Aircraft photography is a genre in its own right, and while single aircraft – whether on the ground or in flight – can make great subjects, airshow displays featuring formations of colourful planes twisting and swooping through the sky present some of the best opportunities for capturing truly spectacular pictures of planes. Below are some of our best photography tips and post-processing advice for getting stunning pictures of planes.
If you want to try your hand at capturing these dramatic subjects, you’ll need to find out when and where airshows are taking place. While you might have to travel some distance to the bigger events, there are plenty of smaller shows spread across the country throughout the summer.
When you’re photographing aircraft, using the right kit and shooting techniques will make it easier to capture the fast-moving action. To get close to airborne subjects a telephoto lens is a must.
If you’re using a lens longer than 200mm, you should use a monopod for support – a monopod offers more flexibility of movement than a tripod, while still providing much better stability than hand-holding.
Finally, don’t position yourself near any tall or overhead objects that may encroach on your field of view. You’ll be annoyed if you pan the camera, only to find a lamppost has ruined your shot!
Set up your camera to shoot pictures of planes in flight
Set your camera to Aperture Priority (Av) mode. The lighting conditions can change quickly when you’re outdoors, so start with the aperture at f/8, and open it up if you don’t have enough light – we were shooting on an overcast day, so needed to open the aperture up to our lens’s widest setting of f/4. Keep the ISO setting as low as possible, so you don’t get noise in the smooth tones of the sky.
Start at around ISO200, and increase this if need be to enable you to use faster shutter speeds. Keep an eye on your shutter speed throughout the day; ideally you don’t want it to drop below 1/1000sec in order to capture sharp action shots. You may need to push the ISO to 800 if the light drops, but if you keep the aperture wide you should be able to stick with between 100 and 400 on a good day.
Use your AF
A telephoto lens will enable you to get close to the aerial action, and we were using a 70-200mm f/4; this lens suited our needs as we were out shooting all day. Make sure the lens is switched to auto focus, and as you’ll be using Continuous shooting mode switch off your image stabilisation, as this can slow down the lens. As long as the shutter speed is around 1/1000sec or above you won’t need image stabilisation enabled, but if the speed drops below this you’ll need to turn it on.
You’ll need to set the drive mode to Continuous to fire off rapid bursts of shots. Your camera should have a direct control button to access the Drive mode settings. Remember, you’ll fill your memory card up quickly when shooting at these speeds, so use the largest-capacity card you have, and pack plenty of spares.
The right stance
Adopting the right stance and holding the camera correctly will make it easier to pan the camera and capture sharp shots. Keep your feet apart, so you can twist your body to track planes flying overhead without losing your balance, and keep your elbows apart and out so your body becomes a supportive frame for the camera. If you’re shooting handheld rather than using a monopod, place one hand under the lens to keep it steady.
Shoot in raw, so that you can rescue as much data as possible at the editing stage if need be. It can be tricky to expose aerial scenes correctly, as the sky and planes will have different metering values.
If it’s sunny you’ll need to watch that the highlights don’t overexpose and blow out; if it’s a grey and overcast day you’ll be battling with noise issues and trying to keep the ISO as low as you can without compromising too much on image quality.
Check the histogram regularly as you’re shooting, and adjust your settings if you’re consistently blowing the highlights.
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