I was recently invited to photograph the Swedish military at a shooting exercise. After getting over the initial shock, I responded with a "Uh, Hell yeah!". Opportunities like this do not come around often. Never having been in the army, it was a little scary to be so close to live ammunition, but wow was it an amazing experience!
Soldiers prepare to fire the KSP 58, the Swedish version of the FN MAG
I have been interested in guns from movies since I was young. I was fascinated by their mechanics and I knew some technical info, but it's very different seeing them being used in real life. You don't see barrels being changed after 200 rounds because they get too hot in Rambo, or even Full Metal Jacket for example. So it was nice to capture these details.
Some technical aspects of using weapons feel similar to cameras (point and shoot, aiming, shooting speeds, using your index finger to take a shot etc.). Maybe this has influenced my passion of photography...
Combining guns and photography reminded me of an article I read recently, a photographer capturing a bullet at the Olympics, using the new Nikon Z9 camera. Despite my camera (Sony A9) being from 2017 it is also capable of shooting 1/32,000th of a second shutter speed and 120 frames per second (albeit with 1080p video), so I thought "why not try it"...
The general purpose support machine guns you you see above (KSP 58) fire 7.62 x 51mm Nato rounds at 850 m/s (2,800 ft/s). That's a lot faster than an Olympic target rifle, so I knew this would be a bigger challenge. However this was not the only gun being fired here, so I turned my attention to the Carl Gustaf GRG m/48 recoilless anti-tank, grenade rifle. This fires at a more reasonable & sub-sonic 290 m/s (950 ft/s). About 15% slower than an Olympic target rifle, it would be a little easier to capture, but considerring the significantly larger caliber it should be a bit more exciting to look at!
I wasn't quite sure what I expected, but I was really impressed by the results. Plus, capturing high speed video of the result from behind made for quite the crowd pleasing shockwave effect on the dry grass. Using a 135mm (Sigma Art) lens allowed me to keep my distance a little while getting a slight angle from behind without getting into the danger zone.
Standing this close to anti-tank weapons required the use of double ear-protection. I had no dedicated microphone and hadn't even played with the audio levels on the camera so I thought the sound would be useless. To my surprise it was actually pretty great. Those inbuilt Sony pre-amps are really impressive!
Camera Tech Talk
At the speed of this bullet you should see the following amount of motion blur at each shutter speed (bare in mind that the projectile caliber is 20mm):
290mm @ 1/1,000th
150mm @ 1/2,000th
073mm @ 1/4,000th
036mm @ 1/8,000th
018mm @ 1/16,000th
009mm @ 1/32,000th
The Sony A9 sensor's scan speed of 1/160th of a second, this means that a full frame scan (from top to bottom) takes 6.25ms (miliseconds). Considering the the average size of the projectile on the frame it should scan in roughly 0.01ms. That's quick, but remember the bullet is travelling at 290,000mm/s. If I have done my calculations properly that should equate to a slant of 2.9mm.
Although there are slightly better cameras around for these speeds. The Sony A1 being capable of 50 megapixels @ 30fps (compared to my 24 megapixels @ 20fps) and with a slightly faster scanning sensor (1/240th vs 1/160th), this would only slightly help here. Plus it would cost an absolute bomb (no pun intended)...
This next image of a bullet from the KSP 58 was taken at only 1/1000th of a second, so the streak you see here is the bullet stretched over the length of 850mm. Is there any chance I could make this work?...
Although I could push this camera further (5 stops higher shutter speed), it would only take that blur down to 27mm. Considering the bullet caliber is only 7.62mm this will still remain significantly blurred for its size. I guess we will need faster burst rates, higher electronic shutter speeds, faster scanning sensors, deeper buffers and more light. Did I leave anything out?... :)
Since we are next to the ocean and there are many islands just off the coast, much of the defence is sea based. Thus a big part of the drills revolves around island incursions. This was harder to photograph than the shooting range because I wanted to be everywhere at once, but it was also a lot more dynamic and exciting.
Although they were shooting blanks they would sometimes fire directly at me, so it was a little disconcerting, but more so in hindsight since at the time I was mostly distracted by getting camera settings right so I didn't miss the action and while trying to get quick compositions. Like the shooting range I also exclusively used the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 lens.
Getting to the island I was in the back of the boat and had planned on getting photos of the guys exiting, but the first landing went a little wrong. The boat went too far up the rocks, tipped sideways and got stuck. Most of the guys were crammed into the front compartment for a quick exit while firing, but since I was at the back I ended hanging from the bars of the roof while the 2nd boat had to pull us back into the water. It wasn't successful from a photography standpoint, but it was a lot of fun!
The real crowd pleaser for the water manoeuvres was the quick stop. As you can see these Stridsbåt 90 fast assault craft have a lot of power, even thrown into reverse. They have two sets of twin .50 calibre machine guns at the front. Although the top was fitted with a manual 7.62mm machine gun for this exercise due to needing blanks, it can be fitted with a remote .50 cal machine gun controlled from inside.
Despite being a purely blank firing exercise there was still quite a muzzle flash. Viewed from the front there was a ring of fire due to the blocker at the front, but certain angles looked pretty damn cool. Now I'm not saying that I want to get shot at for real just to capture proper muzzle flashes, but... it would be awesome :P