Carry Film in Your Underwear: The Danger of Flying with Film

For the remaining die hards like me who still shoot with film, flying can be more stressful than it should be. Flying introduces the possibility that our film will be x-rayed and destroyed by airport security. For the most part, I’ve been very lucky, but my luck ran out returning from a trip to Swedish Lapland.

Long story short: the plumbing in our house burst before Christmas and caused me to evacuate the contents of my studio to protect them from water. For almost 6 weeks, my photo studio has been spread across the kitchen, living room, hallways, and part of the upstairs. Although I usually use a lead lined film bag when flying, in the chaos of this forced relocation, I couldn’t located the bag, so I tossed the film into a ziplock and asked for a hand inspection at the airport.

Security officers in the United Kingdom and Stockholm were friendly and happy to hand inspect and swap the film with the explosive residue inspection tools. As a result, I arrived in Sweden with all my film safe and not zapped by an x-ray machine. I was carrying two rolls of Adox Silvermax (ISO 100), two rolls of Ilford HP-5 (ISO 400) and two rolls of Ilford Delta 3200 (ISO 3200) film. My concern was really with the high ISO films, which I would need in the limited sunlight of northern Sweden, so with my film un-zapped, I felt confident that I was going to be safe and sound and shot away.

Unfortunately, my confidence was misplaced. After shooting several rolls in my Leica M7, it was time to fly the exposed, but not developed, film home. At the Lulea, Sweden airport (which is very small and not at all busy), I politely asked if they could hand inspect the film because the x-ray machine could damage it.

No. 

After some back and forth, I was given several reasons why my film could not be hand inspected. These border on absolutely absurd:

“Because the explosive swab machine needs to be able to swab the inside and outside of the film capsule”

Obviously, this is absurd. The film capsule cannot be opened as that would expose the film to light. But even more nutty is that the explosive residue detection is extremely good. They often swab the palm of people’s hands to see if they have been in contact with explosives and the machine can detect these traces even after a hand washing. There is absolutely no way I could pack the inside of a film capsule with explosives and have the machine NOT detect it. Please. Swap the film, determine it isn’t a mini bomb, and let me proceed on my way.

“Because you don’t have a letter from the Sweden Government that explicitly states you, Kristen Meister, may have film hand inspected and not x-ray inspected” (this came from their supervisor). 

What? First, there is no mention of requiring such a letter on the Swedish airport security website. The Stockholm airport website recommends hand carrying film, and makes no mention of such requirements. But according to the airport security supervisor in Lulea, unless I have a letter from the Government of Sweden, thou shall not have film hand inspected. Do I need to have the Pope bless this letter too?

I remained exceptionally polite during this exchange and even pulled up TSA and UK regulations that stipulate film can be hand inspected. The security officer conceded that if the United States and the United Kingdom, two countries with very strict airport security, allow for hand inspection, that they should as well, but “his supervisor said no.” He also recognized that the Stockholm airport recommends hand inspection and all Swedish airport security should be the same, but shrugged a helpless “tough shit” response.

After pleading my case, it was clear that I had no option and that I was just going to have to hope their x-ray scanner was set to “light toast” vs “full crisp.” And in a case of full circle irony, the Swedish airport security in Stockholm, which is a busy international airport, was more than happy to hand inspect the film. The security agent even joked that all the appointments for film inspection had been filled for the day, but laughed and inspected it without any further pleading. Thank you to her! 

So what have I learned? Sadly, it might be easier to smuggle film in my underwear than to have it inspected by hand (joking!) Next time I’ll travel with low ISO films only so that if I do meet an absurd security policy, I have less risk of having the film damaged. And maybe I’ll start to print and carry copies of Swedish regulations regarding hand inspection of camera film.


Update: upon developing, it was determined that the x-ray machine was set to "medium toast" - there is some slight damage to the ISO 3200 film, but the other two rolls look good. Still, I'm pretty irked and will continue to recommend the underwear smuggling method of flying with film! ;-)

Behind the Quick Shot: Flying Lauren

Air shows are a great place to go if you want to see some incredible flying machines and aerobatic feats by talented pilots. Usually, these pilots are mature and experienced men, so you can imagine my surprise and excitement when one of the best aerial performances from the Little Gransden Show came from a 27-year old female pilot named Lauren Richardson.

