Just Hangin' Out

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Just Hangin' Out

The life of a photographer, it does have its perks, early mornings mainly, lots of them.

After a super early morning drive down to Luton airport to catch my flight to Copenhagen, 1H50 in the air, a quick McDonalds in Copenhagen airport, then the four hour train journey from Copenhagen to Ronneby in Sweden and finally a brisk 20 minute walk (complete with camera bag and North Face carry all!) down to the Brunnspark to find my B&B.
What a beautiful area, friendly people and the pizza from the local restaurant was excellent – after some strained translations at least!

The reflection of Gustaf's visor showing the Swedish countryside and Magnus. 

Prior to my journey I had been in contact with the pilots who would be on duty for the duration of my visit, Gustaf and Magnus and had briefly outlined the kind of images that I was after to accompany the article on the Swedish Maritime Administration (Sjofartsverket) for Vertical911.

My welcome to their ‘home’ (whilst on duty) could not have been warmer along with copious amounts of coffee, which is always welcomed!
The morning sortie was a regular search and rescue training (SART) sortie, the plan was to fly out to the Baltic ocean and work with one of the large shipping vessels out there. As before any flight, I had a thorough safety briefing from rescue swimmer Michael Swärdh and winch operator/engineer Tomas as well as an immersion suit and flying helmet.

Before we crewed in I had already discussed a few shots that I thought would work really well, mainly focussing on winching, some exterior shots using a boat as a platform and then a posed shot of both Michael and Tomas with Gustaf and Magnus hovering the AW139 in the background, something I had tried to do way back in 2013 on my first SAR flight but it didn’t really work.

So crewed in, plugged in to the comms system and camera bag secured, Gustaf and Magnus performed a hover check before lifting off and departing Kallinge, I always love that initial feeling you get when the wheels leave the floor – it’s something that is entirely different to the kick in the back you get when taking off in a jet.

Gustaf and Michael before crewing into the AW139.

After a slow track out to the Baltic ocean the crew get to work finding a suitable vessel that they can work with as well as gaining the permission of the captain, the decision is made that the “Star of Abu Dhabi” a bulk carrier vessel, looks to be the most suitable option.

Now kicks in that fluidity of motion as each member of the crew goes through the required checklist before Tomas can winch down Michael to the vessel, at this point the crew are communicating in Swedish but Magnus is keeping me updated. With the safety checks completed, aircraft trimmed and speed matched to the vessel, Michael sits in the open door as Tomas secures his harness to the winch and unclips his ‘gunners’ belt that secures Michael into the aircraft when the doors are open. Tomas hoists Michael out of the door and then begins to lower him down to the vessel below. I’m strapped into the seat next to the open door peering over and watching Michael slowly descend towards the vessel, using hand gestures to signal back to Tomas as he controls his descent.

It’s my turn next, I hadn’t been winched since 2013 and this probably sounds quite strange as I enjoy flying so much but I really hate heights, so I was a little apprehensive. Actually though, I forgot how much I loved it, being suspended there under the AW139 and holding the guide rope as I’m slowly lowered down is incredibly relaxing, too much so as my ‘landing’ was more of a gracious fall. As Michael had brought down my camera bag I secure that making sure the downwash from the helicopter doesn’t pick it up and throw in into the ocean. The vessel provided the right height for ground-to-air images, so I got to work shoot a few different images, whilst asking the crew to reposition after taking some posed images of Michael with the helicopter in the background I noticed a rainbow in the spray, created from the downwash of the helicopter and position of the sun – a quick request to hold for 30 secs and the shots were in the bag.

Tomas brings the cable back up to the AW139. 

Members of crew from the vessel seemingly appeared out of thin air to shake our hands and say hello, we were taken up to the bridge of the ship to a sea (punny) of iPhones and iPads recording the guys in the helicopter as they repositioned to the rear of the ship so I could use the elevation of the bridge to shoot some images looking down on them. When shooting images like this I begin shooting at 1/160th sec whilst keeping the ISO as low as possible, usually between 100-200 to try and keep the F number stopped down to something like F/10-F/13. Then I begin to get a little more creative trying to capture as much rotor blur as possible and movement in the background, easier said than done though sometimes.

