Heathrow: The Easterly Dilemma

Many of you will have noticed I’m partial to a spot of heavy metal. Not often, but just occasionally I do enjoy a trip down to Heathrow or somewhere to watch large jets rumble off. The tricky thing is the best place or way to photograph such jets.

Websites such as airliners.net are awash with great pictures from Heathrow and all the other airports in the UK and indeed the world, and while I’ve managed to get over a hundred of my shots from the years into the database (no mean feat believe me, especially when you see the rejection reasons and list of editing requirements to get accepted) I’ve taken very few shots which have a wow factor for me. Key for me is some other interest in the image, so not just an aeroplane in the sky really.

The top spot at Heathrow for photographing the jets is the famous Myrtle Avenue. A good spot as it’s outside the perimeter fence so you are untroubled by security, it’s north-facing so the sun is behind you for a fair chunk of the day, and has a large park area where you can sit yourself down happily for a few hours and watch the heavy jets flare over the A30 on the final seconds of their journey. BUT it’s a place to get shots of jets in the sky. You can get an aircraft above the semi-detached houses in Myrtle Avenue, but it’s not the most interesting place photographically – no touchdown shots, no hangars or terminal buildings. So it becomes old very quickly.

The other thing to consider is that Myrtle Avenue is only good when landing on 27L, departures off the other end are way too high by the time they reach Myrtle. I’ve never found a good spot for 27R, although there are some possibilities through the fence on the north side of the airport – these though would be time restricted because of the sun in the south I suspect.

Which leaves us with where to shoot the easterlies. Each time the wind is from the east I’ve tended to say “meh” and stay away, because there seems to be a dearth of good places to shoot from. There is a spot near Terminal 5 which may be an option for landing shots on 09L, but parking is limited. There is seemingly nowhere on the southside of the airfield to catch the departures rotating from 09R. Which leaves me with two unexplored points: The Thistle Hotel, and Feltham Park. These were the targets last week on a quick trip south with a friend who normally climbs Welsh mountains to shoot fast jets, his site is Four Elements Photography. Both spots we tried have potential…

Heathrow 09L arrival from the Thistle HotelLufthansa A320S landing on Heathrow 09L from the Thistle Hotel></a><a href=American 777-300 departing Heathrow 09RSpeedbird Dreamliner on the Heathrow 09R departure

The top images are from the viewing balcony on the first floor of the Heathrow Thistle Hotel, a great view of the final seconds of flight with the imposing Terminal 5 as a backdrop. You are looking due south here and just about every shot was backlit by the sun – we arrived at 11am and it was too late by then. Great views though, slightly obscured by lampposts and some trees but not too hard to avoid. I used the 70-200 lens here, but was never using the full telephoto length of the lens, normally no more than 135mm. This spot would be great on a misty murky damp morning to get the aircraft dropping through the cloud with big vortices, not quite so good for sunny shots though. You also need to ask nicely at the reception desk of the hotel, although they were superb and friendly with us and we were generally the only people up there for the whole two hours or so.

The bottom images were from Feltham Park, as the aircraft made a sharp bank shortly after departure to head either west or south-east bound on departure. Feltham Park is a few minutes drive from Heathrow and banking shots can be had from here with both wings clearly visible, and you have the sun behind you so a big plus. Zoom lens is the order of the day here – I had my 70-200 with 1.7x teleconverter and shot almost everything at 340mm, yet still needed a fair amount of cropping. Neil shot with a 400mm prime lens and got better detail in his shots for sure. Some dramatic banking shots, but not much else in the image as you can see…

So Heathrow remains somewhat of an enigma for me, I will return and try and get some touchdown or line-up shots from the 27R threshold and then see how I can make more drama from the images. It has to be possible, the opportunities are there for sure.

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