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Airshow Photography a Beginners Guide - Camera Settings - Shooting Technique - Tips and Tricks

air show
Photo by: Nathan Rupert

Aircrafts are symbols of speed and beauty; they are products of cutting-edge technology in stylish designs and most advanced features. The purrrrrrring sound produced by these metal birds raises adrenalin levels to new highs and people clamor with awe. Citizens feel; it not as a mere aircraft that flies but the prestige of their nation that flies sky high! When the show is over the spectators are as tired as the pilots who flew the crafts!

The airshows are mostly sponsored by aircraft makers to exhibit the capabilities of their ware; they are not only for the public to clamor; we photographers also claim for our share of the pie; in short making hay while sun shines. Perhaps the most important factor that attracts many to air show photography is the fact that air shows are not held in all nook and crannies; they attract high media attention and their visuals can thrill the viewers. All that is required to capture some stunning images is a camera, few lenses and of course some grip on the right technique.

Air Show Photography – Lens Choices

air show photography
Photo by: Jason Mrachina

Airshow photography includes basically two types of images; one is that of airplanes on display on the ground and the other of airplanes doing stunts in midair.

 To photograph airplanes on display on the ground wide angle lens, preferably a zoom in the range of 24mm – 70mm is ideal assuming you are shooting with a full frame camera. For crop sensor DSLR cameras an 18mm – 55mm will be better suited for the job. Do not go still wider lenses due to perspective distortions, but if used creatively; such distortions caused by extreme wide angle lenses can produce some amazing results.

For photographing of aircrafts in flight we’ll need tele photo zoom lenses; preferably in the range of 100mm – 400mm. The ability to zoom allows you the flexibility to use a lens of long focal length to capture an image of a single aircraft or zoom back to capture multiple aircrafts or a display team.

Why Zoom Lenses?

Photo by: Nathan Rupert

In air show photography zoom lenses are preferred over prime lenses due to a number of reasons. First and foremost using zoom lenses means you need only carry only fewer lenses. Secondly it allows you to shoot uninterrupted across focal lengths without having to change lenses all the time which is awkward at an airshow. Thirdly not having to change lenses in such dusty conditions prevents the problems of dust getting on the camera sensor.

Camera Settings for Air Show Photography

airshow photography
Photo by: Sp8254

Aperture Priority mode (AV) or Shutter Priority (TV)

During an airshow lighting conditions can change quickly, with such fast action taking place, while you are after aspects like focus, framing and composition rather than exposure. So it is best to use semi automatic shooting modes such as aperture priority or shutter priority as the shooting mode.

For photographing planes on display on the ground using wide angle lenses, use f/8 or f/11 at the minimum to attain acceptable depth of field. For shooting air crafts in flight using tele photo lenses,   f/5.6 gives you the best combination of ISO, Shutter Speed and Depth.

AI Servo / AF (C) Focusing Mode

Turn auto focus on and switch to AI Servo (Canon) and AF (c) (Nikon); this mode allows you to track moving subjects and keep them in focus when the shutter is released. For greater control use Back Button Focusing which allows you to use your shutter release button independent of focus.

Shoot RAW

Shooting in RAW will negatively affect your frame rate, but will give you a lot of leeway while correcting any exposure or white balance errors during post processing.

Use Spot or Center Weighted Average Metering

In airshow photography; shooting aircrafts is done against a very bright sky and this could fool your cameras exposure meter and render your aircrafts underexposed. Switching to spot metering or center weighted average metering will help correct exposure to an extent. Take a couple of test shots and apply proper exposure compensation to nail your exposure. Do cross check your LCD and also Histogram to make sure you have the right exposure.

Drive Mode

Set your camera High Speed Continuous mode and fire in bursts, this not only improves your chances of getting the right shots but also reduces the chance of losing images due to camera blur.

Air Show Photography Tips

air show photography techniques
Photo by: Skip Steuart

1. What to Wear

Wear light, breathable clothing; preferably long sleeves that will cover your arms. You’ll be exposed to the sun for long periods of time so do take a hat with you. Also photographing air shows means you’ll be either standing or walking for extended periods so wear some comfortable shoes.

A Photographer’s Vest

A photographer’s vest is a wise investment for air show photography. It not only makes it easy to carry around your stuff but also avoids hassle with security personnel. Some venues do not allow backpacks in and you might have trouble getting your camera bag in. But a vest is always allowed.

