Mach Loop (Pt 2) On The Hill.
My last article discussed the subjects of equipment and planning. Covering in detail what to take and wear. So assuming your are ready to go, and your reason is photography Ill go through my top tips for capturing your first photographs on the Mach loop and what to do when you get to the hill. My chosen location is CAD West - a great first time location, good parking and not too bad to walk up.
The first pass I witnessed on the loop was a comical affair, bored with the complete lack of activity, I decided to make a coffee, I was at the back of the Tarp, my camera at the front, walking poles and dog in the way. I became suddenly aware of a frenzy of activity, and shouts of Dead ahead, Low to the left, 11 o’clock low and the like, stumbling and falling out through the door way grabbing the camera I got the lens on to the single hawk and panned rapidly left to right releasing the shutter at 7fps. In less than a second it was over. Recovering I checked the preview to find half a sharp aircraft, some hills and what was probably grass! I vowed never again to be caught out.
So lets wind back a few hours and talk about preparation. In part one I went through equipment to make your day as comfortable as possible. Stood in the car park at CAD West, around 7am, a few other cars have turned up, but no one as yet has started the walk up the hill. Leaving the car park via the sty and following the path is easy, starting gentle and eventually turning into a punishing up hill climb, especially with all that kit on your back. (Top tip walking poles are a great help, especially on the way back down.)
It’s 07:30 in the morning I have nearly reached the top of the hill. The location on the hill that you should choose depends on the shot you are trying to get. Fast jets - go high for top and level views. Helicopters, to get those office shots, level and side on you need to be much lower.
You’re going to be here a long time, maybe 12 hours, so just as well get as comfortable as possible. It’s no fun trying to sit on a 50 degree slope, boil your water or anything else. So get comfortable find a level spot and get your shelter up, tent, tarp or or just something to sit on. If you can face the entrance in the direction of approaching aircraft then the whole day will be much more comfortable. If it’s too windy then maybe your have to go for shelter instead of the view. With the shelter up I’m a few steps away from breakfast. I like to have everything set up and ready. I unpack the waterproof travel rug, camera equipment, scanner, solar charger, food and cooking equipment. With the scanner doing it’s thing cycling through the frequencies, one of the main one’s I use is Nato Low Level on 278.000 (There are many groups on FB that can help with Frequencies so I won’t list them here as they may change)
08:30 Breakfast is porridge (Just add water? Actually not bad!) 1st cup off coffee done. The hill is slowly filling with photographers and spotters, but our space is secure we are comfortable out the wind and warm coffee in hand. Now the wait begins. How long depends on many factors, and it can be a real test; can you remain vigilant and ready to go at a seconds notice? The boredom is broken by the odd chat with fellow enthusiasts, and listening to the calls of our future fighter pilots training 10,000ft overhead, starring at the scanner and willing them to drop in through the cloud. During my visits nothing much happened until 11:00am, when finally the hawks dropped in to say hello.
Being prepared and ready to shoot all times makes the difference, when you only have split seconds to play with you don’t have time to set the camera up, decide where to stand, you and your equipment need to be ready. There are many ways to set your camera up for aviation photography.
But I guess before we start talking about camera settings we had better talk cameras. You can take any camera you want. Ive seen some great video shot on smart phones! But for high speed aviation photography my weapon of choice is a Digital SLR. If your still in love with film then I’m sure you will get equally good results with a film based SLR, I can say this because I have done it - although many years ago now! High end hybrid and compact cameras often pack great zoom ranges but lack the controls offered by SLR’s. I can’t comment on mirrorless as I am yet to try one. However I am waiting patiently, as I am sure in future mirrorless cameras will exceed the capability of current SLR’s at a fraction of the weight. But there is still something comforting about the weight of an SLR and the stability that it offers. Focal lengths anything between 200-400mm will work well depending on your sensor size, 300mm on a cropped sensor, 400mm on a full frame sensor are great options. But if you can afford it and hold it all day there are some reasonably price 500 and 600mm zooms on the market which will give you that extra reach for those head on shots.
