work. There are also dozens of individual albums out there if you search such photo sites as

M: Can you share a couple of your favorite shots?

J: Certainly. This is a picture of Earlysville Engine 45, a 2000 Pierce Saber with a 750 GPM pump, 350 gallon tank, and 50 gallon foam cell. Here is Chatham Rescue 128, a 2004 Freightliner M2 with a 14-foot RescueMaster body. And this is Fairfax County Engine 428, a 2005 Pierce Dash with a 1,500 GPM pump, 625 gallon tank, and 40-gallon foam cell.

Mike Legeros can be contacted here. Jeff Hawkins can be contacted here. Both welcome your comments or questions about apparatus photography.

A version of this column originally appeared at Code 3 Collectibles.


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Copyright 2017 by Michael J. Legeros