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.