Is what I am seeing real or is it a Mirage? Sorry, pretty crummy pun usage. When I was going to Nellis for Red Flag, one of the things I wanted to shoot was the Mirage F1s of Draken International. It is a long time since I have seen an F1 – it was back when the Spanish Air Force was still flying them and they came to RIAT. Now that Draken is using them for aggressor support services, I was keen to catch one or two of them.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long. The first time I drove up to the base, a pair of the Draken jets were recovering. I grabbed the camera as they came in straight towards me before going over my head. I had not set up the camera as I would have intended but just turned it on and pointed it at the jets. Not bad luck and some of the shots came out okay.
I did get a couple more opportunities. These were departures at the Speedway. In one morning I had a pair of them heading out without flexing. The camo pattern they have is the same but the colors vary. The black and white scheme was interesting. However, I prefer the brown scheme and the last two jets I got to shoot before I headed to the airport were F1s flexing north. Top and tail the visit with Mirages!
When the arrivals at Nellis on on the 03 runways, it means a trip to Cheyenne. This is not the greatest part of the world to visit but it is a feature of a Nellis trip. The sun angles were still quite low while I was there so I decided to try shooting from further around the road than I have done previously. For the planes coming in on the left runway, I had a reasonable sun angle on them. For planes on the right, they were coming right over my head.
I quite liked shooting like this. The planes have a surprising amount of variety in their line up angles when this far from the threshold so, while they are all coming close to you, it is not a repeat of the same shot every time. Each pilot takes a slightly different line and some variation in elevation too. You get something akin to head on shots and then it is a case of rapidly swiveling around to get a shot from behind.
There is a lot of fencing and trees along that part of the road so getting a clean shot of everything is hard to achieve. However, it is still possible to get something a little different. With the light angles being less than ideal, rather than worry about shots that aren’t going to be very usable due to either glare or shadow, why not get something a little different. It does require some quick adjustments and it can get a touch noisy but it is still fun to try something a little different.
The weather at Nellis was definitely not playing ball for the majority of my time at Red Flag 22-2. However, as the recoveries from the afternoon exercise were completing, some of the regular base traffic was getting ready to launch. Nellis is a bit like Seattle (hear me out) in that, even when the weather is a bit crappy in the afternoon, there is a good chance the light improves later on. This proved to be the case on my first full day there.
As the later jets were launching, the clouds had cleared up a bit and there was some nice low angle sun to be had on the aircraft as they headed out. I had gone up past Gate 6 at the Speedway to be in place for any Flex departures and this proved to be a good spot. Some of the jets turned a little beyond me but gave a better top side view while other turned a bit earlier and were almost heading overhead where I was. The light was better than anything I had got earlier in the day so it worked for me.
It was recently announced that Nellis AFB has ended operations of the F-15C/D Eagles. The Eagles have been at Nellis since the 1970s so this ends a long association. The Strike Eagles are still based there and there will, no doubt, be F-15EX jets based there in the not too distant future but this was still noteworthy within the aviation community. I have shot a bunch of based Eagles over the years including the aggressor jets. They went a while back so I won’t include them here but here are a few of the Nellis jets over the years.
It had been quite a while since I made a trip purely for aviation photography. I may have managed to sneak some photo elements in to other trips but nothing just for planes. I decided to go to Nellis for Red Flag 22-2. I had skipped 22-1 because it clashed with some other stuff despite having some things I was quite keen to shoot. German Tornados were supposed to be at 22-2 which I was keen to shoot but they sadly canceled before the event even kicked off.
Despite this, I still wanted to go. A couple of days off work seemed like a good plan and it was a chance to explore the capabilities of the R3 on aviation subjects. While the Germans were not attending, there were some foreign operators taking part. Singapore had brought its jets – admittedly, they didn’t have far to come with Singapore having units at Luke and Mountain home – and Saudi Arabia had brought some F-15SAs.
Things were not as active as they have been on some previous Red Flags. Not everything seemed to be flying in each wave. The B-1s only flew on one of the evening and one of the day sorties of the two I was there. Also, things seemed to happen earlier than is sometimes the case. There were some long gaps in flying when I wondered whether something was up. It was just a slow Flag I guess. However, it was a good chance to hang around and photograph some jets. I guess I can’t complain about that.
Sometimes, when in Nevada for Red Flag, I will head down to McCarran in the morning to shoot some of the airliners prior to heading back to Nellis. This time, I barely went down that way. However, I did see a movement that caught my attention. There is a daily rotation of a Shorts 360 freighter from Phoenix up to Las Vegas. I haven’t shot a Shed for a while and figured this was worth a look.
