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Aviation through a single lens reflex, how did this all begin? By Scott Sullivan

Posted by Scott Sullivan on

My two brothers and I, (one older, one younger), have grown up on Military camps, both Royal Air Force and British Army. We were surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of Military aircraft and other hardware, so very much exposed to what we would later become enthusiastic about, but at the time minimal interest, it was just there, Lightnings in Singapore, Phantoms in Germany and Canberras at Cottesmore to name a few.

 Although none of the three brothers ever entered into any of the Armed forces, we all developed a love of Aviation and everything that comes in that package.

As many of you Aviation enthusiasts know, a large number of us are also keen amateur photographers, I guess aviation and photography go hand in hand?

Fast forwarding to the present day and the main topic of this piece.

How not to approach aviation photography

Now let me get this straight from the outset, I own a DSLR camera and I point it at aircraft, BUT I would not call myself an ‘Aviation Photographer’, in the professional sense, I fall very much into the ‘Amateur’ bracket.

My interest in photography came late in my ‘Avgeek’ life, mostly due to ignorance and not having adequate equipment to capture decent images. After many air shows and looking back at my, pictures, (when they came back from the developers), in disappointment at the dark speck in the distance, in a big sky, that even the most skilful of aircraft spotters would struggle to identify. Following disappointment after disappointment, I decided I had to upgrade, or give up!

 A typical image that I was taking at this time.

Do your homework!

So, I jumped in feet first, (in hindsight, with very little research) and following a trip to Jessops, I unpacked my very first DSLR camera. I had purchased a Canon 350D with a lens kit and battery grip. Yes, I can already hear the Canon v Nikon banter, and long should this continue, (more on that later), but rightly or wrongly, I was drawn to Canon.

This was an epiphany, a revelation, a mind-blowing realisation of what I can now potentially achieve with my new kit.

And so, began a very steep learning curve!

Although I had this new equipment, I had not done my homework!

After a few more years of air show events and resulting photographs, (which I must add, were 100% better than previously described), my images were still missing something and compared poorly against other photographer’s images I had seen.

It was then that I stumbled across things called ‘RAW’ and ‘Photo editing’, here comes another revelation!

In my naivete and previously described lack of research, I had just been using my 350D on ‘Auto’ and just pointed and shot, in Jpeg and downloaded onto my Mac.

Embrace this technology and learn

Armed with this new awareness, (and larger CF cards), my photography improved leaps and bounds, however, there was very… very much more to learn.

When you hold this piece of digital photographic technology in your hands and scroll through the myriad of settings in the menu, it can be quite daunting, or even overwhelming to some that would simply be happy to use Auto.

Do not be disheartened, persevere, there are plenty of resources on the internet, with tutorials and instruction on how to get the best out of your DSLR.

With that said, there is no better way to learn, than to get out there and practice the art, using the different settings and functions of your camera to achieve an image you are happy with. Yes, you will make mistakes but that’s part of the learning curve, take notes of what you did wrong and what you did right, and the settings and functions used.

Capture it and get creative

Moving onto the second part of my revelation, ‘Photo editing’. I had previously downloaded my images onto my Mac in ‘iPhoto’ and used the editing tools available there. This was functional and got me some reasonable results.  As Mac ‘Operating systems’ updated, so did the editing tools in this app, but I knew there was something better out there.

Speaking to other photographers, I kept hearing about ‘Lightroom’ and ‘Photoshop’, as this appeared to be the choice of editing tool of my mentors, I decided to take a look.

I went to the Adobe website; https://www.adobe.com/uk/creativecloud.html?gclid=Cj0KCQjw-Mr0BRDyARIsAKEFbed52QUrxRtHyO9hjanlhz06qM8_h8EbQsLA-d5O666W-ejzDHnFnpIaApIAEALw_wcB&sdid=88X75SKR&mv=search&ef_id=Cj0KCQjw-Mr0BRDyARIsAKEFbed52QUrxRtHyO9hjanlhz06qM8_h8EbQsLA-d5O666W-ejzDHnFnpIaApIAEALw_wcB:G:s&s_kwcid=AL!3085!3!273769967913!e!!g!!adobe

I looked at the ‘Creative Cloud’ photography package, which I think you can still sign up for, for just under £10 per month. The package I chose included; Lightroom Classic, Lightroom CC for the phone and Photoshop with 1TB of storage.

