It’s air show season in the US, and that means hot weather, high-decibel noise and a whole bunch of hazy photos of tiny little specs in the sky.
Air show photography is tough! Unless you’re in an airplane looking down at the performers, it can be difficult to get a great shot at an air show. But don’t worry, you don’t have to leave that camera at home. There are plenty of things you can do to get the most out of your air show visit.
Your enemies: haze and distance
[Top image The Red Arrows Farnborough Airshow 2008 by Flickr user o palsson]
Have you ever compared a professional shot of an F-14 in flight to an amateur shot of an F-14 taken from the ground? You may have noticed one very distinct difference: clarity. The professional shot is clear, sharp and colorful. You might even be able to read the tail code or serial number. That’s because ground to air shots have to get through haze and distance, while many of those professional shots are air to air – the photographer is in another airplane, flying next to or above their subject. Of course getting an air to air shot has its drawbacks, not the least of which is coordinating the shot with a pilot, hiring another pilot to fly you around and, of course, the barf bag that you may or may not have to use (looking through a viewfinder may perpetuate motion sickness).
The one piece of equipment (besides your camera, of course) that you should have for an air show is a zoom lens. It doesn’t have to be so long that it needs its own tripod, but it should be at least 300mm. If you have a zoom lens you’ve conquered the distance problem. Don’t go too much beyond 400 or 500, though, because at longer focal lengths haze will become a greater problem and you’ll have difficulty hand-holding the camera.
If you don’t have a longer zoom you can still get some good shots, especially of groups of airplanes or airplanes that leave smoke trails. You want shots like this anyway to help break up those spectacular but samey close-ups of single planes in flight.
For sunny day shows, get a circular polarizer. This will deepen the color of the sky and reduce that dreaded haze (haze can make your subject appear flat and indistinct). It’s not a perfect solution but you may be pleasantly surprised at how close you can get in clarity to those air to air shots you’ve seen in magazines. Remember though that a polarizer darkens your scene and makes it necessary to either use a slower shutter speed or larger aperture. You may have to turn up your ISO to compensate, since you will need a pretty fast shutter to capture those jets in motion, and a smaller aperture keep multiple airplanes in focus.
Sunny day hazards
There’s not a whole lot you can do about light at an air show. After all, you can’t exactly position a diffuser between the sun and an airborne Pitts Special, and you don’t usually get to choose what time of day you see that bomber demonstration. You can help mitigate the problem of blown out highlights and black shadows by shooting in RAW, which will give you a greater ability to fix contrast problems in post-processing.
Shutter priority mode is a good choice for air shows, since you obviously want to keep those planes sharp and free from motion blur. Don’t forget that if you are hand-holding your camera and using a 300mm lens you will need a fairly fast shutter speed to prevent camera shake: 1/300th of a second (or roughly the inverse of the focal length of your lens).
Fast shutter speeds are great for jets, but remember that propeller airplanes don’t move as quickly – and if your shutter speed is too fast you’ll freeze the propeller and wind up with a shot of an airplane that seems to be parked in the air. To capture the prop as a blur, slow down your shutter speed to about 1/125. That means you may want to use a tripod, a shorter zoom lens or some other method of controlling camera shake.
You probably can’t trust your camera’s metering system at these events. Because in many cases you’ll be aiming your camera directly at the sky, your metering system will try to expose for the bright sky and will end up underexposing your subject. Spot metering can help, but since airplanes move fast you are better off simply using an exposure compensation of +1/2 to +1. The addition of a polarizing filter should help keep the skies from becoming too blown out, and your aircraft will be well exposed. But keep checking your images, of course, and make adjustments as necessary.
It is a good idea to fill the frame with the aircraft whenever you can, but a series of photos with nothing but blue sky in the background can get a little boring. Keep distracting background elements out, but remember that a few trees, the runway, the control tower or even the crowd can provide some context and interest to your shot. Arrive early enough that you can pick a good place to set up–preferably one that is devoid of power lines, fences and other uglies.
Don’t forget of course that there’s more to an air show than just a bunch of cool planes in the sky. There are also cool planes on the ground! If you can get in early enough (some shows offer special passes to photographers that will allow you to arrive in the morning hours, before the crowds and while the light is still good), use that magic hour lighting to get some dramatic shots of planes on the ground. Use a low vantage point to make them seem even more dramatic. And get some shots of their owners babying them, and of kids marveling at them. Don’t forget that the human element at an air show is equally important as the airplanes themselves. Take some photos of the crowds watching the performance, too.
Panning is a great way to capture motion in a shot, but it’s tricky to master. The key is to follow your moving subject smoothly, matching its speed. Twist at your waist and keep the plane in the same place in the viewfinder. Reduce your shutter speed – this will make the background appear to blur while the airplane itself remains in focus. This does take practice and at first you won’t get a whole lot of good shots this way, so until you master the technique be sure to mix it up with simpler images or you’ll run the risk of getting only a few decent shots for a whole day’s worth of shooting.
For photographers, air shows are more than just a fun day out and a chance to see all those impressive aircraft up close and in person. Air shows are also an opportunity to get shots that rival those air-to-air images you’ve seen in aviation magazines, only without the high-priced airplane ride and the barf-bag to go along with it.
[For more inspiration, see 20 Outstanding Airshow Shots]