Unless you live near an airbase or in near of the events the Red Arrows regularly visit the opportunity to photograph the RAF’s display team doesn’t come around that often. With the announcement that the Red Arrows would be performing over the skies of Edinburgh as part of the Armed Forces Day celebrations this was simply a chance too good to miss. Of course, I could make the trip to the Leuchars Airshow any year and catch them less than 2 hours drive away but to get them over your home city was something quite special.
Edinburgh Council recommended viewing points of Calton Hill, Braid Hill, Corstorphine Hill or Cramond Promenade, none of which were particularly near the display or particularly great viewpoints. Calton Hill at a push would have been ok but too far from the actual action and would have meant using a monster lens all the time.
With the display centering on Leith the best options seemed to be either the roof of the Ocean Terminal car park or down on the sea front at Newhaven. Figuring that the Ocean Terminal side would be busy I went for Newhaven instead. Down here if you drive past all the flats you can get parked up close to the old lighthouse right at the sea entrance to Leith Docks, from here it was a perfect vantage point over the docks and the Firth of Forth where the bulk of the action was to take place.
Having never photographed anything like this before it was a bit of a learning curve to say the least. Obviously, the important thing here was going to be getting a fast enough shutter. To get this I put the D90 on Shutter priority mode at 1/800th and let the camera pick the aperture. I did try auto ISO as well limiting the range to a max of 800 but the camera seemed to always want to be on ISO800 when it could easily have dropped a lot lower than that. The light wasn’t helped either by the big black cloud moving over at display time although it did accent the smoke trails nicely!
Lens choice was simple; I went for the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM. Perfect lens for this sort of stuff. Mega quick focus, no extending barrel and very sharp. I had also planned to use the 2x teleconverter but on getting to the location it was simply too much zoom, especially on a crop sensor DSLR. I had intended to use spot metering but trying this on test shots of planes coming into Edinburgh Airport the sky was way overexposing so I went back to metering the scene and compensating to +1ev so as to not underexpose the sky, which in the event worked out almost spot on.
I let the D90 handle the auto focus, using 3D tracking and a wide area centre point which worked perfectly paired with the 70-200mm lens. Days of photographing fast moving rally cars with this lens proved to be valuable experience!
One the display started I tried to concentrate on the smoke trails rather than the actual aircraft, figuring the best shots would come from the wider shots with the swooping trails rather than close-up’s of the jets. I did get some closer shots, even switching to using the 2x teleconverter for some. With a 24 minute display there was plenty opportunity to test out a few different things and get some variation in shots. In the main though, the 70-200 was more than enough and coupled with the D90’s high speed shooting I rattled off in the region of 500 shots over the 24 minutes.
One thing was very evident over the course of the display, the D90’s buffer was WAY to weedy for this stuff. After about 5 shots in RAW it was starting to stutter so I had to be careful not to waste the high speed shots too early or risk missing the perfect moment.
At the end of the day, the display was awesome, the only way to describe it and I was well pleased with the shots I came back with. The only thing I missed was trying to get a shot of the close pass of 2 planes with the 2x on to get closer in. I’m planning a visit to Leuchars in September though so hopefully I’ll get another chance at that particular shot.
Best of the weekend’s shots below: