Sunday, 28 August 2011

Photoflying in Belgium: Part 3. The Academy and Warbird flights

This is the third post in my series on Photoflying in Belgium. Note that further pictures are available on Pbase.

Parts of this series

Scat VII

On the Saturday, it was a 9 AM briefing for the Academy photo flight. Pilots and photographers got together to see the list of aircraft that would be participating, their order and timing; for the pilots, formation speeds, call signs, radio frequency and navigation points were assigned. Then photographers made the half-mile walk to the Skyvan. We were harnessed up, cameras gaffer taped, FOD hazard checks completed, and finally it was into the aircraft.

For takeoff, it is important to balance the weight across the centre of gravity, so half the photographers stayed at the rear, while those in positions 6-11 moved forward on to seats that pulled out from the side of the aircraft. Positions 1-3 have the "interesting" experience of taking off in their final photography positions right next to the open door of the Skyvan, so they see the runway speeding up beneath them and receding as the plane lifts off. Positions 4-5 get to sit on the garden chairs during takeoff, but move into their photography positions once airborne. Positions 6-8 (i.e. including me) sit on the forward pulldown seats for takeoff, but scramble over and into the garden seats to assume their photography positions.

The Academy flight
For me, once the engines of the Skyvan were running, everything seemed to happen extremely quickly. We were off and taxiing, and then all of a sudden the engines ran right up and we were off. I expected us to get to height (about 2000 feet) before any other aircraft came close to us. I did not expect what happened next.

No sooner had we left the ground than the T6 was following us: I’d not seen it taxiing out. "S***. It's the T6! F***. Quick get into position! F***!!!" While the aircraft was still climbing, and while the runway was still receding below us, we scrambled into position. I had the same adrenaline feeling that I get standing at the top of a steep ski slope as I moved down the sloping cabin floor to clamber over and into my seat. The churning prop of the T6 was clearly in view during all this, but I was too busy to worry about that.
And so, something I have waited for over several months was right in front of my eyes. The T6 was flying close enough to us that I could hear the roar of its engine above the turboprop noise of the Skyvan and the buffeting wind. That moment was simply magical -- it's one of those things as a photographer you never really expect to see until it happens.

I started shooting pictures. I had the D300 in CH mode with a 16 GB card in it with the 80-400 lens attached. I also had my daughter's D3100 with the 18-70, again with a 16 GB card. Problem was that I soon realised that I kept shooting the D300 in CH I would use the entire card up on the T6 alone. I quickly made the decision to switch to S, and try just to selectively shoot when the aircraft was that a good angle. Starting at 1/320 I made my safety pictures first. Dropping to about 1/160, I got pictures that I knew would show a bit more prop blur. I tried going to a slower shutter speed still, but chickened out of going really low for fear that the vibrations in the aircraft would blow the pictures. It is difficult to tell by chimping on the rear screen whether or not pictures are really sharp, so even though 1/80 looked okay in the Skyvan, I didn't feel like going to slower shutter speeds. Every so often I swapped between the 18-70 mm and 80-400 lenses, but after a while found I was using the 18-70 much, much more.

After the T6 a number of other aircraft came along in turn -- Super Canard, Commander, Dornier 27, Bulldog, Piper Cub.

Left to right: Super Canard, T6, Commander

Yak-52 "Janie" G-CBSS

 Some of the other participants in the Academy had got rides in the subject aircraft. I got a nice series of shots of Sonya in the back of the Canard.

Sonya in the Canard
Most of the subject aircraft carried a passenger, usually another photographer, who could also serve as a second set of eyes for the pilot. Geoff Collins, who flew as a passenger in his own Cub “Alice” has posted a lovely set of pictures from the flight, including one of photographing the photographers photographing him. He commented to me that he could tell when the aircraft was in a good position, because all the lenses appeared to twinkle as the shutters went. 
Piper Cub "Alice"
Photographing the photographer ...
I made a point of not shooting all the time. Guy Westgate said to me some time ago that he wondered whether photographers like me ever put our cameras down, and just enjoyed watching the flying for its own sake. In that spirit, as we turned in the figures of 8, once in a while I just put the camera down, watched the aircraft and enjoyed the snarl of the subject's engine over the noise of the Skyvan's own.

Something I should have anticipated, but didn't, is that flying the Skyvan in formation with, say, a Piper Cub means that the Skyvan is having to fly at a high angle of attack to avoid stalling at the slow speed needed for the Cub to formate. The stall warning beeper sounded quite frequently, and the high angle of attack meant if felt like I was continuously about to fall off my garden chair.

