One can say that this was a return for both Langley Air Force Base and me, getting back to airshows. It’s been 4 years since Langley hosted a show and 5 years since I attended Wings over Houston back in 2018. And after such a long hiatus, I had one simple goal. To enjoy photographing an airshow again. To get reacquainted with the sites and sounds of modern fighters as well as iconic aircraft of World War Two being put through their paces. Surprisingly, my results were better than I expected. Without further ado, here are my photos from Air Power over Hampton Roads 2023.
Canon EOS 90D DSLR
Canon EOS 5DS R DSLR
Canon EF 24-70mm F/2.8L II USM
Canon EF 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
Canon EF 500mm F/4.5L USM
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Since I returned to spotting around DTW, I’ve been shooting from the parking lot of the Marriott Hotel off Wick Road. It’s a well-known and pleasant location for catching arrivals on runway 22 right. But there are two airliners I want to capture that always land on 22 left. The first is Lufthansa 442 from Frankfurt, which is a Boeing 787-9. And the other is Air France 378 out of Paris, she’s an Airbus A350-900. Unfortunately, from the Marriott parking lot, both of these arrivals are just too far away to get a decent shot of. So, I turned to my know-it-all friend, Google. I searched “spotting around DTW” and came across “Spotter guide.net”. To my surprise, I found a location where I could capture arrivals on approach to runway 21 left. From all places, an abandoned gas station at the corner of Middlebelt and Goddard Road.
My Spotting map of DTW
During the extended Easter weekend, I challenged myself to chase these two European girls and get some images of them both. The Lufthansa Dreamliner is going to be first. She’s scheduled to arrive around 1:25pm. During the drive down, was a bit worried about the location. How close is the flight path? Will I get hassled by airport security, local police or some overly nervous passersby? Yes, it happens. I exited I-94 at Middlebelt, headed south and easily found the abandoned station. Was greeted with a good omen, another spotter was already there. I pulled into the derelict station and parked a respectable distance from the spotter so I’m not blocking their view of the flight path. I geared up, camera on, check setting, started up Flightradar24 and start tracking that Lufthansa Dreamliner. I got there about an hour before she was scheduled to arrive. There were a few arrivals before she graced us with her presents. A CRJ, a couple of A320s and a A330 from Amsterdam, all Delta airlines.
It was like a spring southern Californian day in Southeast Michigan, not a cloud in the sky, temperature was in the low 60s and winds were out of the south. As for shooting location, the sun is at your back from sunrise to about 4 or 5ish. By then the sun is parallel to the runway and starts to backlight the arriving flights until sunset. Which I was a bit worried about the lighting conditions for the Air France Airbus. She arrives much later, 6-6:30pm. But soon enough that attractive young lady from Germany was here and I was ready for her. The Canon 90D shutter blasted away like a machine gun as she effortlessly floated through the crystal-clear blue sky.
“The young lady from Germany”
It wasn’t until the following Wednesday that conditions were right for capturing the Air France A350. For her, I busted out my full-frame 50-megapixel Canon 5DSR. Which doesn’t have the advantage of the 1.6 crop factor of the 90D. Which makes my 100-400mm Mk2 when on the 90D into a 160-640mm. As I said earlier, from the abandoned gas station at the time she’s scheduled to arrive, the sun will be on the opposite side of the runway that I’m shooting from and backlighting her as she lands. My plan is to go to the abandoned station about 40 minutes before she arrives and see how the lighting conditions are. If it is manageable, I’ll stay and shoot. But if it sucks, I’ll jump on Google Maps and try to find a place to shoot from with the sun at my back.
I got there early, and the lighting conditions were as I feared, backlit. I shot a few arrivals before jumping into Google Maps. Thankfully, I found a visitor parking lot north of the airport which I would be facing East with the sun behind me but wasn’t sure how close the flight path to 21 left was. With about 20 minutes to spare at the visitor’s lot waiting for the next arriving aircraft. The first thing that passes by is a tiny Embraer Phenom that looks about all of 20 pixels in length through the viewfinder. And my thoughts instantly jumped to do I need to get closer? If so, where can I go? And can I find a new spot before the French A350 gets here? Or do I bite the bullet and go back to the backlit abandoned gas station? FUCK! Thankfully the next three arrivals calmed my racing negative thoughts. A Delta 737, a Frontier A320 Neo and a UPS 757. All filled up the frame more to my liking. Then right on time, that elegant French girl showed up. The 5DSR shoots noticeably slower but I managed to get the shot I was after. I’m going to return with the cropped sensor 90D and see if the extra focal length helps.
