Airshow / Aviation photography tutorial - share your tips!

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Airshow / Aviation photography tutorial - share your tips!

Postby Gordon Laing » Wed Apr 14, 2010 1:26 am

Airshow photography tutorial

Airshows are a great way to get close to interesting aircraft in-flight and come away with some action-packed images. Like all styles of photography though, there's a few guidelines to bear in mind for the best results. In this tutorial we'll reveal the secrets behind successful airshow photography, using a series of images taken at the Warbirds over Wanaka airshow in New Zealand. We'd also love to see your own airshow and aircraft images, along with any advice you have for capturing them, so please use this thread for posting your best shots and tips!

Step 1: Choosing the right lens

Airshows let you to get much closer to aircraft in flight than under most normal circumstances, so you may not need a particularly long lens to fill your frame with a decent image; indeed when planes are zipping past at high-speed, very long lenses can actually prove frustrating.

In our experience, we've found the classic 70-300mm focal length is ideal for most airshow photography on cropped or full-frame bodies, allowing you to zoom-in and get relatively close during distant runway or circling shots, or zoom-out for closer flybys. Of course if you're further from the action than you'd like to be, or wanting to capture very distant or high elevation shots, then a longer lens will be ideal, in the 400-500mm region.

Step 2: Choosing the right focusing mode

Most cameras offer continuous autofocusing options which can track moving action. In the ideal world, these are the modes you should go for, but during an airshow the action may simply be too fast for your camera and or lens to keep-up. The bottom line is to experiment and check your results after each sequence. Try continuous AF modes first, but if your results are not in focus, you may be better pre-focusing at a set distance and taking the shot as the aircraft enters that spot.

Step 3: Choosing the right drive mode

Like many photographic disciplines, the key to maximising your chances of grabbing a decent image of an aircraft in flight is to simply take lots and lots of photos – hundreds or even thousands if you can. It'll take time to sort through them after the event, but the more you take, the more chance you have of grabbing a good one. Unsurprisingly then, the continuous or burst drive modes on your camera are the ones to go for during action sequences, allowing you to grab several frames on each flyby. As for file formats, shooting in RAW will of course give you more flexibility for adjustments, but knowing I was going to shoot hundreds of images with a camera with a limited RAW buffer, I opted for JPEG only during the event below.

Step 4: Choosing the right exposure

Aircraft by their very nature can move very quickly, so you'd imagine choosing a sufficiently fast shutter speed to freeze the action would be most appropriate. If you absolutely want to freeze the action, then go for shutter speeds of at least 1/500, but these will also freeze the background, along with propellers on older planes, giving the appearance of a static aircraft just hanging in mid-air.

As with racing cars, horses or greyhounds, it can often be much better to use a combination of slower shutter speeds with panning to follow the action as you take the shot. Get it right and the subject will be sharp, but the background (and propeller on older planes) will be blurred, giving a better impression of speed. The ideal shutter speed depends on the distance to the aircraft, the lens in use and the speed at which its moving, so some degree of experimentation is necessary. A good starting point though is 1/100 in Shutter Priority, and this should also allow you to use smaller apertures which will be more forgiving on focusing, and lower ISO sensitivities for better quality.

See our Blurring Action Tutorial for a full guide.

One final note on exposures: you'll often be shooting dark aircraft against bright sky, so if the subjects are coming out underexposed, try applying a little positive exposure compensation, such as +1EV. This particularly applies on overcast days.

Step 5: getting the right pose

With planes zooming past at high speed, you often feel lucky to even get one in your frame let alone position it in a pleasing manner, but as you become more confident and proficient, the question of composition and poses becomes more relevant.

A photo library editor once told me the best shots of sports-people in action had both eyes visible; profile shots or those where the second eye was hidden rarely made the final selection. He wasn't necessarily looking for face-on views, but just so long as you could see both eyes, he was happy.

I feel the same way about planes. The views I personally find most pleasing show the plane approaching, rather than completely side-on or receding. Best of all is the moment just before the plane is side-on, where you see the front view slightly angled, but with a good view of the fuselage.

This may sound obvious, but as you're swinging a camera and lens across the sky, it's surprising how many completely side-on or rear views you'll capture. Of course, this is entirely personal, and there are also exceptions, such as a view of jet engines firing as a plane recedes into the distance.

