The Chicago Air Show. The Big, Loud, Fast, Expensive Spectacle Returns

F-16 over North Avenue Beach on Lake Michigan

Every August about this time, we’re treated to nearly a week of supersonic jets flying overhead. They start rehearsing on Wednesday for the Chicago Air (and water) Show, which runs the following Saturday and Sunday. It’s really amazing that more people aren’t killed walking into traffic during the week, looking up for glimpses of the US Navy’s Blue Angels as they fly between the canyons of the downtown buildings, faster than the speed of sound.

I’m always very conflicted about the Air Show. The 10 year-old boy in me still gets a rush when the sudden sounds of jet engines roar overhead and I always look up between the buildings too late because by the time you hear them, they’re gone. I’m conflicted because I know it’s just a weekend long recruitment advertisement for something I’m not entirely comfortable with.

Yes, it’s very exhilarating to see the jets, because to me, walking through the streets of Chicago on my lunch hour, they’re benign. It’s a show.

But for the last couple of decades, that excitement is always tempered with a feeling of, if I were in the sights of one of those jets, it would most certainly be anything but exhilarating. That sound of a jet roar would instead be a nightmare, sending everyone running for cover. They’re weapons, make no mistake about it.

I think there’s a large disconnect between the millions of happy people, who crowd Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline for a weekend, who excitedly come to see and hear the jets, and the people in far off lands who have no choice in the matter.

It’s just something I can’t help thinking about during Air Show week.

High rise apartment balcony with Air Show onlookers

This year, my good friend Mark invited a small group of us over to his high-rise apartment building to watch the show, high above the hot sweaty millions camped out for hours in the August sun. Mark has a 26th floor balcony that overlooks North Avenue Beach. It’s really quite the vantage point to watch the show. With all the comforts of good food and drinks… and a bathroom. Quite comfortable.

Some of us hadn’t seen each other in a while, so it was a nice reunion. We’d get a plate of food from the kitchen and top off our drinks and head back out to the balcony whenever someone yelled that there was something to see.

I was in more of a relaxing and socializing mood than a working mood today, so I was traveling light. I brought my Canon 5D Mark II camera body and one lens, just in case I felt like making a few photographs. I’m glad I did. The view was simply too incredible and I wouldn’t have been satisfied trying to take pictures with my iPhone.

The Blue Angels fly past the John Hancock Building

Photographing jets moving at 1,000 mph is tricky enough with a good camera. Let alone one where there’s a second lag between when you push the shutter button and when the phone takes the picture.

As is common with Chicago weather, the lakefront can have one kind of cloud formation directly over the water and something completely different a quarter of  a mile inland. Today, it was relatively clear over the water, but just a short distance west from the lake, the sky was full of puffy, billowing, cumulus clouds.

I don’t often photograph fast flying aircraft, but I’ve done it enough times to know that it’s all about context. You need something else in the frame besides a jet to give the image a reference point. I was shooting with my lens aperture stopped down to ƒ14, with a shutter speed of 1/1000ths of a second because I needed to both freeze the action of greater-than-speed-of-sound flight and because there would also be no time for focusing. ƒ14 with the lens focus set near infinity would guarantee my images would be sharp as the jets flew past us.

The Blue Angels heading back toward the lakefront

Mark’s balcony faced South/Southeast, so we had a good view of the lakefront, directly to the east, and downtown to the south of us. It also allowed me to make photographs of the jets flying inland as they circled around the canyons of skyscrapers, lining up for their next precision maneuver. When you’re flying at the speed of sound, making a right turn takes a mile or two.

And it was inland, that I was able to make what I thought were more interesting photographs of the Blue Angels flying in formation. Those clouds. Those beautiful puffy, cumulus clouds with the sun back-lighting them. It’s that context thing I was telling you about earlier.

At one point, the group of us realized, as we were trying not to block each others’ views of the Air Show, all crowded on to Mark’s balcony, that our diminutive friend Cassie, if she stood right in front of me, was the perfect height for me to rest the end of my lens on the top of her head for a little extra camera stabilization. When shooting with a long lens and no tripod, sometimes you have to improvise.

A wide left turn over Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood

Cassie was the one who actually suggested it before you think ill of me. So an extra special Thank You goes out to her for helping to make these photographs possible.

After a while, we were getting good at figuring out from which direction the Blue Angels might appear next. Since we were on the south side of Mark’s building, I had to take my best guess as to whether to scan the inland horizon to the west or the lakefront to our east.

Like I said before, if you waited for the sound, which was always a few seconds behind the jets, it was too late to put the camera up to my eye, find them in the viewfinder, and compose a shot.

One of the interesting things I noticed as I would review some of the images after each pass, was that I had to remind myself to frame the shot for stills rather than motion, which I shoot about half of the time these days. With motion, you lead the subject. In other words, you frame the picture with the subject entering the frame and leave a lot of room in the front to allow the view to see where they’re going.

An extremely low altitude pass over Lake Michigan

With stills, especially with jets and the lines of contrail jet engine exhaust, you frame them exactly the opposite way, with the jets about to leave the frame and the smoke trails behind them. I caught myself with my compositions backwards a few times.

Unless, of course, the jets are flying right at each other, nearly touching wingtips as they pass each other. In those cases, framing them in the center is preferred! (And if you look closely at the photo, you see how near to each other the two jets were by the shadows of the contrails on the lake’s surface. A couple of meters… maybe less?)

All in all, it was an enjoyable day. A gracious host in my friend, Mark and his 26th floor balcony. Time spent with good friends from a vantage point that I had never experienced before.

I mean… we’re all paying for this spectacle with our tax dollars, whether we agree with it or not. We might as well check it out once in a while to see where all the money is going.

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