We had been on the ship for a little over 15 minutes before the winch was lowered back down and Michael secured my harness to the clip, up and away but this time with my D7100 and Samyang fisheye, all secured so if I started spinning from the downwash I could try to recover/steady myself. I wanted to get an image of Tomas reaching out to grab me with the exterior of the AW139, using the fisheye and it’s wide PoV to get as much into the scene as possible.

Secured, doors closed and camera bag strapped down we made our way back to base after a relatively successful sortie, one that provided valuable training to all of the crew whilst allowing them to position the helicopter safely for photos throughout.

Michael gets to work finding a suitable vessel to work with on the first day.

Debrief completed, coffee brewing and lunch cooking (I said how great they were at hosting me right?) we sat down around the table to discuss another phot brief for the second sortie, they had been requested to work with a Swedish navy submarine and its crew so they could practice various methods of getting a ‘casualty’ out successfully and safely. As this was a sortie that would see us in the air for the entirety and with no opportunity to get any ground-to-air images I focussed on images of the winching and a posed shot of both Tomas and Michael with the AW139 in the background once we had returned to Kallinge, with the plan of flying out to an old lighthouse the following day, using the height of it to shoot some aerial images.

Fed and watered it was time to get back into my immersion suit and walk for the sortie with the submarine, having never seen on before having the opportunity to photograph one from the air on a SAR exercise was an exciting prospect. It makes for a peculiar sight from the air as well, this low profile black shadow slowly stalking in the water or at least it would be if it wasn’t for the ten or so people in bright immersion suits on top of the aircraft.

The sortie gave me the opportunity to shoot some un-posed portraits Tomas and some wide angle fish eye images of Tomas winching down Michael to the submarine below, but for the most part it was great to sit back and watch for once and see for myself just how slick everything is when it goes to plan. We were out there working with the submarine for around 90 minutes before we had to head back to Kallinge, the weather had become overcast since we had lifted so I wasn’t sure how well the posed shots of Michael and Tomas would work. Fortunately it diffused the light and made for a more natural looking image, Gustaf and Magnus positioned the helicopter so it was flanking Michael and Tomas and I made sure to get as low as possible to emphasise their height and ‘power’.

Tomas brings Michael back up to the aircraft just before we RTB.

Day 1 done, nearly, what’s the best way to end a day after a lot of flying? Yup you guessed it, a BBQ with some amazing burgers!

With the majority of images that I had planned already bagged on day 1 it just left some ground-to-air images that I wanted to capture, mainly of the whole crew at ‘work’ and some really in your face images as the AW139, especially in the red and white scheme looks so fantastic. Magnus and Gustaf had recommended a lighthouse, around 100ft in height, which would provide a great platform and would give me an uninterrupted 360º view – the perfect location I know!

Back into my favourite immersion suit/sweat suit/goonbag/grow bag etc after a full phot brief for the guys, we were following a list of pre-arranged shots that would hopefully mean making the most of the time we were out there and of course making sure everything was safe as is always key when it comes to aviation. Michael would be coming down to the lighthouse, as I would have to be winched down, meaning that I could talk to the crew if it was needed.

The flight out to the lighthouse was no more than 20 minutes, but it seemed that the weather was fully co-operating, for once. As per the previous day we went through the final checks and Tomas secured me and Michael to the winch and hoisted us out of the door for the short journey down to the platform, this time my landing was a little more sturdy and I managed to stay on my feet. Michael un-clipped us from the hoist and un-packed my equipment and got ready to start shooting. Running down the checklist we had various shots planned in, head on shot level and then slightly below, a 360º rotation to show of the Trakkacorp search light and rear profile view of the aircraft, a slow fly past around the lighthouse with Tomas in the door and then finally an image of the whole team, Gustaf and Magnus at the controls with Tomas in the door and Michael suspended below on the winch. Job done, brilliantly flown by the guys and the light there could not have been any better. One of those rare occasions when everything goes to plan and a fantastic crew flying the brief to perfection.

