Aviation Photography: Airshow tips and tricks

As mentioned in my previous article on Plane Spotting, written for Sigma South Africa during the Covid-19 Level 3 and 4 Lockdown which I suggest you read along with this article, I have no claim to fame as a knowledgeable person on aircraft and I don’t even like flying. I see it as essential way of travelling long distances in a short time. As a sport and action photographer and proper petrol-head, I love the sound of powerful engines, and aircraft tend to have big ones. I do plane-spotting and go to airshows and aviation museum flying days to listen to the aircraft and photograph them, along with the weaponry they can carry which is also of interest to me. 

Saab Gripen dispensing flares. Canon EOS 1DX MkII, Sigma EX 500 f4.5 with 1.4x TC, 700mm,1/500, f6.3, ISO 200

Over the years I’ve done quite a bit of aviation photography during which time I learned a thing or two that makes it easier for me. In this brief article I will share some ideas on equipment, planning, composition and framing as well as timing of shots for best effect and impact. 

Equipment – this is rather easy; use what you have. DSLR or Mirrorless is the first choice, with higher end models making it easier. Used with higher end lenses it will be the best combination for high quality images under adverse conditions. But in reality, any digital camera will do, the relative speed of the subjects is usually not that fast so most AF systems in bodies and lenses will be able to keep up, most of the time. I took the image of the F15 Strike Eagle at the Africa Aerospace and Defense Exhibition in 2002 using my then 3.25MP Canon EOS D30 and Sigma 135-400 f4.5-5.6 lens, certainly lower rated equipment than any entry level DSLR and telephoto lens combo available today. 

McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle, circa 2002. Canon EOS D30, Sigma 135-400 f4.5-5.6 @ 341mm, 1/750, f6.7, ISO 100

Using longer lenses from a monopod helps to keep the weight more manageable and aids in stability. I like using a belt pouch with my monopod which makes panning and height adjustment for overhead shots much easier. 

I’ll generally use shutter priority mode because it is easier to change from fast, for faster moving jet aircraft, to slow for achieving rotational blur in propeller driven aircraft. Practice will tell you what is a fast- or slow-moving aircraft and what is regarded as fast or slow propeller rotational speed. Most helicopters will require a shutter speed of less than 1/100 to achieve rotational blur, but then camera shake becomes a real issue with long lenses. Also keep in mind that airframe vibrations can also lead to softness with slower shutter speeds, the older helicopters being the bigger culprits here. I would suggest taking short bursts at highest frame rate available, and then hope one of those shots will be at zero vibrotational amplitude yielding a sharp subject with pleasing rotor blur. It stand to reason the focus tracking be used on moving subjects. 

Panning with a 500mm lens at 1/100 or slower can be quite a challenge for most so having a form of optical stabilization will most certainly be very handy, more so if it can be set to a panning mode. Lighter lenses which can easily be handheld will offer an advantage, freedom of movement and sometimes be quicker into action when tracking or panning a faster moving subject. The Sigma 100-400 Contemporary fits very nicely in this category. 

Rooivalk CSH in UN colours. Note the rotor blur. Canon EOS 1D MkIV, Sigma EX 120-300 f2.8 OS HSM @ 204mm, 1/15, f32, ISO 200.

Although prime lenses will do the job, I prefer a good zoom lens in the 100mm to 600mm range. Typically, the Sigma 100-400 Contemporary, the 150-600 Contemporary and Sport, the 60-600 Sport as well as the 120-300 Sport (can be used with extenders) will certainly work well enough. Zoom lenses are advantageous because aircraft in an aerobatic display will cover vast distances, from directly overhead to a kilometer or more away. I would suggest you learn to zoom whilst tracking and panning. My current Sigma 120-300 f2.8 Sport with a 1.4x or 2x TC sees a lot of action, but I have also put my Sigma EX 500 f4.5 to good use. My earlier versions of the Sigma 120-300 gen 1 and OS gen 3 versions also were used a lot. 

Partial metering and exposure compensation of +1/3 to +1 stop can be considered, the sky is generally bright and can easily lead to underexposure. Setting your camera to capture Raw files will provide some extra latitude in post-processing for exposure corrections. 

As with any genre in photography, the direction of the light is important – you would still prefer the sun from somewhere behind you to fall onto the subject. Remember that towards midday when the sun is higher in the sky, waiting for a turn or banking maneuver from the aircraft in flight to add some light to the underside of the fuselage and wings. They fall into deep shadow quite quickly in bright sky conditions. Very cloudy conditions are generally not ideal for capturing aircraft in flight, proper exposure of the subject becomes very difficult indeed. 

Next, we’ll look at composition and framing. I like the idea of leaving space “to move into” in front of the subject. This is a quite general composition approach for any moving subject. There are exceptions to the rule and specifically when photographing aircraft leaving smoke trials as is often seen in aerial acrobatics displays. I will then place the subject past the middle line of the frame to anything up to 2/3 deep which allows for the most space for the smoke trials. The smoke then becomes part of the subject, and acts in anchoring the subject to the side of the frame from which it entered. 

Blurring the blades and keeping the subject sharp is easier said than done. Knowing the performance characteristics of the aircraft will help a great deal, some aircraft have slower rotating blades, in particular helicopters, whilst aerobatic aircraft tend to have very fast spinning props, making them easier to blur. Engine speed will also need to be considered. Obviously, an aircraft with its engine throttled back will have a slower prop speed than at full power thus requiring a slower shutter speed to still maintain rotational blur than when at full power. 

