Friday, April 1, 2016

El Centro - Naval Aviation up close and personal

  I have been witness to several El Centro Photocalls during my life. As a former F/A-18 Weapons Systems Officer for the U.S. Marine Corps, I had watched the “herd of photographers” deploying from the vans near the LSO shack many times. With an opportunity to request a spot on the other side of the lens, I jumped at it in order to experience the El Centro Photocall I had so often witnessed.
  Unlike others who may prefer to tell the story of the photocall in a chronological order, I’ll put it together for you in the perspective of how to prepare for each of the parts of the experience: Equipment, Planning, and Execution


(Stop bringing the kitchen sink)
USN T-45 departs on a bombing mission

  The environment at El Centro is austere and unforgiving. Dust, cracked pavement and dirt “infields” all drive how I brought my gear to the photocall. It is tempting to bring a lot of equipment along, either in a rolling bag or in several bags. Don’t do it. There is very little smooth pavement to roll along once you are out by the runway, and you and your camera bag are going to get dirty. Get over it. If you are afraid of marring the finish on a camera or getting a bag dusty and dirty, then studio photography may be better for you. 

Maxpedition Jumbo Versipack 
  To fit this environment, I brought two bodies (Nikon D7200 and D7100), and only two lenses. (we’ll talk lens selection in a bit). My bag was a Maxpedition Jumbo Versipack. It is a shoulder bag that I can sling across my body that also provides a secure attaching point for long lenses.

  Also the constant action to prevent FOD meant that I marked ANYTHING that could fall off or out of my camera with hi-vis color stickers or white gaffer tape. Positive control of lens caps, batteries and lens filters had to be maintained at all times.


(A Plan… I suggest you have one!)

  I do operate at an unfair advantage here. As I was joking with several veteran photographers when four T-45 Goshawks flew overhead and none of our small group pointed a lens skyward – “I’ve already got plenty of crappy photos of those!” Of course we all laughed as those of us who have frequented El Centro have shot and discarded countless images that would be similar to the ones I was about to take. So what was my plan? What was my purpose? It was simple and had 2 parts.

  • First, document the ISAP participation in the photocall. 
  • Second, nail the shots at the “Golden Hour”


(Carry out that plan!)

ISAP Member Jeff Krueger captures the Blue Angels pass
  To capture the images of the ISAP photographers in action, I brought a Sigma 17-70 OS that was mounted onto the D7100. This lens allowed me to shoot wide enough to put both the photographers and their subject aircraft into the image. As is always the tough part capturing photographers at work, there would be a lot of photos without people’s faces, but creative composition such as the Blue Angel taxi photo above allowed me to at least get a side perspective with aircraft subjects. (just not the aircraft the ISAP lenses were pointed at!)

  To get up close and personal with the aircraft, I brought along the Nikon AF-S 80-400mm VR. This lens allowed me to crop in close on the aircraft cockpit and reach out to grab events that happen away from the photographer’s box by the LSO shack. The angles and lighting of aircraft turning final, or rolling out well beyond the LSO shack are images that you just won’t be able to get without the longer reach of a long lens, or the lens-DX sensor combo.
C-2 Greyhound performing touch-and-goes at sunset

  The other important thing I did during my time at the LSO shack is MOVE! There are several photographers who “drop anchor” and try to grab that “one spot” that they think is best. I chose to keep on the move, vary my angle with the arriving and departing aircraft all while constantly evaluating my images on the camera LCD. Was I looking for the perfect shot? No, rather I was evaluating what angle of the aircraft I was able to capture and whether THAT told the story, even if I missed the shot. (which happened more often than I’d like to admit, usually due to bad panning!)  There is always a lot going on around the airfield at El Centro, and even when you are watching aircraft on the runway, odds are, you might be mission some action on the taxiway, or in the break, overhead.
EA-18G Growler conducting touch and goes at NAF El Centro

  While I racked up over 2200 images in the short 5 hour span, every photo shot before the Golden Hour was in practice for that small window of time when light, aircraft approach patterns and sky color would all combine to produce imagery that just screams “El Centro”! By the time the sun was setting and the sky took on that gorgeous desert color, I felt warmed up for panning, I knew what spots worked for my imagery, and had grabbed nearly every shot on my “shot list” in an easier, but less dramatic lighting.
  Now it was time to buckle down, shoot my best, and make the images I knew could only come from a photoshoot in El Centro.

  Let me know what you think in the comment section, below!

(A shorter version of this article appears in the April 2016 issue of ISnAP, the magazine of the International Society for Aviation Photography.)
T-45 launching on a practice bombing mission
US Navy T-45 Goshawk rolls over the arresting cable on landing rollout
F/A-18F Super Hornet from VFA-106 touches down after completing a mission 
ISAP Photographer Craig Swancy captures the Blue Angels at the top of their maneuver
US Navy T-45 touches down after a bombing sortie in the local ranges
There is always one guy shooting the OTHER direction!
C-2 Greyhound from VRC-30 conducts Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP)

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