So, I totally disagree with New Year’s resolutions. But for the past two years, I’ve been setting some yearly goals to accomplish. Which I feel are more flexible and I don’t feel bad if I get rid of or change some throughout the year. Such as to keep building models the way I want, continue to discover and practice philosophy along with getting back into aviation photography again. But before, I start attending airshows again, I want to update my gear and to do some spotting to work out that forgotten muscle memory of shooting. I briefly toyed with the idea of getting a mirrorless DSLR but I’m not switching my lense inventory to Canon’s new RF mounts. And I don’t like the idea of using an adapter from EF to RF mounts. So, I’ll be sticking with DSLRs for now. I’ve outgrown my trusty 7D Mk2 along with newer technology that has outdated it. Plus, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rolled its counter. Canon 90D should be an excellent replacement for my 7D Mk2. It has a newer 32.5-megapixel sensor along with it can shoot at 10fps like the 7D Mk2. I can now shoot 4K video if I want. The 90D has a higher ISO range and longer battery life than my old 7D Mk2. And it too is weather sealed. I also chose to replace my 17-85mm with the newer 18-135mm IS USM. And to back up my 500mm F/4.5L, I got the Canon 100-400mm Mk2. Years ago, I had the Mk I and hated how soft the images were from it. I’ve rented the Mk II a couple of times and it’s a much better lens.
My new Canon 90D and 100-400mm MkII
I had envisioned a shot, in late afternoon light or around sunset of a silhouetted airliner during landing. Though I had to wait for the conditions to materialize, I wanted the first images of my new camera to be of an airplane of some sort. I figured I’ll do some spotting down at Detroit Metro (DTW) as the sun is setting with a fire-like sky. But I feel sunset sucks without a few clouds on the horizon. All week long I was keeping an eye on the weather hoping for the right conditions. On Wednesday of that week, it was the first day that it wasn’t straight overcast and was partly sunny with a decent sky-to-cloud balance to hopefully make the sunset interesting. The catch is it was windy as shit. South southwest winds 10-20 mph and gusting to 30! Which was the cause of the wind advisory in effect until 4 pm. Sunset was around 6 pm, fingers crossed that the winds will die down. By the time I got home from work and packed up to make my way down to DTW, the patchy clouds were starting to dissipate and there were a few on the horizon but not as populated as earlier in the day. I packed up my gear and headed down to my spotting location. And during the drive down, my level of excitement was unusually high. It’s been 4 years since I shot any aircraft, but I feel it’s awesome that I was excited about spotting. I got parked, geared up, and checked my settings and it was time to play the spotters waiting game powered by Flightradar24. My first arrival was a Spirit airways A320 from Vegas. With AI servos on and high-speed continuous shooting @F/5.6, the 90D blasted away at 10 frames per second. With the wind howling and bitter cold, I didn’t stay long. And the Sun quickly hid behind the clouds on the horizon and the saturated afternoon light was gone. As of now, (wintertime) the sun sets too far to the south to achieve the shot I had envisioned. Where it sets now, is cluttered with light poles and power lines. Definitely a late spring or midsummer shot when the sun sets later in the day as well as farther north. But anywho, once home it was time to check out my photos and see how I did after a 4-year hiatus. The first 8 images were soft or out of focus but number 9 was spot on. Overall, I’m pleased with the new body/lens combo. Had the correct wind direction but not the right time of year for my envisioned shot.
Wanted to test my new lens and body combo in some morning light. Conditions were favorable for my spotting location. Southwest winds but cold as fuck! 25 degrees(-3C) but felt like 10F(-12C) with the wind chill. Packed up the gear and headed down to DTW once again. I was hesitant to leave earlier due to the temperature and the sunrise was at 7:24. My mistake was that I left my apartment at 7 and I watched the sharp beautiful morning light during my drive down to DTW. As I parked the car while the last bit of that golden light bathed a spirit airways A320 and made it look amazing. For the next 20 minutes, nothing landed. That sought-after saturated light that I was after was nearly gone. Then I noticed a sole Delta A321 in the pattern for runway 22R on Flightradar24. Which was being used for arrivals and the runway I was in the position to photograph arriving flights. Even though it wasn’t in the light I was after, it was still fun to photograph aircraft in some better light conditions than on my first test trip. In the hour and a half, I was there, only three aircraft used runway 22R. The previously mentioned A321, a 737 along with a lone CRJ-900. The cold wasn’t as bad as I expected. I from time to time, hopped back into the car to warm up along with checking what is or isn’t lining up on runway 22R. There was more activity on runway 21R but unfortunately, there’s not a good location to spot that approach. I say it was a partial success, with correct wind direction, and sharp saturated morning light but had bad timing.