Zlin Z-50L. Canon EOS 1D MkII, Sigma EX 500 f4.5, 1/160, f18, ISO200

Since there is very little in the sky to suggest speed when panning, I like to put a little tilt to jet-propelled aircraft to add some dynamics to the image. (Refer back to the F15 image). You can also catch them upside down when the pilot is performing a loop or a roll. With propeller driven aircraft a slower shutter speed will add rotational blur in propellers (or rotor blades in helicopters) which will enhance the effect of movement. A fast shutter speed will freeze the blades in position, giving a model-like or cut-out appearance to the subject in your image. 

You could also add more dramatic impact to your photos and hope for some vapor trials, also known as contrails, with faster moving aircraft. Light clouds with higher humidity and colder air temperatures are conditions which will enhance this effect. 

You should not only concentrate blindly at aircraft in flight, but also watch out for taxiing, take-off and landing moments which can also provide good photo opportunities. Using a slower panning speed with a faster short to mid-range zoom such as a 24-105 f4 can create creative blurring of the sometimes rather busy backgrounds at airports. I used that for the Bushcat image; the aircraft passed close to me on the taxi strip at, slowing down the shutter speed worked out well for this type of image. This all depends on the type of access you have; sometimes regular spectators are only allowed in specific areas which can limit photo opportunities. 

 

The Cheetah D just past take-off moment was taken using my Sigma EX 120-300 f2.8 OS, on an impromptu request from a client at the 2016 Africa Aerospace and Defense (AAD) Exhibition who wanted a clean view of his products. Even though the Cheetah was past take-off speed already and skimming along just above the tarmac, which meant it was going at a rapid rate of knots, a relatively slow shutter speed created sufficient blurring of the hangers and emergency vehicles in the background. 

The North American Harvard (T-6 Texan) image was taken just before lift-off, the slower shutter speed producing a real sense of speed. 

When attending an airshow, it helps a lot if you know the flight display program and the sequence of the display. A good commentator will give hints of special moments during his running commentary and warn of aircraft about to take off or land and so on. This can assist you in getting to the right spot for the photographic opportunities which may arise. 

 

Team aerobatic displays usually end with a maneuver where they break away in a fan, billowing smoke trials adding to the dramatic moment. Being alert and tracking them when they start to zoom up for that moment can result in some impressive images. 

I captured the two images in this way by listening to the tips from the commentator and positioning myself in a position for best effect. I watched the flight path of the C-130 as it circled and lined up for its run over the airfield and placed myself so that it would fly directly overhead, then waited for the triggering of the flares. 

A warning from the commentator had me prepared for the break-away of the Silver Falcons aerobatic team. 

Airshows and various aviation museums offer some photographic opportunities for both static and aerial displays so do not forget to capture some of the static aircraft on display. Let your creative juices flow and make the most of the composition; break away from the regular and try something different. The Lockheed Ventura image was captured at the South African Airforce (SAAF) Museum based at the Zwartkops Air Force Base (AFB) in Pretoria. They present open days with some aerial activity on the first Saturday of the month, asking only for donations at the gate. A real easy way for the budding aviation photographer to get some nice static and aerial display shots. A lower viewpoint, wide angle lens, overcast day and careful B&W conversion yielded this result. I would suggest you check with the airports and AFB’s in your area for similar museums and opportunities. It is also worthwhile to check social media and local newspapers for any advertisements of upcoming events which will be open to the public. 

 

The ex-Algerian Air Force Mil Mi-24 Hind-A taken at the SAAF Museum AFB Zwartkops also shows how this infamous helicopter gunship evolved over the years, when compared to the later, modified version of the Super-Hind from the company ATE. The latter image again captured many years ago using my now ancient 3.25MP Canon EOS D30 and long-discontinued Sigma 24-135 f2.8-4.5. Loved the zoom range on that lens. 

 

One can also get a view of older models of aircraft no longer in general use. At locations like these museums, it is easy to get really close and capture some detail images of the aircraft as well, such as the gaping air-intake of the North American F-86 Sabre, which is in process of being restored. 

North American F-86 Sabre, Canon EOS 1DX, 24-105 f4 @ 24mm, 1/60, f5, ISO 200

General airshows usually allow for special occasion fly-past of aircraft, commemorating a landmark or aviation accomplishment of sorts. The image of the Boeing 737-800 from Mango Airlines in formation with the SAAF Aerobatic Team known as the Silver Falcons was taken at a general airshow. I stood on a small hillock, (known as a “koppie” where I am from) for an elevated viewpoint and had but a short time in which the formation was visible before being obscured by trees. Having the trees in the foreground adds to the sense of low flying. 

 

Many sporting events also include an aerial display of sorts as an added attraction, typically motorsport events and even rugby matches. In 2013 The South African Airways Mc Donnell Douglas MD80 passed over Ellis Park, Johannesburg, before the title deciding rugby match between the Springboks and the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship series. With the motivational message “Go Springboks” painted on the underside of the fuselage, the thunderous roar from the capacity crowd was very special, and loud!! As a media photographer I was laying on my back on the field and took a series of shots as the aircraft came into view over the stadium. 

The Harvard display team was photographed during an aerobatic display at a national championship motor racing event at the Zwartkops International Raceway. 

Photo opportunities at airshows and aviation museums are plentiful, not forgetting the aerobatic displays often found at other events. From the flying displays, the static displays, even crowd interaction with the displays can all present some good end results, creating attractive images and memories of the event. 

As always, feel free to contact me for any question or assistance with your photography, choice of equipment, or to attend one of my training workshops by sending an email, or visiting my website for more information. 

 

Puma sponsored Harvard Display Team, Zwartkops International Raceway. Canon EOS 1DX, Sigma 120-300 f2.8 Sport with 1.4x TC, 420mm, 1/160, f13, ISO 100

 All text and images: © Simon Du Plessis / Actionimage