Cargo pants/shorts

Post 9/11 security at air shows is strict and there are some seemingly insane rules regarding what you can and cannot take to an air show. When backpacks are not an option cargo pants / shorts with their many large pockets of make carrying all the various bits of this and that a much easier affair.

2.  What to Bring and What Not

shooting air shows
Photo by: Eric Ward

Check in advance the security warnings regarding what are allowed in the venue and what is not. Generally weapons of any sort are not allowed so are umbrellas; most air shows have their websites which clearly state such details.

Memory and batteries

Fast moving subjects, shooting in high speed continuous mode, RAW file format, what does it all tell you… it’s obvious isn’t it carry lots of spare memory, you’ll need it, with prices of memory going down day by day, running out of memory is not an excuse for missing great shots. 

So is the case of batteries; always take at least a fully charged spare battery with you. Image stabilization feature, continuous shooting, reviewing on LCD etc all drain battery quickly.  Shooting in cold weather makes battery drain faster; it is a good idea to keep your spare battery close to your body so it stays warm and does not lose charge.

Ziploc bags

Carry a couple of gallon sized Ziploc bags for covering the gear stuffed into your vest or the pockets of your cargo pants. Lenses, memory cards, batteries etc could all be put into these versatile clear plastic bags for security inspection. Also if the weather takes and unexpected turn and it rains or drizzles these bags could be turned into an ad-hoc rain shield for your camera and accessories.

3. Some places that a lot of action typically occurs during air shows

air show photography tips
Photo by: Jason Mrachina

Air show Center

Air show center is the center ground which is the reference point for the pilots to perform their tricks. Usually the VIP pavilion will be facing this point straight down the runway. Watch this area carefully, if need pre-focus here and wait for the right moment to capture amazing pictures.

Extreme left/right of the crowd line

Extreme left of right of the crowd line is normally less crowded than the center. And those areas present you with the unique opportunity to shoot some very intimate pictures of the performers walking through their routine of inspecting their machines, starting up and final checks etc. and those acts that are not staged at the center will be done to these far sides of the crowd. Extreme corners allow shooting from a different angle to make the best out of lighting conditions during the show.

4. Show up Early and Stay Late

how to take air show pictures
Photo by: Ruben alexander

Do your homework, find out as much of the event as possible, arrive early and you’ll be able to capture airplanes arriving for the event, shoot some in perfect early morning light, move around freely and shoot some planes on the ground without a lot of people near it, meet some pilots or owners, most will love to talk to you if they sense that you are genuinely interested may allow you closer access or even pose for a few shots.

5. Master Proper Hand Held Shooting Technique

Shooting air planes in flight is better done hand held and it pays to learn the right hand held shooting technique especially when using long lenses. When hand holding your camera, use your left hand in a cupped position with the lens resting in your palm, bring both elbows into your sides and keep the camera viewfinder, firmly pressed against your face.

6. Change Cameras not Lenses

air show photography tutorial
Photo by: Nathan Rupert

When photographing air shows it is much more practical to use two camera bodies; one with a wide angle lens mounted and another with a tele photo zoom lens mounted. When need to go wide or tele photo simply swap cameras. This is faster and often the only practical solution as there really isn't time to keep changing lenses on a single camera body during a display.

7. Lighting is Important

photographing airshows
Photo by: Stefan Presslein

When shooting  air crafts on display on the ground which is the same as shooting portraits of people, pay attention to where your light is coming from, whether it is hard or soft etc. Choose shooting angles wisely. Everything we learned about golden hour and the light during the time is applicable here too.

8. Practice Makes Perfect

Shooting air planes in flight is tricky and to get great results one must practice the skills; As homework practice on other fast moving objects like cars or visit an airfield and try shooting airplanes that are landing and taking off before the main event. The more the practice the better you’ll get at it and you will find significant increase in your keeper rates.

9. Shoot Planes on the Ground

air show photography tips
Photo by: Don

Don’t get caught up in all the action unfolding up above in the skies and forget taking some pretty portraits of the beautiful planes on the ground. Try to photograph them from unique angles, during early morning and later evening when you have dramatic lighting. Also chances are there won’t be many people hanging around the planes during those times.

10. Master Panning Technique

Panning is a very effective technique to show motion in still photographs. But as any other technique it also requires much practice to get right. Do refer this article to Master Panning Technique.

