Is it safe to do that?

Mount Ararat

Recently I had a selection of aerial night photographs published in a number of newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Bolton News and Metro. For those who haven’t seen the article, here’s a link.

Daily Mail-Way to Glow 

In the comments section of some of the papers, there have been a number of comments criticising me for taking pictures when I “should be flying the ‘plane” Apart from finding this insulting to my professional integrity, it makes me wonder what some of the general public think we are doing on a 4, 8, 12 hour flight? Do they think we are concentrating hard, hands gripping the wheel (or sidestick), staring intently at the instruments, ever vigilant in case something unexpected happens? This would actually be a very dangerous state of affairs. Fatigue would be, literally, a killer. So let me explain a bit more about my job, and the people who do it.

Karakoram Mist

On any long flight, boredom is an ever present danger. The autopilot is flying the aircraft. One pilot is responsible for radio communication, the other for the operation of the aircraft. In the cruise, the pilot operating the aircraft, the Pilot Flying, might turn a knob every five minutes or so. The Pilot Monitoring answers calls from Air Traffic Control, switches frequency when instructed, and keeps an eye on what the other guy is doing. Both of them keep an eye on the weather radar if any weather is expected. Sporadic inputs into the flight management computer can be made by either pilot in the cruise. To pass the time, the pilots may converse. Some read newspapers or magazines. Several I know will do Sudoku or crosswords. The really keen, or new hires, read the manuals. When a member of the cabin crew enters the flight-deck, it’s often a welcome diversion from the mundane necessity of sitting next to a person you probably don’t know and have very little in common with except for the fact you do the same job. Some long flights will be during the time of day when the bodies natural rhythms tell it it’s time to sleep. Jetlag exacerbates this problem. When we are really tired, “controlled rest”, consisting of 20 minutes or so nap, is an accepted, and even encouraged, way of recharging your batteries (of course, only one pilot at a time!).

A lot of pilots take photographs; I am in no way exceptional in that. Perhaps I know more about photography and processing than a lot of my colleagues, and tend to use more expensive and capable equipment. Processing aerial images is a complicated procedure that most pilots can’t be bothered with, so they shoot jpeg, and accept that everything always has a blue cast and usually looks like it’s been shot through muddy water. So while the pics they take end up on Facebook or Instagram, mine end up on my website, in books, or, in this case, in newspapers. Taking pictures keeps me energised, while often my colleague will be flagging. I don’t use a camera at times of high workload, or during take-off or landing. The low level shots on my website are all taken either from the jump-seat, or as a passenger.

I have spent a lot of my flying career involved in training, both on the line and in a simulator. In my experience, attitudes and temperament of pilots range between two extremes; Technicians, and Artists. The Technician tends to know everything there is to know about the aircraft, can quote manuals, takes pride in doing everything exactly according to procedures. Technicians tend to get to top of climb at night and switch the storm light on, reducing the world to a couple of square metres of brightly lit panels, screens and knobs. The Artist is more of a romantic; he or she loves flight for the sake of it, treats the technical aspects of flying as an art, and loves the view. At night, the Artist likes the lights turned down a bit in cruise, so they can see the stars. They often have Sky Map on their mobile phone. They might take pictures. They will have plans for the time spent at the destination. They will get bored long after the Technician. In my training experience, flying ability is spread pretty evenly from one extreme to another. Technicians can often remember obscure snippets of information that suddenly become just what you need to get out of a situation. They can also be pedantic and autocratic. Artists can be laissez-faire on occassion. However, Artists are more likely to be able to think out of the box, and are more likely to be open to discussion on the best course of action. They generally tend to be less restrained by ego. They are less likely to sit there moaning about the company, which is not good for morale on a long flight. They accept the company’s rules and procedures, whereas the Technician, while following procedures to the letter, will often think small items in the SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedure) should be changed, and doesn’t mind telling everyone about it. They can be very boring.

The ideal pilot probably has elements of both. But when the shit hits the fan, and things are not going as expected, I know who I would rather be sharing the flight-deck with.

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Infrared Aerial Photography

A few months ago I bought an IR converted Sony Nex 5N, converted at 665nm. I first got interested in IR after reading about it’s use for photographing bombed targets in World War II; the IR apparently allowing one to see through haze. Since haze has been a perennial problem with my aerial shots, it seemed a good idea to try it. I started with a Pentax *ist DS, converted at 830nm, then traded that in for a K20D, also 830nm.


Kunlun Mountains, China. Pentax *ist DS @830nm


The problem with these cameras was that they use phase-detection auto-focus, which means focusing is a problem when using zooms. I had both cameras set up to focus at infinity, which is all I need for aerial shots, using the IR marks on my smc Pentax-A 50mm f1.4 and Sigma Super-Wide II 24mm f2.8. These two lenses are both excellent for IR work, but I really wanted to be able to use zooms. I decided to get a Sony Nex 5N, converted at 665nm, which would allow me to add filters (720nm or 830nm) so that I had three frequencies to choose from. It also uses contrast-detection AF, allowing the use of AF zoom lenses. After some teething problems (mainly in setting WB), I was still struggling a bit with the processing, my aim being to get realistic looking colour shots. My first successful image with the new camera was an image of the Labrador coastline, taken with the kit lens. To adjust the WB, I set it in-camera using a piece of white paper, then adjusted it in ACR using a camera profile I created using DNG Profile Editor.

