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  • Writer's pictureRuss Tierney

Photographing the Rhyl air show 2022 - the one with the bird strike!

"Something is wrong, I can't get the shot that I thought I might.."

The Red Arrows circling on the Sunday after bird strike

..I was thinking, standing in my room looking out of the Velux over to the mountains (well, probably hills) as the Red Arrows circled. I pondered more; "are they just coming around preparing for their next formation, after all I can't see what's going on out front, so they must be resetting out of the public eye", and then, "why did one seemingly dump smoke and head off over the mountains with a second not far behind it in tow?". Ya see, the previous day I had scoped their formations, and I had clocked that a couple broke off during said formations and came hella close behind the house while resetting for the next manoeuvrer. This meant that from my room, I would probably get an interesting shot, a different perspective no one else had, and because I was on a shorter lens than your average air show fan, I may even get a decent close up without cropping it in in post after the fact (aka Photoshop). I came downstairs a little miffed that I didn't get the shot, only to be greeted by a family friend who said "that was weird wasn't it" - so it wasn't just me then!? But I'm getting ahead of myself, because this all happened during the Red Arrows display on the Sunday as suggested, and I'd chosen specifically to shoot on the Saturday as I knew we were due blues skies (ya know I love to pop a bit of colour) over the white-out that Sunday had been forecast.


Autogyro at Rhyl Airshow

One of the great things of living in Rhyl is the free Air show we get each year. For obvious reasons it was halted through covid, but in coming back this year, it was a massive boost to the area as it's also by far the busiest weekend of the year for tourism!

Starting off on a bum note however, being local and all, I'd been to the two previous ones prior to covid, and if I had one complaint amongst its accolades, it would be that it is the same every year! Actually, that's a lie, I think the first year I went there was no Typhoon, whereas that was a pretty big deal the following year, and it was only elevated again this year by having a funky paint job. I mean, the paint job is cool and all, and it had been a couple of years, but c'mon. Otherwise, it's the same display, each and every time. Denbigh council, if for some strange reason you see this, please please find a way of mixing it up year on year! That same coastline regularly sees all manner of aircraft, including Chinook helicopters that barely fly higher than the lampposts - even one of them would be an amazing addition. I appreciate these are specific teams dedicated to displays, and it ain't just the army having a day trip and making a few quid at displays, but gis a lil summat summat different!

Autogyro at Rhyl Airshow

Unfortunately for my sense of comparison, I'm spoiled, as I've been to the Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford. There, the planes can fly over the local area freely. In fact, we camped in a field nearby and pretty much saw all the aircraft more up close than the Rhyl display allows, which is primarily because they obviously have safety to consider, which for some reason doesn't seem to apply to that inland display.. probably because public living is less dense around the base. Anyways, here you're not allowed in the water or on certain parts of the beach while planes are flying, and short of circling to reset as mentioned above, everything takes place over the water... but I digress. The Fairford one is a paid show that sells out in days. It's much much bigger, and as a result it attracts aircraft like stealth bombers (not there the year I went #gutted), numerous formation teams, and the odd explosion. To add to that, some of the pilots like to have fun and are conscious of the fact that people in the nearby camp sites (even though they haven't paid), came to that site for the weekend to watch from the outside on the sly, so they enjoy showing up for them too.

The standouts from the weekend are those pesky Italians, who do nothing to dull their stereotypes of butch bravado and cheek. Their equivalent of the Red Arrows, the Frecce Tricolor - well, they like to misbehave! They would push their luck at seeing just how low they could drop over the photographers heads when coming in for landing, and because you get all the usual uber fans at these things, they had radio control playing on hand held radios, so that you can hear the banter, the pilot's excitement of being a lil naughty, the following bollocking, and the general amusement between those standing in the prime "I didn't pay, but have a wicked view" spot at the end of the runway.

Above are a few from Fairford, including the Frecce Tricolor in that first image. I always loved that image because of how it awkwardly fills the frame, the formation, and then the civilian plane way back in the distance. The second image shows how much distance the Italians should probably have given us at the bottom of the runway, while the 3rd shows how close up you can get.. and that's probably one of the more cropped in images.

