191110 Filming Planes - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

Who has two thumbs and goes out to chase airplanes with a film camera fitted with either a 35mm or 50mm lens? This guy.

That's more of a visual joke, but I think it still works.You'll have to imagine me pointing at myself with both thumbs, which I'm doing as I type this. The photo above, of the Embraer ERJ175, was taken with the 50. And yes, it was too much lens.

Both of my recent weekend visits to the eastern perimeter of Toronto Pearson airports have involved my film rangefinder as well as a digital camera or two. So now that the film's back from the lab here are a few more plane photos, all taken with Ilford HP5 Plus pushed to iso800.

Despite spending the afternoon under the 24R flight path I didn't come away with any film photos featuring the "Landing Strip" club, which is clearly an oversight that would have made a stronger set. Here we have a DHC-8 Q400, my favourite airplane in the whole world, and a Boeing 767, probably CFJZK, flying for Air Canada Rouge.

One of the biggest differences with photographing on film versus digital is that it's much tougher to go back later and figure out what I was doing. I had my phone handy and took screen shots of my flight radar app for each aircraft that I photographed, but it's much tougher to go back and correlate those to the film photos. No time stamps, for one thing, but also the film rarely captures enough detail to read the registration numbers. Not only does digital resolve better, I'd also have a lot more photos in a sequence, making it much easier to find the right information for each.

Doing the same thing two weekends in a row accomplished two things. One is repetitive blog posts, and my apologies for that. The other is that I can learn from my mistakes and test new methods very promptly. Being able to identify the aircraft was a part of that learning experience.

The first time out I simply took a screen shot of FlightRadar24 as each aircraft as it was on approach, and again on landing if I was able to photograph it. This was way too much, and also not enough. So the second time out I only took one screenshot per aircraft, and I used Markup and added a note to each photo that I took with my film camera. Sometimes it was a simple squiggle to denote that it was shot on film; other times I typed in some text to tell me where I was – "fence" or "golf", for example. It made a huge difference.

So what are these aircraft that are coming in on runway 23? I have no idea. They're all from my first trip. I can only reliably recognize the A380, B747, and DHC Dash 8's.

Here we have 'golf' and 'fence', so I know that these are Ethiad Airways 777 A6ETG and Rouge 767 CFMWU, respectively. They were both coming in on runway 24R, which puts spectators much farther away than the northern approach. This was also the trip that I brought the 35mm lens for, since the 50 was too much back when I was able to get closer.

Such is life – but I'd still expect the 35 to be my main lens, no matter which runway I visit, when I eventually go back. I might also bring the 50, or even the 85, but that's secondary.

And there's no question that I'd carry my film camera when I'm out by the airport again. The question is whether I'll bother bringing my digital ones. And the answer to that question is almost certainly 'yes', but the fact that I'm asking it at all amazes me.

It comes down to a matter of having the self discipline to resist temptation, which isn't my strength.

One of the biggest differences with photos on film versus digital is what I was trying to include. With the digitals firing multiple frames per second I'd be seduced into tracking the aircraft, which are moving a couple hundred kilometers an hour and passing a couple of hundred meters overhead, and sometimes that worked. But then what? I'll come home with a thousand photos, of which three are good – if I'm lucky – and then I'm left to sort through the mediocre ones in the hope that some might be simultaneously interesting and in focus.

With the film camera I simply can't hope to take multiple photos of the same plane – I can advance the film fast enough for one inbound and one outbound frame, but that's it. As a result I'm much more likely to try for an environmental portrait than a head-and-shoulders glamour shot. Ultimately, I like this approach better, and I suspect it has more lingering value.

In fact, some of my favourite photos from these trips don't include aircraft at all. This is why I'll absolutely use the film camera when I'm back here again, and why it'll have the 35mm lens on it when I do.

Maybe in the spring.