Plane Spotting @SMF – SouthWest N7738A – Canon 5DsR + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM + EF 2x Extender III
When I was a little boy, we lived practically across the street from a military base and international airport. My big brother Christopher and I would race up the hill as soon as we heard the faintest sound of an airplane. We would sometimes grab our Dad’s binoculars to get a closer look at the action. As I grew up I eventually forgot about aircraft spotting. My brother never stopped however. He routinely spends an afternoon at the end of any runway that has a view and access.
He recently visited and since he’s caught the photography bug from me he suggested we go aircraft spotting so I can give him some tips on how to photograph airplanes. Little did I know I would catch the plane spotting bug all over again. This was only a few days ago and now today I spent my sunset at Sacramento International Airport (SMF) on the lookout for special airplanes – the ones with unique livery, colors and paint jobs. Both occasions have been great opportunities for me to test my gear and add yet another dimension to my photography experience.
The shot at the top is a panorama taken with the Canon 5DsR and EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM with EF 2x Extender III. That a shot this sharp and detailed could be taken handheld at 600mm is a testament to the effectiveness of the camera system. The original image is about 20x more detailed. You can read the fine print on the rear door. This is one of those ideal conditions where the Extender III works at it’s best. It did however soften the incredible sharpness of the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens ever so slightly.
Yes, I am well aware that the 5DsR is not really designed for this kind of action. However these are the kind of challenges I like to give myself. Yes it is possible to photograph action with the 5DsR – by carefully framing and tracking your subject, paying very keen attention and holding a steady hand. The 5DsR’s fast and effective AF system and accurate metering system more than compensate for it’s slower shutter speed. You just can’t “spray and pray” that you got your shot. You have to focus a little more. I also used the Canon 7D Mark II today. It was just too easy as this is exactly the kind of photography it was designed for.
I also rented the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens from Photo Source for the second day. I noticed that the fixed focal length of the 300mm was not well suited for this type of photography. My 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II was just not long enough for half the scenarios. I have to say the 100-400mm was nothing short of perfect. I simply forgot, stopped thinking about my lens configuration and focused more on my shots. I am tempted to add this lens to my kit.
This was fun and relaxing!
Airbus A380 at Paris, Charles de Gaulle Airport
I was going through my archives and found a series of panoramic shots I took while running to catch my flight back to Lost Angeles (LAX) from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG). I was flying back from a whirlwind two weeks on my sister Andy Allo‘s Euro Tour. I noticed this one unobstructed view of the incredible feat of engineering that is the Airbus A380 SuperJumbo. I took a few minutes to snag some panoramic shots if this bird. I was in motion when I took this shot. Unfortunately, I did not have time to make sure I got the shot right and wait for moving subjects to come to rest or exit my frame. Upon returning, I dismissed the shots and all but discarded them because I wasn’t happy with the shots.
Fortunately I have a policy of never deleting shots like these. What I’d like to do now is go back, take a second look and consider making them available to and sharing with everyone. This Panorama, while far from perfect, would make a great desktop wallpaper, especially if you have multiple displays on your computer. Please feel free to request specific screen sizes. I will see what I can do for you.
We flew to and from Paris on one of these SuperJumbos. It is a humbling experience indeed, when you take stock of all it entails to get roughly 1.2 million pounds into the air and around the world. You can read more about my photographic exploits in Paris here.
San Francisco from 1500 feet over the SF Bay
About a month and a half ago, I had the opportunity to go flying with my good friend Eric. We had been talking about getting out and flying the friendly skies for a while and everything seemed to be aligned for that to happen. We booked a fairly new 2008 Cessna 172 single engined aircraft. I had just taken delivery of the Canon 7D Mark II and thought it would be the perfect camera to explore aerial photography. This was meant to be as much an exercise in private aviation as a study in aerial photography and the challenges it poses. I hoped to learn enough about it to develop my techniques and understand what questions to ask as well as the requisites to successful photography of ground subjects.
The short version is this: Arial photography is a completely different beast that simply cannot be tamed. Below are what I feel are the requisites. Understanding these does not guarantee a successful capture of your subject but it will increase the odds of success.