It seemed no time at all, but an hour and a half had passed in a flash and before I knew it, we were heading back to the ground. I had expected to get out of the plane feeling completely drained. But apart from being a bit cramped up from being unable to move, and with eyes a bit tingly from the fumes from the Skyvan's engines as we taxied in, I was fine. In fact, I was desperate to get back up again!

Returning to the Aeroclub hangar for lunch, I met Jean-Michel Legrande who asked if I would be interested in flying in the back of Etienne Verhellen's Yak 52 so that his Yak-18 and the Nanchang could be photographed in formation. They'd never flown together before and he wanted some pictures. Well -- I can resist everything except temptation, and there was nothing more tempting on earth! More on that in a future blog piece, but I've put one of the pictures (with very Wonky Horizon) as the opening picture of this series.

The Warbid Flight
In the evening, with the sun going down and the light getting more and more golden, it was back into the Skyvan for the warbird flight. During the afternoon, I came to the conclusion that I'd do the warbird flight with just the D300 and the 18-70. That lens got the most use in the morning, and I'm comfiest with the D300. Having looked through the pictures, I'm very happy with that decision.

The problem with vintage propeller planes is that they are complex pieces of mechanical engineering, and they can go "tech" at a moment’s notice. So you never know until the plane is behind you what you are really going to get. I had high hopes of a Mustang, but you could never tell in advance. As we taxied out, again with me in the number 8 position, all of a sudden there she was. Scat VII was taxiing behind us, and as we stopped to wait for take-off clearance, she stopped behind us.

Waiting to fly: Scat VII behind the Skyvan
Again as we climbed to altitude, it was a case of getting into position as quickly as possible. Having done it once, I was a bit less panicked than before, and got into my garden chair pretty quickly. Along with the Mustang, up came the P40.

Evening patrol: TF51D Scat VI and P40N "Little Jeanne"

P40N "Little Jeanne"
From then on it was straightforward magic. Again, I made a point of putting down the camera from time to time to simply savour the moment, and the sound of a Merlin or Cyclone

Smudgers at work on the T6
 The T6, Yak-18 and Nanchang came up to follow the Skyraider.

T6 texan and P40N Little Jeanne


Nanchang NAMC-CJ-6A

Finally, the last aircraft of the day -- up came the Sikorsky S38 Osa's Ark. The sheer rarity of that experience alone, flying with the Ark, made the fee for the flight cheap at the price.

Osa's Ark Amphibious Sikorsky Aircraft
As before, before I knew it we were back on the ground. It had been just the most wonderful experience. For me, it was the perfect example of "close" to, and "in front of more interesting stuff".

Talking of interesting stuff, I’ll put up a couple more pieces in this series next week on Flying with the Yaks and a Nanchang, and on Osa’s Ark. More to come ....

Friday, 26 August 2011

Photoflying in Belgium: Part 2. Getting cameras and photographers ready.

This is the second post in my series on Photoflying in Belgium. Note that further pictures are available on Pbase.

Parts of this series

Photographic techniques.
The Academy itself started on with a couple of talks about Air-to-Air photography. Daniel Rychick from Poland and Tom Houquet from Belgium gave these, with excellent sample photographs. The key messages seem to be straightforward commonsense for anyone who has ever photographed propeller aircraft before.

·                It is important to show the propeller in motion, so never go beyond 1/400 sec in shutter speed, and use shutter priority mode. It should be possible to get full prop rotations going to lower shutter speeds (longer than 1/100 sec), but correspondingly with a lower keeper rate. Different aircraft will require different shutter speeds to give the appearance of full prop discs: the prop has to turn 360° x 1/(the number of blades on the prop) to give the appearance of a full disc. So, a two-bladed prop has to turn 180° to give the effect, a five-bladed one 72°. In any case, the rate of rotation varies between aircraft types. The advice was to get your safety shots in first at a faster shutter speed, and only then go for the longer shutter speeds. In the event, I used speeds between 1/320 (gave me a high proportion of sharp pictures, with moderate prop rotation) and 1/60 (attempting to get full discs, but with a much lower proportion of sharp pictures).

Shutter speed effects. Click the image to see it larger.

