Sunday, 30 August 2015

Anatomy of an Air Display

Pitts Special Biplane

It’s a hot August afternoon and the Broadstairs Water Gala is in full swing. The photographer watches from the promenade overlooking the bay, waiting for the air display to begin. Below him a Punch and Judy stall provides entertainment on the beach; an audience of kids laughing at the antics of model husband and doting father, Mr Punch. Out on the sea a flyboarder performs tricks in front of the jetty, rising up on a column of water as if he were a human missile launched from a submarine. A light breeze brings various smells wafting by: chips and suntan lotion and cigarette smoke.

At approximately 14:45 a Pitts Special aerobatic biplane appears in the sky above Broadstairs, its brilliant red and white livery mirroring the red and white stripes of the Punch and Judy stall on the sand below. The woman in the cockpit, Lauren Richardson, is a skilled pilot, tumbling and looping and rolling her aircraft to great effect. At the end of her display she performs one final pass of the bay, waving to the crowd. Some of the spectators wave back; some don’t even bother to look up from their smartphones. It’s as if, in their minds, an event isn’t real until it’s been uploaded to the Internet, even when it’s taking place directly above their heads. In two weeks they’ll be watching a wholly different event unfold on their screens – the senseless murder of two young journalists captured from both the viewpoint of a live TV broadcast and from the viewpoint of the gunman who shot them – and if they don’t see it online they’ll see it splashed across the front pages of the newspapers the following morning. But that particular horror will have to wait its turn; another tragedy beckons first.

Only five minutes pass before the next display begins: two RV8 planes trailing plumes of white smoke. After performing a sequence of close-formation loops and rolls, the two aircraft break to opposite sides of the bay and then fly straight at each other, appearing to avoid collision by a hair's-breadth. It’s a tried and tested manoeuvre, guaranteed to draw a collective “Oooh!” from the crowd. It’s also perhaps the one manoeuvre where the implicit threatens to become explicit, highlighting the unspoken subtext that underlies every high-speed form of entertainment, from air-shows to Formula 1. No one wants anything to go wrong – of course they don’t – but the potential for disaster is ever-present, adding a tangible air of frisson to the occasion.

RV8 Display

The photographer tenses, tracking one of the planes as it flies right to left. In the back of his mind he wonders what he’d do if something did go wrong and one or both of the planes ended up in the sea – or worse. Would he keep shooting? What if he captured something truly harrowing? Would he sell the photos to the highest bidder? Would he sell them to the Daily Mail? Would he sell them to the Sun? He likes to think he wouldn’t, but of course, until we’re in that situation none of us know for sure. Not really.

The RV8 planes perform a variation on the loop-the-loop manoeuvre, using their smoke trails to draw a huge heart in the sky. Then they fly across the bay, left to right, one after the other, and the display is over. The wind is noticeably stronger now; the third scheduled display will not go ahead. The smoke trails disperse quickly and so do the spectators, kids nagging their parents for ice-cream. Already long queues are forming outside the two main parlours, Morelli’s and Chiappini’s. The tannoy crackles but – not for the first time that afternoon – the speaker’s words are inaudible to a large section of the crowd.

The photographer retreats to the shade of Ballard’s Lounge and orders a cold San Miguel. He sits by the window and reviews his photos. None of them are remarkable as aircraft photography goes, but there are enough keepers to meet his own modest expectations. He finds one from the end of the display, almost the last photo he took: it’s a close-up of one of the RV8 planes, smartly painted in shades of silver, blue and black, designation G-HILZ.


He enlarges the photo on the LCD, zooming in on the cockpit. The pilot’s left hand is raised to acknowledge the crowd, but frustratingly – from an aesthetic point of view – his face is not visible. Perhaps he’s concentrating on the smoke trail left by his colleague moments earlier. Perhaps he’s already thinking ahead to the display he’ll be attending at the weekend.

