Uncivil Aviation Photography

DSCF7230B No, I don’t mean the military. They are terribly civil. Right up until they get the red dot on you and call up Omaha. Then it all gets extremely uncivilised, depending upon whose point of view is being considered

I mean the business of picturing commercial and light planes – particularly the ones that are flying around over the house. It all seems so easy – just pop outside and take a picture…but it proves to be a lot more difficult than that.

We live on a flight path for a small commercial airport. The facility houses the Royal Flying Doctor Service and some days the medical needs of outlying places in Western Australia mean that there are numerous flights returning to Perth. Given the right wind direction, the RFDS planes come right over the house.

DSCF7224We also see the fire-fighting helicopters in the summer , as well as the surf patrol, Medivac, and Police helicopters regularly. Less regularly is an overflight by the stat’e biggest mining magnate in a private jet,or a joy flight from a yellow Tiger Moth biplane. On day we had a P51 Mustang go over the house – presumably lost his way returning from a daylight raid on Schweinfurt. As this was in 1997, I think someone should have taken him aside and explained the situation…

I use a moderate zoom lens for the close shots -the Fujinon 18-135 on one of the X-series cameras. It has never failed me, though the focal length is not really long enough to deal with airliners passing further out near the skyline of the city. I longed for a longer lens to get these as they climbed away from Perth Airport and headed for the Gulf or Singapore. At least i longed for this until I got my wish…

I was tasked with illustrations and writing up a long zoom lens made by Sigma – the 150-600mm S version. I have nothing but praise for the construction of the lens and I am sure it preformed as well as any other optic of the size in the world. But the experience of trying it out was a real revelation – it is miserable work.

Any lens this size is heavy – the metal barrel and large glass elements make this certain. Unfortunately it is weight that is all l out at the front of the camera and away from your body as you try to shoot it – like a heavy bench-rest muzzleloading rifle would be if you tried to hand-hold it. The leverage out there is fierce.

The lens does have the blessed facility of a lock on the zoom – you can choose from a number of stations along the zoom range and secure it to that. This eliminates one ring turning in your hand. If you had the lens on a camera that had auto-focus that would eliminate the need to try to turn another one. Unfortunately my camera does not drive the AF, and I have to do it by hand. I quickly discovered that you can’t do that – you have to set the thing on infinity by focusing on a cloud and then just leave it untouched.

The business of shutter speed also meant that the ISO had to be boosted very high. Hence the images have noise. Not a killer but not the sort of thing that makes for great advertising pictures.

The real difficulty camera when I found out that you can barely see to sight the thing out in the open blue sky, and if the plane you want is accelerating you have only the smallest portion of time to get on target and get the shot. I failed 10 times to one success.

If this were a regular activity for me I would invest in the lens, but couple it with a DSLR camera and then mount the whole assembly on a Wimberley or other gimbal head and a very sturdy tripod. I realise that this takes away the portability of the system and means a great deal of lugging luggage…but at least the aircraft have to take off and land from fixed positions so you have to make the effort.

DSCF7253I think I’ll just pop out the front for the RFDS every now and then and make do with that.


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