A Beyond The Lens How-To Blog Post
Whether photographing at a major airshow or near your local airport photographing airplanes can be very challenging and fun. Airshows usually offer the best opportunity to photograph a variety of different types of airplanes. At an airshow you will find on the ground, static airplane displays of vintage, experimental, military and historically significant airplanes. In the air, you will find some of those same planes in action. Some airshows will even stage reenactments of some historical air battles. It is always thrilling to photograph the precision flying teams such as the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels, usually found performing at airshows.
If you are new to aviation photography photographing at an airshow will allow you to use your existing gear and still get great photos. You don’t need a ton of gear to photograph at an airshow either. Two zoom lenses will give you good coverage, a wide-angle zoom in the 14mm-70mm range and a long zoom in the 80mm-400mm range. Your wide-angle zoom will handle photographing the static displays and wide-angle aerial shots. The long zoom will be best used for planes-in-flight shots. Unlike portrait photography, you don’t need fast glass (f2.8 max. aperture) to get great shots. You will be working at f5.6 and smaller apertures to get good depth of field in your shots. Most any camera type will work, DSLR, Mirrorless, Bridge, etc. DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras will offer the features that will improve your chances of getting good in focus images. Some of the features to look for are, continuous high-speed advance of 4 frames per second or better, stabilization (camera and/or lens), auto-ISO, flexible focus-point setting, fast auto-focus operation (camera and lens), aperture priority mode, and shutter-priority mode. A polarizing filter is useful to minimize reflections and glare and increase the color saturation in the sky. A tripod is not needed for aviation photography unless photographing static displays in low-light or for special effects. Because of the fast-moving planes, using a tripod will slow you down, so hand-holding your camera and lens is recommended.
Static Displays – use your wide-angle prime or zoom to get the entire plane in the frame. Try shooting from different angles to vary your compositions. Shooting from a low-angle will allow more sky to be included around the plane. For the best lighting try shooting in the early morning or late afternoon. Sometimes with the static plane displays the pilots and/or mechanics are there giving information on the planes, include them with a shot of the plane to make it more significant. For exposure, start with an f-stop of f/8 in aperture-priority mode to get good depth of field in your images and set the ISO to 100. Your camera will select the proper shutter speed for the exposure. When shooting handheld, if you notice motion blur in your images start increasing your ISO until the motion blur is eliminated.
Planes-in-Flight – photographing the planes in the air is a bit more complicated than photographingthe static airplane displays. A good panning technique will be the key to getting sharp images. It’s a good idea to practice your panning techniques before going to the airshow. Your settings will need to be adjusted depending on the type of plane you are trying to photograph. When photographing jets use aperture priority metering with the aperture set to f/8, continuous auto-focus with grouped focus points of about 9. To photograph prop planes, use shutter-priority metering with a shutter speed of 1/125 or slower. The idea here is to capture a prop blur with the slower shutter speed. You will need to adjust your shutter speed according to the rpm speed of the propellers to get a blur in the props. Since you are using a slow shutter speed, you will need a good panning technique to get sharp images.
Use these tips as a starting point into your adventure into aviation photography. You will need to adjust your settings according to the conditions you are presented with. If you have a chance to attended an airshow and take some great photos consider sending your best shot to FotoShoot Magazine for a chance to be published!