A rear three quarters view of the AW139, a sleek looking aircraft even with the winch fitted.


And that was it, my first time visiting Sweden, a truly beautiful country full of incredibly friendly people. Gustaf, Magnus, Tomas and Michael could not have been a better team to work with, they made me feel part of the crew and nothing was too much for them. I only hope that I can visit again if I’m in the country. 

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The Sony A7SII

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The Sony A7SII

The Master Of Low Light

Nikon or Canon? The debate rages on amongst fans of each, and if you’re in the aviation community you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a straight race between the two. But after a discussion with Andrew Whyte recently, I was left wondering if there might be a third way. Andrew is well known for his astro, light painting and low light photography, and suggested I might like to try Sony’s a7sII. Sony rarely get a mention among aviation photographers, possibly because they aren’t really noted for their sports cameras, but with two night shoots coming up I was keen to try something new.

56th RQS HH-60G Pave Hawk taxiing out at RAF Lakenheath for a pairs night sortie.

 CVP very kindly offered a Sony a7sII and teamed it with a Batis 25mm F2 lens. Aviation photography requires a lot of flexibility, presenting widely varying opportunities moment to moment, so I wondered if a full frame sensor with a prime lens (and a pretty wide one at that) would cut the mustard. Then there was the lighting situation. In the confined space of a helicopter at night, the only natural light is from the multifunction displays (MFDs) or the night vision goggles (NVG). This tends to be soft and green and for obvious reasons it’s not a good idea to start using a flash in such situations. 


Whilst night images aren’t completely lacking from my portfolio, articles or reports, the ‘tactical’ low light images definitely are – mostly down to my kit limitations. I’ve never been a full frame photographer. For aviation work you really need the reach that a crop sensor gives even moderate zooms, but the compromise is the ISO handling, especially when working around the 1600 mark, certainly from my experience with the D300s and D7100. I know others that are happy to go far beyond that but I think the image quality degradation is just too noticeable. I was curious to see how the a7sII coped. I wanted to capture images of the pilots prepping their aircraft for a sortie in the cockpit at night with their NVGs fitted, and the ground crew prepping the aircraft. I would then fly at night with a helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS/Air Ambulance), having flown on a similar sortie a few months earlier it showed the massive limitations that my current kit has when working at night and at high ISO.

HH-60G Pave Hawk undergoing maintenance work, the iconic green feet printed on the hangar doors.

 So I guess a run down of my ‘daily’ kit is in order. The D300s was my go to camera body for around three years, up until 2014 anyway. With no sign of Nikon releasing a direct replacement for the much-loved D300 series I opted to chance “Nikons top enthusiast camera” the D7100. Probably not what most pro photographers would expect an aviation/landscape photographer to use but I don’t get too hung up on kit; it has its limitations of course, most notably the poor buffer. However the lack of a low pass filter really does ensure the images have an almost processed look straight out of camera and are so unbelievably sharp when used right, especially when compared to the old tech that was the D300. Thankfully Nikon final came to their senses this year, releasing the Nikon D500. Having used the D7100 for over two years I needed a new main body and the D500 fitted the bill perfectly - you can read up on my initial thoughts here: http://lloydh.co.uk/blog/2016/6/30/hl43v6f5o16xm4muyvzs1mtnycfcye
My go to lenses then; first the Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 VR – a fantastically versatile lens that I use for either shooting portraits in the aircraft, static shots of an aircraft being prepped for a sortie or from the top of a cliff shooting a helicopter as the crew position it. I also have a Nikkor 24-70 F2.8 or 17-55mm F2.8 in my camera bag at all times, the 24-70 offering a little more flexibility when shooting air-to-air – that extra 15mm can really make all the difference. They’re great for shooting portraits in and around aircraft as well for night shots when aircraft are starting up, particularly helicopters with rotors turning. Finally a 10.5mm fisheye from Samyang works fantastically well for cockpit shots in helicopters or when the side door is open and the crewman is leaning out, sometimes I’ll carefully lean out of the door whilst on a dispatcher harness to try and get some exterior of the aircraft featured as well. 