Likewise, have a think about the background. The most dramatic shots are often those where the plane appears close to the tops of buildings or the landscape. Even if the background fills the frame, or just touches an edge of it, it gives the shot context and the opportunity of blurring for an impression of motion. Shots of planes overhead against a blank sky are rarely as exciting, unless you're capturing the flames of a fuel-dump or a jet afterburner.

Sample images

The following images were taken during the 2010 Warbirds over Wanaka event, a major airshow in New Zealand's South Island. I used a Canon EOS 550D / Rebel T2i to illustrate what's possible with a non-pro DSLR, shooting at less than 4fps. Onto this body I fitted a Canon EF 70-300mm DO IS USM lens, which as discussed above, proved an ideal focal range for the subjects in this particular airshow. I used the DO lens because I was testing it at the time, but any 70-300mm zoom with fast focusing would have been equally good. I set the 550D / T2i's AF and Drive modes to Continuous, and shot in Manual exposure mode to achieve different degrees blurring and compensate for the often bright background.


Above: Uncropped original image, 1/800, f7.1, 200 ISO, 70-300mm at 285mm (456mm equivalent)

Above: This subject was a real gift for photographers, performing repeated flybys at very close range and not particularly quickly. After a number of unsuccessful shots at slower shutter speeds, I decided to shoot this final pass with a relatively quick speed of 1/800 to freeze the action. This is probably my favourite shot of the event, and I'm even happier to say it isn't cropped or retouched in any way. This is the JPEG straight from the camera. You can view a higher resolution version or download the original for personal evaluation here!


Above: Uncropped original image, 1/320, f8, 200 ISO, 70-300mm at 240mm (384mm equivalent)

Above: After experimenting with a number of flybys, I found a shutter speed of 1/320 was ideal to freeze this fast-moving plane while still achieving a slightly blurred background. I'm pleased with this shot as it's sharp when viewed at 100% and like the one above involves no retouching or cropping. There's a temptation to cut and paste the plane a little closer to the hilltop or perform a tighter crop in image height, but I wanted to show the original image in its entirety. Again this is the JPEG straight from the camera. You can view a higher resolution version or download the original for personal evaluation here!


Above: Uncropped original image, 1/250, f14, 200 ISO, 70-300mm at 70mm (112mmequivalent)

Above: There's a temptation to only shoot planes whizzing by, but airshows also present an opportunity for nice beauty-passes of classic aircraft. Here I used a shutter speed of 1/250, hoping to blur the background a little, but the subject ended-up taking-off very slowly. But I like the pose of the plane and the contrast with the other shots here. This is another untouched JPEG straight from the camera.


Above: Uncropped original image, 1/800, f8, 200 ISO, 70-300mm at 300mm (480mm equivalent)

Above: This pair of planes performed repeated flybys at very close proximity to each other, but my favourite shot in the sequences ended up being one which slightly crops the subjects - this unintentionally gives more of a claustrophobic feeling, and the impression the planes are very close. Zooming-in on the shot, I like the way you can see the pilot of the jet keeping a close eye on his partner. Pointing upwards with no background to blur, I opted for a quick shutter speed to freeze the action. You can view a higher resolution version or download the original for personal evaluation here!


Above: Image cropped slightly, 1/250, f8, 100 ISO, 70-300mm at 300mm (480mm equivalent)

Above: For the maximum blurring effect, there's a temptation to shoot every plane as it's right in front of you, but shots of approaching planes can also look good - I like this one as it shows the context of the Wanaka airshow against a mountainous background.


Above: Cropped for height, 1/320, f6.3, 100 ISO, 70-300mm at 110mm (176mm equivalent)

Above: These planes circled several times and every time they passed over the hilltops, I wanted to grab a classic shot with a slower shutter and blurred background. Ideally a shutter speed below 1/200 would have delivered a really blurred background, but I never managed to keep the planes sharp within those frames. So it was up to 1/320 for a sharper subject, but the action moved sufficiently quickly for a fairly blurred background. I feel there's a real impression of speed here, not to mention danger for the older plane in front.


Above: Cropped for height, 1/125, f10, 100 ISO, 70-300mm at 100mm (160mm equivalent)

My final image best-illustrates the blurring effect I was trying to achieve while panning with slow shutter speeds. I managed to track the plane and keep it sharp while shooting at just 1/125 here, causing the background to blur for a satisfying impression of motion.

