RAF Cosford by night
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular fortnightly look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. As we currently find ourselves in the month which marks 100 years since the establishment of the Royal Air Force and the start of a year of events intended to commemorate this significant occasion, we really had to come up with something quite special for this ninety-first edition of our blog. For this reason, we will be heading to the RAF Museum Cosford and an evening date with some classic British post war aviation types, which had all been taken from the security of their respective hangars for the photographic enjoyment of a gathering of hardy enthusiasts. I was one of the lucky few to be present during the evening and will be bringing you a review of this extremely enjoyable event.
As the dark nights slowly begin to give way to warmer weather and the promise of clearer skies, this is always a time of great optimism for aviation enthusiasts, who can now start to make their final plans for the Airshow events they hope to attend over the coming few months. Perhaps more than any year in recent memory, commemorations to mark the Centenary of the Royal Air Force offer the tantalising prospect of the coming Airshow season being a spectacular one, with not only aircraft from the past 100 years of flight being on display, but also RAF and overseas air arms presenting some of their aircraft in special schemes to mark the occasion. Although we are still a little unsure about what we can expect to see from the RAF over the coming months, Aerodrome readers can help to mark this Centenary year in some style – please send any pictures you may take of aircraft wearing special commemorative schemes to our usual email email@example.com address. Any pictures we receive may be included in future editions of Aerodrome and certainly in a special commemorative edition we are planning towards the end of the year – let’s help to ensure we mark this special year for the Royal Air Force in some style.
Aviation photography at night
Night photography poses some unique challenges, but also offers the prospect of some extremely appealing images
Although the busy summer Airshow season can often bring the UK based aviation enthusiast plenty of opportunities to perfect their photographic technique and obtain some memorable aircraft pictures, there are unfortunately many months in the year where we are forced to be a little more creative if we want to fill up our hard drives with even more aviation related images. With the closure of many RAF stations over the past twenty years and the winter weather being notoriously unpredictable for outdoor activities, many enthusiasts will simply use this time to organise the pictures they have taken throughout the summer and prepare for the Airshow events to come, but for the more intrepid amongst us, there are always interesting events to enjoy if you only look hard enough.
Over recent years, specially arranged night shoot events which feature aircraft as their subject matter have started to become increasingly popular and there are now quite a number of such opportunities available throughout the winter months. Indeed, weather aside, the months prior to the clocks moving forwards are actually preferable for night shoot events, with clear nights offering photographers the chance to obtain really stunning and quite unique pictures. Unfortunately, many enthusiasts who have not previously attended a night shoot can be put off purely because they have no experience in this type of photography and would not feel comfortable joining one of these events and either struggling in silence or hassling a complete stranger on how best to set up their camera. Despite the fact that most photographers in attendance would gladly share their experience and lend a helping hand on the night, it really is not that difficult a skill to master and with some prior preparation and the right tools, you could come away with some stunning pictures.
Before we look at the basic tools and techniques you will need to hand on the average night shoot, it is important to stress that there really is no right and wrong way to approach this type of photography, barring a few simple rules. Most honest photographers will admit to a little trial and error mentality when it comes to the majority of picture taking situations, with night photography being no exception. Just like art, successful photography is very much in the eye of the beholder and what one person may think is the best picture they have ever seen, someone else will probably pull it apart – take pictures for your own enjoyment and don’t be afraid to experiment. If what you do produces pictures that appeal to you, those should be your stock settings and once you have a selection of images you are happy with, try something a little different – these might just end up being your favourite pictures from the shoot.
A little prior planning and a sturdy tripod will pay huge dividends when attending any night shoot event
There is no point running over the obvious issues (almost a Basil Fawlty moment there) that will need to be addressed before heading out for your first night shoot, such as fully charged batteries, memory cards, clean lenses and your tripod mount, (although I wish I had a pound for every time I had forgotten something important over the years) so let’s assume that we are all extremely well organised. We will also not bother with the appropriate clothing aspect, as we are all intelligent enough to be prepared for a potentially cold night on an airfield or other such venue and the possibility for rain, or even worse. The only things that you will definitely need to remember (other than your camera gear and event joining instructions) is your tripod and preferably a remote shutter release if you have one. Many photographers on the shoot will be using the self-timer (built in to your camera) method of shutter release and if this works for you, that’s fine, but I definitely prefer to use a remote cable release. As the light begins to fade, exposure times will become significantly longer and a sturdy shooting platform will be essential – even the slightest movement can have a detrimental impact on your images, which includes pressing the shutter button. This is why I prefer to use the remote release, as it removes the possibility of being a little careless at this critical stage in the process.
