Practical Pointers for Photographing Air Shows

A visit to an air show can be a fun and exciting way to spend an afternoon. Learn how to maximize your shooting to capture great aerial images.

Editor’s Note: When I saw some of Joe’s imagery of an air show, I was amazed.  It is fun, fast, challenging stuff. I asked Joe to give us some of his tips, here is a primer on how to start shooting this type of fast-moving and colorful action… f-stop

Air shows enjoy a long season in the United States, from March to November. They are one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country. The carnival atmosphere and junk food alone are worth the price of admission, but I go specifically to take pictures of the aerial acrobatics and the wide variety of airplanes. Here are a few things that I consider when shooting at an air show.

Equipment

When I shoot air shows, I prefer a zoom lens over a fixed focal  length lens in order to control the composition better, even though a fixed focal length  lens generally produces a sharper image. I use a 70-300mm lens on a Nikon d300s body.  I’ve found a 300mm lens will get you as close as necessary.  Longer lenses are not needed, because you will have ample opportunities to be close  to the planes, on the ground or in the air. On the rare occasion that I  might want to get even closer, I bring a 1.4 X teleconverter. It is a cheaper alternative to a longer lens and easier to carry, but you will lose a stop or two in the process.

A  polarizing filter can make the sky really pop but, once again, it will cost you a few stops. If it is  a sunny day, you can probably get away with it. On a cloudy day, a fast lens with an aperture of f2.8 would be beneficial but expensive.  On a bright sunny day, shadows and highlights can be problems. If your camera can shoot raw rather than jpeg, it would be preferable, because you will have a greater ability to handle shadows and highlight in post processing once you get the raw data into your computer.

A tripod with some kind of swivel head would be ideal, if not for the crowds. Monopods can be difficult to pan with, especially when trying to shoot a subject that is moving vertically. I find that hand held is the way to go. Lastly, make sure that your camera’s sensor is clean. Sky images will show every speck of dirt or dust on the sensor.

Exposure

In my experience, Program mode will expose for the sky and underexpose the planes. Spot metering can solve this problem but causes another, when there is more than one plane in the shot, you might get one in sharp detail and the others out of focus.

Arrive early to get some nice shots of the planes on the ground

Even so, I find this to be an adequate solution. I use Shutter Speed Priority and allow the camera to choose the aperture. On a bright day this works well. If you are shooting a single plane, you generally don’t have to worry about your depth of field, so you can allow the camera to choose the aperture. If you are shooting more than one plane and they are at different distances from you, then you might need more depth-of-field to properly expose for all the planes. You could go to Manual mode and set both the shutter speed and aperture. I choose a different route. I set the shutter speed and adjust the ISO to get to a better aperture. Sometimes this causes noise in the sky which I remove during post processing. This may not be the ideal solution, and a purist might object, but it works for me.

Shutter Speed

The first time I went to an air show it was a bright, sunny day. I thought this was great, because I could shoot very fast to stop action and not have to worry so much about my panning ability. This worked well for jet planes, but for prop planes, it stopped action so well that the propellers did not appear to be turning.

If necessary, noise can be eliminated in post processing.

That was an unnatural effect; try to avoid it by varying your speed to see what registers well. A general rule of thumb is that the minimum shutter speed should be the inverse of the focal length of your lens. If you are using a 300mm lens, then you should use a shutter speed of 1/300th of a second, or faster. This is a good idea for jets. Remember that increasing the shutter speed causes the camera to compensate by opening the aperture, which narrows the depth of field. I adjust the ISO to compensate.

When shooting prop planes, I choose a shutter speed at approximately 1/125th of a second. This gives the prop some blur and looks more realistic.

Composition

There is a lot to consider when composing your shot. The first thing to think about is the location of the sun. It is best to have the sun behind you, unless you are trying to get a silhouette. It is not always possible to keep the sun behind you, especially when trying to shoot a plane going down a long runway, but be aware of where it is.

Shoot slow enough to cause the propellers to blur. A fast shutter speed can capture perfectly frozen propellers which are unrealistic looking.

Be aware of distracting backgrounds. The trees and the building take the eye away from the main subject – the plane.

Shoot the top of the plane while it is banking. You can often get this orientation when the plane is preparing for landing.

I try to fill the frame with the plane, which is why I prefer a zoom lens over a fixed focal length lens. As with any moving object, there should be room in front of the plane so that it does not look like it is flying out of the picture. For focus, try the Follow-Focus feature of your camera. It will help lock in focus like a radar.

While taking shots during takeoff and landing, be aware of the background. If there are distracting elements, such as wires and buildings, then maybe moving to a different vantage point would be better. Consider arriving early to enjoy all the attractions and get some shots of the planes on the ground.

I like being at the end of the runway during takeoff and the start of the runway during landings, because the pilots often bank the plane at those times and I can get a neat shot of the top of the plane and maybe even the pilot. The same ideas apply to planes as to birds. It is much better if you can see the front of the plane or the bird. Butt shots of birds may be easier to photograph, but they are far less interesting. It is hard to get a shot of a plane flying straight toward you; for safety reasons they are not supposed to fly towards a crowd. Try to shoot the front of the plane unless you are trying to capture a specific shot, like the plane flying off into the sunset.

There is a lot to think about when shooting an air show, but they can be a real blast. Give one a try.

Categories: Articles and Tips & Techniques.

Tags: aerial, air, aperture, blur, camera, composition, depth of field, digital, expose, exposure, fly, focal length, image, ISO, jet, landing, lens, lenses, noise, pan, plane, post processing, prop, runway, shoot, shot, show, shutter, sky, speed, spot metering, takeoff, and zoom.

  • Bill Provost

    Thanks for a great article. We live close to an Air Force base that has an air show each year. It’s been awhile since I attended. Will have to go this year and try out these “tips”.

  • jim liddell

    Excellent advice