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Evolution of aviation photography

How has aviation photography changed at Heathrow?

Evolution of aviation photography
By Heathrow

Last week we shared with you 10 retro-Heathrow aircraft liveries thanks to experienced aviation enthusiast and photographer Tony Best. This week Tony has shared with us how the hobby of aviation photography has changed in the last 40 years at Heathrow. Enjoy!

Early memories…

I still remember my first visit to Heathrow when my dad went to pick up a customer’s Jaguar from the T3 car park. It was not the shiny red E-Type that made my day, but the sight of a Pan Am Boeing 747 parked next to a company 707. That was it, I was hooked and eagerly awaited my next encounter with this wonderful place. Not long after I made the first of many visits to the Queen’s Building roof gardens, greeted by the sight of a row of British Airways Tridents some still with the BEA tail logo.

Walking along the extensive viewing terrace, airliners from all over Europe and the Eastern Bloc could be seen, with classic early jets like the Caravelle and Boeing 727 much in evidence, the odour of Avtur hanging in the air never to be forgotten either. Next step down the road to becoming an aviation nut was the purchase of a copy of the Ian Allan Civil Aircraft Markings 1977 for 65 pence. This had all the aircraft registrations that you could expect to see in the UK, many of which soon started to get underlined in red ink.

By the beginning of the 1980s, the aircraft visiting Heathrow had changed a lot and the 707, DC-8 and VC10 were starting to give way to the early widebodies, with the 747, DC-10 and TriStar dominating the scene. It was around this time that I decided to begin taking photos to record the colourful range of airliners but did neglect the common subjects like the British Airways Tridents – I couldn’t afford to waste expensive Kodachrome film on them! Luckily I spotted my error and managed to get a few on film before they disappeared from the Heathrow skies for ever in 1985.

The changing skyline of Heathrow…

“I had to wait a few years before getting my first 35mm camera, a Pentax K-1000 with a 100-200mm zoom lens. That camera was totally manual with no auto settings, auto winder or autofocus, but it still took a great photo if you got it right.”

Tony Best

I now wish I had occasionally turned my camera away from the aircraft to shoot the buildings and landscape of Heathrow as I missed a chance to document the ever-changing scene, but that precious film was not to be expended on non-aircraft subjects. The future site of T4 was just a few fields with a hangar (pictured above) of the same name – Fields Aircraft Services Ltd.

The area where T5 is now, was the Perry Oaks sludge works and taking photos from the east end of the airport in the summer could be a very smelly business. Buildings have come and gone but I do miss the original control tower with its distinctive red brick design never looking out of place in the background of an aircraft photo, unlike its lanky modern-day successor.


It’s hard to document all the airlines I have seen at LHR over the years but many of them have now faded into the history books. It was a great shame when Pan Am and TWA left Heathrow for Gatwick but good to see United start. Many airlines have long gone like Swissair, Ghana Airways and Nigerian Airways and one thing is for sure in this business, you need get the photos today as airlines can disappear overnight!

Camera changes

My first photos were taken on my dad’s camera on 126 film but the quality was lacking and even aircraft parked on the nearest stands seemed lost in the blurry square print when they arrived back from the chemist. I had to wait a few years before getting my first 35mm SLR camera, a Pentax K-1000 with a 100-200mm zoom lens. That camera was totally manual with no auto settings, auto winder or autofocus but took a great photo if you got it right.

Next step in the early 1980s was a swap to Canon and a step up with the AE1 program SLR, again with a 100-200mm zoom lens but still with manual focus. Just as important as the camera was the film used and it was worth spending extra money and buying what I would say is the best colour film ever made – Kodak’s Kodachrome KR25 or KR64 slide film, with its rich colour and realistic fine-gained rendition.

By the late 1980s, Canon had developed the first autofocus cameras but the early examples were a bit hit and miss when trying to shoot fast moving airlines and acquiring focus lock was not easy. Move on a decade and camera makers had overcome most of the early problems. I picked up my first Conon EOS camera, a 650 with the added advantage of auto winder. Turn of the century saw the digital revolution and I waited only two years before moving on to my first digital Canon, the 10D, although I kept on taking Kodachrome slide film, shooting whole rolls of the same aircraft to keep the aviation slide collectors happy until Kodak announced in 2009 that it would no longer manufacture this iconic film.

The introduction of the digital SLR Camera opened up new shooting possibilities, being much more forgiving than film that needed perfect lighting conditions. It was also just in time for the last year of Concorde operations.

Aviation photographer

Like most aviation photographers I started as a spotter collecting registrations whist on the Queens Buildings roof terrace. Before long though, the note pad was superseded by the camera. What I still find amazing was that before the internet, word would get around about interesting aircraft due to visit LHR. Most of these were for state visits and I remember, for instance, VIP flights by CAAC (now Air China) Boeing 707s were always talked about so we would be ready to capture them on film. Most of the photographers I knew, like me, ended up working in aviation so the hobby turned into a job.

By the 1990s the aviation photographers frequenting Heathrow were all now middle aged with no youngsters entering the hobby. This was probably a result of the views from the roof gardens diminishing as the airport grew to take up the space that once was filled by hundreds of spectators. Also as an enthusiast pursuit, watching aircraft seemed to stand no chance when up against the onslaught of games consoles and the internet age.

But I’m glad to say all was not lost and the hobby was about to make a come back, thanks to the introduction of the digital camera in the early 2000s and the advent of internet aviation photo sites like and Over the last ten years or so, the young started to get the bug and aircraft photography worldwide has caught on more strongly than ever before.