Why is Airshow London’s Photo Tour the Best Ticket in Town?

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Airshow London, one of Ontario Canada’s premier aviation events, offers some mighty fine opportunities for aviation photographers to hone their skills and network with other like-minded people. For the third year in a row, since the show returned from hiatus, the Photo Tour has evolved, both in size and opportunity. In Psych 101, I was taught that it is human nature to resist change, but these changes that have occurred at the Airshow London over the past three years, are welcome and even anticipated.

First of all, the Tour is somewhat of a misnomer. My first exposure to this event was some two decades ago, when the London International Air Show was going strong. The Photo Tour occurred on the Friday Saturday and Sunday of the show, and offered access for photographers to photograph arriving aircraft. Unless you knew someone at the airport or was a media representative of a magazine, you’d never have better access to active military aircraft than through the Photo Tour.

One would arrive around 9AM on Friday and be escorted to the edge of the main taxiway from the runway, and have photo access through mid to late afternoon. Back then, almost every static display aircraft arrived on Friday. The real Photo Tour occurred on Saturday and Sunday mornings, before the main gates opened to the general public. For an hour or so, you had the entire static display to yourself, so you could take photos without people in them. The Tour’s policy was that we could even move the ropes and stanchions a bit to take them out of our photos, as long as we returned them to their previous place when finished. We all got along in a group and in an orderly fashion, we zigzagged through the statics and the inactive hot ramp to record the eighty or more military aircraft in attendance.

Of course, we were using film back then… and there were no cell phones, plus personal computers were just becoming available. We typed and hand wrote notes, and mailed U.S. Postal checks to the Tour to reserve our places for the weekend. The tour ticket included access for the day(s) you indicated, and cost a fair amount more than general admission, but it was worth getting close to the action. We waited impatiently for our confirmations (again this was via surface mail) and tried to collect information about who was attending the show – both friends and aircraft.

Fast forward to today, and the Airshow London Photo tour. There has been a boatload of changes – all for the better. First of all, personal computers and the Internet are commonplace now… you can almost instantly reserve and pay for your Photo Tour tickets on line. The prices are higher than most of the air show general admissions, but what you get for your dollars (yes, it is in Canadian dollars) is, in my opinion, a bargain. We’re in the Information Age too, and Airshow London’s web site and Social media pages display a great amount of information… attendance of an interesting aircraft used to be a surprise decades ago, but now is firmly confirmed well before you travel to the show!

A dedicated parking area is very close to the gate one enters for the Tour… as it has been over the years. It helps when you have a large amount of equipment to carry in. Entrance to the Photo Tour/Photo Pit is as easy as a scan of your printed ticket. And, in the words of Photorecon.net‘s writer/photographer Ken Middleton, “The staff at the photo tour (and show in general) were the most friendly and helpful I have encountered at a show.” These volunteers know their way around aviation photography and the venue at London, and will go out of their way to help with a request, such as an escort to photograph a special aircraft while the sun is at a good angle. They’ll also tell you where you can and can’t go on the Saturday and Sunday mornings before the main gates open.

Access to the Photo Pit, a large, roped off area along a taxiway and unused runway, is a great vantage point to cover the active runway activity and taxiing aircraft. There are private toilets, some bleacher seats, and a good sized awning for shade/shelter. In a departure from the past, there is ice cold water and light snacks, although the “bring your own” rule still applies for larger food items until Friday night.  Then, while the Hour of Power commences (see the next paragraph for details), there are a number of local food trucks and vendors available to purchase food items. During Saturday and Sunday, a larger number of vendors supply quite a variety of food.

For photographers, having sixty or so military aircraft assembled in one place is rare. Although the variety of military aircraft in general has diminished over the years, Airshow London attracts a broad and satisfying mix of military aircraft along with some civilian and warbird examples.  The past two years, a mix of Canadian CF-18s and U.S. military fighters operated from London on Fridays to perform dissimilar combat training missions, giving photographers some great subjects to capture (now mainly with electrons, not film). Also a newer feature is the Friday evening Hour of Power… well really Hours of Power. The twilight air show gives photographers even more opportunities to capture planes in flight, and the CF-18 at the end of the night displays some awesome afterburners and a trail of sparks as it drags its’ tail hook upon landing to close the show. This evening show is included in the Photo Tour pass for Friday.

Another added value is that Photo Tour members have early access on their Tour days of Saturday and/or Sunday to the static display and the hot ramp aircraft. A full one and a half hours before the general public’s gates open, one has great access, and usually a sunrise, to get artsy or record the parked aircraft without people in the frame.

The arriving static display aircraft are staggered now, with a fair amount of larger aircraft (transports and patrol aircraft especially) and some smaller ones arriving on Thursday. Accordingly, there is an option for a five-day weekend photographer’s pass to shoot aircraft on Thursday through Monday (Monday is a strong departure day for most of the airshow aircraft). One bonus for this year’s Friday arrival day was to be able to catch up with the crew of a CH-146 Griffon helicopter that arrived in the area on Thursday for a special event. The pilot of the helicopter, Captain Paula Findlater, went to school in London and brought her aircraft into one of her past school’s sports fields for all the present-day students to see. It was a great opportunity to present ideas of both a career in military aviation, as well as to highlight women in aviation in general. Of course, the bright yellow in “Rescue” colors was satisfying to see too. 