Now that I had been educated and started shooting in ‘RAW’, this Adobe software enabled me to easily transform my images, (in a lot of cases, salvage), just by sliding different settings, until I was happy with the result. The advantage of shooting in RAW is that you have the ability to adjust pretty much every element of the image you have captured, granted, there is no substitute for getting the image setting correct on the camera, but Lightroom gives you that ability to adjust any mistakes or enhance your image. Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop also open up a whole World of creativity, limited just by your imagination.

I predominantly use Lightroom to edit my images but have barely scratched the surface, I have yet to explore Photoshop fully, but I understand that many photographers utilise both during editing. Once again, I have barely scratched the surface with Lightroom but it gives me what I want and I really enjoy being creative using this software, in fact, I probably get as much satisfaction and enjoyment out of editing my images as I do taking them, (is that wrong?).

Once again there is a huge resource of information, tuition and instruction in using the Adobe software out there, so I won’t waffle on about how to use it, (like I know?).

I just want to say that I use Lightroom to get an image I like, not to please others and that is the important bit. If my image is not your cup of tea, don’t drink from the cup!

A before and after image of mine, to show what can be achieved in Lr.

The ‘Dark Art’

Aside from air show photography, I was inspired by images I had seen of aviation ‘Night photography’.

During my exploration into furthering my aviation photography skills and experiences, I discovered a number of organisations that can provide the aviation photographer, (whatever their level of skill), access to scenarios not usually available at your average air show to capture unique and up close images of many aircraft types in varied situations. These scenarios can include access not normally available to the public, such as; air side at air shows, aircraft preservation groups, military bases (inside or outside the wire), air-to-air flights, night shoots and many other organised and exclusive events, both here in the UK and across the World.

I have attended a number of these events, organised by the following, (in alpha order).

COAP (Centre Of Aviation Photography) with Rich Cooper,  Steven Comber and team; http://www.centreofaviationphotography.com/

Threshold.aero with Andrew Morley and team; https://www.threshold.aero/

Time Line Events with Neil Cave and team; https://www.timelineevents.org/

The following was my first experience of the ‘Dark Art’, (yes, pun intended), of night photography.

My first attempt at ‘Night photography’ at the Lightning Preservation Group at Bruntingthorpe.

It was with great trepidation, although with some research, (yes, I’m learning), armed with my research, a sturdy tripod and remote shutter release, I attended my first night shoot at the Lightning Preservation Group at Bruntingthorpe https://www.lightnings.org.uk/

I must say that I was more than a little bit nervous, but with support and guidance from both the organisers and fellow photographers who were more than happy to help, (more on that later), following my first experience and resulting images, I was hooked.

I have subsequently attended a number of night shoots organised by the above at; Bruntingthorpe, RAF Cosford, RNAS Yeovilton, RAF Coningsby, North Weald and Gatwick Aviation Museum. Unfortunately, no air-to-air or international shoots yet.

It is quite a challenging aspect of our art, even for some more experienced photographers and quite different to the ‘spray and pray’ technique at air shows. I still have much to learn in this ‘Dark Art’, as I describe it, but I would highly recommend giving it a go. If nothing else, it provides a stop gap in the aviation photographers year following on from the end of the air show season, as most night shoots take place in the Autumn, Winter and early Spring months, as shorter daylight hours mean you don’t have to wait till midnight before it gets dark.

A selection of my images taken at the above events.

More on that later

In closing, earlier I have mentioned that there was ‘(more on that later)’. In my years as an aviation enthusiast I have always been struck by the fact that our hobby, interest, pastime, call it what you will, seems to attract (99.9% of the time), truly nice, friendly and genuine people, I can’t even begin to guess why, but I am sure you will agree with me. Most of my friend’s group are aviation/photography enthusiasts and that group will hopefully continue to grow.

As I write this, our whole year of aviation has either been curtailed or completely cancelled for 2020, who knows, but I am in no doubt that we will come back stronger and more appreciative in 2021. In the meantime, we must continue to support all those that we normally take for granted as being there in our aviation World. We must support those businesses, large or small, organisations and charities that rely on us during a normal aviation year. With your continued support, however small, during these difficult times, we can hope to see them again in Air Show season 2021.

Bring it on!


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