Musings of an Aviation Photographer

Airshows, Aircraft, Photography, and more…
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Showcase: Occasionally, you’ll shoot that one photo that really stands out above the rest.  Sometimes it can be totally unexpected, and you don’t even realize it until you see the photo on your computer.  Other times, you can see the photo falling into place allowing you to click the shutter button at the exact moment that you know you’ve caught your own personal masterpiece.  Ever so often I’m going to showcase some of what I personally think are interesting and pretty cool photos I’ve taken, with a bit of info behind the photo and how it all came into place.


The F-22A Raptor at Sunset - Nellis AFB Airshow 2010

The Lockeed F-22A Raptor. The symbol of modern Air Power for the United States and the US Air Force. The most technological fighter currently in service, a cutting edge of aviation innovation and design.  The Raptor, which still has some features on the plane that are deemed classified by the US Government, is a favorite at Airshow all over ther United States.  Performing manuvers and displays unlike any other aircraft, the Raptor stops everyone in their tracks and makes them look skyward as they see this amazing aircraft ‘flip’ a 360 almost in place. Thanks tot he directional thrust vectoring on the Raptor, it can perform banks and rolls that other aircraft could only dream about.   The Raptor is designed with the latest stealth technology able to fool radars with it’s very sleek and radar absorbent shape.  Home to a squadron of F-22 Raptors and also a major training facility for Raptor pilots around the nation, Nellis Air Force Base on the outskirts of Las Vegas, Nevada (also known as ‘Fighter Town’) the Raptor is a yearly participant in the base’s open house Airshow in November.  It was on the evening of the last day of the 2010 Nellis Air Force Base Airshow (called ‘Aviation Nation’ by fans) that a special sunset photo (ABOVE) presented itself to me during the last few minutes of light in a shot that is probably my most favorite Raptor shot yet and also one of those ‘luck’ shots that came and went in an instant.

Whenever the Raptor rolls out to the end of the runway, you can look down the Airshow fence line and see every photographer’s camera raise up into position ready to catch it.  I can’t think of too many people who don’t get excited when the Raptor demo is about to take to the skies.  Naturally, the Raptor is one of the heaviest photographed aircraft (I’d say) at Airshows in America when it appears. Almost all the smoke had vanished from behind the RaptorBecause of the cost of the aircraft and the top secret nature of some parts still, the Raptor is kept under high guard at airshows, and often times the closest you can get IF there is even a Raptor on static (meaning non-flying) display is about 20 feet with a rope line and armed guards between you and the Raptor.  The can be an advantage for shooting the Raptor on the ground with limited people in your shot, but also means having to work around rope lines or fences.  For the Nellis show in November, there was a Raptor on static display well down the ramp, but it was the two demo aircraft Raptors that were parked in the Hot Ramp area (where all the performing aircraft are parked) that had the Las Vegas skyline behind them that got the most attention from photographers throughout the day.  Because of FAA rules, the public is kept a distance away from any performing aircraft, so there was a metal fence, about waist high, blocking the crowd from getting anywhere near the Hot Ramp. But that also meant you could get some really spectacular shots of the Raptor with Vegas in the distance (see photo to the left).  Another bonus is all the aircraft normally stationed at Nellis off in the distance as well lined up in rows.  In the morning I shot a lot of photos of the two Raptors and the other performing aircraft in this area as best as I could with a telephoto lens, which really provided some great angles and close ups (from a distance) of the aircraft.

In previous years at Nellis, I knew that this Hot Ramp area would be a prime location at the very end of the show after most of the crowds had left and gone home to catch the beautiful sunset ‘liquid light’ as it painted the reflective skins of the aircraft parked there because the sun would set just behind and to the right of the hot ramp (see photo to right).  An F-86F Sabre and A-10A Thunderbolt II at the 2009 Nellis AFB AirshowThis made for some truly spectacular sunset shots, and of the best ways for me to close out that long day of the show.  The first day of the 2010 Nellis AFB show ended with a wonderful sunset, but the cloud cover blocked a lot of that liquid light I was looking for.  Having to abandon getting my wonderful sunset shots that evening, I hoped that the next day would be better and give me more of the previous year’s light.  Las Vegas during November can be a bit unpredictable, some years have even brought heavy rains right after the show has ended (literally).  While it’s hit or miss, the times that you do get those spectacular Vegas sunsets are worth the wait, even if it means hanging out at the base for a few hours after the show has ended and just before the Base security kindly tells you it’s time to leave. So once the show ended and the last USAF Thunderbird F-16 landed at the finish of the show on the second day, I started to watch the sky as it went from blue to shades of yellow.