So Photography, you say? Yes, I'll talk about it, I promise!

At Fairford, I was shooting on a Canon 5d3 and had the luxury of owning a 100-400L at the time, which was plenty for where we were. I did however sell that lens long ago, and I do miss it a little! It was a bastard to get cleaned professionally, as being a push me pull you lens (rather than a twist zoom, you literally push is to extend), it sucked in all manner of crap and cost me a pretty penny. This time around in Rhyl though, I was on my trusty Canon 70-200mm 2.8 L, which in all honesty isn't anywhere near enough for an air show. The one big plus this year, however, is that I'm now shooting on the Canon R5, which has a huge 45megapixels compared to the 5d3's 22.3! In laymen terms, that means the images are pretty huge, and you can crop in loads without losing quality. The fact the technology is over a decade newer/better, helps too!

Hella croppage, but still pretty damn sharp! Typhoon in Rhyl, Shot by Splash Point Photo

The previous two years that I had shot some images at Rhyl were pretty fruitless. There were a couple of OK shots at the first while using the 5d with the 70-200, but to give you just some idea of how 'meh' for the job that lens is.. if you've ever looked through a camera viewfinder and seen the size of a single focal point - that's about the size of the plane when you're shooting! The second year I shot, I had also just won a 'Bigma' in a competition, so I was giving that a whirl as a tester while not expecting much and knowing I was probably gonna sell it on for some cash. The 'Bigma' is a Sigma 50-500mm, but it's pretty cheap glass, and after you've lived a life on sharp glass, it's rubbish and only sharp if you hit sweet spots, so not very practical at all. As an amateur who wants reach, it's a well acclaimed lens, but for anything you'll be proud of in the long run, it's way too much of a fight for quality to make it worth living with.

This year was the turn of the "let's see how much I can push the R5 and crop it in in post" as it's still a fairly new camera, and because again, those focal points on the most part are still the size of the plane! The difference this time is that I now have double the pixels to play with, a far better focusing system, and in all honestly, a decent mirrorless camera is a world above a dSLR in this day and age. So for this reason, and the fact I pump out content on the socials in reels for Insta, and videos on YouTube, I also figured I'd shoot a bunch of video as well. There are three in body stabilization modes on the R5 when shooting video, each crops in a little more - I think that's because they use the negative space around the subject as a means to scrap the shake so that the stillness is all on the subject in the middle while that outer edge is cast aside for the pleasure - it's not something you need to worry about, as in real time you see that limited field of view, so it's not like you have to keep it in mind when shooting. Anyways, the reason this appealed is that said crop would help me get in closer in real time.. so here's that video:

What I did do this year (and again having prior knowledge from previous years helped), was venture into the crowded bit by the events' arena, and then the arena itself. While there's action all the way from Splash Point to down past the arena, it's by the RNLI where the concentrated public are, so inevitably that where the majority of the action takes place, plus it's also the landing site for the parachute teams, of which I'd not shot properly previously as a result.

The RAF Typhoon display team followed next.. and who doesn't love a fighter yet? The faster, the louder, and the more aggressive the plane, the better for me, which is by and large the biggest bummer about the Rhyl Air Show as it's just the one flyer in that category. These following images will probably give you the best insight in to the crop factor in post. Don't get me wrong, I was on the 70mm end of the 70-200 for the 'wide' shot (and may have cropped a little), but at least you have some context of just to how close and small in frame the planes are.

There's plenty to do in between sets too, and there's a little time to do it in, with usually at least a 10 to 15-minute window separating the display teams.. altho it'll probably take you that long to get an ice cream! Another bonus about being local is, that some stalls who set up on the Friday evening will welcome sales then too, so you can avoid the hustle and bustle when buying your little trinket.

The stalls range from official Red Arrows and Typhoon merch, to general air related stuff. There is of course cheap fairground style stalls too, food, charity, recruitment for things like the air cadets, and the odd static display as well. Or you can just people watch and/or drink at some of the local spots along the prom such as the Kite Surf Café, who sometimes lay on their own entertainment too.

