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.
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!