Low level photography is one of the most dynamic and interesting types of military photography. It’s as close to seeing military aircraft doing what they were built for without signing up!
It’s also a very challenging discipline, requiring good technique, a sharp eye and a lot of patience. The last of those attributes being the most important as standing around and staring into the distance is synonymous with low level photography.
There isn’t any pattern or timetable* for use of the Low Fly Areas (LFA) aside from aircraft only flying Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays). There isn’t any particular day that is likely to see more traffic than any other. In fact, you have no way of knowing if you will see anything at all! Personally, I’ve never had a ‘blank’ day but I’ve had three days were I’ve only seen one aircraft.
* If you’ve found the timetable for tactical areas such as LFA 7(T) on the MOD / RAF website you should know that this isn’t a timetable for the whole area. It’s a small tactical area within the LFA where operational flying (down to 100ft) is allowed. These areas are very rarely used (less than 14 hours in 2006).
Generally speaking aircraft fly between 9am and 6pm in an attempt to minimise the impact to the local communities but aircraft have been known to work the areas as early as 7am and as late as 11pm. I’d recommend you are in your chosen location for 9am and leave when the light is no longer any good.
There are nineteen Low Fly Areas (LFA) in the UK but LFA 7 (Wales), LFA 14 (Scotland) and LFA 17 (The Lakes) are the most active. Of those three LFA 7 is the busiest due to the close proximity of RAF Valley and it’s two training squadrons; RAF Numbers 208(R) and 19(R).
Both these squadrons operate the Hawk T1 (the Hawk T2 is currently being used by instructors on 19(R) Squadron as they work up the training programme for it).
The Hawk is the staple diet for low level photographers in LFA 7. It fills the gaps whilst you wait (and hope) for a front liner and also allows you to get some practice in. But you shouldn’t dismiss the Hawk, especially in the hands on a instructor. They can be the source of some great pictures…
The Hawk is a small and nimble aircraft, combine this with pilots who fly at low level on a regular basis and you will get some passes were they are right down at the 250ft limit. I say 250ft limit but that isn’t really correct. The limitation for low level flying is 250ft MSD – Minimum Separation Distance. This means the aircraft should be a minimum of 250ft from any other object. That object could be the ground, the valley wall or another aircraft.
Most aircraft will be between 300ft and 500ft but the LFA extends up to 2000ft so you do have aircraft operating in the area that aren’t flying down the valleys.
The exception to this are helicopters, such as the Merlin below, who operate down to 100ft to avoid them competing with the same airspace as the fast jets and to give them a more realistic training environment.
The popular locations to photograph from are covered by other sites so I wouldn’t cover those but I will cover the experience and equipment. Most of the locations require a climb, whilst we aren’t talking a sheer rock face it is a steep climb up the hillside and with your kit on your back your legs will feel it! You won’t want to do the climb twice in a day so you take everything you need for the entire day with you.
My kit bag weighs in at about 13kg. That includes my camera bodies, lenses, batteries, memory cards, lens cloth, mobile phone, radio scanner, rocket blower, tick removal tool, food and water. In the winter, I add a flask of tea and extra clothing. You may be wondering why the hell I have a tick removal tool. Ticks are a problem at most locations and they can be a carrier of Lyme Disease, for more information click here.
I usually allow 30 minutes for the climb to be on the safe side and aim to be in position for 9am. Once in position it’s back to the waiting I mentioned earlier. You won’t hear the planes coming in most cases as the valleys shield the noise but the Hawks have a light on the front that helps pick it out. Once you’ve seen a few passes you will get a good idea where to look for the planes. Most of the valleys are ‘flowed’ so the aircraft will only be coming from one direction.
Equipment and Settings
A bridge or compact camera will really struggle under these circumstances, ideally you will be using a digital SLR. Something as simple as a Canon 350D would work but the higher burst rate and more accurate auto-focus systems on the Canon xxD series camera would really help.
At most locations you will need a lens with a focal length of between 250mm and 350mm on a 1.6 crop camera, such as the xxxD and xxD series of cameras, for fast jets. For larger aircraft such as the Hercules you will be around 150mm. The Canon 70-300 or Sigma 70-300 would be a good starting point. Other popular lenses are Canon 300 f/4 L IS, Canon 400 f/5.6 L, Canon 100-400 L IS with the f/2.8 range lenses starting to become more common such as Sigma 300 f/2.8, Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 and the Canon 300 f/2.8 L IS. A 70-200mm lens could be used but you would need to crop into the image.
For settings, I usually use….
AI SERVO auto-focus
Try to pick up the plane early and follow it trying to keep the centre auto-focus point on it. Half press the shutter release to start the auto-focus (AI SERVO is designed to give speed priority to first frame in a burst rather than waiting for a focus lock so give it as long as you can to gain a good lock). Try not to shoot too early as you will be wasting frames, you may need those extra shots if there is a second following aircraft.
For fast jets I would use 1/1000s and attempt to get an aperture of one stop lower than the maximum aperture of the lens you are using e.g. for a f/5.6 lens aim for f/8 whilst trying to keep it under ISO 400. Under some conditions you will need to shoot the lens full open (f/5.6), this is one reason f/2.8 lenses are becoming more popular. To blur the background reduce the shutter speed further, around 1/500s or lower gets good blur.
For props such as the Hercules than you will want to reduce the shutter speed to 1/200 to 1/250s to get some prop blur.
For prime lenses you can’t always get the aircraft in the frame, it these conditions I opt for a cockpit shot. As you can see from the two shots of the Typhoon above, the aircraft is just about in the frame for the approach so I switched to a cockpit shot. Of course, you can always zoom with your feet!