Up next were Team Raven, another formations team who "fly self-build RV8 aircraft, painting shapes across the skies in their wake." The formation teams are a little easier to shoot on a lesser length lens as you're getting groupings on the most part. The biggest challange is how you frame them and whether you leave space in the direction that they're heading, or like my tricolor image above, just box them in - personal creative decisions no doubt.

The Battle of Britian memorial flight is less of a display and more a fly past of several passes featuring a Lancaster Bomber, Spitfire and a Hurricane. Understandably given their history, these hold a massive soft spot in many people's hearts, to the point that people will moan at you when you put background music behind the Lancaster Bomber during your video! To be fair, I knew someone would; it is a loud beastie and the biggest in the sky over he entire weekend.

There was an overlap with the Battle of Britian and the RAF police dog display team, or at least there was when I shot them as the dogs display twice daily. I have a feeling this may have been a new addition this year, albeit on the ground, as i'm sure they used to have a static spitfire and other stuff in the events arena previous, but as suggested above, this was the first time I really got stuck in to the crowds, and as a dog fan, it had to be done! We had an explosives sniffer, a drug sniffer, and an attack dog. Worth a mention was that the compere was fun, friendly and helped ensure order with such quips along the lines of "Please ensure that those with dogs move back from the front row. While ours are well trained, they are indeed dogs, so it's just to be on the safe side. I have a feeling, that in a fight, ours will probably win!". Or "Decisions... drugs or chips, drugs or chips?" when calling upon voluentees holding chips during the drugs display.

A memorable fixture each year is the autogyro, or gyrocopter, not least because he has special permission to fly over the beach and get much closer to the crowd.. i'm not sure why, maybe because it's slower and lighter? He does do some funky routines all the same, but maybe not to the degree of the Extra 300 jet that follows, who will climb and then stall out in to free-fall. Unfortunately, I was low on battery, a symptom of a lot of shooting combined with video, so I didn't shoot any of the Extra 300. Again, I've seen it twice previously, and being a singular small jet, it's just a bit of a mission to photograph knowing it's not the most exciting paint work and when awkward falling or doing spins, it may not necessarily translate well in a still image.

And finally of course, the Red Arrows, who are probably the main attraction for most. I think there's a lot of pride and patriotism placed on the Red Arrows, but i've seen the routines enough times to still be more excited by the raw power of fighter jets, but hey, that's just me. Us youngsters, *cough*, have a short attention spans, so we like loud and brash things right, or just newer technology pushing the limits? I guess where the Arrows do push limits are in their close passes.

Bird Strike

So you got hooked in the first para and skipped here.. I hear ya, you're part of that younger generation aren't ya. A bit too much waffling in the middle?

Fireman watching the Red Arrows in Rhyl, Shot by Splash Point Photo
The best view? A fire fighter ( i imagine) up the Rhyl Fire Station tower.

I wasn't going to shoot on the Sunday, and as you can see from the image at the top of the page, and the one just above (and those below), the skies were white and dead. Shooting some* white aircraft against a white sky was just gonna be far too 'meh' for my tastes, and I got 90% of what I wanted on the blue skies, so it was just a matter of staying home with friends and family, and then nipping upstairs to get that shot I envisioned.. which as we know, never a hppened. I'm sure everyone who wants to know, knows by now as it made news pretty much everywhere, and certainly locally, but during a close pass - literally at the crucial part of the pass - a pilot hit a seagull. For that split second, if not more, he literally took a bird to the face, blinding him for that short while and causing enough damage the cockpit for Red 7 (I think it was) to feel as though it was too unsafe to continue. I mean, after a bird to the head at a 100 or 2 mile an hour, a broken cockpit, a helmet that probably helped save his life, and I imagine blood every where while spitting feathers, I wouldn't be too excited about finishing either to be fair. And that's where we pick up the story at the beginning.. so if you'd like to go back up to the top and read it all again.. and again.. infinitely.. it may help you sleep, assuming you got this far and aren't snoring?

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