What settings should I use?
This shot taken during the Cosford night shoot highlights one of the perils of long exposure images – the bright line across the back of the Phantom is not aerial wire, but a passing police helicopter in the distance
We are now venturing into some dangerous photographic territory and I am sure that many people will disagree with this advice, but my intention is to keep things simple and pass on settings which work for me and should produce excellent pictures in most situations. Basically, taking a photograph is all about gathering light. Yes, this is a somewhat simplistic statement and there are many other factors which come into play, such as composition and direction of light, but your camera is only concerned about grabbing enough light to produce a picture of the scene it has been presented with through the lens. Modern cameras are truly incredible tools and in all but the most demanding of lighting situations, they will produce perfectly acceptable images which are fine for most people. Indeed, during a night shoot, autofocus and ISO (sensor light gathering capacity) performance is now so effective that the camera will make a really good fist of producing pictures for you if left in the automatic mode. These pictures, however, will not be quite what we are looking for in this case, as they will employ high ISO values (digital noise) and wide apertures (shallow depth of field). Specifically, we are shooting aircraft at night, which means they are supposed to be a little darker, with black and blue skies providing an interesting and unusual backdrop to our images. We need to keep the camera away from its full auto settings and give it a little additional assistance in telling it what we are hoping to achieve. This can be quite a challenging situation (as challenging as you want to make it), but it doesn’t have to be too daunting – assuming everything is in place as described previously, we can still allow the camera to do much of the work, allowing us to spend our time looking for interesting shots. Here is how I would set up my camera:
Aperture Priority Mode – f8 or f11 are ideal settings
ISO 100 – will result in clean images
White Balance – Auto (why make things difficult)
Drive - set to single shot mode
AF on, using centre focus point – some will prefer to focus manually, but I trust my Nikon over my eyes!
Image Stabilization OFF
Most definitely flash OFF
The easiest way to change things up whilst using these settings is to dial in some +/- exposure compensation and see what results you get – it’s time to be a little creative.
These settings will result in some relatively long exposures of between 20 and 30 seconds, but the resultant images should me more than acceptable, if you keep your camera steady. You can decrease the exposure time by selecting a wider aperture, or increasing your ISO value, but these settings will definitely get you started. Once you are up and running, try a few different combinations and find a shooting style which suits you – importantly, night shoots will no longer be uncharted territory for you.
Moonlit date with ‘Black Mike’ and friends
The first time I had seen ‘Black Mike’ away from RAF Leuchars – A quick grab shot whilst I was supposed to be listening to the safety briefing
As the Royal Air Force prepares to commemorate their centenary year in style, this summer’s Airshow at RAF Cosford promises to be something particularly memorable in a year of special events. With Cosford airfield hosting the RAF’s only official Airshow in this significant year, the organising team have not only been busy arranging a varied and exciting flying programme, but also something unique on the ground – a spectacular display of 100 aircraft which will chronologically chart the history of the Royal Air Force across the airfield. A ground display of this magnitude is definitely something no self-respecting aviation enthusiast can afford to miss and will undoubtedly result in huge crowds flocking to the show this coming June. The display will see several of the museums rare aviation exhibits displayed outside their hangars for the first time in many years, as well as welcoming others which will be transported to Cosford by road, from collections all across the country. As these plans begin to take shape, the special night shoot event was an opportunity to showcase several of the aircraft already assembled and allow the organising team to gain valuable experience for the significant challenges which lie ahead.