Wiltshire Air Ambulance critical care paramedic surveying a field during an ad-hoc landing for a currency sortie. 

A forthcoming visit to the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath and a night currency sortie with the Wiltshire Air Ambulance last week gave me the perfect opportunity to put the a7sII and Batis glass to work in an aviation environment. 

Whilst I missed being able to pixel peep like I can with files from my D7100 (24.1MP) I don’t think it’s a massive issue and the Sony absolutely makes up for the fewer megapixels with its incredibly impressive ISO performance. I’m still amazing at how good the files look straight out of camera at ISO 10,000, even 20,000 is usable after some noise reduction in post. Obviously the grain is visible but it’s very manageable and gives that tactical look to the images which really suites the night setting. I found the autofocus to be more or less faultless, there were a couple of times when I switched to manual to save a little bit of time rather than switching the focus point, but as long there was some form of light source such as an MFD then it locked straight on. Images straight out of camera, especially in the day, have an excellent dynamic range and look almost flat, which is great for post production work later on, though that look could just be down to the awful weather and light that seems to follow me wherever I go at the moment!

In flight the camera performed faultlessly, the light from the MFDs providing a great light source for the AF to lock on to – again at some points I did switch to MF instead of switching the focus point. I find it really hard to fault this little camera, but there are a few little niggles I have with it, all from a stills perspective.
It would be great to have the redundancy of dual SD card slots; it’s very rare that you get an opportunity to re-shoot something in aviation, so having a card fail could be disastrous.
The battery life isn’t great, but I guess the get around to that is to just buy more batteries. Finally I did find the menu to be a little fiddly compared to my Nikon, but that could just be down to the fact I’m so use to the Nikon layout.

56th RQS Special Mission Aviator prepping for a night sortie. 

This is probably a good time to mention that I am now completely in love with the Batis 25mm F2, it is such a beautiful lens. I’m really not used to shooting with a prime, being stuck to a focal length isn’t really beneficial when shooting aviation but I absolutely loved it. It certainly makes the mind work a little harder when thinking about composing images and it also means you can get right into the action though with the wide angle of view – which is absolutely perfect when working in the cramped confines of a helicopter. Also, the shallow depth of field when shooting at F2 is just so pleasing to the eye, it suits the night images very well when using parts of the airframe to naturally frame either the pilot or special-mission aviators.
I also love how Zeiss flashes up on the upper display of the lens when the camera is turned on; little things.. 

Whilst I do shoot video very occasionally, I don’t profess to know the complete ins and outs – my knowledge is very limited and whilst I’m working on increasing it, I thought it would be worth mentioning the 120fps option that the A7sii can shoot. Slow motion is perfect for helicopters; it shows perfectly how they beat the air into submission to stay airborne.

This really is an incredible package in a tiny body. Sony has created something very special in the a7sII, especially if you need that low-light capability.
  

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Nikon D500 - First Thoughts

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Nikon D500 - First Thoughts

The New DX King

Nikon have finally replaced the much revered D300, better late than never I guess, my D7100 which was originally meant to be just an interim body has done a superb job since I purchased it in 2014. For a camera body that is classed as an“enthusiast-level DSLR” it’s performed flawlessly, however after two years of solid use it’s now starting to show signs of wear and tear after being used and abused in all kinds of testing environments. So naturally the D500 is the only sensible replacement, apart from perhaps the D810 but I’m still putting off going down the FX route.

