Aviation Photography

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.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 51
photahmo
By photahmo (Dec 5, 2011)

great info ... 1/250 max, i am looking forward to working on some new shots!

thx

0 upvotes
DanielRychcik
By DanielRychcik (Nov 21, 2011)

For a bit more in-depth look at various aspects of aviation photography, you can also have a look at my article: http://airshow-reviews.com/photography.html. It's a bit outdated (especially the gear part) and covers shooting from the ground only, but may be of some help neverthless. I plan the air2air section only once I get enough experience (in progress ;-))

Comment edited 5 minutes after posting
1 upvote
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Nov 21, 2011)

Anyone here ever work with R/C aircraft? I mean the hobbyist stuff, not military drones. These would be great for POV cameras and possibly yield A to A stuff you can't obtain with larger craft without either a lot of money or exponential levels of danger.

0 upvotes
BravoEcoNovember
By BravoEcoNovember (Nov 24, 2011)

I am such hobbist. But it is really hard to get good shots, a smaller target is even harder to shoot, it reacts really quick and these small $#@*&ˆ% things sometimes have their own reactions...
A tip for aircraft models is to get it next to some reference in the ground, like trees, mountains, the track, buildings, people... shoot small aircraft against the sky just transmits nothing about itself, I've done some disapointing ones.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Julio Sánchez
By Julio Sánchez (Nov 21, 2011)

airshows are the few times I use "M" or "S" modes.
you need to control shutter speed and compensate for a bright sky.
I changed to a DSLR because at the airshow you need fast focus.
Many times you don´t need large soperzoom. Mi D90 with Nikon 70-300 are enough

0 upvotes
HatCat
By HatCat (Nov 21, 2011)

Good article about the basics of my favorite photo hobby. I see numerous comments about prop blur, image sharpness, and the various heartaches of having to shoot backlit airplanes. How well I know these issues!

Now, how does one manage to get involved in air-to-air shooting?

0 upvotes
cshyde
By cshyde (Nov 21, 2011)

I go to a few air shows each year and also some motorsports events. I usually rent a fast super tele lens from one of the lens rental sites. I have found this is a great way to get a lens I otherwise would not be able to own (because my wife would kill me) It's easy and fast and you can insure the lens against damage and loss when you rent it. It's also an opportunity to try out different lenses for a purchase. Your article has shown me some of my own mistakes in shooting moving propellers and rotors. Thanks for a great article.

0 upvotes
qwertyasdf
By qwertyasdf (Nov 21, 2011)

Hey...The "Equipment choices" is totally off-topic :P
Please tell us which planes are the best choice to ride on :D

0 upvotes
Borremans Edwin
By Borremans Edwin (Nov 21, 2011)

I prefer American fighter jets ;-)

www.TrueBlueAviaPress.be

0 upvotes
npires
By npires (Nov 21, 2011)

Nice article. Handy to know about the type of shutter speed to use to avoid freezing blades and rotors!

0 upvotes
yuyucheu
By yuyucheu (Nov 21, 2011)

The basic technique is keeping shooting, abd don't stop.

1 upvote
kelav
By kelav (Nov 21, 2011)

Nice article, thanks for that.
I can see the photograph of L-39 Albatros in the article. This Czech origin aircraft has typical Czech camouflage, but there's something more, a Russian five-pointed star on tail and wings. It's so funny. This aircraft has never been used in the Russian army. It looks like the aircraft has been bought by some rich American... and he's thinking that the Czech Republic is a part of "Russian Empire". It's like I say... USA is a part of Mexico, or even part of Canada :-) The same stupidity like Czech L-39 with Russian stars :-)

0 upvotes
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Nov 21, 2011)

If memory serves, this aircraft or an identical L-39 was used in Russian livery in one of the sillier James Bond films.

0 upvotes
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Nov 21, 2011)

USA part of Canada? Maybe some truth. Canadair regional jets are taking over US skies. Canadian geese occupy half the cities, it seems. Some besiege areas near airports. The cold winter air masses will begin their assault soon. Convoys of "snowbirds" will soon make their way to Florida.

1 upvote
HatCat
By HatCat (Nov 21, 2011)

Well, actually, numerous sources (just did a quick Google-search) list the air force of the USSR/Russia as an operator of the L-39 (as well as the earlier L-29). So, maybe not Russian Army but lots of L-39s fly to this day in Russia with red stars on them.