With winter aviation related photographic opportunities always at a premium, it is no wonder that this unusual event attracted a large number of enthusiasts from all over the country and as we all headed for this famous Midlands airfield site, everyone would have been hoping for the weather to be kind, just for once. As I joined the end of a long, snaking queue in the late afternoon, waiting for the official nod to be granted access to the restricted area of the airfield, it was clear that everyone was prepared for whatever the weather was about to hurl our way. With our beloved camera gear in hand, everyone was sporting cold weather gear and were safely tucked inside hats, scarves and gloves, as the cold of the day promised to give way to much more challenging conditions in the evening - as we stood patiently in line, even a passing rain shower could not dampen our spirits, as there was one thought (or to be more accurate, one aircraft) which was keeping everyone in unusually optimistic mood – ‘Black Mike’.
A selection of early evening images which clearly show why this enigmatic aircraft has always proved so popular with enthusiasts and photographers alike
Although a number of attractive and historic aircraft had been promised for our photographic delectation, there was definitely one illustrious military aeroplane which had proved to be an irresistible lure to prize us all away from the warmth of our homes and into the cold Cosford night air, McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 XV582 ‘Black Mike’. Undoubtedly one of the most attractively presented aircraft to ever wear the famous roundel of the RAF, this beautiful Phantom was a long time resident at the former Northern QRA airfield at Leuchars and even though she made her final flight many years ago, she was always one of the static highlights of any RAF Leuchars Airshow. Indeed, for many enthusiasts, no trip to this famous Scottish Airshow was ever complete until you had paid your annual respects to this famous aircraft.
Even though the McDonnell Douglas Phantom was one of the most successful aircraft of the US aviation industry, there is definitely something quite enigmatic about the Phantoms which saw service with the Royal Navy and the RAF and they are still held in great affection by enthusiasts and modellers alike. Phantom FG.1 XV582 saw service with both the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF, making its first flight in early 1969 and delivered to the Navy later the same year, but after many successful years operating in naval colours, she was transferred to the Royal Air Force and No.43 Squadron in 1988. In Royal Air Force service, this magnificent aircraft continued to build its growing reputation, becoming one of the most famous of all the British Phantoms – she was the only FG.1 machine to serve with No.228 Operational Conversion Unit and the first to exceed 5000 flying hours. XV582 was also used in the record breaking ‘Lands End to John O’Groats Run’ on 1st April 1988, when the aircraft covered the 590 mile distance in just 46 minutes and 44 seconds – an impressive average speed of over 757 mph.
As the night began to close in, you might think that a black aeroplane against a dark sky would not make for a great subject, but we are talking about a rather special Phantom here!
The fateful decision which ensured Phantom XV582 would become one of the most famous aircraft to see RAF service occurred in the late 1980s, when she was selected as the aviation canvas for a striking squadron commemoration for Leuchars based No.111 ‘Treble One’ Squadron. Intended as a high-profile acknowledgement of the illustrious history of this famous flying unit, which had operated large formations of Hawker Hunters (The Black Arrows) and English Electric Lightnings during the classic jet era, the Phantom was given a handsome gloss black paint scheme and adorned with the famous yellow Squadron markings of ‘The Tremblers’. XV582 was selected because her extensive service dictated that she was categorised as a limited fatigue life remaining airframe and it was initially intended that this visual tribute would just be a short-term arrangement. The smart all black Phantom caused so much interest that she immediately became one of the most distinctive and popular aircraft in the RAF and although initially only intended for static display duties, the aircraft continued to be flown for a short while, as it seemed anyone with the authority and capability to do so wanted some flight time in this beautiful aircraft. Retaining its ‘M’ code, XV582 was quickly referred to as ‘Black Mike’, a name which has become synonymous with British Phantom operations and one of the most distinctive aircraft to see Royal Air Force service. From the enthusiasts’ perspective, her new found popularity and the decision to allow the aircraft to continue flying for a short while resulted in a number of stunning air to air pictures being taken, which now serve as a fitting tribute to the British Phantom and its years of exceptional service throughout the Cold War period.