So lets talk camera settings some aviation photographers use aperture priority. Going for f2.8 to f5.6, leaving the lens wide open lets the light pour in and forces a fast shutter speed; great for capturing the jets. Lighting can actually be very poor, grey overcast days, aircraft down below the ridge line, you don’t always get the shutter speed you wanted. So another method when using aperture priority is to set a relatively hight ISO maybe 800. (Ok with most modern sensors, but can induce noise on older cameras) this will allow a higher shutter speed than if you had left your ISO at 100. But what shutter speed do you need? There are several consideration.
Focal Length of the lens; as a rule of thumb your shutter speed should not be less than the focal length of the lens. For example if you are using a 300mm lens your shutter speed should not be less than 1/300s. Even at this high speed you will still need to pan, but you should with reasonable panning technique get a sharp picture.
My preferred method is to use Shutter priority, and auto ISO. The method I use is to set the exposure roughly by taking a reading from the opposite cliff side or valley floor before any aircraft appear, you will need to do this often as lighting changes by the hour, minute and second when conditions are changeable. While taking this reading I turn the shutter speed up and watch the effect this has on the aperture and the ISO. My ideal would be ISO100 F8, and a shutter speed to match or exceed the focal length of the lens. Modern lenses and sometimes camera bodies have image stabilisation, this will allow you to set a slower shutter speed, but your panning skills will need to be spot on! I only let the ISO creep up if I have absolutely no choice, on my older camera body noise in the shadows increases drastically as the ISO climbs.
So what about props. Shutter speed is even more important here. A high shutter speed freezes the prop dead, everyone knows they need to spin! Modern turbo props and high performance WWII fighters you may get away with decent blur at 1/250s, but to get that elusive full disc then speeds of 1/100s are not unheard of. Helicopters will need the slowest shutter speeds you are prepared to risk, it comes with practice, and on your first few trips, get some pics in the bag before you start to experiment. For ecample the photograph here of the Shorts Tucano was taken at the text book settings of 1/250s, F7.1, ISO100 at 300mm focal length.
Focusing and Drive modes need to be set. The terminology varies between camera brands, but basically you will need the mode which allows continuous focus tracking of the subject as you move the camera with the subject. Drive mode should normally be set to the highest that you have available. But you need to be aware of the burst number (Number of pictures your camera can process in a burst before the buffer is full) Depending on your camera setting a slower drive speed my suit your style of photography better.
To filter or not to filter, that is the question! And the answer is personal choice. Again it comes down to maintaining the balance between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. A polarising filter can be great at reducing the glare and reflections of the topside, great for office shots (Pics inside the cockpit) but with a polarising filter fitted you will loose 2 stops so when at 1/250s / F8 / ISO100 you will need to sacrifice one of them e.g 1/60s / F8 ISO 100, or 1250s / F8 / ISO400. To be effective the polariser also needs to be at 90 degrees to the sun, so not all positions will work well. I find a few highlights and reflections off the top of the plane look more natural. To date I have not used polariser filters, again my ageing camera body needs all the light it can get. With less light entering the lens you may find autofocus performance degraded, and with some longer lens and camera body combinations not possible.
I have mentioned panning several times, and I can stress enough how important getting this skill nailed is. You can practice by following birds, cars anything that moves at speed. My preferred method is to stand with feet slightly apart, side onto the subject so I can pan through about 180 degrees. Follow the aircraft smoothly, press the shutter button and keep the camera moving through the whole 180 degrees, fire off as many photographs as you can, zooming out and back in again makes life that bit harder. You’re often better off not zooming in to close so you avoid the dreaded half plane and chopped tail syndrome. If you are going in that close make it an office shot.
Ok so there you have it 1500 words of photography advice, and that’s all it is, there are many ways to get the same or even better results, what’s important is that it works for you. And after a few mad seconds its over. Guess its time for to put some fresh coffee on and reflect.
Would I do it again? You bet I’m all ready looking at next years plans! I would do a few things differently. In general flying happens Monday to Friday, but Friday’s can be quiet, or so I was told, all week I had been hoping for some bigger aircraft to go through and had been hoping for an Osprey, no such luck, but on Friday both went through! There were also a few late evening appearances up to about 20:00, so I think next time I will take tea with me onto the hill, I have the cooking equipment to do it so no reason why it would not be possible. I will also include the Friday. I may also try so other locations. But in all I had a very successful week, I was lucky with the weather, lucky with the number of aircraft appearances. If you go hope this helps and wish you great success. When I can I like to shoot mono and produce something a little different to other photographers, so here’s my final Image a Hawk from RAF Valley over a very stormy Mach loop.