These are my best seven images from the airshow and are culled from 622 images taken over a three hour period. I shot continuous bursts again and again, varying my settings and always checking the results after each flyby for fine-tuning. (Don't worry, the fellow photographer was with me!)


Overall I was very satisfied with the choice of lens range - as you'll see from the notes above with each image, the 70-300mm range - especially on a cropped body - proved absolutelty ideal, and at no point did I ever wish for anything longer or wider.

That said, there's always someone with a bigger lens, so when photographing planes, be preared for lens-envy! Happy shooting and show us your best aviation and airshow shots, along with what settings and techniques you used to capture them!

Last edited by Gordon Laing on Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:35 pm, edited 6 times in total.
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Postby Wolfsong » Wed Apr 14, 2010 1:33 am

cool tutorial Gordon.. Thanks! Will definately take this info into account next airshow I go to :)
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Postby jinay » Wed Apr 14, 2010 2:45 am

Great tutorial, Gordon! I have a couple of questions, though:
1. Would AF tracking work with such high speed objects?
2. Is a tripod helpful in such situations?

3. Which are the camera(s) used? Is the focal length you mention 35mm equivalent, or absolute?

Postby Gordon Laing » Wed Apr 14, 2010 3:02 am

Jinay, the focal lengths are actual, not equivalent - I'll add equiv figures. Iused a Canon 550D / T2i for these shots, which has a cropped sensor and a field-reduction of 1.6x.

A tripod would be disasterous at an airshow in my experience - you have to quickly shift position and track the subject by hand. A tripod would slow you down too much. If you have a big heavy lens, a monopod may help take some strain, but again you'd miss a lot of shots as you only have seconds to readjust from one part of the sky to another. Handheld shooting is the way forward for airshows!

As for AF tracking, see the text in the tutorial above. I found Continuous AF on the 550D / T2i with a fast USM lens was sufficient for most of the planes I was photographing.
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Postby jgmatthews » Wed Apr 14, 2010 8:10 am

Awesome shots Gordon, my favourites the P51 Mustang coming towards you
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Gordon Laing wrote:I used the DO lens because I was testing it at the time

Does this mean we are getting a review of the 70-300 DO? :D

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Postby royraiden » Wed Apr 14, 2010 8:40 pm

Great great thread Gordon,Im dying to go to New Zealand in this is one of the reasons.Warbirds with the NZ scenery as background =awesome photographs.Thanks for the tutorial.

Postby jinay » Thu Apr 15, 2010 7:20 am

Thanks for your tips, Gordon. Will surely keep them in mind!

Postby Arthur Dent » Thu Apr 15, 2010 9:30 pm

Some good tips there Gordon.

As for your lens envy, I know it all to well! Went to RIAT at RAF Fairford last year with my trusty Sony DSC-H1 when this bad boy turned up a few feet away......... :shock:


Felt a bit inadequate after that!

As you say, straight profile shots are generally not so interesting, and I like your near head on Mustang but I think the formation L-39 and Mustang are the best for me.

Here's one of the RNZAF 757 displaying at RIAT 2009


Keep up the good work.
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Postby Joe_AUT » Thu Apr 29, 2010 7:28 pm

hey gordon!

awesome tutorial and so are your photos (:

just something i didn't get.. why did you choose a relatively quick shutter speed when taking a shot of the slow double decker that was also further away (i'm just guessing that due to the focal length you used) but then a slower one on that aircraft picture below that must have been faster than the double decker and seemingly closer to you .. and i guess subjects that are closer to someone are harder to catch and therfore need faster shutter speeds. but i might (or probably) be wrong.
and why did the propeller turned out blurry even though of that fast shutter speed cause you said already a shutter speed of approx. 1/500 will freeze the whole image.

Postby dubaiphil » Mon May 10, 2010 11:07 am


The guy with the Nikon 70-300mm must ve felt very insignicant on that shot!!! Kind of like lining up at the urinals next to John Holmes!!!
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Postby Starbug » Thu Jun 10, 2010 3:34 pm

Your second photo only took a shutter speed of 1/320 to freeze? I'd have thought it would be moving faster than that. That plane looks similar to the Canadian Snowbirds, which will be in town this weekend, so I guess I've got a starting point now. I'm not sure I'll get much, with only a 200mm reach, but I might give it a go. They've got a practice session scheduled the day before the big event so I can check things out and see if it'll be worth the effort.