0 upvotes
samdim
By samdim (Nov 22, 2011)

Soviet (and later Russian) air force massively used the L-39 as trainer aircraft. In fact it was the main jet trainer for all warsaw pact air forces.

1 upvote
CommanderMAD
By CommanderMAD (Jan 4, 2012)

Usually the US military will acquire foreign aircraft to train their pilots on how to recognize certain paint schemes, camouflage and national insignia.
At an airshow i even saw an F-18 painted with Russia's blue snow camo and red stars.

0 upvotes
l_d_allan
By l_d_allan (Nov 21, 2011)

Veyr good article. Thanks!

And a way to practice prior to the air-show:
cars / trucks on the interstate from an overpass and/or on-ramp (carefully !!!)

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
0 upvotes
BravoEcoNovember
By BravoEcoNovember (Nov 24, 2011)

... yes, but, not while you're driving of course!!! Hehehe.
Reminds me a joke... that someone told me he would like to come to an end as peacefully as his Uncle Joe, that passed away while sleeping... unlike the other three people in the car he was driving...

0 upvotes
motion
By motion (Nov 20, 2011)

Thanks for a great article!
Which shooting mode do you usually use and what about metering?
Any good resources for learning more about aviation photography?

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
0 upvotes
robneil
By robneil (Nov 21, 2011)

Glad you enjoyed the article. There are many great aviation photographers out there from whom to take inspiration. However, there is no substitute for getting out there and taking photos - lots of them - following some simple, basic rules.

For shooting propeller aircraft or helicopters (in normal circumstances), I recommend "shutter priority" using typical shutter speeds as outlined in the article (reasons given in the article). For static aircraft or jets, or other subjects at air shows etc, I use mainly "aperture priority" to control depth-of-field.

I generally use either "matrix" or centre-weighted metering, depending on contrast between aircraft and background; experiment - it is easy to do with digital and you soon learn what works.

In addition to links from other great photographers below, have a look at www.warbirdz.net or www.actionairimages.com.

Glenn Alderton, in particular, has (in my opinion) a great eye for "different" shots and has an outstanding portfolio.

0 upvotes
Borremans Edwin
By Borremans Edwin (Nov 20, 2011)

"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."

That works well if you are in a slow mover with an open cockpit or a door removed, but when your flying backseat in a jet you don't have enough room for it. And by the way military pilots are able to fly very close to each others.
To be honest I know what i'm talking about.
take a look at:

www.TrueBlueAviaPress.be
or
www.trueblueaviapress.be/nikonpro.html

0 upvotes
robneil
By robneil (Nov 20, 2011)

Absolutely right, Edwin - but not too many folks get to fly back-seat in military jets too often.

There isn't the space in DPR's format to write all material applicable to all aspects of every aviation situation. It is a basic overview for average photographers who want to shoot aircraft.

For those lucky enough to get regular fast-jet back seat time, I am sure they would appreciate your advice as well.

0 upvotes
David zzzzzzzzzz
By David zzzzzzzzzz (Nov 20, 2011)

The quest for the perfect aviation picture is endless which is the good part, I will keep on trying until I get the shot I am satisfied with!

0 upvotes
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Nov 21, 2011)

I thought most sorties were now solo affairs, with much of the "tree level" navigation handled by computer. The close formation air show stuff is exceptional, and probably dangerous. Can you get a ride just by sauntering up to a miliary jet and asking the pilot? Perhaps a contractor ID and written orders from HQ will help. A fancy lens, by itself, probably won't get you past the security gate.

0 upvotes
Canon20Duser
By Canon20Duser (Nov 20, 2011)

All good advice. I work for "AOPA Pilot" as a writer, not a photographer, but I thought I would add a few things I see our chief photographer, Mike Fizer, do. You can see the current issue on aopa.org and I wrote and flew the cover article. Mike never ever uses a monopod--always a tripod on the ground. He uses all Canon top of the line equipment. He uses a Kenyon Laboratories stabilizer for all aerial shots. He'll position me with changes as few as five feet, although he always says, "Up a little" and "That's good" to position me. (Not, move four feet 10 inches up.) For the cover shoot http://www.aopa.org/pilot/cover.html we got up at 3:45 am and arrived at the airport at 6 to do video shots of me introducing the airplane. We took off at 7 after waiting for fog to lift and flew around above it for the shoot. He will also shoot evenings right up to dark but prefers early morning shoots. He feels anything more than 135mm distorts the airplane by turning it into a bathtub.

