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.