Labrador coast, Sony Nex 5n @665nm



The image was processed by swapping the red and blue channels, then adjusting reds, yellows, cyans and blues using a Hue/Saturation adjustment on a seperate layer in CC5. However, the more challenging problem of scenes with more colours remained. A few days ago I stumbled across a free free IR faux-colour Photoshop action provided by Khromagery. This has not only cut down my processing time, but gives better results than I was getting with my own home-made action. First results look promising!

Rift valley, Kenya. Nex 5n @665nm

Just for a comparison, here are two shots of the Rift valley taken at the same time, the first a normal colour image taken on my K5, in which the atmospheric haze caused by UV is very apparent, and the second image   an IR shot at 665nm taken on the Nex 5N. The K5 shot has been processed to remove as much haze as possible, the nex 5N processed using Khromagery’s Photoshop action, red, yellows, cyans and blues adjusted in CS5, then a minor final tweak on WB in Lightroom. 





Nex 5N




If anyone would like any more info on how I process my IR images, feel free to contact me. More of my IR images can be seen on my Flickr IR set , and also on here in Galleries.


 Meanwhile, keep the blue side up!

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Morning clouds

I really like the monsoon, unless I’m trying to land in it..the monsoon means clouds, loads and loads of big fluffy clouds. Of course they are not clouds you want to visit, or even get too close to, but upwind, at a safe distance, they’re beautiful.




They are also quite photogenic, especially in the morning or evening. The Bay of Bengal is a prime spot at this time of year, along with the area south of Indonesia, enroute to Australia, which is where these were taken. 


Dead cb’s


This one was really interesting, as it shows a Cb (Cumulo Nimbus) flattening out at the tropopause. The invisible made visible as LTCE, one of my Flickr contacts, commented on my Flickr stream.




One of my ongoing projects is photographing thunderstorms at night. I keep meaning to buy a Lightning Trigger, but meanwhile have been experimenting with hand-held exposures using the lightning as a flashgun. To do this, you need a very dark night, otherwise the clouds appear blurred. I have had most success using two prime lenses on my K5; a Sigma 24mm Super-Wide II f2.8, and a Pentax smc-A 50mm f1.4. Both lenses I set at infinity focus, using f2.8 on the Sigma and f2 on the Pentax. I set ISO at 200 or 400, depending on how much light I am expecting to get from the lightning, and between 2 and 3 seconds exposure. I then watch the storm and try to work out how often it’s flashing. I look through the viewfinder to get a reasonable composition from a “test flash”, then start shooting. Results have been mixed.


Here’s an early attempt from last years monsoon


Monsoon lightning



I was very lucky to get this shot last year of a Blue Starter, which is a straight bolt of lightning travelling vertically upwards. They are still not very well understood, and I believe this is only the second image of one taken from an aircraft. Quite bizarrely, the first one was taken from an identical aircraft in the same area three weeks prior to this shot.



Both of these were taken in the Bay of Bengal.




Lastly, here’s one from last week, also from the Bay of Bengal.





Be back soon, meanwhile, keep the blue side up!


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Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo reminds me of Megacity 1 in the Judge Dredd comics, a huge megalopolis consisting of clusters of high-rise tower blocks of varying social standing, huge canals/drainage systems, over 7 million cars, and the world’s largest swarm of helicopters. The first time I was there we watched a gunfight on a motorway outside the hotel, on TV and live from the executive lounge on the top floor of the hotel. Three police helicopters were flying around, streams of kids rushing about trying to get out of the spotlights, and a bus parked across the motorway, with a police cordon around it. I asked the barman what was going on.

“It’s Friday”, he replied.

Don’t think I’ll be going out then…


Miss Universe was on while I was there a few days ago. A bit conceited to call it Miss Universe, isn’t it? How do we know there aren’t billions of better looking aliens out there? Or that we might actually look pretty repulsive to someone from Alpha Centauri?  It’s a bit like the World Series, on a far grander scale.  However, what an appropiate competition for Sao Paulo to host it is; skinny girls with no tits or personalities being herded around by men in suits with earpieces, one of whom I could not help noticing was armed as he brushed past me on his way to intercept a contestant whose gyro’s seemed to have toppled. She was wandering away from the herd that were boarding a bus, and like a well trained dog he ushered her back into the flock without startling her too much.


Don’t bother with shopping in Sao Paulo. Prices are ridiculous: $3500 for a Nikon D7000. It would be cheaper to buy a ticket to the states, spend a weekend in a nice hotel, buy a camera and fly home for work on Monday.


There is not much oppurtunity for photography; it’s not too safe wandering around with a camera. Or a watch. Or even a decent pair of shoes. It’s hardly surprising when you have clusters of apartments of such varying income levels racked up next to each other. It’s not so much a case of the haves and have-nots as the haves and the will haves as soon as you take a wrong turn. There are a lot of very wealthy people and a massive amount of poverty, all cooped up in a high-rise city of 20 million people. No wonder it’s not the safest city in the world. Still four times safer then Rio though.


I have manged a few photographs there, however, mostly within a few block of the hotel.  I found a few nice reflections; one thing Sao Paulo does have is a lot of modern glass-fronted buildings. I also got this one of Morumbi Bridge.


Morumbi Bridge


These I really liked, reflections of  cranes in some windows.





Blue Crane


Be back soon, meanwhile, keep the blue side up!

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Welcome to my new website!

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