Before your excursion, you need to understand the weather around your subject. In this case there was a cloud blanket over the pacific, to the right, up to the SF Bay and coast line. This meant we couldn’t fly VFR along the coast and exercise the creative flexibility needed to get a good capture of the city. Given where the sun was in the sky, this was the ideal vantage point to capture the city.
- Flight Plan
Consider the flight plan, what angles and perspectives on your subject it will offer. Is there restricted airspace around your subject that prevents certain key routes? We had to fly close to restricted airspace which added yet more complexity to the exercise. Also consider the time of day and where the sun will be relative to your subject and flight path. As you can see, from the photos, the best position for that time would have been flying along the coast and not circling the bay. However a few hours later, the best route would have been the circling the bay waters again at magic hour as the city starts to light up. The sun was still too high up and the vast bodies of water caused too much glare. Even with a circular polarizer.
- Aircraft windows
Most light/private aircraft windows are not made of glass but of some kind of polycarbonate plastic. This is especially aggravating as it further cuts out saturation, reduces contrast and diffuses light. As a result it will soften (to put it mildly) and blur your shots. It also vibrates a lot and causes distortions in the image. I used the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM and was unable to get a sharp shot of the city. The more the ambient light, the more pronounced the problem. Magic hour may yield slightly better results. I have been able to photograph the city at a similar angle and distance from twin peaks and been able to resolve people walking down the sidewalk with the same lens on the 7D. Opening the window was not an option this time and on this aircraft unfortunately.
- No composite shots
Any type of composite shots are very pretty much impossible. Be it HDR or panoramas, you will have a very hard time overcoming extreme parallax. The aircraft is moving much faster than it feels this combined with the extreme perspective means you will not be able to stitch any two shots together. As for HDR you will need a very fast shutter speed. There was no point using the 5D Mark III for aerial stills (I used it mainly for ultra wide angle video) as it is just too slow. The 7D Mark II’s 10fps enabled only a few somewhat successful HDR composite shots but only after cranking up my ISO in broad daylight to keep my shutter speed in the thousandths or a second. Still the results were painful due to the plexiglass windows. I spent a good deal of air time attempting composite shots that went nowhere.
Overall this excursion was a success. I learned a great deal. I’m planning another aerial photography excursion sometime this year. I’m also considering a helicopter instead of an airplane and will also consult with private aviation authorities on what other options are available to me. It was a fun exercise flying the friendly skies, checking in with ATC (Air Traffic Control) and seeing who’s up there doing what.
We took off from Sacramento Executive airport, flew over Travis AFB and onto the SF Bay via Sausalito. ATC folks were a very nice and friendly bunch and took interest in our photography outing. It is humbling to know that they are there 24/7, all over the country, keeping the skies safe. Cheers to them!
Below are some highlights. The shots are straight out of the 7D Mark II and have not been processed.
Sacramento Executive Airport
Tripple Niner Hotel Echo
Taking off from Sacramento Executive Airport
SF Bay approach
Golden Gate Bridge
San Quentin correctional facility
Eric doing what he does best
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
Also known as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, this is a must visit destination if you are ever in the Washington DC area. It was really nice to see the space shuttle in person. I had seen the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in person once before at the San Diego Aerospace Museum but not this up close. It really gave me a sense of the scale and marvel of engineering. After seeing the Blackbird and the Space Shuttle Discovery I was even more impressed by the sheer size and engineering feat that the Concorde was, especially considering the era in which it was built and the fact that it was entered into commercial service. These three feature air/space craft cast by far the longest shadows at the museum. They are a true testament to the sheer determination, passion, brains, brawn and guts of engineers of old with little more than slide rules and a clear uncluttered vision.
There is a also a great observation tower with 360 degree view with great plane spotting opportunities as various aircraft approach both Dulles airport runways on both sides. I did not get any good shots while up in the tower, however I will definitely go for a plane spotting outing here, next time i visit DC. All shots were taken handheld with the Canon 5D Mark-III + EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens using in camera HDR processing, no post processing other than watermark and resizing using GIMP Batch Image Processing.
Below are the highlights from my tour of the Museum and a large panorama of the Concorde.