Category: Aviation

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.

You can’t win ’em all

Friday 13th should never be considered as a day for photography, but it was a day off and a chance to get out somewhere.  Plans were loosely made, and fell apart straight away when the duvet proved heavier than planned. Scratch a trip to Ironbridge Gorge then, and justify that by saying the weather probably wouldn’t be quite right anyway – too much cloud cover.  What next? Hmmm. Haven’t shot any aircraft for a while, and have been meaning to head to Birmingham Airport and try and get some “interesting” shots from the Elmdon side of the runway, where a chance exists to shoot the aircraft landing or departing with some background.

This was a chance to try out some new tricks. I have had an Eye-Fi card for some time, and have recently started testing it in anger – I’ll be blogging the results of my experiments with that soon. Using that I planned to try and edit some of the pics “real-time” on the iPhone and post them online. Also sitting in the drawer for some time has been my 1.7x teleconverter, so I chucked that in the bag too to try and get some close-up shots.

GZBAF A321 Monarch at Birmingham

Heat haze blights this shot of a Monarch A321 about to touch down on 33 at Birmingham.

The site I’d scouted out on Google Earth was a multi-storey car park near the old tower, which while it was easy to get too and had quite good views over the airfield was behind two hangars and needed to be two stories higher to give me an unrestricted view of the runway. Is there a better spot on that side of the airfield? I don’t know, I couldn’t find one and it’s a shame because the sun was behind me and it had some serious potential. If anyone knows of anywhere better – away from lightposts, antennae and building work please comment on here…it would have been perfect for Runway 33 touchdowns were it not for those pesky hangars!

Despite the visibility restrictions there was still plenty of opportunity to catch aircraft in the last seconds of the flight – you just had to time it right to avoid the clutter. The sunlight being behind didn’t turn out to be a benefit though as the sky had gone all milky and meh, while the temperatures continued to rise to the mid 20s. That high temperature brought with it the one thing it is impossible to edit out – heat haze. I suspect that the haze was rising off the buildings around and beneath my vantage point but an image I know was in focus and should on a normal day have been sharp turned out like the shot above of the Monarch A321. The heat haze is visible over much of the photo, and while you expect to see it form the engines the fuselage should be sharp and smooth – as should be the power lines above the aircraft. Rats.

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An unusual visitor to Birmingham and one I got a good shot of luckily!

There is one other factor which may have caused the image to be unsharp and that is the teleconverter. I’ve owned this for a year and very rarely used it, so haven’t got much to compare it with. It takes my 70-200mm up to a 340mm maximum zoom, and reduces the aperture to f/4.8 from f/2.8. Reviews say a teleconverter can cause loss of sharpness but looking back through some old images I took at 340mm I can’t see this much difference. I don’t think I will be blaming the teleconverter, but my choice of day to travel. Early morning or late evening would have yielded better results I’m sure.

It wasn’t all a failure though, I got a few good shots such as the French Air Force A340, and a small detour to East Midlands on the way home yielded some more opportunities for the future. Click on either picture to view the gallery of rogues from my day. Many of the shots from both Birmingham and East Mids were more interesting that my Myrtle Avenue shots at Heathrow which generally are nice aircraft in the sky but with no background interest like the terminals or the runway. I like to try and be creative with my aviation shots, capturing the touchdown maybe or a close-up shot – but hitherto I’ve been mostly unsuccessful. It’s all about the location and I still haven’t quite found the right spot at airports with big interesting heavy metal. I’ll keep looking.