American involvement in conflict 1941 to now

The United States has for many years been a major player in world conflicts.  A focus of the recent IWM Duxford American Air Show was to highlight this involvement and to remember the wide range of people and aircraft that participated in these important moments in history.  I will try in this post to discuss these in a little more detail, and also of course talk about the photography I undertook during the visit.

World War 2

There is so much that has been written about the second world war, so I am not going to go into detail about the war itself (there are loads of great sources and readings out there).  I am however going to focus on the deployment of American Air personnel as this reflects the portraits I captured on the day.


The United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF) was a part of the Army and originally consisted of the Eighth Air Force (bomber command).  The USSTAF was established in 1944 and also retained overall command of other air forces stationed in the Mediterranean and Eurpoean theatres.  Over the course of the war 1.5 million American soldiers (a big constituent being airmen) were either posted in England or carried the fight over to continental Europe.

Airman 1-1733Airman 2-1721

The main challenge with these portraits was to avoid the fun fair rides and big crowds in the background, as it didn't seem in keeping with the mood...  The other challenge was keeping up with their movement.  They were moving around, chatting with each other and so getting a sharp shot was more tricky.  It was made even more so by me forgetting to change my settings so that I had a fast enough shutter.  I was a little frustrated with this sequence of images when I got them on to the computer, as a lot of them had missed focus slightly, or there was a little too much motion blur.  They are a great group to photograph though as they keep it authentic during the day, avoiding the use of phones and modern conveniences as much as possible, making environmental, candid portraits like this a pleasure to capture.  The colours produced by the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 lens I was using was excellent, with only a little bump in vibrance needed in Lightroom.

Alongside the military efforts, there was a big drive by civilians in the US to keep spirits up, and a lot of this culture (music, dancing styles) journeyed across the Atlantic to England.  There was a rise in popularity of jazz, blues and R&B music, with the dances that accompanied them.


Just a small aside - there is still an American presence in the UK to this day, with bases such as Mildenhall and Lakenheath hosting fast jet pilots and their families.  It is a vital jump-off point for operations in the middle east, increasing their capability in these areas of the world.

USAF portrait-1699

Vietnam War

There were four major contributing factors that pushed the US into the war in Vietnam; containing the spread of communism in Asia; a domino effect of the other countries in South-East Asia falling if South Vietnam did; a weak South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), and finally (perhaps most importantly) North Vietnam attacking the USS Maddox in 1964.  The combined effect of these events led to the US President, Lyndon B Johnson to become aggressively interested in the future of the country, with him finally declaring war after the attack on American air bases in February 1965.

Over the course of the war there were approximately 8.7 million "volunteers" (possibly including a lot of people who decided to join rather than be drafted and get a less favourable posting) and 2.15 million draftees pulled from the young male population in the United States.

Screaming Eagle

This portrait was taken from a group of actors called the "Rolling Thunder" experience, who re-enact troop deployments of the 101st "screaming eagles" airborne division.  The majority were dressed as regular troops and NCOs from the period, and they created a great atmosphere.  The light was flat this early in the morning, and so the sky was one big softbox.  This created great conditions for portraits and I was able to capture this image; at an aperture of f/4 and an ISO of 100 to keep the quality as high as possible, I was using a shutter of 1/250th of a second (the exposure was more or less spot on from the Nikon D750 and the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8, only needing to bump the image up in Lightroom by +0.2).  Most of the colours were greys and olive greens, so a black and white conversion seemed fitting, especially considering the subject.  There's a sense of underlying tension, a sense of waiting for something, which is exactly what these troops posted in FOBs (forward operating bases) would have experienced on a daily basis.

A quick kit thought - this was my first time out with my new Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 lens and after using it all day I had two observations.  First, yes it is pretty heavy, but not debilitatingly so (I wasn't in pain, just a little tired in the forearms).  Second, the images I was obtaining (when user error was not involved) were amazingly sharp and colourful.  As an alternative to the extremely expensive Nikon/Canon glass, it is hard to beat in terms of quality and value for money.