Lauren Richardson is the owner and pilot of a Pitts Special biplane, registration G-BKDR. At 27 years old, she is one of the youngest aerobatic and display pilots in the United Kingdom and world. But don't let her age deceive you - she's also one of the most naturally talented and accomplished pilots!

Many air show pilots linger behind the scenes, rarely interacting with the crowd - but Lauren believes in being approachable and goes out of her way to meet and greet with spectators and aviation enthusiasts. She also brings a unique, dynamic, and stylish flair to her performances, all with the goal of being more than just "your average air show pilot."

Lauren started flying only 6 years ago when she got her private pilots license. At the time, she thought aerobatic pilots were "utterly mad" (her words!) and had no intention of ever trying anything remotely aerobatic. About two years later, she changed her mind after a ride in a two seat Pitts Special (the same plane she flies now, but with one seat). The flight was supposed to be straight and level so that she could enjoy flying in one of these fine aircraft, but the pilot she was with decided her experience flying in the Pitt should include just one quick loop. That was it - she was hooked. 

Seeing the world from upside down was the most incredible thing I had ever experienced and somehow, there and then, I just knew I had to learn to really fly. The freedom and joy of it all was verging on narcotic.
— Lauren Richardson

Since her first aerobatic experience was in a two seater Pitts, it was only natural that she would grow into flying and owning a Pitts Special. You could say the girl in her took over - the plane was just too pretty and fun looking - she just had to have it!

Looking back at the 2014 flying season, Lauren said her experience at Little Gransden was probably her favorite; it's her "home" airfield and her parents had a chance to see her display. But that wasn't the only fond memory from 2014 - during the Cleethorpes Show she ended up signing autographs and posing for pictures with the crowd. At one point a little 9 year old girl told Lauren that she wants to become a pilot because she saw Lauren's display. For Lauren, experiences like that make all the hard work that goes into preparing these shows worth every bit of sweat.

Lauren likes to create interesting and engaging displays at the shows, so she's got lots of work planned for the off season to bring some new tricks to her 2015 performances. But Lauren isn't willing to spill the beans on those new tricks yet, so stay tuned for a new "Top Secret" performance next year!

For Lauren, seeing hundreds of thousands of people looking up at her during the displays is the most rewarding part of flying, and she loves to meet and greet with the audience after a performance to absorb their energy, excitement, and encouragement. The rest of us, looking up from the bleachers with our mouths agape, can barely wait to see what tricks and performances she'll bring us next year. 

To learn more about Lauren and the Aerobatic Project, visit her website at theaerobaticproject.com. You can also check out pictures and videos she's posted on her Twitter and Facebook page. Many thanks to Lauren for taking the time to chat with me for this "Behind the Quick Shot" post!

Lauren in her Pitts Special taxiing at the Little Gransden Show.

Despite a perfect display, her engine cut after landing, so she had to get towed back to the parking area. That didn't damped Lauren's mood at all - she kept smiling despite the hiccup and the crowd gave her a standing ovation upon her return.

Quick Shot: Shuttleworth Collection Air Show

Europe is known for having a complex and colorful history - you can hardly walk down a street without coming across a building from the 12th century or some old castle where Sir Arthur dueled. So it's not surprising that Europe also has a fantastic collection of historical aircraft, some of which can't be seen flying anywhere else.

Of course anyone who owns a piece of aviation history wants to show it off to the public, and this weekend was one of the popular British air shows to see historical aircraft. The show was held at the Shuttleworth Collection Museum at Old Warden Park outside Biggleswade, UK and featured aircraft ranging from the old and bizarre to fast and modern. 

Unlike my previous two aviation photo shoots, this one was done entirely from the ground. I shot primarily with my Nikon 80-400mm lens and used my new Nikon D610 body for the ground-to-air shots because it offered a faster frames per second capture rate.

If you ever have the chance to see this collection, I'd highly recommend it! And you can enjoy it in true British style while picnicking and drinking a pint of the finest ale!

This is a more unique aircraft - it's actually a towed glider called the Eon Primary! I'm not sure you could get me strapped into that chair to fly that contraption either!

At first glance, this small transport aircraft doesn't seem all that special - but check out the point on the windshield. How'd you like to get fingerprints out of that?

Mark came out to play with one of the most modern aircraft, the GOFF PETROLEUM Extra; as expected, Mark put on quite the show with some daring acrobatic work to please the crowd.

