A Weekend for Play

The header is a picture I took last Saturday of the Red Arrows (of course), from the beach at Weston Super Mare. Each year for Armed Forces Day the Town put on an air display and quite a number of other features in and around a show arena they set up. The problem faced by every event organiser is the English weather, unpredictable to say the least and even with a lot of “brightening up” the picture stills shows a very grey sky !

I am particularly fond of the Weston event as it comes at the start of the air show season which really kicks in during July and offers me a rather special opportunity.

Practice Day

During the course of the year, well really between July and September, I normally visit a couple of air shows because I have always been fascinated by aircraft since a child plus they are from a photographic point of view, great subjects and challenging in their own way to photograph however, back to Weston Air Day.

One of the features is that it is a free show, you just pay for your parking on the beach which at £8 for the day per car is very cheap. Especially given that the average air show costs around £30 with the biggest one at Fairford costing £49 for each of the main flying days however for me, it is not the price that is the main attraction, it is the chance to experiment with photographic kit trying out different combinations to see which is best for me to use on any events I may go to and not just air shows.

Normally when going to events, either you have to park your car some distance away from the venue or, there is some kind of ‘Park and Ride’ service which if available, I always prefer to use. The point is that as a consequence, before you leave home you need to make decisions about which camera bodies, lenses and any other kit such as tripods etc you are going to take with you for the ‘gig’. Always bearing in mind that you are going to have to tote it around with you all day so weight, what camera bag and any other stuff like a folding chair that you may also want to carry do become considerations in the mix. Yes I know, if you only had one camera and one lens, it would be easier but if its your hobby/passion, it will never be that simple, you will collect kit.

Of course, if you have bought any new kit since last year, there are even more questions to be answered and this is where Weston is such a bonus. It is not expensive, you don’t think of it as a ‘precious’ photographic opportunity and are scared to mess it up, there are better shows to come but you take your car right onto the beach where it all happens. This in turn means, you can pile all the kit combinations you can think of into the boot of your car, you don’t have to carry them anywhere just dip in and use whatever you want from your boot and find out what works for you, brilliant !

Things to Discover

There were two things I wanted to play with and find out, the first concerned a new camera I had bought last Christmas, a Lumix G7 which shoots 4k video. I had bought it because I ended up with a double discount on the price which was reasonable to start with but became even better with £200 off. The technical reason I had got it was that it was a mirrorless camera as opposed to my usual DSLRs and the buzz during 2015 centred around Sony mainly was about mirrorless technology and I wanted to check it out but was not prepared to pay Sony’s prices.

Although I had my suspicions about the technology which over 6 months use were well founded, as with all such things, I did find a range of unexpected and useful pluses which I didn’t expect so that was fine and I certainly don’t regret buying it. However and because of my experiences, I had come to the conclusion that its best use was less as a still and more as a video camera so the “questions” I had to ask of it were related to video and of course, video is an area I’m only just getting involved in, hitherto my main interests being in still photography so I’m still learning that too. There were several things that I was quite well aware of with video from previous experiments which was I guess mainly because of my age, hand held ‘run and gun’ video as they call it is not really for me, best to tripod mount. Additionally using the cameras inbuilt microphones is a complete waste of time, you need to use external microphones and rather by accident than design, I did manage to demonstrate that very well indeed.

But my main interest really was centred on the cameras auto focus system, just how good was it ? Now admittedly it was the worse possible conditions to test this with a heavily overcast and grey sky, most autofocus system would struggle, throw in the fact you are doing video rather than stills and are trying to track a moving object and the prospects weren’t good. So I wasn’t too surprised to find that the autofocus system wasn’t really that good or to be fair, under the conditions it found it hard to maintain focus so it set down a marker for a limitation to work around.

The Second Thing

Thanks mainly to YouTube and people posting tutorials there, I was aware that video needed to be shot at slower shutter speeds than the camera will be inclined to do if you want the results to be more natural, real world and cinematic so this I was able to experiment with too, the appearance of helicopter blades rotating being very helpful in this respect ! But oddly, this also led to solving a problem that I too commonly had with still photography and air shows.

There are a range of issues with photographing aircraft in flight of which varying Sun and cloud cover is only just one but for me tends to push me in a ‘wrong’ direction as I try to avoid silhouettes and get a good exposure of the aircraft . My favourite aircraft tend to be from the WWII piston engine era which means that they are propeller driven and a problem arises as a consequence. I have far too many pictures where because of the fast shutter speed, the three or four bladed prop is frozen in the image and clearly visible, it doesn’t look realistic, you want instead a blur of the prop going round which means using a far slower shutter speed.

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The difference is shown by looking at these two images of a sea plane shot at a fast shutter speed so ‘frozen’ props and an old helicopter shot far slower so there is nice prop blur.

So as there were several prop aircraft during the display and the rather dull but consistent light from the grey cloud cover, I was able to push the shutter speed both up and down until I could a decent exposure but with a degree of pleasing prop blur. I didn’t get it right every time but I became aware of the limits and depending on the light, will need to bracket the exposures to try and get the sharpest overall image combined with the most pleasing blur and all of this dependent on our English Summer !

Conclusion

For me the lesson was simple, slow down, take fewer pictures but try to make those you do take count. The sheer brilliance of modern digital cameras is that they are smart and can take lots of pictures in rapid succession so that it is easy to ‘go for the number count’ and rely on getting a high percentage of ‘usable shots’ but really, you want fewer and better which means thinking more and shooting less. So overall, the Weston Air Day will always be a favourite of mine, just down the road from where I live and a great opportunity to play with my photography.

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