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How to Make Amazing Airplane Photos

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Photographing airplanes in flight is an area where a DSLR is the best choice, if the subject interests you. And a long lens may also help. And don't forget to study up on the art of flying too. Does this sound like a lot information? We're here to help. Here are some tips for you to make the most of your next airshow.

Airplanes are a bit like old cars. Once we start photographing them, we discover they've so many things to explore, inside out, that we will want more and more, and more.

Although airplanes are fast moving subjects you can still try to compose your shots in pleasing ways.

And contrary to what some people might think, the best aviation pictures are not always at the big air displays. In fact, you'll find many chances to make great shots at small scale events. At many of them, you'll get the chance to get closer to airplanes, both static and flying, and the opportunity to choose points of view, angles and framings that you will never achieve with a crowd of thousands around you.

A small airfield close to home might be a good destination if you're interested in this kind of photography.

Close to Home

The best of aviation photography may be closer to home, at the small landing strip you never cared to visit. If you enjoy taking pictures of airplanes and have an airfield or flying school close to you, try to spend some time there. Get to know the people, present your work, explain what you're doing. Maybe you will even be invited to exhibit some of your best work there.

Some people will go to the major airports, to photograph the big planes, mostly for documentary reasons, some looking for the artistic side of that experience. It’s fun and it’s a great training ground. I’ve done that too, but my heart stays with small planes, those I enjoy riding in and those I enjoy flying in a simulator.

At the small venues, everybody seems to know everybody, and everyone talks about airplanes like the guys at the motorcycle club talk about their machines.

Plane spotting at major airports is an interesting option and a good training ground, because there are always planes coming and going. But check to be sure it is not forbidden to take pictures.

The Spirit of Flying

I guess the most important aspect of aircraft photography is to get the spirit of the activity. You’re not there just to photograph the flying machines. Show all the small things that make flying so interesting for mankind. And to do that you have to start photographing people, from the pilots and enthusiasts to the photographers.

Photographers especially seem prone to do the strangest things to get their photos, but people “in love" with their planes are fascinating as well. Some of those images are more important, at least to me, than a tack sharp picture of a plane doing an aerobatics display.

Photographers are a great subject to photograph at Airshows as these images show. They'll do almost anything to get a shot. You can make a great collection if you keep an eye on them.

In Search of my P.O.V.

I am always trying to get pictures that give me the sense of each specific event. I try framing airplanes with the settings around them, and I keep an eye on people. But I usually keep away from groups of enthusiasts, even photographers. That gives me the chance to photograph them as a subject, what can lead to interesting pictures.

In fact, I do believe that photography is a solitary act when actually shooting. I enjoy being alone, caring about the shoot, watching every moment, not lost in conversations that can be interesting. I can be so interesting in fact that… “ohhh! See, we just missed that fantastic shot…" If you know what I mean.

Airshows are made of airplanes, but also of the people involved with each event. I try to keep an eye on everything around me, because there are so many good images waiting to be taken.

Your Camera and Lenses

Before you go out to shoot an Airshow with a compact camera, you must be aware that it has its limitations. You do need a DSLR camera and a long lens, something like 300mm or bigger, for the best results. Longer lenses are also good to compress backgrounds and give you a clear separation between front and back elements.

I use a 100-400mm (on APS-C bodies usually) to do many things, from paintings on the fuselage to whole airplanes. Wide-angles are great to get the general feeling of the place. With a wide-angle and a long lens you can cover almost anything. And sometimes I do multiple shots of static airplanes, in order to get a big size picture that Photoshop can merge.

Wide angle lenses are great to get a general view of the place. Try to get a collection of images that shows both the big vistas and the details on airplanes fuselage.

There is No Right Exposure

In terms of exposure, you’ll soon discover that photographing flying airplanes against the sky can lead to wrong exposures, even on the most sophisticated metering systems. Remember to adjust exposure, usually opening up one or even two stops to get detail in the darker areas.

Run away from the full automatic programs, choose something you can control: either aperture or speed priority. Manual mode is also good, but sometimes can slow you down when you need to react fast. Choose the mode that you’re more comfortable with.