The Machloop Aviation Photography
Advice For Beginners
There are already articles & videos about the Mach Loop giving lots of advice. So why another one. Well first I wanted to, second its a very good way for me to reflect on my I experience and nothing I read had been crafted by a beginner for beginners. So if you have not been before, or only a few times this is for you, I spent 4 days camping near the Loop, I went everyday come rain or shine, and only stayed away on the Friday as it’s notoriously quiet (Apparently airbases close early for the weekend too!) Each day I learnt something new, and I hope, assuming you don’t want to spend 4 days learning the hard way you will get something from this article. Part one Is about getting up on the hill, equipment, planning etc and part two will go into the photography.
If its so hard why bother? You could go to a Airshow; probably less money, and a better hit rate, some level of comfort, in the form of public amenities, food, hangars to shelter in if rains. Ok you need to que to get in, and often join a stampede to the crowd line to get a good front row space for photography. Then wait a few hours for the display to start, and the photography all looks the same, you can bet during the next week, every Aviation Facebook page will have the same photographs posted again and again. Obviously there are a few exceptional photographers around who always seem to get that shot that we all miss. Everything at the loop is unpredictable, and the weather - don’t mention it!
So I ask again why bother? It’s simply amazing! For that 5 second pass when you first lock onto the incoming aircraft and struggle to keep them in the viewfinder until it disappears around the next corner the exhilaration and adrenaline rush is never going to be beaten at an organised display (If your crazy about aircraft)Getting that 1st pin sharp image of a jet low and fast against the Welsh Mountains will top every airshow image you have ever taken. And I have taken thousands.
If you can accept the early start to get a parking space, If you can grit your teeth and carry a mountain of kit up the hill. Sit all day, often in wind and rain (That’s the summer) feeling cold, and rather despondent the hours passing without a single aircraft, and stay put just in case, then try the loop. You just have to accept the boredom, talk too a few other enthusiasts, and wait it out for another 5 to 6 hours to see a Hawk for 15 seconds, then you’re ready! But that’s the worse case scenario, (actually not apparently some days they don’t come at all) On my 4 days I never drew a blank, on my best we had 5 different types of aircraft and probably 25 - 30 passes. If your think you can handle this then read on.
You can do a lot of planning for the loop, but there is little point in making those plans fixed. Unless you have some one on the inside of things it’s very unlikely you’ll know what if any aircraft are coming through that day. Until seconds before at most an hour if some on a Facebook group passes on heads up. Facebook groups come and go so I won’t name any here but they have real value on the hill as others call out information that they pick up and pass on. I had an interesting exchange with a guy in the South West (LFA2) whilst I was stood at CAD West.
There are already some very good sites describing the viewing points so I won’t go into details here other than to say that I picked Cad West form my first trip, worked well for me with the type of shots that I wanted to achieve, and seemed to be the most accessible. I found that arriving between 7 and 8 in the morning worked well. I had a choice of parking spaces over the 4 days I visited I was one of the first into the car park. The reason you need to be prepared is the carpark often looks like this! And when it does the preperation helps and determination will do the rest, success is down to the weather and the RAF.
Don’t forget this isn’t studio or landscape photography, you have very little control. Weather in the Welsh mountains is unpredictable beyond a few hours. I used the met office app on my iPhone and reviewed three locations frequently (Cadir Idris, Machynlleth and Aberllefeni) to have some warning of what was to come; their greatest value was to provide hope that things are getting better when the rain is pouring down. I found the Cadair Idris forecast to be fairly accurate, to a few hours, but don’t expect to check the weather forecast before you go to bed and find it to be accurate the following day. All week the forecast shifted and changed every few hours. Use them as a guide only. Assuming the weather is really bad have a few back up things to do. (In my case Landscape photography)
First a disclaimer; this equipment is essential ONLY IN MY OPINION, you can have a day on the loop without any of this. I drove 7 hrs and booked a week of leave - so I was definitely going prepared.
