Swansea Airshow 2017

I’m not really a ‘plane-enthusiast’ or plane photographer, probably more of an ‘event’ photographer really, but I really do like a good airshow… noise, crowds, excitement, good weather and, here at Swansea in South Wales – on a swelteringly hot Sunday, 2nd July – one of the best fast-jet display teams anywhere: the Royal Air Force’s very own Red Arrows.

I know I’m not alone here. You just have to look at the people who attend airshows across the country. All sorts of people turn out to watch… and they’re certainly not all youngsters!

There’s a definite attraction about air displays that brings people out en-masse. Thrill-seeking. It’s a defining attraction all right! Ever since we got tired of swinging through trees like Tarzan, and began to think about ultimately flying to the stars, human beings have always sought out thrills.

Well… we have, haven’t we!

Swansea's seafront shimmering in the haze and looking more like the Costa del Sol

Part of Swansea’s seafront shimmering in the haze and looking more like the Costa del Sol

So there I was, two step-grandchildren [it used to just be children!], in tow, camera in hand, a beach containing around a hundred-thousand other souls baking in the summer sunshine, and a blue sky.

It was probably back in about 1990 or so when I last photographed the Red Arrows [must hunt the negatives!], at the excellent Southport Airshow, but I’d never tried to do the honours with planes charging about the sky at breakneck speeds since.

Fast shutter speeds would be needed to absolutely freeze the 4-600 mph action, that was certain… literal ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ territory that is. However, I wondered if I could both freeze the action and get some sense of fast motion into my photographs. I decided to experiment a bit, to try and see how slow a shutter speed I could get away with before the Hawk jets were nothing but red blurs in the images.

The RAF display team, the Red Arrows performing their thrilling aerobatic display

The RAF display team, the Red Arrows performing their thrilling aerobatic show at Swansea seafront on July 2nd, 2017. [EF300mm f4L IS USM + 1.4x extender @ f/9 1/640 sec, ISO 100]

It was tricky to say the least, because once they’ve started their routine there is no way that any ‘second chances’ would be on offer: it was all or nothing…

So I decided I’d try to pan with the action and shoot individual frames rather than ‘bursts’ of 3 or 4 at a time. Then I set the auto-focus to grab hold of anything that entered sensor range… seagulls included! I was sitting on a sandhill resting my camera on a beanbag on my knee instead of a tripod, which enabled me to fall backwards if I needed to track planes high into the sky.

Actually, I think that after a few minutes of the Red Arrows’ 20-minute-or-so-ish display, I did actually relax and let instinct take over. With a 300mm lens and 1.4x extender attached, I had a ‘reach’ of 420mm or so, which wasn’t a lot considering the planes were perhaps 4-500 metres away from me at their closest.

The RAF display team, the Red Arrows performing their thrilling aerobatic display at Swansea seafront on July 2nd, 2017. Here flying in formation, up and away to towards 11 o'clock. Three are trailing white smoke.

The RAF display team, the Red Arrows performing the ‘Spitfire Roll’, at Swansea seafront on July 2nd, 2017. [EF300mm f4L IS USM + 1.4x extender @ f/9, 1/800 sec, ISO 100]

But I’d forgotten to anticipate something fundamental which affected some later shots: heat-haze, which makes the air sort of ‘wobble’, and all that smoke.

After highly-trained and hopefully, highly-intelligent young men have been chucking themselves around the skies for twenty minutes, burning deisel oil and dyes to make a hell of a lot of smoke, the atmosphere in the immediate vicinity is ever so slightly polluted.

You can smell it.

That’s actually a good thing though, and good event managers or organisers know that: it adds an extra sensation to the overall experience. Planes and smoke are the visual stimuli, planes’ engines, people around you and the commentary are your aural stimuli and yep… diesel fumes smell and taste of well, diesel fumes. So your sensory experience of the event is complete and the event is deemed a success by all. Which it really was.

But back to ‘heat haze’…

The RAF display team, the Red Arrows performing their thrilling aerobatic display

The Red Arrows performing a manouver called ‘Tornado’. [EF300mm f4L IS USM + 1.4x extender @ f/9 1/800 sec, ISO 100]

You don’t necessarily spot just how much haze there is in the air until you get your images onto the computer [if, indeed you do that… I know many people don’t!]. There, you will find that images are perhaps ‘soft-looking’ and while maybe not blurred as such, are certainly not as sharp as you thought when you took the shots. That’s because there are dust and water particles in the atmosphere as well as – in this case – smoke, and the color of the sky changes depending on the the type of particles, their density, and their size.

That’s also why the blue colour of the sky seems to change between photographs: there may be more or less haze in different areas, such as over a town, or where a farmer has been harvesting crops in the countryside and throwing up dust, for example.

Right at the bottom of the ‘Develop’ panels in Lightroom is a ‘De-haze’ slider [in the ‘Effects’ panel], which might help… or not! Just be careful not to overdo it. If you don’t have Lightroom, don’t worry, there’s de-haze options in most editing software. Quite often though, I find that if there’s a lot of haze, it’s not worth even trying to rescue an image, but sometimes it is possible. Just!

Later that evening I discovered not only the amount of heat haze, but that I’d shot over 500 images and, looking at the RAW files in Lightroom, I thought most looked absolutely frightful at first. So after deleting the really obvious; shots of empty blue sky, or shots with bits of Hawk jets randomly flying in or out of shot, I was still left with nearly 400 photographs to play with…

I’ve since ditched a lot more, keeping around 70 images in total. There’s a small slideshow here.

TIP: Always carry a small ‘beanbag’ with your gear. They are great for making a platform to rest your camera on car windows, fences, rocks or anything at hand, so you can gain a bit of ‘steadiness’, and are a dirt-cheap, light, portable alternative to a tripod.

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