IAF Sarang display team performing
on their HAL Dhruv helicopters
Passion is like a vehicle that propels you towards the wildest of your dreams. Some people successfully ride on it, chasing the dream down wherever it takes them, however far it goes, while some others lose heart midway, dropping the chase. For Kedar Karmarkar, the passion has always been in chasing military aircraft, like a heat-seeking missile without suffering a flame-out, and freezing them in action, preserving the images for aviation enthusiasts around the world.
A network engineer born and brought up in Mumbai, Kedar now works for Cisco Systems Inc, San Jose, USA. Though he is busy with his work, he religiously dedicates some time to his passion of aviation photography. To live his passion, he went on to obtain a private pilot license. Kedar is actively present on various online aviation forums with his stunning images.
IAF Suryakiran aerobatic team performing
on their Kiran Mk II aircraft
A USAF F-16 Viper refuelling mid-air
How did your journey with military aircraft start?
I started off as an aviation enthusiast. My interest in military aviation began when I was a kid, reading ‘Commando comics’ and others. I would feverishly read about the exploits of the Luftwaffe and allied aces – Blitzkrieg, Battle of Britain, North Africa, Middle East, bombing campaigns, night fighters and more. As I got older, I was more after the technicalities of modern warfare and weapons. I would scour old paper shops in search of international magazines like Aviation Week and Space Tech, and read up about various aspects of modern warfare and technology. My parents also helped me by taking me to Strand Book Store, Mumbai — as motivation for excelling in academics and elsewhere — and would buy me the books I selected. I used to stare in awe of photographs taken by some of the professional photographers of the time – Katsuhiko Tokunaga (whom I consider the Father of air-to-air photography), Peter Steinemann and others.
An F-22 Raptor in transonic flight
An F-22 Raptor performing on full afterburner
The chicken-or-egg question: Do you consider yourself a photographer with a passion for aircraft and aviation, or an aviation enthusiast with a passion for photography?
I did not have the photographic gear handy when I was growing up and there were not many air shows or any events that happened at my time so it was really difficult to cultivate the photographic interest in me.
However, the tide turned when my job landed me in the USA, and the first air show was being held, right next-door at Moffett Federal Airfield. That was my motivation to take up the camera. Nowadays, I view myself more of a photographer with passion for aircraft and aviation than an aviation enthusiast with a passion for photography. At one time I knew the F-16 Fighting Falcon (Viper as its called in the US) inside out and knew the NATO code names of Russian fighters and radars, and how the guidance systems on modern weapons operate.
A pair of F-16s as seen from another aircraft
F/A 18 Hornets of the US Navy Blue Angels demonstration squadron
How difficult is it for a normal photographer to obtain permission for shooting during military exercises such as Red Flag? And how do you manage this?
You need a Press credential to attend the Media Days and getting in the Air Show Media Center at certain air shows. You need a media house, like a magazine to endorse you as one of their photographers. I still have not found a way to do that – I got lucky once to have known one of the magazine guys I worked with in the past.
A B-2 Spirit aircraft approaching for landing
The cockpit of a KC-135 Stratofortress aerial refuelling aircraft
What are the challenges of photographing from a moving platform such as in the images of the mid-air refuelling sequence?Shooting from a tanker is by no means an easy task. It was the first time for me when I took those images. I managed as much advice as I could get by asking senior photographers about their experiences. Fortunately I had a good friend on the flight with me who is an excellent photographer and has many years of experience doing this. For these shots, one has to lie down next to the boom operator who controls the boom (that attaches to the refuelling probe) and fuel to the receiving aircraft. The space is very cramped and the field of view is limited. There is literally a small window of opportunity for a photographer in this position. Some great pictures can be had when the receiver aircraft approaches the tanker for a refuelling and when dropping off after a refill. When actively refuelling, it is a useless situation unless you have a fisheye lens to really go ultra-wide and get a clean shot of the receiver aircraft hooked up to the tanker via the boom. It was a testing time for me as I missed some of the shots of the initial aircraft that came by for refuelling, only to learn the lessons and apply them on the spot once I got another chance at it. Having four photographers aboard one tanker is a “crowd” – first of all there is no guarantee how many receivers would really come by for a fill-up; and with whatever do come by, that number is split with the photographers aboard. So second chances are very slim. The other way is to get the pictures through the side windows but again, these are not civilian airlines to keep the windows sparkling clean.
The other way of getting air-to-air pictures is by going to some organised events like the one in Belgium organised by the Aviation Photocrew (http://www.air2air-academy.com). I attended their second edition in 2011 and was impressed. In fact that was my first ever air-to-air photography.
A HAL Tejas taking off during Aero India 2009
An F-22 Raptor taking off during Red Flag exercise
What, in your experience, is the most challenging, and the most exciting part of military aviation photography?
Each genre of photography — be it landscape, portraits, macro, sports — has its own pros and cons. Likewise with aviation photography. There is some luxury in other forms of photography where one can control lighting, angles, and times. Aviation photography has no such luxury. One is limited by the field layout, a good position to select from the flight line, and timings. There are no retakes in aviation photography apart from photographing static aircraft on the ground. The weather keeps on changing, yielding different results even if an act repeats itself at different times in the same day. Since there are no retakes, one has to be absolutely certain that the camera settings are right. Panning with the subject, and knowing what are the interesting angles to take pictures – waiting for the right moment when the pilot rolls his aircraft or turns tight, makes rapid pitch changes, etc. are learned through experience. In my opinion, it is the most unforgiving but the most exciting and thrilling. For me my heart starts pounding when I hear the jet engines spool up – after that what happens when the magnificent machine taxis out and takes to the air is absolute thrill.
An F-16 Viper flying past on full afterburner
What would be your advice to youngsters who want to take up this field?
Get the right gear. One can go with a lower end camera to begin with, but save money for investing in lens. The camera bodies keep changing, lens remain forever – that is one lesson I was taught by my friends Takayuki Tei and Glenn Bloore along the way. Get lenses with image stabilisation. Shoot in RAW mode – think of the analogy of negative and finished photo. RAW image is the negative and the finished JPEG image is like the photo. Get a camera body with a good Noise Reduction. Shoot with continuous focus tracking. Try to go to air shows, and take loads of pictures initially. That is where digital helps you a lot. One can walk away with a few pictures and delete the rest at no extra cost unlike film. Once you know what you want, then over time, the number of pictures in a day will start scaling down, since you automatically develop a selection criterion in your mind before pressing the button. Slow down for the props, and speed up for the jets: Shoot slow shutter speeds (1/200, 1/100 or below) for propeller aircraft to blur the prop and switch to higher shutter speeds for jet aircraft. Remember to switch back and forth. Post-processing is as important as taking a sharp nice picture. Although aviation photography in India is more “dangerous” and can get you into trouble easily without effort because of the security situation, try to align with spotting groups (there is one in Bangalore called the Bangalore Aviation spotter group) that are recognised and practice aviation photography there. Outside India, in some places like Europe, or USA it is less forgiving and easier.
Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II
Nikkor 24-120mm f/4G ED VR
Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED
Nikkor 500mm f/4G ED VR