0 upvotes
BravoEcoNovember
By BravoEcoNovember (Nov 20, 2011)

An interesting effect with propellers is that you can play with the shutter speed and get an image of the propeller divided in quadrants, a really good and beautifull result, specially with WWII airplanes.

0 upvotes
robneil
By robneil (Nov 20, 2011)

Agreed - and this looks really good if done well. Anything that adds dynamic movement to give "life" to an image is worthwhile. It is irrelevant if the subject is an inanimate object - it is "life" to the overall image that counts.

1 upvote
DonM999
By DonM999 (Nov 19, 2011)

Clean air is important for telephoto shots. I've shot the "Thunder Over The Boardwalk" airshow in Atlantic City twice, and while the performers are close to the crowd the pictures come out hazy.
Backlit airplanes are almost impossible to automatically expose correctly. I get my readings from objects on the ground and shoot manual.

0 upvotes
robneil
By robneil (Nov 20, 2011)

Hi Don

See my comments to others here also. Yep - sometimes, it just isn't possible to get perfect shots. Haze, backlighting, smoke - all can stuff up your day. You can only do what you can in the circumstances as you find them. As I suggested to Remfire Olympus User, the best you can do is try and accentuate or take advantage of backlighting for silhouettes and dramatic effect.

0 upvotes
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Nov 21, 2011)

Most air shows are scheduled for days of bright sun, dense ozone, and high levels of dust and other particulate matter. The jets also fly at mid-day with the sun against you. The craft don't land or taxi anywhere close. Add some smoke and voilá. This is good for sales of ice water, popsicles, and DVD versions of the aerial performances.

0 upvotes
Mark Forman
By Mark Forman (Nov 19, 2011)

http://www.ceehere.com/Airplanes/Warbirds/Oshkosh2008HD2Star/5865310_MBXRcR#364226306_uEX2o

I shot this in 2008 for EAA Warbirds magazine.

Aviation Photography is not shot with a basic set of rules except when it comes to safety.
For instance getting a sharp image at high shutter speeds is more important than blurring the prop.
Enjoy my galleries.
Mark Forman
Mark Forman Productions, Corp.
http://www.screeningroom.com
http://www.ceehere.com

0 upvotes
robneil
By robneil (Nov 19, 2011)

Hi Mark.

Nice galleries!

I agree with your comment about safety!

As far as shutter speeds are concerned, I am not suggesting blurred shots are acceptable - they are not. It simply means that - from an aviation point of view (certainly from an aviation publication editor's point of view) - "stopped" props or rotors are unacceptable.

There is no doubt this results in a few more rejects than would otherwise be the case. It is all about practice. See the following image as a positive example:

http://www.airliners.net/photo/Wanaka-Helicopters/Robinson-R-22-Beta/1303911/&sid=9733ed3ed192e2b4b719ce973db1f25a

Imagine this image with "stopped" rotors...It would be nothing.

Of the many photos sent to me for consideration for publishing, I reject an unfortunate number for having props/rotors stopped. For non-aviators, stopped props or rotors might not be a problem and - like all photography - if the photographer is happy with the result, that is all that counts.

0 upvotes
Canon20Duser
By Canon20Duser (Nov 21, 2011)

We always, always, blur the prop through an entire arc if possible at "AOPA Pilot" magazine--and make sure the aircraft is sharp. We would never run a photo with stopped props. I am referring to our air-to-air shots with the aircraft about 35 to 50 feet apart, and sometimes 100 feet to get more of the background.

0 upvotes
CommanderMAD
By CommanderMAD (Jan 4, 2012)

Beautiful...

0 upvotes
Robert Yuill
By Robert Yuill (Nov 19, 2011)

Main points covered except the direction of light. At many air shows, where most shots will be taken you end up staring at the sun! In this case you don't have a choice other to move to the extreme ends of the flight line.

Photography is all about the capture of light and it can be unrewarding to get a selection of silhouettes or overexposed sky.

1 upvote
robneil
By robneil (Nov 20, 2011)

You're right Robert - it is all about light no matter what the subject. See my comments to Remfire Olympus User regarding backlighting.

Sometimes the laws of physics (and air show marshalls) mean there is nothing that can be done...

0 upvotes
Remfire Olympus User
By Remfire Olympus User (Nov 19, 2011)

Good article, don't forget, that people at airshows, are good subjects as well, the awe of watching the planes, kids climbing into a bye-wings, etc are fun to shoot.
What is the best settings to use, when you have a gray no contrast sky as background to the planes in the air?