Photographing airplanes is tricky in terms of exposure. Learn how your camera works when it has to measure light in a bright sky with a dark spot moving over it.

Do Not Freeze Propellers!

Do remember that although planes travel at a great speed, you don’t need to use the fastest shutter in your camera to stop them. Well, you can with jets, but it does not work well with planes with propellers. A static propeller on a flying airplane is, believe me, a bad sign.

Lower your speed (it can vary, between 1/125 and 1/500) to get a sharp image that just shows a slight blur on the moving parts. Helicopter rotors ask for the same treatment. Varying speeds will give you different effects but beware of going too slow with some lenses. But always remember this: no freezing! Your eyes and mind will appreciate it, afterwards.

Using a super fast shutter speed will freeze propellers and rotors, something that does not look good in aviation photos.

Panning with Them

This said, using a slow speed and panning with the airplanes is also a way to show movement, and it works fine… once you get the hang of it. Test it with cars on a road close to home, until you get proficient at it. You’ll be happy you did some practice when you have the chance to shoot real airplanes. The results will amaze your friends.

Follow your subjects to get images that are different. It works better when you have a background that becomes blurred as a result of panning after the airplane.

Give Them Space!

Composition may be hard to concentrate on when you're trying to follow fast moving airplanes! My advise is that you should not try to fill the frame completely with the airplane, leave some “breathing“ space that can either be used to suggest movement (especially in front) or to reframe the image afterwards if you feel it looks better.

You can also shoot so tight that the pilot's teeth are visible. This solves some compositional problems as well. Just remember to aim high. Be brave, be bold! Experiment!

The size of sensors these days gives you a chance to cut some pixels away and still have a good size photo. But don’t photograph airplanes like small spots in the air, hoping to resample the image in Photoshop and have a keeper.

With fast moving planes you do not have much time to define composition, but you can always reframe the image afterwards.

Get the Trails!

The only time you should abandon your long lens is when you want to get the trails the planes leave in their wake. Trails are a fantastic element of composition, and many photographers seem to forget that.

Trails show the movement, they’re the signature of the aerobatics display. See the image of helicopters above the sandy beach? Without the trails it would make no sense. As it is, it’s one of my most cherished photos. And it’s so simple, everything was in place. I just had to see.

By using the smoke trails to compose the image, you can easily show movement and action.

Going Up There!

If I do have a chance to go up in the air, then it’s something different. Either flying the Pitts with a pilot or hanging from an airplane as the Stearman, the rules are different up there. You have to be careful and be prepared for the wind gusts that seem to want to take the camera from your hands.

Still, it’s much easier these days, especially because you don’t need to change film in midair. Joe McNally tells a story of a roll of film lost in the cockpit of a fighter jet…. I remember it differently, from my days flying Ultralights with a propeller screaming behind us. Loosing a film could mean disaster.

Going up in the sky opens the door to different photographs, and makes you understand better the passion you have for aviation photography.

Every Picture Tells a Story

Don't just take pictures, tell stories with them. You'll have a more meaningful collection, and you can even dream of a project like a book. And you will have more chances of selling them if that's the path you want to try.

But even if you're just taking pictures for pleasure, telling stories with your pictures is a good way to build a discipline. You'll soon start to see more options, and more details that will build the whole story. You'll grow, photographically speaking.

This image is part of a series shot in Duxford, GB and it is the kind of image that takes us back in time.

Five Rules to Remember

  • Photography at airports and airfields, civilian or military, is subject to rules and special permits. Normally during festivals photography is allowed, but ask first.
  • A radio to listen to communications between the tower and the aircrafts can be a great asset to know what is going on. Remember that in some countries their use is illegal.
  • It is always a good idea to arrive early and check what the best spots are. Check the position of the airfield in relation to the suns before hand, and study the show's program. Define where to be in order to get the best shots. Check with the organizers if there are special areas for photographers.
  • In addition to your camera and equipment, remember to take sunscreen, a hat, water, and maybe something to eat.
  • Obey the rules. Failure to do so may endanger your life and your chance to cover aeronautical festivals.
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