After writing all morning, I decided to look at Flightradar24 and see what’s happening down at DTW. The first thing I noticed was the winds were still coming from the southwest. Which means they were using runways 21 and 22 for arrivals and departures. And after a glance out my apartment window, I decided to head back down and do some fair-weather spotting. I figure the more time I have behind my camera before show season starts up the better. Along with if I leave now, there are two Delta Airbus flights from Japan I want to capture in some decent light. The first one was an A330 that departed from Nagoya and the other was Delta’s Flagship, an A350 traveling from Haneda. Since both flights would be arriving from the west, there would be a good chance that both would land on runway 22L. The weather was mostly sunny with puffy fast-moving clouds that would look nice in the blue sky. Since my trip to Japan, which I flew on a Delta A350, I’ve been Infatuated with the aircraft. If I leave now, I could most likely catch both. On the drive down, “Detroit driving rules” were definitely in effect. Despite my spirited driving, the A330 from Nagoya gracefully passed by as I pulled into the parking lot of my spotting location. Fortunately, the A350 was only a few minutes behind her. According to Flightradar24, it was looking like she was on the same approach as the flight from Nagoya. Remember what I said about those clouds? Fast moving is how I put it. Yeah, the wind was fucking howling! More so than the other trips. At one point, I had to chase down my hat that went flying across the parking lot. But soon enough Deltas A350 graced me with her presence and the new lens/body combo didn’t disappoint.
The skies soon cleared up and I had nothing else to do on this blustery Sunday. So, I decided to stay, and I ended up hanging out for about another hour or so. A few other highlights from this trip were my first time photographing an A220, A320 NEO along with a 737 Max. I went to catch a couple of wide-body Airbuses and got “Wind qualify” in the process. I’m going to call this breezy trip a success.
All in all, I’ve been exciting about getting back behind the camera and spotting again. Like when I first began my journey into aviation photography over 18 years ago. I’m going to make at least three or four more trips down to DTW before my first aviation event this year. And at least one of them with my 500mm. I need to get use to holding that beast again. I’m also toying with the idea of some night spotting with my 5DSR. Its full frame sensor would handle the higher ISO far better than the cropped sensor of the 90D, but we will see.
Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” These wise words are so true even in aviation photography. The repeated attendance of aviation events based on a list of demonstration teams and performers over an event with great lighting conditions is crazy to me. And let’s face it, we go to events to see and experience living breathing aircraft take flight. Shooting static aircraft is really just a matter of waiting for the right time of day. We don’t get to choose what flies or performs in whatever light we want. But we can choose events with better overall lighting conditions. That we choose light over available subjects.
Such stunning light in the late afternoon
In this episode of “Philosophy about Photography”. I want to talk about choosing an event with purpose over subjects of opportunity. After attending countless aviation events over the past 17 years, I’ve become very critical about what show or event I will attend. Just because there’s an event nearby, doesn’t mean I’m going to it. I have a tried and tested trifecta of reasoning for attending an aviation event. For me, it takes great lighting conditions, multiple shooting locations, and subjects I want to see. And having only one doesn’t cut it.
Light and location go hand in hand. The quality of light at an aviation event is directly proportional to your shooting location, show/crowd line, and the path of the Sun. There are numerous other factors that must be considered. Such as, where’s the show/crowd line? And what direction is it facing? Where’s the Sun now? And where will it be later? Does the event cater to photographers? How late can I stay after the show ends? Also, there are events with good light only for part of the day. Wings over Houston for example, the show faces east and at the start of the show, the light is garbage. The good thing is flying tends to start in the late afternoon. The first few acts are backlit but before you know it and for the rest of the show the sun is at your back. NAS Oceana is the exact opposite. The lighting conditions are good until midday and the Sun crosses overhead and then starts backlighting the event just in time for the Blue Angels.
My reasoning behind having multiple shooting locations is, I feel one cannot capture the feeling or present the experiences of a show from one location. There’s just too much going on to show from one point of view. When you do, all your images have the same perspective and tend to look the same. And you quickly lose the interest of your viewers and they either click away to some other interest or continue scrolling past the rest of your photos. My remedy for this stagnation is to shoot the first half of a show in one location and then the second half in another for one-day events. And for multi-day shows, to switch up locations on different days. The results tend to show a more complete picture of the show and I’m able to tell a more complex story with my images.
How many of my sought-after aircraft are supposed to be at one of these well-lit events? I may get to see two or three per show if I’m lucky. But for me, I’m in it for the long game. And with warbirds being my jam, I tend to gravitate towards the larger warbird events like the Planes of Fame air show in Chino California, EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh, and Thunder Over Michigan in Ypsilanti. And even when I make it out to a show with quality light along with the aircraft I want to see, there is still no guarantee that I will add any unique images to my portfolio. Events get canceled, Mother Nature likes to start tripping on show weekends, and unfortunately, accidents happen as well.
Yeah, you can use Lightroom and Photoshop to add filters and layer masks to correct for crappy light. But those images will not be as good as ones shot in superior conditions. And the workflow of processing a set of images from a poorly lit event is tedious and time-consuming. I’ve been there, done that and no thank you. But at least we can pick events that are more in our favor to produce better results.