·                The aircraft formate quite close to the photoship, so a standard zoom (equivalent to a 24-105 mm on full frame) will be fine for the majority of shots, but in addition a 70-210mm on a second body would be very useful. It is important to take two bodies if you can, because once in flight, safety dictates that there is no changing lenses: more on that later.
·                Shoot Raw. That is easy -- I do that anyway. I asked Daniel about whether it is important to be able to shoot at high speed (e.g. 6 fps) or whether it would be better to shoot higher bit depth raw files: my D300 slows from 6.5 fps to about 2 fps when shooting 14 bit NEFs. His reply was that his major concern is that the buffer on his camera doesn't fill up, and the rate of shooting is really not the issue since the subject aircraft stay behind the photoship for several minutes each. My standard airshow setting is continuous high (CH mode) and 12 bit NEFs, so I started with that, but quickly -- as I mention below -- decided to go to single shot (S) mode once in the air. In future, I think I'll be happy shooting 14 bit files at lower speed.
·                Exposure compensation: it is advisable to set a negative exposure compensation (e.g. -1 stop) to hold the highlights. This was at first a little counterintuitive to me: I have been a long-standing adherent to the "expose to the right" philosophy, but Daniel's advice makes sense here. Very often aircraft have white areas or strongly reflective surfaces on the upper side:  these can fool metering because the majority of what the camera sees is the much less bright ground below. In the event I found myself checking the histogram and blinkies on the rear screen frequently to ensure the right exposure in flight, and dialling in compensation accordingly.
·                White balance: the photoship flies in figures of 8, which means that the quality of light on the subject varies continuously as the angle relative to the sun changes. Using auto white balance would result in a different setting for almost every exposure, and if it does not look right, this means that every picture as to be individually adjusted. Daniel recommends a fixed cloudy white balance which gives a pleasantly warm feeling to the images. I took Daniel's point, but decided to stick with my standard fixed daylight white balance of 5260 K in the first instance. That is something I have worked with since finding David Noton's recommendation to use fixed daylight white balance. I also have little experience of how fixed cloudy white balance works on my D300, so I felt more comfortable sticking with 5260 K. In the event, working with my fixed white balance gave consistently reasonable results every time, depending on the exact lighting. In Lightroom I have found myself putting a cloudy white balance on some of the pictures, so Daniel's recommendation looks fine anyway. (The other thing I’ll mention in passing is the importance of choosing the right Camera Calibration setting in ACR or LR3. I’ve been iterating between Camera Standard (my usual default), Camera Landscape and D2X Mode 3).

One other thing to mention is the use of a gyroscopic stabilizer. This should allow a much higher rate of keepers at slow shutter speeds, providing the subject aircraft stays in one position, and doesn’t move too quickly relative to the photographer. Tom Houquet showed us one of these, and it is very impressive. It is a large black device that mounts under the camera, and when your hand moves, the gyro acts to minimize movement. I’m not sure which one Tom showed us, but it looked like one of these. One of the participants had one, and he used it with a D2X on top and (I think) a Sony NEX camera mounted on top of that for video: very cool.

Safety in flight and planning
Later, we had an extensive session on safety in the air. This was uppermost in my mind because of the Skyvan's open rear door! Two points are key: stopping the photographer falling out of aircraft, and stopping FOD falling out of the aircraft that might be hazardous to the subject aircraft (of course, in this sense, the photographer is the biggest FOD hazard!)

To stop photographers falling out of the photoship, they are strapped into a harness, which is fastened to a safety lead attached to the floor of the aircraft. Photographers closest to the edge get double safety leads.

To stop more general FOD hazards leaving the aircraft, there are several other precautions. First, camera straps have to pass under the safety harness so that they cannot fly off. Secondly, a separate lead on the harness is attached to the camera so that even if it comes off its own strap, it should not fly out of the aircraft. Lenses, memory cards and batteries are not allowed to be changed in flight. To stop the accidental release of a lens, lenses are gaffer taped onto the body to ensure that even if the lens release button is accidentally pressed, the lens does not come off (yes, this does mean that your expensive DSLR body and lens will be strapped with gaffer tape). Third, anything that might come off in flight is banned: this means that things like baseball caps, sunglasses etc don't go.

Finally, we got down to planning the photo flights. Academy flights were planned for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Other optional fights were available for additional fees, including the one I wanted, which was the Warbird flight. The idea of this is to formate with a number of vintage Warbirds (the fee for the Warbird flight is eye-watering, but make sense in the context that it costs about €1000 to get a Warbird off the ground and into the air for 15 minutes). My Academy fight was planned for the Friday, with the Warbird flight to follow on Saturday. As things worked out, the weather put paid to my Academy fight on the Friday, so I did both flights on the Saturday.

After all this, we had an introduction to the Skyvan photoship itself, and a practice with the harnesses. The harnesses are fairly straightforward for anyone who has put on a parachute harness or similar safety harness. The Skyvan itself though is a different matter.

