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air to air photographer


Top 5 Of 2015

A Look Back Over 2015

The end of 2015 has been and gone and as is often the case among photographers we take a look back over some of our favourite images.
So I thought I’d post up five of mine from last year and give some information about planning the shots and the settings used etc.. 

#5.. Smoke On, GO!

So after months of talking and trying to arrange something with Lauren in her Pitts S-1S special we finally got a date finalised for a pretty exciting general aviation shoot. We’d wanted to something a little different from the norm you see with the air-to-air images that are often taken of Pitts bi-planes, a ‘low level’ shoot is unique in the way it can give you similar vantages that you would get from the air but with more dynamic angles and allowing the pilot, in this case Lauren, to be a little more flexible with the pre-planned lines/passes to fly. Something that isn’t really possible when shooting air-to-air, as a plan is put together and then briefed before launching for the sortie, there will be some amount of flex in that plan but for safety all parties try to stick as closely to it as is possible.  
The location that we had used gave the ideal height so as Lauren was not breaching any rules or regulations and so the sun was behind us in the morning.

From the whole shoot this is the image I had in my mind that I wanted, excellent early morning light, Lauren head on and with a wing dipped and smoke trailing!

For the shoot I was using my Nikon D7100 camera with the Nikkor 300mm F4 AF-S lens, my go to set-up when shooting low-level images, the D7100 clarity, sharpness and overall depth to the images works well with the fixed 300mm lens in really good light. Recently however I have found the D7100 metering to be off with some images coming out underexposed, in good light however this doesn’t tend to be an issue. For props/rotors I will always try to shoot as slow is physically possible given the conditions etc, I was bouncing around from 1/60th-1/250th sec a little faster than I would’ve liked but because of the speed Lauren was changing direction it was blurring the wings at 1/100th-1/160th. I bumped the ISO down to 160 to try and keep the F number in between the sweet spot for the lens as well and as is usual I was matrix metering. 


#4.. Window With A View

With 2015 being 771 naval air squadrons last operational year as the search and rescue unit responsible for the South West of England I was delighted to have another opportunity to fly with them again in their Mk5 Sea kings from RNAS Culdrose. A massively popular squadron for the public and their iconic Sea kings were a welcome sight over Cornwall for those in need, up until 1st January 2016 anyway when 771 NAS handed over the South West SAR responsibility to Bristows based out of Newquay airport. For more info on the squadron read my blog post here:

The shot itself was more or less a grab shot, we had just finished winching with a civilian vessel off the coast, the weather and light wasn’t great so I had been using a flashgun and fisheye during the winching. As the crew were finished up they closed the cab door and I started to change my lens to a Nikkor 17-55mm F2.8, we were flying towards Deans Quarry, a site that is often used for confined area landings (CALs) so I wanted to change from the fisheye to get some more natural photos as the aircrewman guided the pilot in command (PIC) down. However I noticed some really great spot lighting on the aircrewman from the small window on the rear door, I shoot a few frames still in shutter priority mode but the images weren’t quite as dramatic as I thought they could, so underexposing by around a full stop in manual it highlighted the spot lighting on the bright orange suit bringing out the texture and outline making for quite a dramatic photo.

As I didn’t want to use flash I upped the ISO to 800, stopped the lens down to F4.5 so it didn’t lose too much sharpness and shot at 1/125th sec with a Nikon D7100 and Nikkor 17-55mm F2.8


#3.. Flying Guardian

The last few months of 2015 seemed to consist of constant cloud and rain leaving little opportunity to get out and take photos without either getting soaked or just having flat light for the majority. All of my visits to RNAS Culdrose in 2015 were under grey skies, not a massive problem but it always makes things easier when you have some good light to work with, especially when the aircraft are grey as well. Anyway towards the end of November I finally worked a few dates out which worked with Okinawa flight from 849 NAS, I had first visited in February of 2015 but weather and serviceability put a quick end to any plans we had. Thankfully my visit in November went much better, managing to fly on two sorties over my three day visit to the squadron, one being a NAVEX to Oxfordshire to visit airboxaero at their office, who luckily have a helicopter landing site (HLS) situated in the industrial park. This photo was actually taken as we routed back to Culdrose, the weather on the way up had been particularly minging with low hanging clouds in part and rain. The way back wasn’t much better until we broke out of Oxfordshire where we were greeted by clear blue skies and the sun which hadn’t broken through thick cloud on the horizon. I had my camera bag up the front with me so I quickly changed to my fisheye lens and put on a Nikon SB-900 flashgun to even out the massive light difference in the cockpit. The fisheye really exaggerates the curvature in the cockpit, some love it and some hate it but I personally think the distortion looks much than that you get from a wide-angle lens.

