Photo Critique: Flying In Formation :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photo Critique: Flying In Formation

by David Peterson 6 comments

There has been a lot of recent talk about digital SLR cameras, lens modifications, and whether you need to go out and get a digital SLR right away. Sometimes the best arguments for getting the most out of your point-and-shoot system come from seeing what can be done with them. Usually, this is enough to convince people that the art of photography is not in the camera but the person behind it. This week’s photo critique is centered around that idea. What can and cannot be captured with a point-and-shoot camera? The answer: Almost everything can. It just takes a little more time and a quicker eye.

The following image was sent in by Tim O’Shea. It was taken with a Canon Powershot SX110IS point-and-shoot camera. The planes in the photo are the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows. They have been performing shows like this for the U.K. since 1964, leaving brilliantly colored trails that can be seen from very far away.

There is a lot in this photo that could only be described as lucky. It takes a photographer with good reflexes to be able to capture the planes just as they are coming back out of a turn like this. When we get to talking about the difference between a point-and-shoot camera and a digital SLR, the ability to take a lot of rapid fire photos is often the reason why so many people put down the money to purchase a digital SLR. But it's not necessary, as Tim's photo shows. You can still get shots like this with a point-and-shoot, it’s just a little more difficult.

ISO speed and graininess

I automatically noticed a few things about the picture’s overall quality. If you look closely, it’s pretty clear that this picture is a little more grainy than most. It’s quite likely that Tim, or his camera’s internal computer, decided to increase the ISO to take light in faster and use a higher shutter speed. This is effectively how Tim managed to get such a blur-free capture of the planes.

Zooming in one one plane,
you can see the graininess
of the photo.

Increasing the ISO speed is always a trade off. If there isn’t a lot of ambient light, you have to decide whether it is better to have blurry airplanes or an extra overall graininess in the picture. In this case, Tim made the right decision and opted for the graininess (by increasing the ISO and shutter speeds), capturing the planes in a pristine frozen moment of time.

Composition and creating space

There is always a question regarding composition, or the overall arrangement of important things in the scene. Was there a better way, given all of his options, for Tim to arrange the airplanes in the scene to create an image with a better visual appeal? This can sometimes be a difficult question to answer when you are working with a point-and-shoot camera. I don’t know how far Tim was from the airplanes, nor do I know the zoom range on his lens. I can only say the following.

I think the image could benefit from being zoomed out a little more. Here is why. In an earlier article, we discussed the importance of creating a space in front of your subjects that they can move into. While Tim’s photo does provide some of this space, I still feel like he could have provided a little more of it on the right side of the photo. The best way to accomplish this would have been to zoom out a little more while still trying to get the trail of smoke to line up with the left side of the frame, as Tim has already done. Doing so would place the planes closer to the left third and further away from the middle of the picture. The image would be in better compliance with the rule of thirds.

People buy digital SLRs for the easy and quick interface

Is it easy to make these last-minute adjustments with a point-and-shoot camera? Not really, and that’s another reason why some people end up making the switch to a digital SLR. Zooming in and out on a digital SLR is a lot faster and more immediate than it is on a point-and-shoot camera. Instead of going through computerized controls to get the camera to zoom in or out, you simply twist the lens to the left, autofocus on the subject, and take the shot.

Everything else aside, you can see that even fast-motion capture pictures like this one can be done with an ordinary point-and-shoot camera. Getting the right shot is more of a matter of standing in the right place at the right time than having an expensive camera. There is really only one advantage to having a nice camera. It makes it easier to get more lucky shots. Think about that the next time you consider upgrading.

Thanks again to Tim O’shea for sharing this fantastic photograph, and I look forward to seeing more of your pictures. I am very impressed with everyone’s work!


  1. Frederico Derschum says:

    To Dave Lambert,

    Sometimes, the flat grey sky can create a different view. I'm not disappointed with this picture. In fact, I could have done some cropping, but than I'd have an image, not a photograph. Just to mention, it was taken with a D90, mounted with a nikkor 70-300.

  2. belong says:

    with this kind of shot, it is very difficult for compose a "third rule" with P & S camera considering the time lag of the camera. the moment you press the shutter the plane are already gone.

  3. R.Vijayendra Rao says:


    I totally agree with you that P&S cameras are having capability to capture great pictures. Only thing is , we must understand the'language' of the camera . ie. we must study the limitation and ability of the camera.
    More than than everything , we must develop and improve our creativity while taking pictures. which is possible through experience and by studing the pictures taken by great photographers.


  4. Bob Weiss says:

    I have two questions.

    1- If the photgrapher zooms out the planes will appear smaller. Enlarging them using a program will probably make the photo more grainy. True?

    2- There is another problem with taking a photo of this type. If light entry isn't corrected the back light will cause the planes to be in siluette. Compensation for getting more plane detail would mean opening up the lens to allow more light in. True?

    Thanks so much for this opportunity. Your critique was quit valuable.

    bob weiss

  5. Tim O'Shea says:

    Many thanks for the critique, lots of interesting comments. FYI, the camera has a 10x zoom, and I was very lucky with the location, which was on the banks of Lake Windermere in the UK. I was unable to use a lower ISO, particularly as it was quite an overcast day. The Powershot SX110 has some 'higher range' features such as shutter priority, which I used for this picture.

    I do find that the main shortcoming of the point and shoot, is the time lag between clicking, and the picture being taken. And indoor pictures at martial art tournements are a big challange.

  6. D. Lambert says:

    You're right about some of the lucky elements, but I'm really surprised you didn't say anything about the huge *un*lucky element of this photo -- the weather! The flat grey sky in this shot is a real disappointment.

    Obviously, there's nothing the photographer could have done about the weather (other than shooting another show on another day), but a nice, blue sky really helps those smoke trails "pop". You mentioned the possibility of shooting this zoomed out a bit -- I agree that it would be nice to see the whole arc of the smoke trails, but also note how the sky is washing out the background smoke trails -- you don't really appreciate the whole arc of the turn because the beginning of the turn fades into the background.

    Both of these were taken with a Canon G3, so they show the same "compact camera" problems as the subject photo (graininess, etc.), but the blue sky really helps the aircraft jump out of the photos. The gallery for these photos, by the way, shows a bunch of pictures taken at the same location, and the sky conditions varied a lot from one part of the sky to the next. If you look across the gallery, in fact, you can see some really vivid blues, and some washed-out hazy-looking skies -- the effect on the "feel" of the photos is pretty dramatic.

    Although the flat-grey doesn't do much to flatter planes, sometimes you'll find other clouds that are more interesting. Here's a Mustang and a Corsair banking into a threatening storm (still a little too flat, IMO, but somewhat unique):

    And here's a Mustang climbing in front of clouds with a little texture:

    I think this last one might be improved with a little creative cropping, but you get the idea. I'd love to have caught something like this with a little more sunset-color in the clouds, but at least the clouds add a little texture in this case.

    I couldn't agree more about the DSLR upgrade, too. Hopefully, the next time I go to an airshow, I'll have a little better equipment to work with!

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.