Aviation photography is one of the more challenging genres you can shoot as a photographer: fast-moving subjects, bright backgrounds, keeping your camera stable at long focal lengths. The list goes on. In this tutorial we explain some of the best aviation photography tips we’ve learned from the pros, as well as our own experience, to show you the best way to take stunning pictures of airplanes.
Aviation photography can be great fun, but if you want to capture exciting pictures of airplanes against interesting backgrounds rather than plain skies you need to shoot them during take-off or landing.
You’ll also need the right equipment for aviation photography – particularly a telephoto lens with plenty of reach – and the right camera settings and shooting techniques.
In this aviation photography tutorial we’ll show you how to capture all the action in and around a busy airport, as well as offer some expert tips on how to take pictures of airplanes performing their dramatic aerobatics at local air shows.
For our main shoot here we were lucky enough to get access to the side of the runway at Bristol International Airport.
You may not be able to get quite as close, but you’ll be able to capture aviation photography that’s just as dramatic by finding a location close to an airport, or by visiting one of the many air shows held around the country over the summer – but do make sure you’re in an area where photography is permitted.
Keep an eye on the weather, as this can mean the difference between great aircraft shots and so-so images. A sunny day with blue skies and some cloud is perfect: the clouds will add interest and texture to your backdrops, and the sun will bring out the colour and detail of the aircraft.
If you’re using a large, heavy telephoto lens, use a monopod to support the weight, as you may be waiting around for some time between shooting opportunities.
Best camera settings for aviation photography
01 Aperture Priority mode
Set your camera to Aperture Priority (Av) mode for control over the aperture. Lighting conditions can change quickly, so start off with an aperture of around f/8: you need a wide enough aperture to enable a fast shutter speed, but you also want to capture a broad enough depth of field to ensure your subjects are sharp. Start out with an ISO between ISO100 and ISO400.
02 Shutter speed
When you’re shooting in Av mode the camera will select the shutter speed, so you’ll need to keep an eye on this: to freeze fast-moving aircraft, ideally you don’t want your shutter speed dropping below 1/1000 sec. Keep checking your exposures, as you may need to stop down to f/5.6 to obtain a faster shutter speed; you can increase the ISO to get a faster shutter speed too.
03 Capturing motion
There are a couple of exceptions when it comes to shutter speed. If you want to capture some motion blur to convey a sense of speed you’ll need to use a slower shutter speed, and pan to follow your subject; around 1/60 sec should give good results, but you may need a few goes to get the panning technique right.
If you’re taking pictures of airplanes with propellers, a shutter speed of between 1/100 sec and 1/500 sec will create a slight blur in the propellers while keeping the rest of the aircraft sharp.
04 Accurate focusing
Switch your lens to AF, and set the autofocus mode to AI Servo to track moving subjects. You can also set up back button focusing, which enables you to press a rear button – the AF-ON button is the best choice – to meter and focus, so that you can use the shutter button just to fire the shutter, without any delay.
When you’re taking pictures of airplanes in flight you’ll need a telephoto lens with a reach of at least 200mm in order to capture close-up shots with plenty of detail. We used the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens on an EOS 7D.
The advantage of shooting aviation photography with an APS-C-format body such as the 7D is that the crop factor gives you extra telephoto reach: at the 400mm setting the 1.6x crop factor gives an effective focal length of 640mm.
05 Drive mode
Set the drive mode to High Speed Continuous so that you can fire off bursts of shots. Our 7D is capable of a super-fast 8fps, but even if you have a slower camera make sure you have some spare memory cards with you, as you’ll fill up cards quickly – particularly if you’re shooting Raw files, which we recommend for maximum quality.
PAGE 1: Best camera settings for aviation photography
PAGE 2: How to compose pictures of airplanes
PAGE 3: How to take pictures of airplanes at air shows
PAGE 4: How to edit your aviation photography for best results: steps 1-5
PAGE 5: How to edit your aviation photography for best results: steps 6-10
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