Sunday, 23 August 2015

Bournemouth Air Festival 2015: Infrared

Off to the Bournemouth Air Festival with an infrared camera. The festival takes place by the beach and runs for four days. Day one was cancelled because of poor weather, but luckily day three had some bright sunshine, which is unusual for Britain in August or indeed any month.

And so for several hours I stood on the sand, eating fish and chips with one hand, and with the other hand I laughed at some uproariously saucy postcards - I laughed with my hand - whilst wearing a knotted handkerchief on my head. Because that's what British people do at the beach. They wear ill-fitting bathing costumes and parade around with their stomachs hanging out, and I am one of them.

On the train home I learned that there had been a crash at the Shoreham Air Show earlier in the day. A Hawker Hunter pilot appears to have misjudged a loop and bottomed-out directly on the A27 highway, killing several motorists. He was pulled alive from the wreckage and assuming he survives - there is no guarantee of this - he will be haunted for life. A split-second either way and there might have been no casualties at all. Such is fate.

Bournemouth Air Festival is perhaps the most inherently safe festival in the UK. The action takes place in front of a beach, over the water, and although there are numerous small boats dotted around it's overwhelmingly likely that any accident would result in the aircraft ditching, and hopefully the pilot parachuting out onto the deck of a passing yacht, a la the opening sequence of The Living Daylights.

On a technological level I used a 720nm infrared Canon 10D - ancient technology from a bygone age - with the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS + 2x extender combo featured in the previous post. 200mm times two equals 400mm times one point six equals 640mm, which would have been extraordinary in the days of film. Sadly it's still not enough for really tight close-ups of fighter jets and Spitfires without lots of cropping, and would be even less not enough if I had been using a full-frame camera.

Twenty years separate the early B-17 prototypes and the first Vulcans. The Vulcan cruised at twice the B-17's unladen top speed and had a ceiling 20,000 feet higher; its bomb payload was five times greater by weight, but - in the case of the 1.1 megaton Blue Steel nuclear missile - over eighteen million times more powerful, if my calculations are correct (assuming that only a third of the B-17's payload was actually TNT, and not e.g. bomb cases and fusing).

The Red Arrows fly a missing man formation. Four years ago one of their number was killed in a crash after performing at Bournemouth.

Air show photography is one of the few photographic fields where a visual mind and a clear artistic vision are not particularly important. What matters is persistence, money, and physical skill; it's one of the few photographic fields that can be taught, that has objective performance criteria. You do not, and cannot have control over the lighting, unless you bring a bag of magnesium flares, or a big laser, in which case you'll probably be arrested...

I've lost my train of thought. Dot dot dot and you're limited in your choice of shooting locations, and there are only so many ways to frame aircraft in flight. Furthermore the audience doesn't particularly care how it was made or what point you were trying to make, they want to see planes, and why not?

From a photographer's point of view it helps if you live in the United States, because there are many more airshows over there. The flip side of this is that the competition is much more fierce. You're competing with people who have access to chase planes.

The extender I wrote about really needs to be stopped down a couple of stops before it makes sense. For almost all of these shots I used f/11 and focused manually, because infrared requires a slightly different focus point. At an airshow, f/2.8 is pointless, but if you're using a 2x extender f/2.8 becomes f/5.6, and two stops down is f/11. In this respect a 70-200mm f/2.8 has a slight edge over a 70-200mm f/4.

If I did this full-time I would of course use a longer lens. One problem is that a 400mm, 500mm fixed prime would have been awkward for the B-17 and Vulcan, and although I can understand why some photographers carry several entire camera setups, it strikes me as trying too hard. My impression of airshow, landscape, and wildlife photography is that there's a huge amount of one-upmanship involved, which is silly. It's an unwinnable game. There will always be an SR-71 flying above you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, and above them astronauts whizzing around the Earth at five miles a second.

Canon's recent 200-400mm f/4 is by all accounts superb; Sigma makes a 150-600mm zoom that is also apparently very good, although it's f/6.3 at the long end. With a 1.4x teleconverter this becomes an 840mm f/9 on a full-frame camera, which - with a mixture of higher ISOs, image stabilisation, and good technique - doesn't sound too bad in daylight. Sigma also makes a 200-500mm f/2.8 which is far too heavy to be a practical airshow lens, and a 300-800mm that is also very heavy. I am not convinced that airshow photography and monopods are a good fit, given that the subjects are flying around above the photographer's head.

And you have to ask yourself what value there is in stills photography in 2015; but that's an entirely different philosophical argument.