The first signs of diminishing support at home in the US for the war came in 1964-65.  Small protests were being organised, mainly on college campuses, but high profile protestors included Mohammed Ali, who became one of the many conscientious objectors (people who refused to be drafted into service).  As the body count and cost to the US tax payer rose, more and more movements took place, including one of the largest at the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C. in 1967.  Now it wasn't just academics and free spirits, ordinary American workers were getting involved.

Out of Vietnam

Get us out of Vietnam

Unfortunately I did not get a chance to catch the name of this re-enactor, which is a shame because he did a great job of posing for people taking pictures, and keeping to the mood of the display.  His dead stare had a certain level of anger and frustration, just perfectly reflecting what people would have been feeling.  I decided to take a couple of different images, with slightly different compositions and, in the end, different processing.  I like them both, but maybe the black and white image does remind me more of a picture you might have seen in the paper at the time.

  Johnson ordered an end to the bombing in 1968 and in 1969 the new President, Nixon, began pulling troops out whilst at the same time providing money to the ARVN.  Kissinger proposed a peace deal in 1972 which the North Vietnamese refused to sign, until Nixon's renewed bombing forced the hand of North Vietnamese leader Thieu and the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1973, bringing the Vietnam war to an end.

The Cold War

I'm not going to say much here because, technically, there was no military involvement in the Cold War.  However, there was an American presence in Berlin after WW2, where West Berlin sat as a little island marooned in communist occupied German Democratic Republic (GDR).  The Americans were amongst other things tasked with guarding the Berlin wall (think Checkpoint Charlie).  The wall was put up to stop people taking advantage of the loop hole West Berlin presented - a route to the free West.  Between 1961 and and its fall in 1989 about 5000 people tried to cross the wall, with a small percentage of those people being killed in the process.

Berlin wall-1847Berlin wall-1850

A piece of the wall has been added to the newly reopened American Hangar at Duxford.  It was a very popular installation on the day of the airshow, alongside a haunting animation looking at the proliferation of nuclear weapons since their invention.  Again, shooting the wall I was hugely impressed with my combination of camera and lens.  Due to the lower light and the need for a faster shutter speed dodging busy crowds I was shooting at ISO 1000, and the D750 managed it with ease.  The Sigma still had excellent colour rendition and sharpness, every hole and chip in the wall was captured perfectly.

I always enjoy my visits to the museum, and the air show was no exception.  Shooting portraits of people re-enacting what our armed forces went through to keep us a free society is always a pleasure, and I am always humbled by the constant stream of stories and  achievements made by this group of people.


Things that excited me at CES 2016

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas isn't normally the event that major products in photography are unveiled, especially since Photokina is coming up later this year.  However, there were a few stand-out announcements that caught my attention. And, no, this is not helping my GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) one bit...

Nikon D5/D500

First up, one (sort of) expected camera, and one that people thought had been lost forever to the realms of photography myth.  The Nikon D5 and D500 are definitely sibling camera bodies.  Both contain the same Expeed 5 sensor, the same 153 point AF system, and the same tilty touch screen (similar in design to the D750, although doesn't seem to be getting as much hate).  What does make the D500 stand out, however, is the ability to record 4K video.  Now, yes, the D5 does this too, but the D500 can record in full 4K at 30fps for 29 minutes.  This does make the D5's 3 minutes look a little pathetic - I'm not sure of the reason for the limit on the D5 (overheating?), and surely it will not do it any favours when Canon's 1Dx follow-up appears (rumoured to come later this year).

Nikon D500 microsite

Fujifilm XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR

Mmmm, giant lens...This was an expected announcement, as this lens has been rumoured, then rumoured to be delayed etc etc (it has also been on the Fuji product roadmap for a year or so).  However, it still looks impressive, with an equivalent 35mm focal length of 152-609mm, weather sealing (with a fluorine (PTFE maybe?) coating on the front element to help repel moisture) and 5 stops of image stabilisation.  I couldn't work out/figure out if the image stabilisation has two modes a la the Sigma super-teles and some of the Nikons, but this lens will definitely appeal to sports and wildlife photographers.  Again, another lens that will continue to make this system an attractive alternative to DSLRs.