1 upvote
robneil
By robneil (Nov 20, 2011)

Very good point about other subject material at air shows! We should always keep eyes open for great shots of anything...lots of great "happy children" shots to be had at air shows also.

Sadly, backlighting (even worse, backlighting against grey, monotonous skies) is often unavoidable at air shows. My only suggestion in such cases is to try and maximize deliberate silhouette opportunities:

http://www.airliners.net/photo/X-Flight/Extra-EA-300/1472292/&sid=9733ed3ed192e2b4b719ce973db1f25a

- shooting against the sun air-to-air

http://www.airliners.net/photo/UK---Air/British-Aerospace-Harrier/1131232/&sid=9733ed3ed192e2b4b719ce973db1f25a

- deliberately shot backlit against sunset at Kandahar

http://www.airliners.net/photo/Wanganui-Aero-Work/Pacific-Aerospace-Cresco/0582322/&sid=9733ed3ed192e2b4b719ce973db1f25a

- deliberate dawn light silhouette at air show.

0 upvotes
Superka
By Superka (Nov 19, 2011)

This article is primitive with boring examples. The major thing for the aviation - weather - is skipped.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/vector1771/4350941246/in/faves-superka_01/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/vector1771/4255094743/in/faves-superka_01/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/vector1771/4878736858/in/photostream

2 upvotes
robneil
By robneil (Nov 20, 2011)

Some nice shots there, Superka! I also often shoot in less than "ideal" conditions. The following examples were taken in poor conditions or in backlit/high contrast conditions:

http://www.airliners.net/photo/British-Airways/Aerospatiale-BAC-Concorde-102/0125057/&sid=9733ed3ed192e2b4b719ce973db1f25a

- taken at night in a thunderstorm.

http://www.airliners.net/photo/Boeing-MD-10-.../1333435/&sid=9733ed3ed192e2b4b719ce973db1f25a

- taken in cloudy conditions, late afternoon

Weather is something every photographer contends with regardless of subject. Unique opportunities often exist in unlikely situations - even "marginal" air-to-air conditions yield good results at times.

Weather is not the only thing skipped, but there are unavoidable space constraints in this format. Likewise, DPR's editors deliberately chose examples to illustrate points and not for photographic brilliance. (The article is not intended to be the world's definitive set of aviation photography "rules").

1 upvote
Debankur Mukherjee
By Debankur Mukherjee (Nov 19, 2011)

Nice article ....8-))

0 upvotes
Hdub
By Hdub (Nov 19, 2011)

Very interesting article. As a contractor working at an airfield in Afghanistan I will have to see if I can try some of thise techniques on the aircraft here!

0 upvotes
robneil
By robneil (Nov 20, 2011)

There are some WONDERFUL opportunities for stunning aviation pics in Afghanistan. I made two trips there and captured some of my favourite ever aviation pics there. Make the most of your unique opportunities (hope there was some benefit in the article for you)

0 upvotes
forpetessake
By forpetessake (Nov 19, 2011)

Very good tips in this article about how to shoot the airplanes. As Grampa Simpson used to say, "You never know what people are capable of. I never thought I could shoot down a German plane. But last year, I proved myself wrong."

0 upvotes
LX93
By LX93 (Nov 19, 2011)

Great article, thanks!

0 upvotes
jjlmoose
By jjlmoose (Nov 18, 2011)

As an aircraft mechanic and photographer, it was nice to see you share your experience here on DPR. There is so much to love about photographing aircraft... shapes, colors, materials, setting, etc. You get beauty, power, speed, design and landscapes all in one. I normally shoot in shutter priority at similar speeds to those you recommended. Has there been an aviation related challenge yet? Might be a good one! Thanks Rob.

0 upvotes
robneil
By robneil (Nov 20, 2011)

Hi. Thanks for the comments - and you're right about the wide variety of fascinating aspects to aviation photography. If you have any images you are really proud of, I'd love to see them.

0 upvotes
zahidpix
By zahidpix (Nov 18, 2011)

Thanks for nice tips.
Being a photojournalist, I happened to cover several assignments from military helicopters like earthquake, floodis and military exercises and agree with you the choice of lenses your suggest.

1 upvote
dopravopat
By dopravopat (Nov 18, 2011)

Thanks, nice article. Worth reading even thought I do not attend airshows nor feel the need to. :-)

Comment edited 20 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Mike Sandman
By Mike Sandman (Nov 18, 2011)

Thanks for the point about using slower shutter speeds for 'copters and prop planes.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 51