I started with weather as it could be the deciding factor wether to go or not. There is an alternative; go prepared for all eventualities. I saw a few photographers with small pop up tents which seemed to work very well. However I went for another option; a 3mtr square tarp. I chose this as it’s more flexible with what you can use it for and certainly gives you a lot more space for your money and weight. I didn’t need to worry about poles as I used the walking poles I already have. Walking poles are something I consider essential to get up the hill and protect your knees on the way down (personal choice though) The tarp enabled me to stay on the hill longer, it kept me warm when the wind picked up, and dry in heavy drizzle and rain. The only downside is that it lacks anything to sit on, so travel rug with waterproof backing worked very well. And of course I could'nt go without Ruby to guard everything!
In Spring and Autumn it’s going to be cold, in winter it’s going to below freezing, in the summer just right (maybe)? Whatever you decide to wear at this point its wrong. After 10 minutes regardless of the time of year from hauling all of this kit 1/2 way up the hill you will be perspiring, but don’t be to hasty to strip, when you get to the top and the wind speed has doubled and temperature has dropped, you’re going to feel cold, in winter painfully so. Regardless of the season you will experienced a vast range of temperatures, during my trip it was 21 Celsius in the valley and forecasted to feel like 4 Celsius on the hill with a 25 Knot wind, then it starts raining. As a landscape photographer used to the Dartmoor National Park, I am fully equipped for the hills and mountains of North Wales, but if you are a seasoned airshow attendee you may find your normal attire very inadequate. I Would recommend wearing a layering system consisting of a base layer, mid layer for warmth and a outer waterproof layer. In colder weather consider a thermal base layer, maybe an additional or thicker mid layer for warmth staying in the same spot for hours on end will soon let the chill set in. hat is essential in all climates, for warmth in the winter and to keep the sun off in the summer. and don't forget the sunscreen.
To get the best from the loop you need to be prepared to for a long day. On More than one occasion I packed up and returned to the tent too early. The only reason being that I needed to eat and prep for the next day. On my last day I took dinner with me. With a little more thought I could have done this everyday; I have the equipment. I carry a small backpacking stove, the type comes down to personal choice, and to a degree the weight you are prepared to carry. I carry an MSR PocketRocket, very basic in design but proved to be excellent. Psychologically when the weather is bad making a fresh cup of coffee or a warm meal makes a huge difference, and fortifies you for another few hours. The PocketRocket boiled fast, packed away small, and back where I camped for the week it proved more than adequate for warming meals for one.
Shelter from the elements, reasonable comfort, and of course safety are essential, but there are some pieces of equipment that are nice to have. They may add to your experience, increase your enjoyment, but you need to balance this with the weight you are prepared too carry and the cost that your pocket will allow.
Non essential equipment.
I enjoy using a scanner. It adds something a bit extra for me, I like trying to piece together the sketchy bursts over the airways and pick out what the aircraft are doing. The actual value to altering you to incoming aircraft is limited. (More experienced users may disagree) There are plenty of scanners on the hill, so you can bet some one will have the information already.
Mobile Phone’s have many uses. But a few face book groups exist and share information on what’s heading your way. Heads up groups proved to be far more useful than a scanner. Of course it’s great for communicating with those you have left behind, listening to music, and playing games to ease boredom during the many quiet hours. And if you have not looked at it yet virtual radar apps exist that can show you the location of aircraft. Several exist, but provide varying amounts of information. I tried a free version which to be honest was a waste of time. On the hill the best information seemed to come from Radar 360; a subscription service. Don’t forget your data allowance, if your spending a week at the loop then you will use a lot of data.
All this tech takes a lot of power! So carrying a bit extra helps. I used a combination of pre charged power banks and a folding solar panel. On dull days the lower voltage output from the panel caused issues with my phone as it didn’t recognise the lower voltage. But I was able to use the power banks and recharge them with the solar panel. And when the sun was out my phone ran all the time from the solar panel.
So you have a plan, a car boot full off kit, but how do you get it all up the hill. If I said the walk up CAD West is steep that would be an understatement, but its not Long. On your own it’s a lot to carry, A normal camera bag or camera backpack pack probably won’t cut it. Sure your camera will have great protection, but you may not have enough room to pack the non-photographic essentials for the day. Look at specialist camera rucksacks for hikers, Or pick a good size regular day sack, and separate protection for your camera. There are a wide range of cases designed to go inside rucksacks or, just a decent zoom holster will protect your camera In Part Two I will go into the photography.