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Self-Assigned Challenge: Miramar Air Show

The Marine Corps Air Station Miramar was the perfect proving ground for the Sony A9

For a self-assigned challenge, I decided to shoot a subject matter I haven’t ever captured, the near-supersonic jets at a military air show. When Sony asked if I wanted to join them for a shoot at the Miramar Air Show in San Diego, I wasn’t sure how it would go. The ideal shot goes by in a millisecond of roaring engines, and since I’ve never shot planes before, the idea was intimidating and, as it turns out, well worth it.

The Patriots perform before the show closers, the Blue Angels.

I have taken photos of commercial airliners at SeaTac Airport and visited the Boeing Museum of Flight to test a Sigma wide angle lens. But standing on the tarmac with an a9 attached to a 400mm F/2.8 lens was a new experience.

The 400 attracts almost as much attention as the F-35b. That’s me and Frank Crebas.

It helped enormously that next to me were two legendary aviation photographers: Larry Grace—President of the International Society for Aviation Photography, and Frank Crebas—legendary aviation shooter based in Europe. I listened to their advice and watched what they did. The best part was neither of them had shot with a Sony before. We were in this together, an ad-hoc brotherhood formed on the tarmac, sort of like the Marines—but without the fatigues or boot camp.

Back at the hotel, in the bar for an app and drinks, Larry told me, “Shooting mirrorless in an air show setting is a game changer [because] no blackout in the viewfinder makes tracking your subject much easier.” Here, Larry is referring to the Sony a9’s ability to capture at 20 fps without “blackout,” which is the period of time when the view in a traditional camera is obscured as the mirror flips up in an SLR or as the sensor processes an image in a mirrorless camera. Thanks to the stacked CMOS sensor in the a9, the camera operates fast enough to eliminate shutter blackout.” See Digital Photo Pro’s original review of the a9 here.

A wall of fire simulating an invasion.

A Trial By Fire

There was fire, lots of it, an eight-story wall erupted as jets flew by while “Welcome to the Jungle” blared on speakers and American flags flew. The Marines use the first half of the air show for a Marine Air-Ground Force Demo—that’s a simulated invasion with jets, helicopters, Ospreys and tanks.

Sony’s mirrorless firepower at the media chalet.

What interested me the most was the F-35b Lighting II, the most modern fighter in the world. The 400 f2.8 put me right into the action like I could reach out and touch the stealthy wing while it hovered above the flight line with its bomb bay doors open. The F-35 wowed the crowd before a jet-powered semi rocketed by and the second act started with the Patriots jet demonstration team. The Blue Angels finale closed the show.

In step with the times, MCAS Miramar featured women in the military and celebrated 100 years of their enlistment in the Marines.

Body And Lens Firepower

Despite the size, the 400 f/2.8 attached to the a9 weighs about 8 pounds (lens, body and grip). The comparable DSLR weight is about 13 pounds. It’s Sony’s high speed, precision technology, like that of the jets roaring past us, that impressed me, Larry and Frank the most. On his Instagram Frank said, “It felt like I was cheating.”

Me and Larry Grace shooting on the flight line.

Understanding Frank’s sentiment, cheating implies we got away with something, but the a9, especially when paired with the 400, is really a massive technological advantage. Calculating focus at 60 times per second while capturing at 20 frames per second with no blackout means the focus locks on instantly and tracks the subject while you see the frames in the viewfinder. To compare, Canon’s EOS-1D X Mark II maxes out at 14 fps and the Nikon D5 at 12 fps.

Of course, you’ll need the fastest card for the magic to happen, but the a9 will capture 362 frames before the write speed slows down. A lens has to keep up too, which is one of the advantages of a lens designed for a mirrorless camera. The Sony 400mm f/2.8 GM has an XD linear motor and the elements are centered in the lens body for better weight distribution. The result is a lens that can keep up with that 60-times-a-second focusing speed.

By the end of the weekend, I had 16,000 photos on cards. While almost all were in focus, about a dozen had me saying to myself, “How did I do that?”

In terms of aviation photography, this is the best one I took for the close-up and sharpness.

Really, it was the sensor and the lens that did that. The a9 retails for $4,498 and the 400 is $11,998.

When it launched, the a9 introduced the world’s first “stacked” backside-illuminated full-frame sensor. The stacked technology makes the a9 10 times faster than the a7 III and 20 times faster than the a7 II. It also extends the ISO range from 50 to 204,800 while providing 693 phase detection points, spread nearly across the entire sensor.

By the second day, I knew much better what to expect, where to be and how to compose the shots. I also learned what aviation photographers are after—the moment the jets cross or shots getting as close as possible.

F/A-18 Hornet flying past.

Here’s the shooting scenario: In the media scrum, a spotter calls out where the jet is approaching from. I’d point the lens in the direction of the approach, see a blurry, fast-moving subject in the viewfinder, half press the shutter button and the camera locked on and tracked. No blackout gets really interesting at this point; sure, there’s the wow of seeing what you’re capturing in real time, but I used it for composing too.

I went right into the danger zone.

With a lingering marine layer (a.k.a., fog) on the left and midday sun on the right, there was about a third of the sky with favorable light. So after locking focus, I’d wait to see a letter, number or rich colors on a jet to depress the shutter button all the way and capture. That’s how I got this photo of the Patriots and the “right into the danger zone” Blue Angels flyby.

Number 6 roared past for this photo.

Even five years since Sony launched their Alpha system, I understand a disruptive technology like mirrorless will continue to get pushback and skepticism from old-school DSLRs shooters, and you’ll probably have to experience no blackout for yourself to get how transformative it is. What I can tell you is that standing on the tarmac with thousands of airshow fans, Larry said that if he were to start over, he’d seriously consider the Sony. Frank said he’d buy a Sony a9.

F-35B front fab open to land.

I’m confident they believed in the Sony system even more after they spent time in post with what they captured at Miramar.

I know how impressed I was.

Yep, it was like a scene from Top Gun. Miramar is where the movie was filmed and the iconic tower made a perfect backdrop.

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