One of my favourite images from the shoot. On the full size image, you can see the stars shining above this magnificent Cold War warrior
Following the Phantoms withdrawal from RAF service, its designation as an overseas aircraft type resulted in many being unceremoniously scrapped, with only a small number surviving for potential museum display. Due to her popularity XV582 would go on to serve as an unofficial gate guardian outside the Leuchars squadron headquarters of No.111 Squadron, but it was later moved to a spare Hardened Aircraft Shelter as the aircraft which replaced the Phantom (the Tornado F.3) was itself replaced and an example of this aircraft took on the squadron guard duties. ‘Black Mike’ was kept in good condition and would regularly take its place in the static aircraft display at the annual Leuchars Airshow, but the decision to close the base in 2015 threw the future of this aircraft into serious doubt. Offered for tender, the future of Phantom FG.1 XV582 was thankfully secured by a group of enthusiasts and former servicemen, who campaigned to save this magnificent aeroplane for the benefit of future generations. As all members were volunteers, they spent eleven months carefully dismantling the aircraft in one of the old aircraft shelters at Leuchars and prepared it for a long road journey to RAF Cosford and her starring role in this first night shoot event. As one of the most distinctive RAF aircraft of the past 100 years, she will be one of the star attractions at this summer’s RAF Centenary Airshow and will hopefully go on permanent display at Cosford in the near future, so generations of enthusiasts can admire this magnificent and historic Cold War warrior.
Cosford’s aviation stars come out at night
A number of the rare aircraft resident at RAF Cosford were made available for this extremely enjoyable event
For many people in attendance at the recent Cosford night shoot, the opportunity to see Phantom FG.1 XV582 ‘Black Mike’ at the museum for the first time was the main reason for being there, let alone the fact that she would be displayed outside the hangar. As you can imagine, throughout the evening, there was always a large number of photographers gathered around this enigmatic aircraft, as everyone was keen to record this historic event for posterity. Having said that, despite everyone’s excitement and determination to obtain their all important shots, most photographers tend to be pleasant folk and everyone made sure that they did not stay in the same spot for too long, allowing others to have plenty of quality time with this famous Phantom.
On any other occasion, the several other aircraft arranged on the airfield for our photographic pleasure would have been the subject of a review blog in their own right, each one with an interesting history of their own and some boasting equally impressive paint finishes as ‘Black Mike’, however, for the purposes of this blog, Cosford’s fabulous Phantom demanded that it take centre stage and who am I to argue. We may return to this enjoyable event in a future edition of Aerodrome, where we can look more closely at the history behind some of the other aviation stars of this night shoot, but for now, this final selection of images will allow readers to see which of Cosford’s other aircraft were made available on the night.
SEPECAT Jaguar GR.3A XX119 is finished in a magnificent scheme which would usually see this aircraft stealing the photographic limelight on any night shoot event. Applied in the days leading up to the withdrawal of the Jaguar from RAF service, ‘Spotty’ is undoubtedly one of the aviation stars at Cosford
Repainted in this arctic camouflage scheme, Harrier GR.3 XZ991 was a striking addition to the photoshoot line-up
Westland Wessex HC.2 XR498 was lurking on the far side of the airfield, behind one of the hangars and proved to be a welcome distraction from all the former RAF fast jets
The BAe Hawk is still an extremely attractive little aeroplane and this example in the colours of No.208 Squadron, formerly based at RAF Valley looked good by day or by night
Jaguars galore – Cosford is now the official home of this extremely attractive former RAF strike aircraft
Black on black. The night sky makes a dramatic backdrop for this shot of Jaguar T.2 XX837
I am certain that the coming year will bring plenty of memorable opportunities for the aviation enthusiast, as Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force in some style, but as far as I am concerned, I know that my first audience with ‘Black Mike’ away from RAF Leuchars will definitely be amongst my personal highlights. This event was exceptionally well organised, benefiting from the professional support from the staff at RAF Cosford and the magnificent aircraft under their charge. I would like to congratulate everyone involved in making this such a memorable occasion and I look forward with some excitement to seeing Cosford’s impressive RAF 100 ground display at the forthcoming Airshow.
I hope this review of the recent RAF Cosford night shoot, which turned into something of a Phantom XV582 ‘Black Mike’ indulgence was of interest to you and may inspire readers who have yet to experience a night shoot to take the plunge themselves. Could I please make one final request for anyone who photographs anything RAF 100 related over the coming months to please let us have copies your pictures, as we are planning a very special tribute edition of Aerodrome later in the year. Please send any pictures and information to either of our usual contact e-mail addresses at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com where we will endeavour to reply to all messages we receive.
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The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 20th April and we look forward to seeing all back here then.
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