The pilot’s name is Andy Hill. In three days’ time he will take to the skies above Shoreham in a very different kind of plane – a Hawker Hunter jet. I don’t need to describe what happened next; we’ve all seen the pictures and the footage, and sometimes, when the images linger in our mind like a bright light that takes forever to fade, we might find ourselves thinking about the dividing line between life and death, and wondering if we’ve seen too much.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Fast Bikes and Red Kites

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

A noisy race circuit isn't the first place you'd expect to find interesting wildlife, but a trip to Lydden Hill last Saturday turned up an surprise bonus in the unmistakeable shape of a Red Kite. It spent a good half-hour hunting along a tree-line just to the east of the circuit, during which time I was able to get close enough for the kind of view you'd normally have to travel at least as far as Oxfordshire to see.

Red Kite with prey, Lydden Hill, July 2015.

The trees prevented me from spotting whether the Kite was scavenging or targeting live prey, but it reappeared with at least two successful catches, one of which it ate on the wing, Hobby-style:

In-flight meal, Lydden Hill, July 2015.

And as if that wasn't enough a Buzzard also showed up, giving me hope that I'd get a photo or two of both birds locked in combat, but a pair of angry crows intervened to escort the buzzard "off the premises". Later, with the bigger birds-of-prey out of the way, two Kestrels came to hunt in the same area. Oh, and in case you're wondering, I did remember to photograph some bikes while I was there.

  Lydden Track Day

Monday, 2 March 2015

40D to 7D

Yes I'm aware that I'm half a decade behind the curve, but the trusty Canon 40D had served me so well over the years that I hadn't felt the need to upgrade. (Before that, I'd used a 350D / Rebel XT.) However, in recent months I'd noticed that my photos were starting to look a bit "samey" and I wondered if I was reaching the limits of what I could do with the 40D.

Green Woodpecker in Flight
Canon 7D & Tele Vue-60; 1/1600 sec, ISO 800

Enter the 7D Mk I. Enough's been written about this camera online and in print already, so I'll let the pictures do most of the talking and add a few observations along the way.

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)
Canon 7D & Tele Vue-60; 1/1250 sec, ISO 640

10 to 18 Megapixels: I was worried that all those extra pixels might magnify the shortcomings of my style of shooting (mostly hand-held, with a manual-focus telescope) rather than improve the quality of my photos, but it turns out the 7D is an excellent match for the Tele Vue-60 (my wildlife lens of choice). I now have much more leeway to crop and re-frame the subject while still being able to produce a decent-sized print if necessary.

Curlew (with crab)
Canon 7D & Tele Vue-60; 1/2000 sec, ISO 800

Auto ISO: Although this was a feature on the 40D, it never really lived up to its potential. On the 7D it does. Whereas before I used to shoot in Aperture-Priority AE (Av) and let the camera choose the exposure time, I can now shoot in Shutter-Priority AE (Tv), choose a shutter speed appropriate for the subject and the focal length of the TV60 (typically anywhere from 1/1000 sec to 1/2500 sec depending on how much coffee I've drunk that morning), set the Exposure Compensation for the lighting conditions, and let the camera choose the correct ISO.

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
Canon 7D & Tele Vue-60; 1/1600 sec, ISO 2000

Noise: From what I've seen on Internet forums, this seems to be the biggest bone of contention about the 7D, with some users getting very clean images all the way up to ISO 3200, and others claiming it's unusable above ISO 800! (It's worth noting here that because of the way a Bayer filter works, the camera captures twice as much information in the green channel as it does in the other two channels, which may explain why photos of birds against blurred green backgrounds seem to show less noise.) Personally, I don't mind a bit of noise as long as it isn't too obtrusive, and I actually prefer a bit of grain over the plasticky effect you see in some over-processed photos. With regards to the 7D, I find that the RAW conversion needs a little more fine-tuning in Digital Photo Professional than I'm used to, but with care I can get an image at ISO 3200 which is no noisier than an image taken at ISO 1600 with the 40D. This, when you factor in the higher resolution of the 7D, is a considerable improvement. Obviously, I'm still getting used to the camera as well adapting my methods of post-processing, but my impressions so far are overwhelmingly positive. Also, it seems to me that the 7D sometimes errs slightly on the side of over-exposure, which ironically can make for a cleaner final photo.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)
Canon 7D & Tele Vue-60; 1/1600 sec, ISO 3200

Are my photos significantly better? The Flickr community seems to think so. I know that comments and faves aren't always a reliable measure of quality, but my views have shot up since I started posting photos taken with the 7D, with at least four images hitting the giddy heights of Explore. Or is all that traffic a side-effect of people searching for photos taken with the 7D Mark II?