Fujifilm EF-X500


What's that I hear you say, a flashgun?  Big deal, right?  Well yes, because one of the things that possibly holds people back from switching fully to the X system is the lack of kit, like decent hot shoe flashes.  This flash unit has a high speed sync of 1/8000 sec (found on high end flashes like the Nikon SB-900) and it is weather resistant.  Both of these features were clearly showing that this was developed with the Fuji X-Pro2 in mind.

Samsung 2TB T3 SSD drive


As the megapixel count on camera bodies stays consistently at 20MP or above, secure, reliable data storage is still a pressing need for many users.  Solid state drives (SSD) have been coming down in price for some time, and now we are at the point where you can get a useable amount of storage without having to sell your children house to afford it.  The other thing that makes this so attractive is its size - smaller than an average business card...which is just ridiculous...Write speeds are quoted to be 450 MB/s via a USB 3.1 type C interface, which is the current standard.

There were lots of other announcements, such as a plethora of drones and action cameras (including the relatively novel Nikon KeyMission 360), but the ones I have discussed seemed to offer the most innovation (or failing that, a major addition to a line-up).  We will have to wait and see what CP+ brings us in February...

If you spotted anything at CES that caught your eye, let me know in the comments below.

Geevor Tin Mine, Cornwall

Day 5 - Geevor tin mine.  The weather picked up dramatically from the first few days (if you saw a previous post, we were engulfed by some murky weather), and we headed off to one of the best known tin mine museums in Cornwall.  Tin mining used to be a huge industry here, and the landscape is covered in old stacks and derelict shells of former mining outfits.  There is even a Poldark mine...Geevor tin mine is home to a fantastic wealth of information about mining, and you can even walk through a shallow mine shaft which is manned by people who used to work here.  Claustrophobic individuals might want to avoid that!  One of the best parts of the mine (especially for a photographer) are the buildings devoted to the workers themselves, where they came in in the morning, where they prepared for the long day in the dark, and where they cleaned up after a hard day mining tin.  I tried to capture the feel of the place in a photo story style, with a number of images trying to show the conditions they faced and the spirit they had while working here. At the bottom of this structure you could see the shaft this lift was using and how deep it was. Certainly not for the faint hearted.

This was part of the lift construction to transport miners and their equipment underground.

Next to this structure was the building complex for the miners.  You could see the company had tried to provide some home comforts for them considering the difficult working conditions, but it did seem quite bleak.  The whole area was called "the dry", purely because the miners would dry their overalls here, and have a shower to get clean and dry.  There was a very clear sense of hierarchy in the dry, with separate mess areas and shower areas for the bosses.  The more interesting part was the mass locker room for the "grunts" of the mine, the workers.  So much of their stuff had just been left when the mine was suddenly closed in 1986, and the museum has left many of these items, dust and all, to give a sense of what it was like.

Shirts, pants, socks, jackets, so many items were left behind.

The personality of the miners shone through. A few bikers' lockers were grouped together, showing a shared love of machinery.

Some of these men also seemed pretty good at riding, with some stickers from competitions they had entered.

Photographically this area was quite challenging.  The light was both low level and of varying quality, including a mixture of different light sources.  It took a little while to recognise the white balance that was needed (although granted, shooting in RAW meant this could be corrected in Lightroom).  Also, I had to open the lenses and shoot at a higher ISO - ISO is less of a problem with the Fuji X system as it produces pleasing film-like grain, but the wide aperture meant that I missed good focus sometimes.

Clocking in for the last time in '84.

The sense of humour of the miners was clear to see.

Alongside the items left by the workers were photographs of themselves, along with some stories of times in the mine.  It was eerie to read these in the quiet calm of the empty dry, especially with their property hung up around you.

Shower time in the Dry. This shower was for the normal shift workers. There was little privacy.

Abandoned tokens, for the abandoned possessions.