This German World War II aircraft is called a Frieseler Storch and was one of the more unusual characters that took to the skies - it's an incredibly slow flying airplane and has a very awkward way of moving through the sky.

This was one of the half dozen biplanes on display at the show - I love the bright polished finish of this 1937 Hawker Demon contrasting with what was a particularly beautiful British afternoon.

If you look closely on this Spitfire, you can see a series of white stripes on the wings and underside of this fighter - those stripes are called invasion stripes and were painted using mops and whatever white paint could be found before the Allied invasion on D-Day. These are obviously a re-paint since the real stripes were applied crudely just hours before the invasion.

This Spartan Executive is probably my favorite aircraft from the show - but this was taken back at the Little Gransden Airfield. The plane normally resides at the airfield where I'm temporarily living, so I've had two weeks to drool over that polished aluminum finish!

I absolutely love these World War II classics like the Spitfire - very few still fly and the ones that do mostly reside in Europe, so it was a real treat to be buzzed by them during the show.

Mark and the GOFF PETROLEUM Extra closed out the show, giving me a chance to get a few more shots of him at work with a great display of aerobatics. 

Quick Shot: Air-to-Air Stunt Flying

I had the great honor this weekend of joining pilots Mark, Chris and Bob at the Little Gransden Airfield for some more air-to-air photography - this time using stunt planes! 

Air-to-air photography is one of the less forgiving disciplines; like professional sports photography, you don't get a "do over" if you miss your shot! You have to be on your heels and ready for every shot by anticipating the shot and settings required. Adding a layer of complexity to an already challenging discipline is to shoot from a stunt aircraft while photographing two other airplanes flying in dangerous formations....

Let's begin by setting up the photo shoot. Mark (flying the red 'GOFF PETROLEUM' Extra) and Chris (flying the blue G-Force Extra) wanted to get some solo shots and then some group formation work. Since we were going to photographing airplanes that move relatively quick and that would be doing stunts, it was important that the photographs were being taken from another aircraft that could match the performance of their planes. To achieve that, I joined pilot Bob in a Chipmunk (DHC-1) with the rear left glass removed from the canopy to facilitate my shooting. The Chipmunk is a two-seat military trainer - although not as nimble and fast as the two Extra's, it was an ideal aircraft from which to shoot. 

To get the shots that Mark and Chris wanted, we were going to have to do some flips, tight turns, stalls, and dives. Experience has taught me several things - don't fly on an empty stomach and know how to squeeze so that you can continue to focus without feeling light headed. Oh, and did I mention that while you're trying not to loose your lunch, you also need to have your head sticking out of a plane and taking photos?!

The flight was a wild success - we were safe and I managed to get all of the shots that Mark and Chris were looking for - plus I had a good bit of fun doing aerial stunts over England! Shooting from the Chipmunk also proved to be a bit easier than shooting from the Air Ranger - I could keep the majority of my body inside the aircraft's canopy and only had to stick enough of my camera lens out to get the shots. This is key because at those speeds, the wind can really knock the lens around, so it's important to try and keep it stable by sheltering it from the wind.

In almost 20 minutes of flying and 4G's later, I had 771 photographs totaling almost 60GB of memory! After a big gulp of water (I had my mouth open as we flew) and a shower, I started the process of editing and here are the results. 

Mark showing off the beautiful smile on the front of that GOFF PETROLEUM Extra

The GOFF PETROLEUM Extra is extremely agile, as demonstrated here by long time stunt pilot Mark

Mark maneuvering the GOFF PETROLEUM Extra towards the sky, while the fields below help remind you that we're flying in England. The photo was actually shot level, but I liked the look when I oriented it off level.

There's a saying that where there's smoke, there is fire - but not in this case! The smoke is an effect to help you see the trail of their movements in the sky. Here pilots Mark (red Extra), Chris (blue Extra), and Bob and I (in the Chipmunk) are all going vertical while I shoot out the side of the window.  

Which way is up? Again, the three airplanes are flying in formation, so I'm also upside down as I take this shot. 

Do you feel like you've completed the entire loop yet? Did you notice that Mark and Chris are looking at me in all of the shots? That's not because they wanted to pose for the camera (although it's an added benefit!), that is to help them keep their spacing from one-another.