 So for this shot as I said above I had my Samyang 8mm fisheye on my D7100 along with a Nikon SB-900 flashgun, the Samyan fisheye really is a superb lens but it does have to be stopped down to maintain sharpness in the corners. I find it loses on the left hand side of the image sometimes so I’m not too sure if I have a slightly off model. I’d also stopped the lens down to get a starburst effect from the sun, the positioning of it being more or less central was just pure luck.


#2.. Break, Break, Break!

I can easily say this was one of the best photoshoots of 2015, the weather may not have played ball 100% but thanks to exceptional flying from our camera ship pilot, Chris, the Textron Scorpion test pilots Andy Vaughan and Dan Hinson we (Vortex AeroMedia) managed to capture some great photos and video. This particular photo was taken towards the end of our first sortie, the weather had been pretty minging for the entirety but it some ways it probably helped diffuse everything and give the water so much detail and texture. Our altitude helped as well, we flew the sortie at 500ft for the majority so it gives the image an unusual depth. 

Andy Vaughan was flying the jet on the first sortie, after a little bit of discussion with Chris about how to safely and correctly get the shot, he relayed the instructions to Andy who tucked in close and below the Bonanaza camera ship before flying a hard left break down and away from the camera ship. This was taken just before the wings start to dip and gives a really good unique view of the Scorpion, with its F-14 tail and Alpha jet nose.

For the shoot I was using my trusty Nikon D7100 with a Nikkor 24-70mm F2.8 lens, unbelievably sharp and one of my favourite lenses when shooting anything aviation related. As it was overcast I’d dialed in some exposure compensation, +0.3, and was shooting at F3.2, 1/640th sec and ISO 200. In hindsight I should’ve upped the ISO a little to stop down the lens, but it seemed to work out ok. 

#1.. On The Hunt Down Low

 The Apache helicopter, an instant favourite with everyone (unless you’re the Taliban of course) it looks so wrong but so right, a sheer brute of a helicopter that has gained much recognition for their part in the Afghan/Iraq conflicts. 

This was taken during a rare visit to the now very famous Mach Loop situated in LFA7, a murky day brightened up by a very energetic pass from a pair of army air corps Apaches on a low level navex, a treat for the backseater in this aircraft as it was the American exchange officers last flight in the UK before returning to his unit in the USA. Keeping the image quite dark and moody seems to fit quite well with the natural look of the helicopter.

Shot with a Nikon D7100 and Nikkor 300mm F4 AF-S after a mad dash down Cad West to get a lower viewpoint, again I had added 0.3+ compensation as it was overcast, shooting at 1/200th, F5 and ISO 200. Had I not just run down the hill I probably would’ve chanced shooting a little slower but sometimes when its quite on the hill you just want to nail a shot. 



Sting In The Tail

Shooting The Textron Scorpion Air To Air

The Textron Scorpion, a striking aircraft, the twin tail and engine separation almost looks reminiscent of the famous F-14 tomcat with the cockpit of a M-346. The low cost, light attack and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) jet obviously has a massive appeal to different countries, providing a cost effective ISR solution with the ability to strike targets, naturally then it was to be expected that the aircraft drew in a lot of attention at the Paris air show back in June.

After Paris air show the schedule brought the jet over to the UK for maritime trials, working with the Royal Navy and their Sea King Mk7 airborne surveillance and control (SKASaC) helicopters from 849 NAS, based at RNAS Culdrose. So arises the perfect opportunity to shoot the Scorpion in a completely new environment, the idea had been in the pipeline for a number of months but the confirmation was a mere matter of weeks before the jet landed at Boscombe Down to begin UK trials.

The Textron Scorpion breaks away from our camera ship off the coast of Cornwall. 

During the jets deployment to the UK, myself and the rest of the Vortex Aeromedia team had been tasked with shooting new promotional images and a short video showing the Scorpion operating in a maritime environment, to be used by Textron as new marketing material.

