Smoking Wheels

Some weeks ago I was at an airport again to take photos of airplanes. This time during a vacation I visited Charlotte International Airport in North Carolina. There is a public Airport Overlook Park near one of the runways, so I was close to landing and departing airplanes. After watching airplanes touching down for a while I got the idea to try to catch the moment when landing gear is hitting pavement and all that smoke comes out of the wheels. But, that experiment was not that easy. Airplanes are landing at about 100 mph. With your camera you have to catch the landing gear and move at exactly the same speed, keeping the gear at the same point of your frame all the time. Than you have to guess when exactly the wheels will hit pavement to release shutter in that moment. The last point was most difficult. Some planes were lowering quite fast but just above ground they were gliding at constant height for some distance. That's why I switched to continuous shooting mode and took several photos in a row from the moment shortly before touch down until some shots after hitting ground.

400mm  f/8  1/400sec  ISO400
This is one the shots that came out quite good. As you can see, the wheels are not yet spinning. After touching pavement the wheels need some time to accelerate. A landing aircraft is still so fast that wheels are sliding on ground for some time. This creates an intense heat which causes rubber to burn resulting in nice smoke clouds. In this photo you can see the distance the wheel is already sliding. With the motion blurred environment you can almost hear the squeaking of sliding rubber. The airplane was touching ground right in front of me. That's why both landing gears are in a row.

400mm  f/8  1/250sec  ISO400
This time another airplane was touching down some distance later, giving me rear view. You can clearly see both landing gears and both are aligned in parallel. This looks great. Because of the different viewing angle the landing gear in front is not darkened by a wing's shadow. You can see more detail. As in the first photo the wheels of right landing gear did not start to spin. They are still squeaking along the pavement. The left landing gear, which is the one in back, must have hit ground some fractions of a second earlier. These wheels are already spinning fast. Since this aircraft is a bigger one, the landing gear is larger and looks more impressive than the one above. The diagonal view creates some depth and perspective. This photo is my favourite out of the series I took that afternoon.

The technical details: I used my EOS 500D camera with my EF 100-400mm f/4-5.6L zoom lens. Camera was set into Av mode with a fixed aperture value of f/8. This is to get best image quality out of the lens and to get wider range of focus. With lower aperture values the focus range will be more narrow which makes catching fast moving object within focus much more difficult. To get reasonable fast shutter speeds I set ISO to a fixed value of 400. I do not like to go much higher to prevent image noise. Shutter speed was calculated by camera automatically. For those fast moving object the resulting shutter speeds are quite low, but in the end I'm glad about that. Higher shutter speeds of 1/1000sec or higher would not create that beautiful motion blur. I did not have any tripod with me. I was sitting on a park bench resting my arm on my knee to stabilize myself and prevent too much camera shake.