11. Use Slower Shutter Speeds for Propeller Planes and Faster ones for Jets

When photographing planes with propellers or helicopters in flight, using slow shutter speeds in the range of 1/25 to 1/125 of a second to show motion in the propeller blades while the air craft is rendered sharp. However with such slow shutter speeds expect many shots to be wasted due to camera shake, so shoot a lot of pictures and turn on Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction if you lens has the feature.

12. Travel light

Do travel light and take only those things that are actually needed, think of the hot sun, heat and dust while hauling heaving equipment that could be avoided.

13. Seize the moment

air show camera
Photo by: Adam Pniak

Timing your shots perfectly is the key to get stunning air show pictures. You should be able to anticipate what is going to happen before the action actually unfolds so that you’ll be ready when it does. Generally, aviation photography is much more interesting with planes flying towards you than away from you, and when they’re banking so that the cockpit, the pilots in it and top of the wings are visible rather than the underneath.

14. Stay sharp

airshow photography
Photo by: Mario Cutroneo

Even the continuous focus modes on the latest cameras would at times fail and lose track of the air planes, especially when shooting fast jets flying directly towards you. Stay sharp and override focus by focusing manually to save the shot.

15. Get close

Get as close to your subject as possible, both physically and by using long focal length lenses. Get yourselves nicely positioned to capture the action and also use tele photo lenses to close in on the aircrafts.

16. Take Lots of Pictures

Prices of memory is falling by the day and on top there are no processing charges, so you literally have no excuse for missing shots. On the same note, occasionally put your camera down, sit down, relax and enjoy the show, this also helps your body recoup and prevents hands from shaking due to fatigue.

17. Runway Shots

air show photography settings
Photo by: José Luis Celada Euba

Find a spot at the end of the runway to take runway shots of aircrafts taking off and landing. Choose shooting angle wisely so as to get a neat, uncluttered background. Also make sure that camera is held horizontal so that the runway does not appear to slop.

18. Lens Hoods

Lens hood could be very useful in air show photography since you will be mostly shooting up into the sky. It will help prevent flare and also afford some protection to the front element of the lens.

19. Don’t forget to shoot the people

tips for photographing air shows
Photo by: Beverly

Include a human element in your shots to add some more viewer interest. Shoot the crowd’s reaction especially that of children, shoot the pilots, the support staff etc performing various duties etc.

20. Stay Hydrated

Always carry a bottle of water with you and sip regularly to keep your body well hydrated.

21. Location, location, location

canon air show
Photo by: Dvidshub

Get to the show early and scout the location for the best vantage point. Usually it will be where the Television Crews have all set their equipment and also the show center. Getting their early will allow you to be their right on the fence. Pay attention to any distractions that are present in the background and also the direction of light. If you plan on going to the show on multiple days, consider changing locations on different days. You might want to have a look at the weather forecast for the days as well

22. Composition

air show photography ideas
Photo by: Don

Composition guidelines like the golden mean or the rule of thirds are very much applicable in air show photography too. So try to place your air craft’s off center; keep your horizons level, make sure there is no clutter in the background, compose your planes as flying into the frame rather than flying out of it and you’re on the right track to making some great air show photographs.

23. Aviation Photography IS NOT A CRIME!!!

In post 9/11 era some people have a wrong perception of aviation photography, they think of taking pictures of airplanes and airports as illegal. This idea might have come from some scenes that we see in the movies. As a result aviation photographers are viewed with suspicion. But the truth is that it is not illegal to take pictures of 99% of aircrafts, the remaining 1% will usually fall under military installations which are off limits and photography (a strict no no). But you will see clear signs and barricades which precludes any confusion.

24. Rent Lenses

If you feel limited by the equipment you have and do not plan to invest in those pricey lenses. There are always online companies which specialize in renting lenses for photographers. This way you could get to use those pricey lenses that are otherwise way out of your budget.


how to take air show photos
Photo by: Burg Tender

Air shows are great fun, don’t get too caught up in trying to produce great pictures and miss out on the fun part. The most important thing is for you to enjoy the day and have plenty of fun, stunning pictures should only be a byproduct.

Aircrafts have revolutionized transportation of people and cargo; their role in warfare has been established since world war II. These flying machines are the pride of the nation which own and made them. All these have made airshows great events and subject to big media hype; as their popularity grows; the worth of the images shot on them surges; only that has something new and innovative catches viewers eyeballs; it must be your images; some hard work can make it happen; wishing good shows and better images! 

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