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Live Jets & The Bubble

Episode 71 has a fascinating discussion that reveals just how much goes into an air-to-air engagement. There’s so many factors for man and machine to work through in split-seconds and it really makes you appreciate the art of aerial warfare. Of course, armed jets also look cool and are great to photograph…

There’s nothing better than seeing armed fighters, bristling with missiles under their wings or nestled under their bellies. Naturally, at airshows the aircraft will be flown ‘clean’ to ensure they are as light and manoeuvrable as possible and during regular sorties they might have training rounds hanging off them and that’s all good.

But there’s something of a different connection that comes with seeing a jet fighter tooled up to the max in its full purposeful, deadly, configuration.

Generally speaking, you can tell the difference between a ‘live’ weapon and a training munition by the ‘real deal’ having a thin yellow band around the missile’s body.

Shooting live armed jets can present a unique set of challenges. Some of these include…

Sensitive jets…

There will be more security layers for obvious reasons. Especially if the jet is on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), and often you cannot photograph the QRA area for security reasons. Some nations actually forbid the use of long lenses around live-armed jets due to being able to read the serial numbers of the missiles, thereby telling the age and number of the munition, which is sensitive information.

Heavier jets…

If you are by a runway with a jet about to roll, you might want a specific lift-off shot. If that jet is clean, it will be airborne in about 30-50% of the distance than a jet laden with fuel tanks and missiles and heading out for an intercept.

Dangerous jets!

There’s often rules around shooting jets head-on for good reason. If there’s a loaded gun or missiles primed, then staying out of that ‘cone’ is a good thing.


As Episode 71 describes, the planning for such missions is vital and intense. One of my favourite phases to capture when I undertake a shoot with COAP is the briefing period, where the mission is laid out and everyone hones in on the goals of the flight. Shooting this could involve squeezing into a tight office-type room or hiding at the back of a purpose-built, larger briefing room as the details are played out and the information absorbed. The goal is to stay out of the way of the briefing taking place and be as little of a distraction as possible. This is a sanitised, sanctuary of the fighter pilot world and, if you have permission to be there, you do NOT want to outstay your welcome.

There’s a number of ways to do this successfully, and only once you have permission from the Flight Lead, Commanding Officer, the Public Affairs Office and the other pilots in the brief.

It’s often vital to ensure that there’s no names or faces in the shot. This can easily be achieved by being at the back of the room (there’s always a bald head somewhere in front of you haha!) and using a shallow depth of field, or focusing on specific, non-identifiable details.

Another idea is to shoot the weather brief… This normally takes place way before the flight brief and photographs do not come with a sound track, so no one knows the difference between a group of pilots being given information on cloud ceilings or if they are talking about the rules of engagement in a dogfight.

That’s one way, but by far the best is to request a ‘mock brief’. If I am spending a lot of time with a unit, then staging a brief is a lot easier to shoot, albeit that there will likely be less pilots involved (and that’s ok). This ensures you get the back-story images but have not had to enter into the sanctuary of a briefing, and you have the time to work around any lighting and angle issues…

Remember, briefing rooms are not there for the purpose of your photography! So using a crazy wide-angle lens and dealing with strange white balance issues are all part of the challenge.

My favourite Nikon lens for this is the 10-24mm or the 24-70mm – I will usually need to over expose by at least one stop to ensure a well-balanced image, and with most bodies nowadays you can rely on auto white balance and higher ISO levels to get the job done well enough when shooting in RAW.

Careful post-processing vital. Some cameras also have a ‘silent mode’ for shooting too, and this is super useful! Of course, mirrorless are virtually silent which is great for this environment.

I cannot stress enough how important it is that you stay out of the way and do not impose upon this vital part of a mission. This also extends through the period (maybe an hour or so) between a briefing and the launch. This is when all of that information and data and parameters and rules and probabilities and plans that form the brief are being absorbed and implemented into the Fighter Pilot’s brain ahead of the mission. They are focused. They are in what is called a ‘bubble’. Do not break that.

It’s not the time for asking for extra photos or for distracting the crew by being in the way. Sure, another of my favourite phases of photography is the walk-round or the climb-in/start-up of the jet. I will be out the way, a fly-on-the-wall and nothing will be staged. You have to become an expert in reportage-style and knowing what happens during the step up to the aircraft, start-up sequence and taxi out only comes from experience.

If there’s a very specific shot I want, I will have communicated it to the Pilot BEFORE the brief, and usually this will be undertaken once the jet is back, the mission is done, the engines are off and so is the pressure. It becomes a totally different shoot but with the same result.

Planning and awareness of these factors is vital in conveying the life and work of a Fighter Pilot.

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