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)
Canon 7D & Tele Vue-60; 1/1250 sec, ISO 1250

Decide for yourself: see more of my photos taken with the Canon 7D.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Le Parc du Marquenterre

Parc du Marquenterre

A long overdue visit to the Parc du Marquenterre nature reserve in the Baie de Somme last month was always going to be at the mercy of the weather gods, but - despite atrocious conditions on the English side of the Channel - we arrived to find the reserve basking in glorious (and warm) sunshine. The whole site was alive with dragonflies and damselflies, including this striking Willow Emerald, a first for me:

Willow Emerald Damselfly

Other firsts included Spoonbills, a White Stork, a Crane (not "wild" in the strictest sense of the word, but still very nice to see), a Cattle Egret, and several Great White Egrets, one of which flew right past the hide:

Great White Egret (Ardea alba)

The reserve is very well maintained and the viewing hides are large and numerous (there are thirteen of them). However, instead of using hinged windows (common to reserves like Stodmarsh) they employ a series of holes, only a few of which are large enough to point a camera lens through. It's also worth nothing that if you're of an average height or taller, these particular holes will require you to bend your knees in such a way that maintaining the same position soon becomes uncomfortable. Call me cynical, but I suspect this is a deliberate design feature so as to discourage individuals from hogging the best spots.

That minor quibble aside, if you've never been to this beautiful reserve it's well worth a visit ... or two ... or three...

See also:
More of my pictures from the Parc du Marquenterre
Parc du Marquenterre website

Monday, 1 September 2014

Broadstairs Water Gala 2014

Once again Broadstairs was blessed with sunshine and blue skies for the 2014 Water Gala, although the crowds seemed slightly down on the previous year. The good visibility and light breeze meant that all three planned air displays could go ahead, beginning with the Extra 300, which looked like it was pulling quite a few g's as it looped and soared:

This was followed by the Trig Aerobatic display team with their precision formation flying:

And finally, what I - and just about every other photographer there - had really come to see, the Grace Spitfire:

Pictures only tell half the story. It was a real privilege to hear that Merlin engine roaring over Viking Bay.

The Gala was rounded off by a fireworks display in the evening. It seems mandatory these days for every display to be accompanied by a hovering drone shooting footage from a bird's-eye perspective (not that any bird would fly near a firework). Was it wrong of me to feel disappointed that the drone survived the display without getting hit? The organisers must have been in a hurry to get home, as the last thirty or so fireworks all seemed to go off at once, much to the delight of the watching crowds. Intentional or not, it provided a suitably window-rattling finale to what had been a highly entertaining day.

See also:
More of my photos of the 2014 Water Gala
Broadstairs Water Gala (official page)
Trig Aerobatic Team
The Grace Spitfire ML407

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Birds of East Kent: Ring-necked Parakeet

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

This series isn't intended to cover every species of bird that lives in or visits East Kent - I haven't seen them all for one thing (let alone photographed them) - but there's one particular bird that can't be ignored ... mainly because it's so damn noisy.

It seems few birds divide opinion more in this country than the Ring-necked Parakeet. And, as with any divisive species, several urban myths have sprung up around them - in particular the subject of where they came from. Two stories crop up with predictable regularity; one being a mass escape from the set of the 1951 film The African Queen; the other being a deliberate attempt to liven up the British skyline by none other than Jimi Hendrix (though don't you think the Scarlet Macaw would have been more Jimi's style?). The somewhat more prosaic truth is that parakeets have been escaping into the wild since Victorian times, and any releases by Hendrix (or indeed Bogart and Hepburn) would have served only to enrich an already growing population.

Thanet holds possibly the largest concentration of parakeets outside London. They've colonised all the major parks, and the trees at Ramsgate train station form a prominent roost site. I've seen them as far west as Grove Ferry, but - as far as I'm aware - they haven't made any significant incursions into the woodlands surrounding Canterbury. (Correct me in the Comments if you know better.)

