I’ve always been fascinated by war photojournalism, but was still finding my feet in the industry during the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. So when the editor of one of the aviation magazines that I shoot for asked me to cover the Canadian Armed Forces contribution to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), I jumped at the chance.
The mission consists of around 250 personnel, three CH-147F Chinooks and five CH-146 Griffon helicopters, with their primary role being MEDEVAC (medical evacuation), but they can also be utilized for transporting troops, equipment and supplies, or the rapid movement of UN troops. It’s a story that also has a wider-reaching audience than just those who have an interest in helicopters or the aviation industry – and I simply love looking for stories like that.
We were based at the United Nations camp in Gao, Mali, and we had a couple of flights around the area that saw us flying back to camp along the Niger, which was incredible to see from the air as there’s just this channel of water surrounded by greenery, and then it slowly merges back into the vast and desolate landscape.
A big part of the shoot was to get aerial images of the aircraft in action. The Canadians were incredibly welcoming in that they had organized two flights for us whilst there, one combining a MEDEVAC exercise with a long-range patrol and an air-to-air shoot; the other a night training mission in the CH-147F Chinook to use black illumination with some impressive-looking night vision goggles.
The shots I really wanted were: a nice tight formation shot of the Chinook and two Griffon helicopters; brownout landing of the Chinook; live fire from the Griffon; and some unposed portraits of the crews. I was also shooting video whilst out there, so trying to cram everything into just four days – including transit in and out of the camp on-board a CC-130 Hercules – was something of a tall order.
Locked and loaded
My go-to standard kit is always a Nikon D810 (opens in new tab), Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR and 24-70mm f/2.8, SB-900 Speedlight and Samyang 8mm fisheye. The D810 is perfect for what I do; the images straight out of the camera are so crisp when you nail the shot, and of course you need every available megapixel, especially when some clients want to print huge copies of the photos.
Though I think the time has finally come for my D810; it’s struggled on through -35ºc and +50ºc conditions, but it’s done about 200,000 actuations now and it’s starting to show a little wear and tear. So I’m currently thinking about upgrading to the Nikon D850 (opens in new tab) or possibly the Nikon Z7 (opens in new tab) system.
The 70-200mm VR is fantastic as well; VR is essential whilst shooting air-to-air images as helicopters aren’t the smoothest of photo platforms. The fisheye gives a great angle for cockpit shots and especially those in the cabin of the helicopters as well – it worked exceptionally well for the live firing on the range, as you get to see the gunner firing the weapon and also where the rounds are going. That’s mainly where I tend to use the flash as well, bouncing off the ceiling of the aircraft to balance the exposure from inside and outside.
One of the best things you can hear is when the crews you’ve been working with the past few hours love your images. It’s the ultimate praise, getting to talk to the crews and hearing the feedback on the photographs from them afterwards.
The heat out there was pretty unforgiving; most days it was between 45ºC and 50ºc, so keeping hydrated was the big issue, as was not getting burnt – tricky for someone with a pasty skin tone like myself! Ultimately the crew were out there to perform a job in an environment that is unforgiving, but I must say, the Canadians were the best of hosts and absolutely nothing was too much for them.
Lloyd Horgan is a professional aviation photographer