How to take pictures of airplanes at air shows
An air show offers a great opportunity for aviation photography, but you need to follow a few simple rules to get the best results.
Location, location, location
The prime position for aerobatic displays is usually in the spectator area at the central point of the runway, but planes often bank steeply just after take off or before landing, so either end of the runway is also good. But wherever you stand, don’t stay rooted to one spot.
Follow the sun
Even though you’re probably confined to a spectator’s area, keep your eye on the progress the sun makes as it moves across the sky throughout the day. Position yourself so that you’re not shooting into the sun, which will turn planes into silhouettes.
Think about exposure
Shooting pictures of airplanes against a bright sky usually makes for overly dark results. Be prepared to dial in at least +1 stop of Exposure Compensation and up to two stops for particularly dark planes.
Switch to Tv mode
For sharp results, even when panning, use Tv (Shutter Priority) mode and set a shutter speed of around 1/500 sec to 1/1000 sec. You may need to increase the ISO on dull days.
Fast shutter speeds don’t work so well for helicopters and propeller planes, because the motion of the blades can be completely frozen. Try reducing the shutter speed to 1/60 sec or 1/125 sec, but pan smoothly and take a burst of shots, because most may be blurred.
Continuous Focus can work well when panning, but sometimes loses tracking and probably won’t keep up with fast jets flying directly towards you. Single AF or even manual focus can often give more consistent results.
Get as close as you can to the action. A 55-250mm or 70-300mm zoom lens is ideal for air shows because the ‘crop factor’, as we mentioned on page 1, makes them equivalent to 400mm to 480mm, which is just about perfect.
Massively long telephotos are heavy and cumbersome and, while you can shoot from a greater distance, images are more likely to be degraded from heat haze, smoke and other pollutants from planes in the air.
Seize the moment
Try to anticipate what’s going to happen so you can capture optimum moments in a display. 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 and top side are visible rather than the underneath.
Particularly for takeoff and landing shots, try to position yourself so that there isn’t too much background clutter in the composition. It’s generally also much better to have planes off-centre in the frame, and flying ‘into’ the photo.
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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