First Thoughts

 Just a couple of things that struck me when taking it out of the box…

It’s easy to see that this is most definitely a pro DSLR, the rugged build and fully weather sealed body combined with the visible size difference when compared to my D7100, the 100% field of view optical viewfinder is an absolute dream, no pop up flash which I think has irritated some but I can’t ever recall using mine so that is no big loss, dedicated buttons for image quality, WB, metering, mode etc – similar to the D300 I guess (after shooting with the D7100 this is so good to have back), the tilted touch screen is worth mentioning although I do think it’s a little bit of a gimmick, however I imagine it would come in fairly useful when you’re restricted with movements during a flight and finally the little joystick on the back that controls the focus points. 

Think of it as a D5 but in DX form and you aren't far off, after-all it shares the same processor, focusing system and has the same number of pixels. 

I’m going to try and keep away from the nitty gritty details as there are more than enough blogs out there detailing all the specs - Google is your friend!

Two AS332B Super Pumas from BHELMA VI perform an aerial ballet during a return flight to Lanzarote. 

Unfortunately I left it a little late when ordering the body, which meant it didn’t arrive in time for my trip to Sweden, which was disappointing, luckily my D7100 still has some life in it! I had cancelled my order with WEX and ordered one of the last bodies off Amazon before leaving for Sweden, in the hope it would be delivered before I set off for the FAMARA exercise in Lanzarote. Which it did, halfway through the exercise I received a call from WEX asking when I wanted it delivered. So rather lucky I cancelled the order.

Anyway the FAMARA exercise with BHELMA VI was the ideal opportunity to see how the D500 would deal with the challenging shooting conditions – mainly the heat and dust.

The kind of environment the D500 had to put up with, dust everywhere as this AS332B Super Puma gets airborne with a full load out of troops.

The lack of buffer is the first real noticeable aspect of the cameras performance, especially coming from the D7100, which has a fairly atrocious buffer. I didn’t even come close to hitting the buffer once, even when shooting at the full 10 frames per second, which personally I found a bit much. I stopped it down to 6 FPS after the first sortie, I’ve always found the AF struggles to keep a track if you’re constantly rattling off the max FPS – although when quality sorting my shots there were very few images that were out of focus, the AF is just mesmerizing and so bloody quick. I don’t think I can even recall it ‘hunting’, not even in low light conditions or brownout landings, that’s fairly impressive.

As I mentioned at the start the viewfinder really is a dream, it provides 100% vertical and 100% horizontal coverage, which probably doesn’t sound like a standout feature but it allows for the most precise framing. Going from my D7100 to the D500 it’s even more noticeable; it provides such a clear and bright view.

The D500 handles the dynamic range very well, the highlights from the aircrafts lights were easily recoverable in photoshop. A very had scene to expose for.  

The rugged build and full weather sealing seemed to do the job in Lanzarote, having endured brownouts landing both in (doors open) and outside hardly any dust has managed to break through to the sensor, I think the dust on the sensor probably came about when changing lenses out in the open landing zones which were particularly dusty. But it took everything that was thrown at it and just shrugged it off.

How do the files look when compared to the D7100? Well this is where it becomes tricky, honestly I think the difference in image quality is negligible but then that isn’t really what the camera body is about. It is first and foremost a sports body, therefor tailored towards the users need for high FPS, lightning quick AF and an insane buffer. I’m not saying the image quality is disappointing, if you were jumping straight from a D300 for example I imagine you would see a world of difference, but image quality is where the D7100 really excelled itself so I think it’s only natural to find the increase in image quality isn’t all that noticeable. What is noticeable though is the difference in ISO handling, as you'd expect though I guess. But even at ISO 200 the difference is quite impressive, it's probably easier to see when post processing as the D7100 files need another 25% extra when compared with the files from the D500. I haven't had chance to test the high ISO performance but I'm mightily impressed with the lack of grain visible at ISO 200-400.

BHELMA VI AB212 flying over Lanzarote at sunset. 

With the technology gap closing between camera releases there is only so much of a jump that can be expected with regards to IQ, really the focus is on how Nikon has finally produced another flagship pro-spec DSLR that far surpasses anything I’ve used before in terms of usability, ruggedness and performance. I honestly can’t express just how good the AF system is.  It’s quicker than Usain Bolt over 100m!

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