Let’s start with a little context first.
There are a number of factors you need to consider when planning and preparing for (fighter) jet photography. To name a few: weather forecast (rain or many clouds don’t work too well as background) and wind direction (planes tend to take off and land against the wind, so you want to be on the right side). You also need to think about the position you plan to take relative to the jets, their direction and the position of the sun at the time of day you’re planning to take the shots (shooting against the light may be challenging).
When all of these factors work out, all that is left is hoping for some luck that the equipment you brought to the scene (most important: camera + lens combo) will be sufficient to get you the shots you’re looking for. What also helps is some ‘space’ to move around and that you won’t have to struggle to find a good spot between too many other photographers.
By the way, you may want to reflect on what you’re looking to shoot in the first place…! A nice composition would be very welcome as well, which is is something you can’t really control when you’re on the ground and simply waiting for the jets to either land or take off. Personally I’ve grown a preference for take-offs vs. landings, and even better: pilots doing some modest rolls (axis from nose to tail) so you can get a nice shot of either the top or the underside of the jet, although in some cases a shot from the side can work as well. In fact, you can create a nice illusion with certain shots where it seems you were actually in the air when you took the shot – stay tuned for my next article on that one!
Now, the best you can wish for as (ground-based) jet photographer, is the so called ‘go-around’, or as we call it in Dutch: ‘doorstart’. The jet seems to get ready for landing, but actually hardly touches the runway if any, and continues to fly straight over the runway to make a spectacular turn high up in the air, preceded by a very fast ascent; almost at 90 degrees (if you’re lucky)…
Little did I know that at that particular afternoon, it was Lt. Col. Ian ‘Gladys’ Knight’s last day in his F-35 Lightning II at the Royal Dutch Airforce. And little did I know that the pilots from his squadron had some plans in mind to properly show their respects and send their goodbyes to ‘Gladys’…
“Catching Lt. Col. Ian ‘Gladys’ Knight in his F-35”
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/5.6, 1/1600 s., ISO 110, AF-Area Mode: 3D-tracking
At that particular afternoon, the area around the runway where I was heading to was quite empty. The simple reason: the wind was coming from the west, and so the jets would be landing from the east, towards the west. And that’s where most of the photographers were located. And I don’t really know why I decided to go to the eastern part of the runway, other than that I was not interested in landings and was willing to take my chances for any ‘doorstarts’/go-arounds. And I even recall saying that “F-35s don’t do go-arounds”, at least not at the Air Force base were I was, as (1) I had never seen it or heard about it and (2) the only ones I had heard about were with F-16s. Probably because the F-35s are still relatively new and some issues need to be ironed out – as I assumed (mistakenly).
I positioned myself at my preferred shooting spot and lifted the Nikon D850/600mm combo to get the F-35 in my viewfinder as it was heading for the runway. I noticed that its landing gear had not been lowered, and I suddenly realized that my gamble was about to pay off. Immediately I also realized that I had actually never shot any go-arounds in the first place, so I didn’t really know what to expect (or what to do).
It’s hard to explain what goes through your mind when an F-35 approaches you at a couple of hundred miles/hour, and then takes a 90-degree turn towards the skies, right in front of you, unexpectedly. What goes through your entire body however are the air vibrations and noise from the afterburner. Looking back I felt like a beginner photographer as I was pretty much awe-struck and was struggling to keep the F-35 in my viewfinder, all within the 1-2 seconds this was playing out in front of me. I’m still not sure how you can even prepare for such an event; but I certainly hope to experience it again!
“The Return of the Silver Surfer”
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/5.6, 1/2000 s., ISO 140, AF-Area Mode: 3D-tracking
Looking back at some of my images of the ‘go-arounds’ I couldn’t help thinking about how these pilots seem to ‘surf the air’ as if they’re surfing waves on the ocean, it’s breathtaking. The F-35 has got this cool silver glare and when you are shooting almost fully upward towards the sky, the Nikon D850’s metering system calculates the whole scene in such a way that it contrasts the silvery F-35 against a dark blue sky – darker than it actually was but the result is just perfect in my view, and apparently also according to Nikon engineers. I can only wish for Nikon to develop a Z9 that exceeds the D850 which seems an impossible task – but I digress. I just couldn’t help thinking about the ‘Fantastic 4’ movie… and while the ‘Silver Surfer’ returns and not leaves, as with Lt. Col. Ian ‘Gladys’ Knight, who knows; perhaps we’ll see him again some day surfing the sky. I’ll select a couple more images of his F-35 in my next article.
As I indicated in my previous article I’ll share some thoughts on the techniques I use for this type of photography.
When I started using large telephoto lenses I also brought along a tripod. It will give you that stability during shooting and you don’t tire out your arms and back. But the biggest drawback is your manoeuvrability – or lack of. When you carry your camera/lens combo freely you can basically (re-)position yourself very quickly depending on what your subject is doing. For example, in the case of Lt. Col. Knight’s vertical take-off it would have been very hard to reposition my tripod – if I had one. However, as I was hand-holding my 600mm it only took me a second or so to reposition myself (after I recovered from the shock), reposition the 600mm, and move the F-35 back in my viewfinder – but only barely, which is where the the 46 megapixels of the D850 can really work in your favour.
The obvious drawback for hand-holding is weight: if you’re after tack-sharp images with the highest quality you’re looking at fast primes, and these come at a cost (both monetary and weight). But, there are techniques that can help you with the weight challenge – I’ll leave it for another article to dig into more details on that (or when I get any questions). When hand-holding; i.e. not using a tripod, the VR on the Nikon 600mm f/4E is best set to ‘On/Normal’. Use ‘Sport’ when using a tripod and shutter speeds over 1/1000 s. – check out an article I wrote a couple of years ago on ‘long lens techniques’.
I’ll get into the specifics of the camera settings in my next article of this ‘Jet Art’ series, where I’ll also include a couple more shots of Lt. Col. Knight in his F-35!