There is a viewing area along the south runway at McCarran but it was closed for COVID and hasn’t been reopened yet. Short staffing means it is low on the airport’s priorities which kind of makes sense. Consequently, I ended up scoping out a parking lot that would give me an alternative. It was pretty hot and heat haze is always a concern plus I didn’t know whether to use the long lens or the zoom. I used a couple of jets coming in before to decide what to do and also stuck the polarizer on to cut the light down to get better shutter speeds for the props. Then the box on wings came on to the approach and I grabbed some shots. If you had told me 30 years ago I would make an excursion to photograph a 360, I would have laughed. Now they are rare enough that is exactly what I do!
Every once in a while, I really test the high ISO capability of the cameras I have. The R3 got an early test when I was at Red Flag, I went out on two evenings to shoot some night departures and experimented with the ability of the camera to perform in those conditions. The high ISO capability of cameras has not moved on too much to be honest. The max ISO I used on my 1DXII was 51,200 and the R3 is still the same. It does appear to be a bit cleaner but they have possibly hit a bit of a limit. What I had not tried out before was an electronic viewfinder in such conditions.
The first night, I went out into the dunes to be ready for the B-1 departures. As it turned out, they didn’t launch that night. I did get some fighters coming out my way for a while before I concluded that this was a bust and I was heading back to the hotel. I tried shooting a few of the jets but I discovered the limitations of the camera pretty rapidly. When there is no light, the electronic viewfinder really struggles. The frame rate of the viewfinder drops like a stone and tracking a subject becomes pretty problematic. The frames per second drop too so the chances of a result are slim. With an optical viewfinder, this is not an issue but the chances of a good shot are also slim.
I returned to the hotel feeling pretty dispirited by this result. I wondered whether this was a real problem for adopting the R3. The following night, I went out again with the B-1s again being my main target. This time I had some tankers heading out before the B-1s launched. It was a very different evening. Sure, the lack of light still makes the chances of getting a good shot pretty low but the camera seemed to have no problem tracking the subjects and keeping the viewfinder frame rate up to a perfectly acceptable level. If I had only gone from the previous night, I would have concluded that it was unusable.
The embedded images in the RAW files looked pretty good but the Lightroom edits required a lot more work. DPP might be the answer or DxO PrimeRAW could do a good job. However, that is not the issue. Will the camera allow me to shoot at night with very dark subjects. Apparently, the answer is yes. It can handle it. However, it can’t track an almost black subject with a couple of navigation lights like an optical viewfinder can. That is a limitation that I may have to live with.
I was working through some shots and came across a sequence a little before a bunch of shots I have used a lot in the past. It was of B-2s on approach to Nellis just before sunset. I had some clear shots of them in the distance including as the gear was traveling. Here is one of those shots. I just liked it and thought I would share it here.
Adobe periodically updates the processing algorithms that are used by Lightroom and Photoshop. Each update provides some improvements in how raw files are processed and it can be good to go back to older shots and to see how the newer process versions handle the images. I find this particularly useful for images shot in low light and with high ISO.
I have some standard process settings I use but have also experimented with modified settings for use with high ISOs and the higher noise levels that come with them. I got to some night launch shots from an old Red Flag exercise and had a play with the images. The E-3 launch was actually as the light was going down but it still had some illumination so it didn’t need much work.
The KC-135 and B-1B shots were a different story and were at high ISOs and with very little light. I was able to update the process version and apply some new settings I had worked out since the original processing and it resulted in some pretty reasonable outputs considering how little light there was to work with.
Departures over the Speedway are best when they flex. The straight out departures are fine but not that exciting and they often get pretty high pretty quickly. Those jets that flex seem to stay a bit lower and provide a more interesting shot. The later in the day it is, the better the light on a flexing jet. If they are doing an evening departure after the Flag participants are back, the conditions can be ideal.
A USAF Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” flexes on departure from Nellis AFB NV.
A USAF Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles passes the moon as it flexes on departure from Nellis AFB NV.
A USAF Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles flexes on departure from Nellis AFB NV.
A USAF Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II flexes on departure from Nellis AFB NV.
A Royal Dutch Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16A Fighting Falcon flexes on departure from Nellis AFB NV.
Here is a selection of jets in both good and okay lighting. If a four ship goes out, you hope for the last jet to be more dramatic since it will be playing catch up with the others and shoot turn in a bit tighter. The fourth Saudi F-15SA was another story though since he went very early and then straightened up before having another go inside us. Not sure he had been paying attention at the brief!