It has been another successful year for the Bournemouth Air Festival in 2014 with 4 days of action. Having joined the ranks of the retired (for now at least) I was able to go for all 4 days through the mixed bag of weather.
In terms of kit I took my venerable full-frame D700, the APS-C sensor Nikon D7000, the monster Nikkor 200-400 f4 zoom and the 1.4x teleconverter. I also took the Fuji X-E1 with 18-55 lens for the occasional wider shot. I tend not to use the high megapixel cameras for air shows due to the relatively large number of images taken, the files sizes and the compromises wrought by high speed action, zoom lenses and teleconverters. I cannot imagine that a hand-held, 5-6 kilo combo with a complex optical path, being waved around to follow the fast action is likely to capture the 36MP of the D800 for example. Its a good fitness regime, carrying that load in my Lowepro Vertex 300 AW rucksack, especially as I prefer to park for free (yes I'm tight) around a mile from the town centre and walk in.....then of course wielding that heavy camera/lens combo all day.
In terms of technique it was the same as always; trying to balance reach with decent depth of field, suitable shutter speed, use of image stabilisation and decent image quality (ISO not too high). I had a pretty good hit rate and once one has a decent long lens technique then shooting up to 400mm or so is not too challenging as long as there is a decent field of view and its not windy.
However, planes fly further away from the crowd line in recent years due to safety issues and this poses a real challenge when shooting the smaller craft. For many photographers, they simply will not possess the kit with the necessary reach and even with an exotic prime or zoom it can be a struggle to get anywhere near a frame-filling shot. For this reason I used the maximum reach available to me for the smaller craft, which meant the big lens with the D7000 and an added 1.4x teleconverter. This gives a 35mm equivalent reach of 840mm, which is well into serious, exotic prime territory. With this you then have the dilemma of setting a suitable shutter speed to blur rotors or props (normally approx 1/125-1/500), or simply upping the shutter speed to around 1/1000 to get a better hit rate against motion blur. Added to the mix is VR (image stabilisation). Much of the time its best to turn it off at speeds over 1/500, as it can cause blur.
I tend to think on my feet as different craft appear and shoot manual exposure mode with auto ISO enabled, so I can rapidly adjust the 2 critical parameters to definite values without worrying about exposure. For a fast jet I may take the shutter speed up to 1/800 or 1/1000, but for a helicopter in hover I may use 1/125. For many prop planes I have settled on 1/500 with that focal length of 840mm as I find that I get a decent hit rate with some prop blur. Below this I find I lose too many shots. I tended to leave VR on as it definitely helps with tracking and placing the focus point on target, plus it clearly does a decent job of correcting shake while panning.
A lot of factors conspire to reduce image quality when shooting air shows. Aside from the obvious limits of reach, optical complexity and camera shake, atmospherics do a sterling job of softening images with haze, glare and heat distortion and lots of images went in the trash for atmospherics alone on the bright last day.
I was actually nicely surprised by the quality of many of the images that came from the D7000 with its high pixel density. In casual tests it appeared that the teleconverter actually improved the sharpness some of the time. It definitely suffers more than the full frame cameras when there is a lot of glare and the 39 point focus system does not seem as reliable as the 51 point system when it comes to tracking a fast, closing target in haze or glare. However, it was very capable of snapping images like this...which I think is pretty impressive, even at pixel level.
The D700 lacks the reach but has a blistering focus system and handles difficult light very well with less shadow noise than on even a good APS-C camera. Its sensor is not quite as good as the latest and greatest (e.g D800) in several ways, but I like the smaller file sizes for air show work and its plenty good enough. For larger craft or formations a genuine 200-400mm often works, but adding the TC helps fill the frame for individual planes. I have noted that the TC tends to create a more fussy blur character in out of focus areas (e.g branches), but this is largely irrelevant to aircraft shots with their plain backgrounds.
Weather-wise it was a right mixed bag....apart from a brief squall on Thursday, it was never wet, but a couple of days were quite windy and mainly overcast, while Sunday was hot with blue skies and broken cloud. As always, for a photographer, the harsh light of the very sunny days often gives less satisfying images as glare reduces colour impact and causes big contrast issues.
I have to say I was very overwhelmed by the appearance of the Avro Vulcan on 2 days of the show. It wasn't until it actually appeared that it struck me what an amazing sight it is and how lucky we are to see it fly. If all goes as planned she should be flying for the 2015 season, but that will be her last as she will be out of engine and airframe hours. The crowd was totally riveted to its displays.
It is always difficult to capture "different" images at air shows but if you can catch a nice moment, angle, interesting lighting or an interesting composition, then that is satisfying. Obviously you have to work with why you get in terms of weather and lighting. I am far from being any kind of expert aircraft photographer but here are a few more of my favourite images of the 2014 festival for a variety of reasons.