This stunt is known as mirroring. Mark and Chris must demonstrate accuracy, timing, and most importantly, trust, in order to execute this challenging stunt. And yes, they are really just feet apart from each other.

Now it's Chris' turn to show off the nose of his blue Extra as we fly over a farm house in rural England.

My view from the back seat of the Chipmunk. Pilot Bob did the navigating and coordinated the movements with Mark and Chris. 

After a safe landing - I'm in the back seat (the canopy was cracked open after we landed so Bob could have some fresh air) and you can see where the glass on the left side of the canopy was removed to facilitate my camera.

Quick Shot: Air-to-Air Over England

Scenic Traverse Goes Flying!

You probably noticed I've been having some fun photographing all of the aircraft at the Little Gransden airport near Cambridge - and you wouldn't be the only one! Some of the pilots at the airfield have also taken notice and today they invited me on a fly-along to do some air-to-air photography.

Air-to-air involves photographing one airplane from another to get some photographs of an aircraft in flight. It's significantly more challenging than shooting from the ground too.... suddenly you have to contend with holding a camera out of a flying plane's window and keeping it steady enough to get great shots while both you and your subject are cruising over the ground. Adding a particular challenge today was that the airplane I was shooting from also had under the wing struts, so that meant the alignment of the two aircraft had to be such that the struts weren't in the way. 

The entire flight was only a few minutes long, but gave me several chances to photograph this beauty over the skies of the United Kingdom. I'm very appreciative that they let me come along and take some shots for them this evening - what do you think of the final results?

The plane I flew in - notice how the window was removed to facilitate my camera and lens sticking out and into the wind! It's a very small aircraft, but very nimble as well - and lots of fun to ride in!

A view of the Little Gransden Airport and grass airstrip.

A more detailed view of the aircraft hangars and property at Fullers Hill and the Little Gransden Airfield. We are staying in one of the buildings behind the hangars, so it's easy for me to constantly keep my eyes and ears open for any activity at the airfield.

How would you like to maintain that garden?! This was one of the many scenic views afforded to us from the air. I think this would fall into the "high rent" category!

Quick Shot: Stampe-ing Around in Little Gransden

This evening was busy at the Little Gransden Airfield here in the United Kingdom, but one plane in particular caught my camera's attention.

The aircraft in question is a Stampe et Vertongen SV.4, more commonly referred to as a Stampe, which is a two seat biplane trainer aircraft used heavily during the 1940s. The militaries of France, Belgium and England all used these aircraft to train pilots during and following World War II - because they are primarily European based aircraft, this was my first opportunity to see a currently flying Stampe up close.

This particular Stampe was built following the conclusion of World War II, with it's engines coming from Paris and the main airframe being largely constructed in the former French colony of Algeria. Several years ago it was completely overhauled and now flies regularly from the Little Gransden Airfield. 

I love to see and photograph aircraft like this - they are so exquisite and graceful in the air! It's really an honor to photograph aircraft that have also played such an important role in Europe's history and I thank the pilot for letting me photograph his beautiful machine.

How can you not love an aircraft like this? Everything about this plane is gorgeous and it couldn't have been a more beautiful day to see this piece of history in action.

The Stampe taxiing towards the grass airstrip at the Little Gransden airfield. It flew for about a hour today, offering its passengers some breathtaking views of the British countryside.

The Stampe returning from her flight

I usually find that aircraft photographs either look better in black and white or color, based on the personality of the aircraft and story I'm trying to tell.... but this Stampe is the exception and looks gorgeous in both!

Hey pilots (or friends of).... if you have a unique or favorite aircraft that you'd like me to photograph, shoot me a note. I'm happy to try and arrange photo ops!

Quick Shot: Speed Dry

Birds bathe themselves regularly in order to keep their feathers in pristine condition; for them, it's an important daily ritual just like eating. 

I want every photo I take to tell a story, and in this case, the story was of this willet bathing.

If you aren't familiar with a willet, they are a very small bird, approximately the size of your balled fist. They move very fast, almost like they are constantly on fast-forward. This makes photographing a willet a great challenge, if you wait to shoot at the peak of the action, it'll be too late! To get a photo that told the story of a willet bathing, I'd have to work fast and get a little lucky.

Willets tend to be a bit shy,  so getting close to one when it's vulnerable during bath time was going to be a big challenge. I setup a camp chair next to a shallow part of the marsh where I'd seen some other willets bathing and decided to sit and wait for one to approach me, rather than go searching for one. It took an hour, but finally a brave willet approached within 10 feet and proceeded to bathe. 