Photography-wise, the biggest challenge may be finding a way to get the whole bird in your camera's viewfinder without cropping the end off its extremely long tail. King George VI Park is a reliable place to get close to them (they're largely indifferent to passers-by so you can generally walk right up to them) or, if you've got bird feeders or apple trees in your garden, you can wait for them to find you.

For me at least, the novelty of seeing a bright green parrot balancing on a feeder that plainly wasn't designed for it (while another one hangs upside down from a washing line) has yet to wear off. I admit it: I'm a fan of the parakeets, but then again I don't own an orchard. They're intelligent and resourceful birds with lots of character, and if you close your eyes when you hear them you can at least imagine you're in a more exotic part of the world than Planet Thanet.

So what does the future hold for the parakeets? Will they spread across the country like a plague of green locusts, eating everything in their path? Will they gather on the rooftops like a green-tinted Hitchcockian nightmare, squawking so loudly that everyone goes deaf or mad (or both)? In centuries to come will alien explorers wander through the ruined cities to find the last humans huddling in mute subservience to their parakeet overlords? With their fast flight and powerful beaks, are there even any natural predators capable of taking them on? After witnessing a beleaguered kestrel being seen off by a green mob I had my doubts, but recently I saw four panic-stricken parakeets being pursued across the skies of Broadstairs by a Peregrine Falcon (putting the old advice to "eat more greens" in an entirely new light). So perhaps the proliferation of the parakeet is good news for at least one of our native species.

See also:
More of my parakeet photos on Flickr
Ring-necked Parakeet (RSPB)
Ring-necked Parakeet (Birdforum)
Ring-necked Parakeet (Birdguides)

Ring-necked Parakeet (Non Native Species Secretariat)

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Birds of East Kent: Rock Pipit

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)
Dumpton Gap, November 2010

Many, many centuries ago, before the invention of paper and scissors, our ancestors used to settle disputes by playing a game of Rock Pipit, Tree Pipit, Meadow Pipit. The rules have long been lost in the mists of time (as there was nothing to write them down on), but they were believed to go something like this:

  • Rock Pipit chops down tree containing Tree Pipit
  • Tree Pipit craps on Meadow Pipit from overhanging branch
  • Meadow Pipit lures Rock Pipit into the long grass and kills it in a surprise attack

This already over-elaborate game was further complicated when some players tried to gain an unfair advantage by adding Water Pipits and Tawny Pipits to the line-up. In this expanded version, the Water Pipit drowns both the Rock Pipit and the Meadow Pipit, and as for a Tawny Pipit ... well no one could agree what the hell a Tawny Pipit does (although, at time of writing, it is the only member of the Pipit family to have a feature film named after it). At this point the game was usually abandoned and the dispute settled by actual fighting.

Of course, these days few people are aware of this unusual chapter in the Rock Pipit's history, and the bird itself is often overlooked as a small brown thing that frequents rocky coastlines. However, what it lacks in appearance it makes up for in character, and it can sometimes be surprisingly approachable, particularly along the undercliff promenade between Viking Bay and Dumpton Gap. This stretch is popular with dogwalkers, and so the birds are used to people walking by.

In some places (Foreness springs to mind) Rock Pipits can be found in close proximity to Meadow Pipits, though the latter tend to keep to the top of the cliff and the former at the bottom. Visually, Rock Pipits are distinguished from Meadow Pipits by their darker legs, slightly stockier build, and generally more smudged streaking in the breast. You may also notice a slight olive tint to the feathers.

If you're really observant (and you've got nothing better to do) you may be able to spot some foreign interlopers in the shape of the Scandinavian Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus littoralis), a subspecies of the regular Rock Pipit. The differences are subtle, particularly outside of the breeding season, but are generally told by a blue-grey tint to the back and a more prominent supercilium (eye-stripe). The photo at the top of this post may indeed be an example of the Scandinavian variety.

A Bug's Death
Broadstairs, September 2013

See also:
More of my Rock Pipit photos on Flickr
Rock Pipit (RSPB)
Rock Pipit (Birdforum)
Rock Pipit (Birdguides)