This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Kent Miller, associate professor of photojournalism, www.kentmiller.com:
Most people react to this photo with doubt at first. Is Kent an expert at manipulating images using Photoshop? The answer is no, but the sad part is that in this day and age of digital photography, the common reaction is to ask if it’s real. Twenty years ago, the question would not likely come to mind.
The reality is that this is not Kokomo (yes, I’m showing my age with a Beach Boys reference). It’s St. Maarten, the home of the famous Princess Juliana International Airport. At only 7,980 feet, the runway is barely long enough for large jets to land. Incoming airliners approaching the island, must touchdown at the very beginning of the runway, which is just past the beach. This means they have to fly extremely low, passing only 30-60 feet over tourists and plane spotters.
My dad took me planespotting when I was a kid. He knew the best places to go to see planes flying their lowest. We were taken with the idea that something so large and heavy could fly so gracefully and appear to be suspended in midair.
So when my wife planned a cruising vacation in the Caribbean, she told me about St. Julianna airport in St. Maarten. After seeing images from the scene of low flying planes over the beach, I knew I had to go there. I wasn’t intentionally looking for this exact picture, but I knew I wanted to get something fun.
The challenge for me was to make a photo that was not typical for the scene. There are lots of shots out there, photographed from a distance, that show the scene of a huge airliner above tiny beach-goers. They all look really cool but I wanted to make a photo that was unique. I wanted to show what it actually feels like to be there.
I focused on people reacting to the scene rather than the scene itself. I shot people getting blown off their feet under the aircraft. I shot people running from the spit of the sand blasting on their flesh. There were a lot of jetliners coming in that day, and a lot of commuter jets. I left enough room over their heads to keep the planes in the background. I was just really lucky to be in that place and time when the 747 jumbo jet came in. I think we felt like we were in a very safe place to make that picture then, but when it came in, it was like a shock. It took my breath away. It was like, “Oh my God.”
My family was sitting on the beach thinking they were at a safe distance considering all of the jets until this moment were smaller 727 type jetliners.
I framed them in the foreground with room above them guessing where the plane would come in. As soon as the plane approached, I laid down on my motor drive. That’s when it happened. It shook us to our core as a thunderous earth-shaking roar blasted particles of sand, each feeling like a bullet pelting our skin. For a moment, I was concerned about my camera, but I let that go. I instinctively held my ground and kept shooting as they seemingly ran for their lives past me. That one moment tells the best story.
The 747 jumbo jet was the surprise. It was unbelievable! I had seen and felt plenty of 727 sized planes that afternoon but nothing compared to the sound, sight, and feeling of the 747. I found out later that 747s only fly over twice a week during peak season. They are owned by the French carrier, Corsair. I was quite lucky that day.
The experience reinforced the idea that I didn’t take the photo with my mind. My body shot that picture. It was all instinct. In the earlier days, after several years of shooting, I found that in key situations my instincts took over. When I looked at my film, I wondered who shot that picture? It’s quite magical. It’s an involuntary reflex like typing on a keyboard. Typing takes lots of practice. You get to a point that you don’t have to think about each strike of the key. It’s the same with photography. The mind does not have time to react. It’s the body. My reflex was to stay and shoot that moment and not flee. You can see the subjects fleeing and freaking. That was their involuntary reflex. I reacted differently because I had a camera in my hands.
This is where the mechanism through years of experience becomes intuition. It takes a lot of practice to anticipate moments, but with time it becomes something that just happens.
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