Mono conversions are fantastic with the files from the Fuji X-Pro1.  The RAW files have such nice tones directly out of the camera, it takes little work in Lightroom to bring out a little more contrast.  The more I use this camera, the more it seems the files take less work than with the Nikon D750.  The files don't react well to sharpening, but if you get it right when taking the image (i.e. minimising camera shake), you don't need to add sharpening in post-production as the files are that good.  Particularly with the 35mm f/1.4 and the 18mm f/2.

The workshop.

This was a nice break of routine for me, as it allowed me to consider a set of images to convey a sense of a place full of history.  Normally I'm more accustomed to finding the "one" image with landscapes, but I really enjoyed our day at the mine.  As I would relish the chance to photograph a wedding in the future, this kind of storytelling is great practice, except for the lack of people of course...

Nikon D750 - Unboxing and first impressions

After 4 great years, my Nikon D90 and I have finally said goodbye. It was tough, it was emotional, but it was time. Ok, maybe it wasn't as dramatic as that, but it was a big milestone in my photography experience so far - upgrading to full frame. Of course, this meant sticking with Nikon as I already had lenses, remote releases etc. Also, Canon weren't really offering (in my opinion) anything great enough to jump ship for. I mean, yes, the Canon 5DIII is amazing with a price tag to match, but that itself is ageing and I'm sure will soon be replaced with the Mark IV (I'm ignoring the 5Ds and 5Dsr, ridiculous megapixel count!). So, staying with Nikon left me with a few options. The Nikon D610 - cheapest of them all, quality seems to be under control now after the pretty disappointing issues with early copies, and contains a lot of features suitable for most shooters (2 card slots, big LCD, fair autofocus system). But, something was off with me. It seemed (and felt in the shop) a little underspec, a little too entry-level (hopefully that doesn't make me sound like a gear snob, really I'm not!). That left the D8xx series and the D750. The D8xx cameras really are beautiful, GREAT ergonomics, absolutely packed full of features and of course that MP count. All the images I have seen from these bodies are amazing, and I've read many articles from photographers moving to the cameras from medium format. However, the price and the megapixels eventually stopped me from pulling the trigger. My computer purely wouldn't cope, which would mean further expense after purchase. Same thing with lenses too - I would absolutely have to buy new glass for that sensor. D750 front

So, it had to be the D750 for me. Two card slots, magnesium-carbon monocoque, same AF system as the D810/D4 (Multi-CAM 3500II), GREAT sensor (24.3 MP), slightly smaller and lighter than the other Nikon FF bodies (750g with no battery), it seemed like a winner.

Nikon have really worked hard with their packaging, to make it more environmentally friendly and streamlined - so, more cardboard, less plastic, easier to re-package the gear. Great. There's not an awful lot in the box, which is fine as you get everything you need (giant manual, naff strap, charger and cable - disappointed there was no wall adaptor here, USB cable).

D750 box triptych

And then there was the body. Initial impressions were that it was surprisingly weighty (obviously not as heavy as the D810, that is a beast) but it feels reassuringly heavy and it feels very well built. Much has been made of the skinnier LCD on the top of the body, but all the information is laid out sensibly and actually it seems a little bit more streamlined. The back of the body contains that fantastic 1.2 million pixel RGBW screen out of the D810, which can also tilt. This was the one thing that actually made me apprehensive about this body - I was worried about catching the screen and tilting it when getting it in and out of the bag. We will see how this goes with more use...

D750 back

Finally, one of my favourite features of Nikon's new range of cameras, is the improved ergonomics. Specifically, the grip on the D750 is fantastic! Deep, curved so that your middle finger can rest under the shutter, and the thumb grip has also been beefed up. Coming from the good ol' D90, this grip is a revelation.

D750 side

Final thoughts? The Nikon D750 is a great looking camera, with fantastic ergonomics and a great feature set with a weather sealed sturdy metal composite body. Yes it is pretty heavy, but not "I need a splint for my wrist" heavy. Loads of pro features and in my opinion the sweet spot of megapixel count. Initial shooting impressions will be coming soon, when I took the camera out for the first time to a local air show. Stay tuned, thanks for reading.