The planning for this shoot had been ongoing for two months, planning a solid brief is the key to a safe and successful air to air shoot and we wanted to make sure our plan for the shoot was the best it could possibly be. The most important aspect was to show the jet operating in a maritime environment, this was the first time the aircraft would be working with the Royal Navy and as such getting photos and videos of the jet in formation with a SKASaC was an absolute must. Easier said than done however, mainly due to the difference in speeds between our formation and the Sea King, our stall speed was higher than the Sea Kings max with the bag out, around 90 knots. So it was decided that we fly past in a loose formation with a safe amount of separation between our formation and the Sea King.

A unique formation, Textron Scorpion and 849 NAS Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control Mk7 over the sea near St Ives, Cornwall. 

So after months of planning it was time to fly the first sortie, meeting over at 736 NAS where Chris would be guided to by ATC once he had landed in his Beech A36.
Chris was an ex Harrier pilot in the RAF and is currently flying for one of the UKs major carriers, as well as flying previous air to air sorties before so we were in incredibly experienced hands.
Once Chris had landed it was time for a small amount of work on the aircraft, removing the rear door so we had a clear point of view from the Beech and hooking in our harnesses. 

The view from the rear door as we circle our RV before the Scorpion joined up with us. 

Getting clearance from ATC we departed Culdrose and headed north towards our pre arranged meeting point, the weather was less than ideal with the cloud base at about 4000ft and patchy thick lower cloud at around 2500ft. We orbited our RV at 3000ft whilst waiting for the test pilots in the Scorpion to call up and descend from 5000ft and join up in formation.

Seeing the jet descend towards us through a break in the cloud was fantastic, the aircraft is unbelievably stable at slow speeds, it seemed almost effortless to get the jet into a tight formation with us. We made our way into the English channel/Celtic Sea heading towards a shipping vessel the Scorpion had picked up on radar, the perfect backdrop to visualize the ISR and maritime environment the jet was working in.

After making around four passes over the ship flying different lines we moved back away and had the test pilot, Andy Vaughan, fly some hard break away and rejoins for both stills and video. Capturing images of the jets new integrated Thales I-Master radar and L-3 Systems Wescam MX-15 DI sensor was essential as well, I tried to show both the radar and sensors along with the pilot and back seater to give a more operational look to the shots instead of just sensors sticking out from the jet.

A big chunk of our time was taken up shooting video; we were using a BlackMagic pocket cinema camera on a stabilised gimbal system to soak up the movement in the camera ship and smooth out our footage.

A gentle drop and left break underneath the camera ship provided a great look down the fuselage of the jet. 

In what seemed like a blink of an eye we were making our way back to Culdrose before the weather closed in, not before making a slight detour to St Michaels Mount as we flew a series of five passes over the famous landmark, getting the line right for this proved a little tricky with the first pass but Chris nailed the following passes, a testament to his piloting abilities. 

Flying over St Michaels mount in Cornwall as tourists look up at our formation.

The following days sortie began with much better weather; we launched from Culdrose again and made our way towards St Ives where the Sea King Mk7 and Scorpion would be waiting after completing part of their sortie. Once the Scoprion had joined up with us in a tight formation we lined up with a safe amount of horizontal separation from the Sea King Mk7 as we flew past to capture a photo of the ‘formation’ together showing how they had been working together for the duration of the jets maritime work. After that the Sea King observer directed us towards a civilian vessel off the coast where we could capture more footage of the jet flying over shipping lanes. For this sortie the real focus was getting as much video footage as well could, showing the jet and its manoeuvrability at slower speeds ie rolls and dynamic breaks away from our camera ship. We had the opportunity to shoot a few shots along the coast to get some land into the frames as well, before one more run out to a shipping vessel to capture a few more stills. And that was it, the months of planning and negotiating had paid off, we were walking away with more than we could’ve hoped for.

Flying over a civilian vessel off the coast of Cornwall. 

A highly successful shoot didn’t end there, we worked hard using our media connections to get the images used by as many aviation based websites and magazines, the work was eventually used by Air & Cosmos, AirForces Monthly, Vertical Magazine, Flight Global, Janes Defence, The Aviationist and more.