As this site is primarily about photography, not swanning around in balloons, I thought that you might be interested to learn what photographic and computer equipment was used 15 years ago and how it compares to that used today.

There are also some very interesting comparisons to be drawn from this endeavour. With ample time on my hands during lockdown I was able to go through everything that had been shot and totally remaster all the images, the bulk having been shot using the RAW formats. A few images had been shot in JPEG format and these were also examined and output once again.

Firstly you will need to know what I and my other two colleagues were using, as well as those cameras carried by Lt Cdr Alan Veal during the freefall training at Perris Valley Skydiving Center and during both the balloon ascents and subsequent parachute descents.

By the standards of today the quality of the camera’s digital output would be sneered at, all of them having roughly 6.1 megapixel sensors. However, as I’ve said elsewhere, size is not everything. One of the few things that I did get right from the outset was to insist that all the team shot RAW format files, rather than the more common JPEG used at that time.

We were operating with a single Apple PowerBook 12” G4 and three Apple PowerMac G5 computers, running Mac OS X 10.4.0 Tiger. We were using Adobe Photoshop CS2, without Bridge as I recall, along with Adobe Lightroom 1.1, then in its infancy. The three PowerMac G5s, two of which are still working today, as is the PowerBook 12” G4/867, consisted of a single G5/1.8GHz DP (Dual Processor) and two G5/1.6GHz models. The PowerBook had a whopping 1.2Gb of RAM, the G5s had 4Gb of RAM, tiny by current standards. Monitors were the ubiquitous but bulky CRT 19” and 21” from LaCie, then considered state-of-the-art.

The value of using RAW files was demonstrated clearly to me when I opened all the files in August 2020 in modern software; Adobe Photoshop 2020, Bridge and Lightroom. Subtleties and quality that were hidden in 2005 leapt out with modern software in a way that meant that the files output at the time fell way short of current standards. One interesting thing that I observed was how much better the Nikon RAW files were than those shot on the Canons. Whether it was inferior sensors on the Canons or poor RAW file technology, their quality today in modern software fell way short of the Nikon files. However, all the JPEG files shot on the Nikon CoolPix 7900, the Canon EOS 10D and on rare occasions on the Nikon D100, were massively inferior to modern files and little could really be done do resuscitate them! I was aware in 2005 just how good the 6.1 megapixel Nikon D100 was as I regularly achieved double-page spreads in magazines, but today the remastered files could easily achieve double that size.

The quality of the lenses is still outstanding in all cases, as evinced by the fact that all but one of my NIKKOR lenses still produce outstanding results on my current Nikon Z 6 bodies. The 12-24mm DX lens has been sold as I’ve no need for it any longer and the £99.00 70-300mm was donated to a friend shortly after the event as it was surplus to requirements.

We used the following camera equipment:

Peter Russell:

2x Nikon D100 camera bodies

2x Nikon MB-D100 Battery Packs

Nikon F4S film camera body

Nikon F5 film camera body

NIKKOR AF-S 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED DX

Fisheye-NIKKOR AF 16mm f/2.8D

NIKKOR AF 20-35mm f/2.8D IF

NIKKOR AF 50mm f/1.4D

NIKKOR AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6G

NIKKOR AF 85mm f/1.8

NIKKOR AF-S 80-200mm f/2.8D IF-ED

NIKKOR AF-S 400mm f/2.8 IF-ED II

John Robert Young:

Nikon D100 camera body

NIKKOR AF 24-85mm f/2.8-4

NIKKOR AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VR1

Jeremy Clifton-Gould:

Nikon D70 camera body

NIKKOR AF 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6

Russel West:

2x Canon EOS 60D camera bodies

Canon EF 17-35mm f/2.8 L USM

Canon EF 35-350mm f/3.5-5.6 L USM

Alan Veal:

Canon EOS 10D camera body

Canon EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye

Canon EF 17-35mm f/2.8 L USM

General Team Equipment:

Nikon CoolPix 7900

The Nikon F4S, fitted with a Fisheye-NIKKOR AF 16mm f/2.8D and loaded with Fuji Provia 100 reversal film, hung below the balloon basket in a wooden box, remotely controlled from the basket by pilot David Hempleman-Adams. It proved to be impervious to the cold, working in temperatures down to minus 40C. The Nikon F5 was prepared as a backup for the F4S in case it got damaged but never had to be used. The resulting 35mm colour transparencies were scanned on my Nikon SuperCoolscan 8000. You may wonder why film was used, rather than digital. That was an easy one as we had already used the F4S and the F5 in Norway in temperatures approaching minus 35C and knew that they worked flawlessly, but Nikon UK showed a total lack of interest in the project and were unable to give me any information about the low temperature limitations of the D100, so I really couldn’t risk using them in those conditions.

The Nikon CoolPix 7900, a 7.1 mega-pixel camera that could only shoot JPEG or TIFF, was used by various non-photographic team members when they needed a camera quickly but didn’t need the same level of skill and training to use it. In good conditions the results were very good, but it was seldom used in perfect conditions!

When I tried out the Nikon D100 bodies the other day, just out of curiosity, I was astonished by their small size, their lightness and most of all by the terrible file buffer; no more than four RAW files could be shot sequentially before the buffer filled and ages had to be spent waiting for the files to write to the 512Mb CompactFlash cards. At the time I didn’t even notice the problem, but so used have we all become to cameras shooting RAW at upwards of 10 frames per second that I wonder how I would have the patience to shoot anything today with them. Much of the time of course that didn’t present a problem, but shooting the air-to-air material from both a light aircraft and a helicopter, where relative angles were changing constantly and the light was changing as well, meant that struggling with a pair of D100 bodies was never easy. In the initial ‘test’ flight I used a hastily purchased NIKKOR AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6G to replace my brilliant NIKKOR AF-S 80-200mm f/2.8D IF-ED that had to go back to Nikon to have a new Silent Wave Motor fitted, and a NIKKOR AF-S 400mm f/2.8 IF-ED II. In the second flight, done just for the cameras, I used the NIKKOR AF-S 400mm f/2.8 IF-ED II and my repaired NIKKOR AF-S 80-200mm f/2.8D IF-ED from a helicopter which proved to be a tads cumbersome. However the results were worth it, even if I did have to wait ages for the buffers to clear.

Both John Robert Young and Jeremy Clifton-Gould used Nikons, a D100 for John and a D70 for Jeremy, and the results were great then and even better today when remastered. John used his NIKKOR AF 24-85mm f/2.8-4 and NIKKOR AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VR1 lenses for the majority of his work, only borrowing my NIKKOR AF-S 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED DX for some of his shots. Jeremy used his NIKKOR AF 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 for most of his work, only using the NIKKOR AF-S 400mm f/2.8 out of the hotel window to capture the lads arriving by parachute while he was in the middle of editing and wiring images out to newspapers. Using his vast Fleet Street news desk experience Jeremy was also the key man in the on-site photo editing and delivery chain, working out of Ston Easton Park on the big day.

By comparison my much missed friend Russel West kept things dead simple, using a pair of Canon EOS 60D bodies and just two lenses. On the one occasion he had to use one of my D100 bodies he managed to shoot JPEG rather than RAW, so the less said about that the better! However, as I’ve mentioned above, his Canon RAW files are no match for the Nikon ones even though his photos are stunning. You’d never notice the difference on a web site, but in print it would become obvious.

Like Russel’s Canon RAW files, Alan Veal’s are no match for the Nikon ones, with almost all his freefall images being shot on the Canon 15mm lens. However the subject matter more than makes up for the shortfall!

So fifteen years later what have I learned? Rule 1 - always, always shoot RAW. Rule 2 - always follow Rule 1!


Photographic Equipment