I might be better off zoomed out some anyway, given they'll be performing in formation immediately above a large array of warships. Any tips or suggestions for capturing 9-plane formations?
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Postby Ruben123 » Thu Jun 10, 2010 4:45 pm

Very cool Gordon!
Wasnt it difficult to do with only 3.5fps with the 550D?

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Postby Clactonian » Thu Jun 10, 2010 4:49 pm

I have to agree with the lens recommendation, finding my newly acquired 70-300 VR Nikkor perfect, last August. Unfortunately my field of view was very restricted on the stand where I was working (!!!) so a high shutter speed, in this case 1/4000, was needed to freeze the action.
The original image is cropped by about 25% and adjusted in 'levels'


Clacton Air Show 2009

Postby Joris Van den Berghe » Thu Jun 10, 2010 6:09 pm

I'd like to add that while it may increase camera shake lower your keeper rate, it's a good thing to lower the shutter speed when photographing prop-engined aircraft (turboprops, piston engines) - sorry, Gordon, I'm suggesting the opposite of what you said :). I'm by no means a professional, but I do know a bit about aviation photography as it is my main (and, obviously, favourite) kind of photography :). There's no thing that beats a good airplane shot as far as satisfaction is concerned :wink:.

The maximum shutter speed should be 1/250. Note that while this is fairly low, especially when using a telephoto lens (and even more so when using a crop camera), you may not yet get the desired results.

This is an example I made myself at Duxford's Flying Legends 2009, at 1/250. As the Spitfire pictured is landing, the engine is throttled back and the rpm is consequently low.


Let's compare the above with the picture below...(1/200). The pilot of this Extra 300 of the Blades used a higher throttle setting to move the aircraft. At 1/200, this gives much better results.


Also for other aircraft it gives an enhanced sense of speed, which many photographs lack ("oh, yet another BA A320 taken side-on at 1/400"). I'm not a fantastic photographer myself, but highly appreciate the use of the proper shutter speed.

In the past, I've had a lot of photos that were taken at ISO 200 (which is, for some cameras currently on the market, the lowest ISO setting, not for mine though), and taken at apertures between f/8 and f/14. The first picture for instance was taken at f/13, ISO 200 and 1/250. If you do use a higher ISO and a relatively slow shutter speed, watch out for diffraction!

About the AF-tracking: I find myself (and I'm not the only one, although opinions on the subject vary) using AF-S mostly with my current camera. I lock onto the target, shoot a couple of pictures, relock, and do it again, so to speak :). It's about the only way to track, e.g, a fast and low flying Mustang (Flying Legends, anyone ?), instead of relying on AF-C. If you'd be using AF-C, it may happen that when you're a little 'off target' (because your body is moving as the aircraft moves) your camera would be focusing on a piece of cloud or blue sky, or anything else you do not want to focus on at all. The higher end cameras do offer usable continuous autofocus (my entry level Sony doesn't, I'm afraid).

Personally, I find 400mm a minimum. That said, since the Ostend Air Show crash (an Extra 300 of the Royal Jordanian Falcons crashed, killing and severely injuring 10 and 50 people, respectively) limits, as far as altitude and distance from the audience are concerned, have been made more strict in Belgium.

I would not recommend full-frame cameras (except the A900 and D3X, because of their fast continuous shooting and high megapixel count...the latter is a good thing, since you'll find yourself cropping a picture often - they do need very, very good glass!), but APS-C ones because of their crop factor.

Also, cameras having fast burst modes (5 fps minimum, still using my first DSLR myself though, so shooting at 2.5 fps) burst modes and big buffers are highly recommended - Nikon's D3X, D300S, D90 (Nikon did raise the burst speed, but the buffer is fairly small though), Canon's , 40D, 50D and 7D, 1DIII, 1DIV, and Sony's A450/A500/A550, A700 and A900 are the most popular models if you're asking me.

I have some lens envy too, despite having a 70-400...(at Flying Legends 2009, in the press enclosure, picture was made by myself)):


Still dreaming of Sony's 300mm f/2.8 G SSM or the future 500mm f/4 G SSM, on an A900...:)

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Last edited by Joris Van den Berghe on Mon Sep 12, 2011 2:31 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Postby dubaiphil » Sun Jun 13, 2010 5:36 am

That Hunter is doing the rounds, Clactonian.

Here she is at the Al Ain Airshow in the United Arab Emirates in January 2010. Those lines are beautiful...


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