Getting to know the Skyvan

Skyvan cabin. The seats in the centre are positions 6-8, see text.
The Skyvan has two flight crew at the front, and can take 11 photographers at the back. It is not a very large aircraft, so this makes quite ... shall we say ... an intimate setting for the photographers. Three sit cross-legged right next to the open rear (positions 1-3); two sit immediately behind them, again cross-legged, and shoot between the front three (positions 4-5); there are three seats behind them – lightweight aluminium-frame chairs (positions 6-8); and three photographers stand behind them (positions 9-11). Position 1 on the port side is occupied by the photo flight director who communicates with the subject aircraft via the flight crew, and can also give hand signals to the subject aircraft to give positional cues. Photographers in positions 2 and 3 get the best view, although they have to be comfortable with (a) sitting next to an open hatch 2,000ft above the ground, in buffeting wind, cross-legged for an hour and a half, and (b) be not being able to stretch in case their leg (or the rest of them) exits the aircraft. Positions 4 and 5 get a great view too, although they are really unable to move, and suffer the additional discomfort of continually being kicked in the back by people sitting in the seats behind them. Positions 6-8 are probably the most comfortable, but have the most constrained of angle of view, an important consideration when you only have limited time and angles on each aircraft. Those standing in positions 9-11, even though they are farther from the open rear have the advantage that they can move around and swap position in flight if they wish. The downside of positions 9-11 is that tall people are likely to bang their heads on the ceiling, and in the event of turbulence even shorter people are liable to meet the ceiling at speed. In the event, I flew in position 8 (starboard side of the aircraft): this suited me because I don't think it would be safe on other people to expect me to hold a lotus position for an hour and a half, and I'm tall enough to appreciate not having regular encounters with the ceiling.

In flight, and waiting for the subject aircraft to close up. The photographer seated upper right in the image is the photo director, the headset is for communicating with the flight crew.
Getting to know the other photographers
The evening of that Thursday was a good opportunity to meet some of the other participants in the Academy. Among my photographer friends I have a reputation as something of an aviation nut. Relative to the other participants, however, this is simply not the case at all. No way, no how. Just about all the others live, eat, sleep and breathe aviation. Many of them have a professional interest as aviation photographers. For instance, Frank and Sonya were from Irishairpics, an Irish aviation photo-agency. Andy and Serge were from Air Team Images. Just to give a flavour of how committed to aviation photography some of the participants were, one (who shall remain nameless, and is not one of those I have mentioned already) started photographing a fly during a slack period the following day: when asked why he replied "Because it has wings on". In my case, at a personal level I'm a photographer first, and an aviation nut some way down the list; for most of the participants, they are aviation enthusiasts first and foremost, and they enjoy making great images of their passionate interest.

I should also mention that this is not an exclusively male obsession either. I've already mentioned Sonya, and there were several other women on the course too. Whatever genes encode this obsession, they are clearly not all located on the Y chromosome, although the Y probably has some kind of amplifying effect :-).

In the evening that day, the weather got worse and worse. A dreadful storm went through Belgium causing destruction at a festival quite nearby which resulted, tragically, in a number of fatalities. We were spared the worst of it, although the thunder and lightning that evening were quite impressive. The aircraft on the field were all battened down against the weather.

T6 battened down against the storm

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Sunset in Woodchurch

Woodchurch windmill at sunset
Martin and I thought we would visit the  nearby village of  Woodchurch. Just on the edge of the village is the windmill and, against the setting sun, it was a quick scramble across a field to get this image.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Photoflying in Belgium: Part 1

Now this is what I call a Wonky Horizon. Yak-18 OO-IAK and Nanchang CJ-6A G-CJSA photographed in flight (Uncropped image: Nikon D300, 18-70mm lens at 18mm, 1/200 sec, f10, ISO200)

This is going to be a much larger blog piece than usual, so I am splitting it in to several parts that will appear over the next few days. I'm putting a larger collection of images in my Pbase galleries at

Parts of this series

Part 1: Photoflying: what is it all about?

"If you want to take more interesting pictures, stand in front of more interesting stuff" Joe McNally

"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough" Robert Capa

It does not matter which photographic genre floats your boat, the McNally and Capa axioms apply in spades. One of my long-standing photographic passions is aircraft, especially vintage and military. As much as I enjoy ground-to-air aircraft photography, for me, the most interesting aviation pictures are taken from another aircraft, and so show the relationship of the subject aircraft to the Earth below. Not only that, but real impact is often gained not by using a super-telephoto lens, but in close with a normal or wide-angle instead. This means that some of the best aviation pictures are obtained by one aircraft formating closely in flight with another carrying a photographer. This is, of course, not a new idea -- some of the best aviation photography has always been done this way. So, even though it has the potential to completely break the bank, I decided I had to try photographing aircraft Air-to-Air.