Now, how the showcase photo up top came to happen… On the last day of an airshow often times performers will want to head home, especially since all civilian performers are not based at military base airshows.  They’ll fly out as soon as the show ends and the runways are cleared for departures.  For a photographer, this is a great chance to hang around and photograph many of the aircraft that didn’t fly or were on static display as they head home. This also means catching them during the sunset light giving them that golden light color that most photographers crave.  Unfortunately, though, for those who stayed after at the Nellis show on the second day, most of the aircraft were staying overnight and going home the next morning or had already left for home after their demos. Only a handful of aerobatic performers decided to leave right at the end of the show.  As soon as the show ended, I hung around the Hot Ramp area taking photos of the static aircraft that were in the area waiting for the sun to lower just a little bit more to cause that vivid orange light to paint on the various Raptors, Hornets, Phantoms, and other aircraft parked out there on the ramp.  A few performers were lined up to take off, mostly biplane aerobatics, just off to the side of the Hot Ramp on the taxi way.  Finally, the sun had fallen enough for me to start to get the glow I wanted, and it was a spectacular sunset for it! Waiting had paid off once again, but I was about to have a chance to photography the Raptor in a way that’s unique and rare which would make the wait no question of being worth it.

As I was shooting the aircraft on the ramp with the liquid light on them, one of the last aerobatic performers to leave decided to give a nice little goodbye present to everyone still in the area and as he taxied into position for take off next to the Hot Ramp, he turned on his airshow smoke system sending the otherwise aviation photographer’s nightmere smoke into the beautiful sunset sky.  I realized this right away, and noticed that the slight breeze was pushing the smoke towards the hot ramp, right behind the aircraft.  At first I was annoyed realizing that in a matter of seconds my previous few minutes I had while the sunset was perfect and the light golden would be hazed by this ugly smoke and the shots ruined.  Not to mention by the time the smoke would clear, the sun would have gone behind the distant mountains, and the golden light gone.  Snapping the most crucial shots I wanted as fast as I could as the smoke traveled closer to the first Raptor, I began to get upset that my waiting had been ruined. The F-22A Raptor at Sunset - Nellis AFB Airshow 2010 I saw the smoke reach the first Raptor parked closest to the runway, and I knew that my time was up.  Putting down my camera and watching the smoke race across the hot ramp like a hazy filter ruining a shot, I watched as the shots became muddy and gross. Figuring that at least I’d gotten some shots, I turned by attention around towards the airshow flightline and snapped some shots of a passing Coast Guard helicopter that was leaving.  I then took one last look back towards the Hot Ramp to take one final good look at all the aircraft before heading back towards the entrance to the show to take the bus back to the parking lot, I noticed that the Base guards had already positioned themselves in front of that fence that holds back people from the Hot Ramp in preparation for the big ‘push’ where they sweep the entire flight line and usher out all the show guests.  But just then, my eyes met that first Raptor, which was now fully engulfed in the smoke from that now departed aerobatic plane, and the densest part of the smoke passed right through it.  Instantly I ran over to that fence between two of the guards and started to shoot.  I was only able to get three shots off of the Raptor with the smoke acting like a beautiful fog with the shape of the Raptor painted with orange light sitting there seeming to be all alone.  Of those three shots, only one came out spectacular, with the smoke and light working together to give a beautiful dramatic shot of the famed Raptor fighter. One of the other shots, where that dense part of the smoke had already passed the Raptor is to the left.

And just as fast as the shot appeared, it vanished. The smoke was there, but now it returned to looking like just a residual haze and smog more than a dramatic opening shot to the next Top Gun (Air Force version) movie.  I was beyond happy and excited to see I’d gotten the one photo I saw with my eyes, and it’s for sure one of my favorite all time Raptor shots, one I plan to make a large print of and hang on the wall for the luck shot I almost missed.

The F-22A Raptor at Sunset - Nellis AFB Airshow 2010

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