Air-to-air shots involve considerable planning and expense, but creating dramatic photographs of aircraft need not involve you - or your camera - doing any actual flying...

Aviation photography provides an opportunity for even beginning photographers to capture unique images. Good aviation photography, however, requires a degree of technical know-how as well as basic knowledge of the principles of flight.

Perhaps the most common error made by novices when photographing propeller airplanes or helicopters is to 'stop' their propeller and rotor blades by choosing a shutter speed that is too fast.

While the urge to 'freeze' a fast-moving object by using a fast shutter speed is understandable, if you want to be a sucessful aviation photographer you will have to unlearn this basic photographic lesson. Using a fast shutter speed will ensure that a moving aircraft is crisp and sharp, but unfortunately, as it is powered by propeller or rotor blades these will be frozen too, robbing your image of any sense of movement. 

To an experienced aviator, this image depicts a craft will a stalled engine that is about to fall from the sky! Shooting with a slower shutter speed that allows for motion in the rotor blades yields a more natural result.

As a simple rule of thumb, propeller-driven airplanes should never be shot at a shutter speed faster than 1/250 second. For helicopters, the shutter speed must be even slower if the image is to look natural. Helicopters with three or more rotor blades should be shot at a shutter speed no faster than 1/125 second, while two-bladed helicopters look best at speeds no higher than 1/60 second. Shooting at slower shutter speeds will result in more motion blur and potentially a heightened sense of speed and power.

In this image, all of the background and foreground elements are in sharp focus which can lead to a relatively dull, lifeless image. By panning the camera to follow the subject, the background blurs nicely, accentuating the speed and motion of the aircraft.

When shoooting fast jets like the F16 pictured above you don't need to worry about freezing propeller or rotor blades but still, if every portion of the subject is in sharp focus, as it gives little suggestion of movement and can result in flat, 'lifeless' images. Experienced aviation photographers, however, will often combine slower shutter speeds and clever panning to produce dramatic images with spectacularly blurred backgrounds that accentuate a jet’s velocity. 

Obviously, slow shutter speeds make it difficult to avoid blurring images, so photographers must learn to pan effectively - a skill that does not come easily for most, so don't get discouraged when an otherwise perfect shot is ruined by excessive blur. Just keep practising. One obvious upside to using slower shutter speeds is that you can shoot at a low ISO sensitivity setting. Personally, I seldom shoot at settings higher than ISO 100, which means I get noise-free images with sharp, crisp detail.

Equipment choices

When shooting static aircraft on the ground, in many instances even a compact camera will suffice. At air shows you can walk around the tarmac for close-up views and there is usually a good amount of daylight, so super telephotos lenses are unnecessary and you can shoot at a low ISO sensitivity setting. If image quality is of paramount concern, I recommend avoiding your camera's Auto ISO setting. In my experience, compact cameras tend to err on the side of caution, choosing unnecessarily high ISO settings to boost shutter speed and prevent blur. Unfortunately, high ISO settings result in noisier images and, as we've seen, high shutter speeds are undesirable when photographing aircraft with moving propellers or rotors.

When shooting static aircraft on the ground, it isn’t always possible to avoid foreground or background clutter. One effective solution is to use a long-ish lens at a wide aperture for shallow depth of field. This ensures that scene elements in front of and behind the point of focus become blurred, and as a result, less distracting.
Air shows provide an easy way to capture close-up views of a variety of aircraft with entry-level cameras and lenses. Don't rush away once the show is over - there are plenty of photographic opportunities to be had in the evening light once the crowds have dispersed.

Ground-to-air and air-to-air shoots of fast moving aircraft place an entirely different set of demands on you as a photographer, and your equipment. To shoot aircraft in flight you'll need fast, reliable AF, a flexible range of focal lengths and as close to continuous view in your camera's viewfinder as possible. For these reasons I prefer to use a DSLR, although current mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras like Olympus and Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds offerings and APS-C Sony NEX models offer compelling benefits. They are small, lightweight and have good image quality, but I recommend investing in an accessory electronic viewfinder, if your camera doesn't have one built in.

Some photographers prefer to use monopods, which provide support while still allowing for easy panning, while others simply prefer the freedom of hand-holding the camera. This is largely a personal choice, as either will work fine. 

Ground-to-air photography is challenging for a number of reasons, one of which is that your subject is likely to be at least partially sillouetted against the sky. Experiment with positive exposure compensation for well-balanced images. If you're struggling to keep up with aircraft as they scream through the sky above you, try setting up your camera to catch them landing or taking off. They're moving slower, and the clutter of airfield buildings and scenery in the background adds context. 

Whichever model you choose, the camera body is ultimately secondary to the lens you use. A high quality lens on an entry-level camera can indeed produce excellent photographs. For really exciting close-ups of aircraft in flight when shooting from the ground, you will need something with a zoom range topping out around 400mm or more. New DSLR lenses in this range can easily run into the thousands of dollars. The good news is that you don't need an ultra-fast lens. Aviation photography is usually undertaken in good daylight conditions so even a slow lens with a maximum aperture of f5.6 or thereabouts will often suffice. Remember, we're not necessarily going for fast shutter speeds here. Further savings can be had by shopping around for deals on used equipment as well. For air-to-air shots, a 70-200mm zoom is likely to be all you'll need since you'll be much closer to the action.

As I've already hinted, whether you're using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, a viewfinder is a must. It is much more difficult to pan accurately using a camera's rear screen for framing. In bright sunlight, glare can render LCD screens unusable. I also find that holding the camera in the traditional eye-level shooting position provides a more stable platform, which comes in handy when shooting at slower shutter speeds.

Equipment choices aside, it's important to remember that, as with any photography, the secret is to take lots of shots and to practice as often as possible. The results will be well worth it.


Rob Neil is a professional aviation photographer and the editor and publisher of Pacific Wings magazine as well as a former commercial pilot.