I had come across the AviationPhoto Crew, led by Eric Coeckelberghs (pictured below), via their postings in various forums, which led me to their website. They offer an annual Air-to-Air Academy in Belgium that aims to introduce photographers to the art of photoflying. I was lucky enough to get a place on this year's edition. Expensive -- yes, of course -- but an experience worth every penny.

Left to right: Eric "Mr Photoflight" Coeckelberghs; Peter Van Loey, who spent immense energy organizing people and planes; Daniel Rychick who was generous in his photographic advice, and flew as photodirector on my Academy flight
The Academy is based around the use of a Shorts Skyvan -- an aircraft which makes me think of an airborne transit van -- which is flown with an open rear door so that there is an uninterrupted view of aircraft in close formation behind. Each Academy flight lasts about an hour and a half, during which several different aircraft pose at different angles and distances behind the Skyvan to allow photography. The Academy flights give photographers the chance to practice the techniques of Air-to-Air photography and to discover whether it is something really for them.

Ready to depart: the Skyvan with 11 photographers aboard

A view of the self-loading freight as the Skyvan taxies before a photoflight

The Academy takes place at Zoersal airfield, a former NATO reserve base close to Antwerp. It is timed to coincide with a free fly-in run by the local Aeroclub that brings in aircraft from all around. The Academy itself is popular with private pilots because it gives them the opportunity to have airborne photographs of their mounts. One of the ethics of the Academy is that photographers provide images of the aircraft to the pilots who fly with them -- something I think most of us are more than happy to do as a way of saying thank you.

(Parenthetically -- it is worth noting that my SatNav did not find the airfield in its database. Fortunately, Google maps came to my aid so I went to Belgium with printouts from Google maps as well as the SatNav to get me close. Having found it, I set it as a favourite in the TomTom. If I can ever find a way to export the GPS  coordinates from it, I'll add them here.)

The Academy took place from Thurs 18-Sun 21 Aug 2011. On the Thursday there was an introduction to photoflying and safety in flight, then the flights themselves happened over the following three days. There were opportunities for additional flights as well as the Academy flight, including the one that I was most excited about – the Warbird flight.

One of the best things about the four days was the opportunity to meet some of the pilots who were flying our photographic subjects. They are all great people (actually, I’ve never met a pilot I don’t like) and it was a great pleasure to talk to them. Some of them will feature in future blog posts.

For the moment, I’ll just finish with a picture from one of the flights I made. 

TF51D Scat VII in flight. Nikon D300, 18-70mm at 56mm, 1/80 sec, f10, ISO200.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Monochrome: Tone the highlights or tone the shadows?

If you look through the pictures I have posted in this blog, you can see that I am something of a monochrome enthusiast.

Monochrome workers ever since the earliest days of photography have been able to add a subtle tone to their pictures to convey a particular atmosphere. In the age of Lightroom and Photoshop this is now a trivial procedure: Lightroom, for instance, provides a large number of presets for this.

I have been casting round for specific split tone settings for monochrome images, and in the past few months have found a couple of methods that I like. Both Lightroom and Camera Raw allow you to add toning to either the shadows or highlights, or even different tones to each. (Having said that, I have never really taken to adding different tones to both the highlights and shadows, and haven't pursued that.)

I came across an entry in Scott Kelby's blog where he showed toning of the shadow regions -- giving warmth to the darkest tones.

Fig. 1. The split toning panel in Lightroom: settings similar to the Kelby toning method. An equivalent panel is available in the current version of ACR.

This appealed to me, so I have made a Lightroom preset similar to this (Fig. 1). I have posted a number of examples of this, but to illustrate, here is one. Note how the highlights sparkle white, but the darker regions have a slightly warm tone.

Fig. 2. Darker regions toned using the settings shown in Fig. 1.

I had never previously thought of toning the highlights rather than the shadows, but Tim Clinch introduced me to a very pleasing method. The Creamtone preset supplied with Lightroom puts a soft creamy appearance on the highlight regions, and this can be very attractive.

Fig. 3. Settings for Creamtone highlights

The problems with this particular preset are that it introduces an increase in the exposure, and the black-and-white conversion is by simple desaturation. My preference is to use the B&W panel in Lightroom for converting to monochrome, so that the targeted adjustment tools can be used to alter the contribution of the original colours to the final image. So, I set up my own version of the Creamtone preset, which doesn't change the exposure and the B&W panel is used for conversion; the toning follows the original Creamtone values (Fig. 3).

Fig. 4. Toned with the Creamtone settings

I think for the moment these two approaches will do me for much of my monochrome work.