Another appealing change from the photographic offerings of decades ago was the inclusion this past year of a Nikon sponsorship of the Photo Tour. Nikon Canada’s involvement was huge… complete with a tent inside the Photo Pit that was staffed by a technically-adept staff of four and a large assortment of loaner equipment that, with a copy of your driver’s license and a credit card, you could experiment with some high-quality lenses that you’d never be able to afford to use before. Now, I’m not the only person who used a new lens and have dedicated myself to figure out how to add a bigger long lens to my bag. I even got to talk to a Nikon roving ambassador, a professional photographer who travels the globe using the brand’s equipment and testing their utility. I got a sneak preview of the new wave of shutterless camera bodies too, handling a Z-6 camera body for a minute (and realizing that I just have to have one of these in the near future).

Want some insight from someone who test drove a high-end loaner body/lens combo?  Here’s what Mark Kolanowski says: “As mentioned, Nikon Canada was kind enough to not only sponsor the Photo Tour, but also bring some of their latest and greatest equipment for photographers use at the show.  Shutterbugs were able to check out lenses and bodies free of charge, ranging from the recently announced full-frame Mirrorless Z series bodies and lenses, to the exotic telephoto primes most often seen in the background of Olympic event coverage.  Members of the PhotoRecon team had the opportunity to test out the latest version of the Nikkor 300 and 400 f2.8s, as well as the 500 and 600 f4s and the brand new 180-400 f4 with a built in 1.4x teleconverter.  In addition to the glass, the team had the chance to have fun with the latest pro bodies as well, with a D4s and D5 spending time in the hands of PhotoRecon crewmember Mark Kolanowski.  More sane photographers were seen testing some of the affordable gear, including the D500, Nikkor 200-500, and 70-200, of which the Nikon tent had plenty of stock. 

For those not accustomed to using telephoto primes it can be an eye-opening experience, with lenses in the 8-10 pound range and over 2 feet long hanging off the front of the camera.  As a point of reference, a more “normal” 70-200 f2.8 or the ubiquitous Canon 100-400 check in at about 3 pounds and 8 inches long.  Though the back/shoulders/neck were a bit worse for the wear at the end of the day, the images captured made it worth every last second of hand-holding some of the largest DSLR lenses on the market!   

Compared to even the “pro-sumer” level long telephoto glass (150-600s, 200-500s, 100-400s and 300 f4s), the difference in lens performance is astounding.  Focus for all of the big guns was nearly instantaneous on the D5, D500, and D7100, and the focus accuracy, and sharpness of the images was incredible!  The keeper rate shot through the roof, aided in some cases by the D5’s first AF sensor and 12 FPS frame rate.  This was the first time that I had to pick my favorite crossing shot from two or three… of a single pass! 

For what it’s worth it seemed as though an effective 35mm focal length of 600mm (meaning the 600 f4 on a full frame D5, or the 400 f2.8 on a crop sensor D500) was nearly perfect for most airshow use, able to get tight framing on single ship acts while having a bit of framing room for even the 9-jet formations by the Snowbirds.  With the difficult environmental conditions that were prevalent during the flying at London, it was incredibly helpful to have an extra stop or two of light at the longer focal lengths that the exotic telephotos could provide, as well as the unmatched high ISO performance of the D5.

While it’s difficult to justify the considerable expense of Nikon’s top shelf gear, the chance to use it in the demanding airshow environment really highlighted the benefits of true pro equipment.  Many of the incredible photos captured by the team that accompany the Airshow London articles were greatly enhanced by the performance of the equipment that we were so fortunate to use, even if we had to hand it back at the end of the show.  While it’s likely that none of our readers won the recent $1.6 Billion Mega Millions jackpot, it’s safe to say that some of Nikon’s big toys should be high on the shopping list of any airshow photographer fortunate enough to be able to afford the holy grails of our hobby! “

As far as aviation photography goes, it was time to network with other photographers, and to socialize with seldom-seen friends from afar – of course in between the arriving and departing airplanes from the now-busy London International Airport.

 

I’ve learned from more than three decades of aviation photographic experience that there are three important needs one has to have before you can take stunning photos of airplanes, like the photographers have in this feature… and they are ACCESS, ACCESS and even better ACCESS. The Photo Tour gets you closer to the flying activity and unobstructed views of the static display than at most venues, and improves your ability to concentrate on your subject aircraft and performers. You don’t have to hide background distractions or foreground clutter, or zoom and crop your photos to increase their impact. The Airshow London Photo Tour definitely offers you a great ticket to success in aviation photography.

The Photo Gallery is filled with the Photorecon.net/ClassicWarbirds.net/CivilAviationWorld.com photo team’s photos… from Shawn Byers, Ken Middleton, Mark Kolanowski and Ken Kula.

Ground operations and static display photos from the Photo Pit at Airshow London 2018

In-flight photos from the Photo Pit at Airshow London 2018

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Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 32 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site, and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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