After bathing himself, the willet took a few steps up onto a dry spot of mud to dry. He preened under his wings and then did one quick hop to flap his wings dry. Having watched other birds do this same ritual, I knew I wanted to try and get a shot of him doing this quick hop flap dry. 

Luck favored me for that instant in time - not only did I get one shot, but I got three very fast images of the bird as he spread his wings to fly, in the air, and then again after landing. The whole thing happened in a blink of an eye, but I got the shot and was ready to flap my arms in happiness!  

One image didn't tell the story of the hop flap dry action. You need to see all three to understand what happened, so I compiled them into one series. 

My goal was to tell the story of a willet bathing, and with a little bit of luck and even more patience, I was able to tell that story. 

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Quick Shot: Heron in Flight

One of the best feelings as a photographer is the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting a tack sharp and perfectly focused image of a bird in flight. Why? Because it's not easy to do! 

I've taken thousands of photographs of birds in flight, but only a small group of those are perfectly focused and sharp. This weekend I added another photograph to the collection when photographing a Blue Heron at Mason Neck State Park. 

So how do you get sharp and well focused images of flying birds?  

I don't have any secret formula, but there are two tricks. The first is to be ready for the action. You usually can't predict when a bird is about to take flight, meaning you have to be ready all the time. In the case of today's Quick Shot bird, I actually didn't see him until he was already in flight and I had only a few seconds to shoot before he flew past. If I wasn't ready, I would have missed it.

By being ready I mean having the camera (and flash) on, lens cap off, shutter speed and aperture dialed in (I was shooting in manual mode at 1/1000th of a second at f/6.7, ISO 400). The camera is in my hands and ready to be brought to eye level at a moments notice to shoot.  

The second trick is a camera setting. I've spent alot of time lately playing with different autofocus settings to make sure I'm using the fastest and best one for the type of activity I anticipate photographing. Nikon (and Canon) have several focus modes to choose from, but I've recently been using one that has delivered great results. 

I shoot in continuous autofocus mode, which means the camera attempts to lock and maintain focus on a moving subject. This works well for birds in flight, but can sometimes get jumpy on a bird sitting still. Thankfully its a quick flick of the finger to change between single shot and continuous focus mode. 

There are also several modes by which the camera determines which point to focus on. In the past I'd been using Auto or the 51 focus point, but I recently switched to 3D (only when shooting continuous autofocus) and I've been really happy with the results. I thought my "keeper" rate in my prints has gone up significantly since I started to play with this mode.  

So how'd I get this shot? I was standing on a boardwalk running through the middle of the marsh area at Mason Neck with the camera "ready to shoot." He swooped down particularly close and I fired off 5 shots before he flew behind some trees. This one was my favorite because of the Heron's gesture. 

Shot with the Nikon D800, Nikon 80-400mm lens, and Nikon SB-700 flash with Better Beamer attached.  Edited in Adobe Photoshop CS6 and black and white conversion done with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

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Quick Shot: Yellow Billed Cuckoo

If you haven't noticed, one of my favorite local bird spots is Mason Neck State Park, just minutes from my home. I headed out again this weekend to see what I could find and made friends quickly.  

No sooner am I setup than this Yellow Billed Cuckoo dropped into a favorite perch. Although he's not the most colorful bird, I am fascinated by how steep they hold their tail feathers. He hopped around this twig for several minutes before heading out, but it was long enough for me to snag this shot. 

Shot with Nikon D800, Nikon 80-400mm lens, Gitzo Tripod and edited with Adobe Photoshop. Enjoy! 

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Quick Shot: C-47 Cockpit

This is the inside of a cockpit from a C-47 bomber located at Fantasy of Flight outside Orlando, Florida. This aircraft actually participated in multiple missions during World War II, including including dropping personnel on Normandy Beach.  

This shot took a bit of pre-planning; I would either need to do some HDR or a decent dose of editing to get the detail in the cockpit without over exposing the sky. I ended up shooting the image under exposed by about a stop and by shooting in RAW, I was able to pull the detail back out of the cockpit and clouds in Adobe Photoshop. Final adjustments were made using Nik HDR Efex for a boost to the color in the cockpit.  

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