Reaching for the skies

Words by:
Kate Chapman
Featured in:
May 2023

Kate Chapman meets aviation photographer Claire Hartley, who turned her hobby into a specialist business with the focus on many of our iconic aircraft.

She has always been passionate about photography, but Claire Hartley’s hobby really took off when she switched her focus to Lincolnshire’s aviation industry.

Over the years amateur photographer Claire has taken numerous breathtaking shots of the Red Arrows in action, plus well-known planes such as Lancasters, Vulcans and Spitfires soaring across the county’s never-ending skies.

Her work has appeared in national newspapers, been used in publicity for Eurofighter Typhoons and following requests to buy her pictures she also sells copies through her website. “It’s been such a privilege, as I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities that I could never have imagined since I started doing this,” says Claire, who works for the emergency services in Lincoln.

“I’ve flown with the Blades Aerobatic team and also alongside a Spitfire for an air-to-air shoot, it’s been amazing.

“When it comes to photography, I’m completely self-taught, I haven’t really read any books, or done any courses. I just play about with the camera and figure out what works for me and what doesn’t.

“I love being out in the fresh air, but some days you can come back with barely anything, while other days you end up with hundreds of pictures! There’ll be lots that look the same, but a few stand out ones – you know if it’s going to be a good one!

“It’s wonderful having the opportunity to photograph these planes on my doorstep, and everyone has been so supportive of my work.”

Passion for photography
Claire has always been a keen photographer, although it was some years before she began photographing planes. It was only after a friend persuaded her to visit an RAF base with her that she really got the bug for it.

“Before I got into the aviation photography, I was taking macros of flowers and pictures of people’s pets and children,” explains Claire.

“A friend was taking her children up to RAF Scampton to watch the planes and suggested I join them, but I said no, as it didn’t really interest me. In the end I went, and I soon became hooked – I was up there three times a day, five times a week and that’s how it all started!

“It’s hard to say what it is about aviation photography that I love so much, maybe it’s the number of different pictures you can get. With the Red Arrows there are different shots all the time, and it’s challenging, much harder than anything else I’ve ever done.

“With the ‘reds’, I’ve photographed them passing across the moon and against a sunset – there are so many different things you can try, there’s always something new. Lincolnshire has some great atmospheric skies and some wonderful landmarks that make great backdrops, such as Lincoln Cathedral and Tattershall Castle.”

As well as photographing planes from vantage points around Lincolnshire’s RAF bases, Claire also travels further afield to air shows, including Bournemouth and Eastbourne, where the scenery can include cliffs and seascapes.

More recently she headed up to Derwent Dams, in the Derbyshire Peaks, to capture some images of an A400 that she’d been told was flying through.

“We didn’t have much time for that one, as it was only a 20-second pass, but we got some good shots,” says Claire.

“With regards to finding out when planes are flying, it’s really a lot of time spent searching social media, although the Red Arrows are quite reliable, and usually up two or three times a day. You get to know, I often just go and watch and hope for the best. As spring arrives, other bases will be more active too, such as Coningsby, so the Typhoon, Lancaster and Spitfires should soon be about as well.”

National press
Claire’s work came to prominence after she started sharing her pictures on social media and one shot in particular – of the Red Arrows flying past the moon – went viral. That was in 2012, when she was asked to give a radio interview and was then repeatedly asked to sell her pictures to news agencies who wanted to supply them to the national press.

Claire initially said no, but when the requests continued she decided she might as well give it a go and use any money she made to update her kit. Since then, her photos have regularly appeared in national newspapers – including a front-page picture in The Times in 2017.

After receiving requests to buy her prints, she set up her own website to sell copies and is now often asked for tips on getting the best shots.

“I often find that photographing the training in the winter months can be better than the air shows in the summer,” she says. “When it’s hot, you get heat haze. It’s horrendous, you really lose the sharpness of your pictures, so cold winter days can be much better. Plus, at that time of year there are the low sunsets that you don’t get in summer, which can make better pictures too.”

photographers to ditch the manual and get to know their kit. She favours Nikon cameras, and currently uses a D500. Although it isn’t the most up-to-date model, Claire says it works well for her as she knows it so well.

“People often ask me, what settings do you use? But it can change from shooting one direction to another. I think you’ve just got to get to know your camera, don’t read too much, you’ve just got to figure out what works for you, and be a bit brave.

“Shoot into the sun – I’ve got some really good shots doing this. Don’t be afraid, have a play about. Do not go for what everybody else is trying to do.”

As for the year ahead, Claire is hoping to attend more air shows, as well as attend the celebrations planned for London this month, when HM King Charles III is crowned.

“I have taken the controls of a plane once myself, but I’d rather focus on taking the photos than controlling the aircraft,” says Claire with a smile. “I would love to do some more air-to-air shoots with different aircraft. My ultimate dream would be to get some pictures off the wing of a Lancaster. I’d also like to do some more work in the Lakes and in the hills of Wales – there are always different shots to get.”

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Photographs: courtesy of Claire Hartley

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