On July 10th, HA Member Geoff Lee came to talk about his profession - photographer, specialising in air to air work. Geoff started as a photographic apprentice with HSA Kingston in 1975 rising to become Chief Photographer and Head of the Kingston photographic unit in 1990. After the site was closed he started his own company, Planefocus. To date he has logged 500 hours in fast jets, flown in fifteen types with seven air forces and two aerobatic display teams.

Through a series of slides Geoff informed his audience about the practice of aerial photography. Subjects covered include squadron and aircraft anniversaries, special aircraft colour schemes, new weapon fits, weapon and store releases and firings and VIP flights, for Services, operators, industry and magazines. A basic requirement for any mission is to know your chase aircraft. Is it tandem or side-by-side, what are its limitations and endurance, is it aerobatic, does it have side doors, a rear ramp or do you photograph through a canopy or windows (if the latter what is the state of the transparencies), how can cameras be stowed and what are the emergency procedures? You must also know the limitations, endurance and aerobatic capabilities of the subject aircraft.

Air To Air Photography

Toptop toptop

Chase aircraft can be light twins with the doors removed, helicopters with the doors open, military transports like the Hercules with open rear ramps, tandem two-seaters like the Hawk which allow photography to both sides and overhead, and side-by-side two-seaters like the Jet Provost which are limited to photography to one side. Sometimes special under-fuselage camera pods or steerable and zoomable periscope systems are available. When working with open or removed doors and open ramps the photographer is securely restrained to the aircraft.

Various chase to subject formation positions can be used including line astern, line abreast, echelon stepped up or down as well as being part of a vic, box, finger four, or diamond. The subject can perform various manoeuvres relative to the chase, for instance, flat turns away or towards the chase, breaks away or towards, wingovers and verticals. Backgrounds such as mountains or special ground features are very important. It is best to avoid cluttered built up areas and dull weather.

The photographer has a lot of equipment to deal with. Cameras and lenses are carried in a helmet bag. There must be no camera straps to prevent the possibility of snagging aircraft controls etc. Logos and badges on helmets and clothing must be blacked out to avoid reflections in canopies and windows. Spare memory cards and fully charged batteries must be taken. The sortie brief must be carried and, last but not least, a sick bag is essential. For fast jet subjects Geoff uses a Nikon D4 with a back-up D3. His usual lenses are an f2.8 24-70 mm zoom, an f2.8 14 - 24 mm zoom and an f1.4 85 mm. For transport aircraft he uses an f2.8 70 - 200 mm zoom. For fast jets he uses 1/500 sec or faster shutter speeds but for propeller aircraft 1/320 sec or slower to ensure that the propeller blades are blurred. Mostly Geoff shoots single frames but in dynamic situations uses 5 frames per second.

The basic tool is the briefing which is entirely scripted on the ground but may be adjusted in the air. Geoff prepares a ‘Powerpoint’ briefing sheet with 8 - 9 items; enough for a one to one hour twenty minutes flight with 20 to 30 minutes on task. Each shot is numbered, states the formation and lead aircraft and is illustrated with an example photograph. The sheet is copied for all the pilots involved. The brief is discussed and adjusted the day before the sortie. At the sortie briefing each item and its requirements are discussed in detail including safety actions. Flying clothing is donned including immersion suits if appropriate; you dress to survive.

Next a final camera check is carried out and the chase aircraft transparencies are examined for cleanliness inside and out before strapping in. The cameras are then secured for take-off ensuring that there are no fouls with the controls and ejection handle. When airborne keep away from the control column, keep the elbows clear and be in full control of the camera. Geoff recommends using manual in case the auto systems fail. When setting up the shot refer to the briefing serial number, talk clearly and be exact. After the flight debrief thoroughly and fill in the log book.

Before finishing Geoff presented a slide show: ‘24 hours in the life of a Eurofighter Typhoon’ illustrating Geoff’s skills at taking outstanding photographs.