How To Photograph an Airshow

by Reads (44,801)

Spring is here and that means the start of the annual airshow season in the United States. While there may be any number of relatively smaller shows at various locations throughout the country featuring both military and civilian performers, the top-tier shows will include the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, U.S. Navy Blue Angels or Canadian Air Force Snowbirds flight demonstration teams. The Snowbirds fly the majority of their appearances in Canada but will make four U.S. appearances in 2014; the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels will have approximately thirty-eight and thirty-three show weekends, respectively.

While both U.S. teams fly six aircraft in their demonstrations, the planes are in a six aircraft formation for a relatively short portion of each program. Both teams fly with a four aircraft formation and have two “opposing solo” aircraft that pair up as well as operate independently for the bulk of their program.

If the airshow you plan to attend is on an active duty or reserve military base, there may be restrictions on articles that are allowed onto the facility, such as ice chests, glass containers, folding chairs, etc. You may also have to park at a remote site and take base-provided transportation onto the show site, which may limit your ability to take bulky objects with you. For example, the Thunderbirds season-ending show at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas requires you to park at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and then take provided buses across the street and down the road onto the Nellis facility. Check the particular base website or public affairs office for specific exclusions — and specifically ask if a small, stroller-sized wagon like a Radio Flyer is permissible. A wagon makes hauling gear so much easier.

Even an airshow on a civilian facility will have security concerns and it’s always a good idea to check for restricted items ahead of time. Folding chairs, small umbrellas for shade (if allowed) and plenty of sunscreen will make what can be a long day more pleasant.

Most airshows tend to offer free admission to the airshow grounds, although premium and formal seating may be available for purchase, and there are usually plenty of vendors selling food, beverages and souvenirs. At Miramar one year, one of the military squadrons had both a flight simulator and beer concession…

If you’re attending an airshow with the express idea of trying to make some great photos, sitting in the bleachers with a bunch of other folks is not the place you want to be. We’ll discuss locations a bit later, but for now let’s talk about equipment.

Cameras and Lenses

Airshows typically have a number of static displays, which is to say parked aircraft and other subjects of interest that you can generally approach fairly closely and photograph. If you’re content to stick with static displays, a cell phone or compact digital camera may provide all the photo capability you need. There may also be slow moving displays of vehicles or aircraft as they taxi by that can be imaged successfully with basic equipment.

But flight demonstrations and airborne activity are the heart and soul of this entertainment genre. In addition to the flight demonstration teams, there will typically be flights of individual or groups of military aircraft, some featuring fairly aggressive flight profiles as well as civilian performers.

Pyrotechnics may come into play to simulate weapons or gunfire, particularly to simulate an air-to-ground attack. Here’s an air-ground pyro simulation at Luke AFB–and we’ll discuss how you can try to position yourself closer to such activity than we obviously were for this shot.

A DSLR is the instrument of choice once aircraft leave the ground, and particularly during high speed flight, largely for its continuous shooting, autofocus/tracking capabilities and real time viewfinder. Next in line would be a high-performance mirrorless camera, but even without much of a continuous shooting capability, other digital cameras that offer decent continuous autofocus and minimal shutter lag may still be able to produce some top quality images.

Plan to shoot bursts of fast movers. Flight demos necessarily involve aircraft moving at speed, and in some cases military performers doing a high speed pass may be traveling at upwards of 600 miles per hour — roughly 900 feet per second. Panning on a high speed subject requires precise camera control and technique; shooting a burst gives you a better chance of getting a sharp shot than putting all your faith in a single shot. High speed passes also tend to produce vapors and condensation on/about the aircraft which can be fleeting, but make for a dramatic image. Here’s a back lit F-22 generating a transonic vapor cloud and beginning to fly out of it at Miramar.

It’s tough to track a fast moving jet with a camera/lens combination on a tripod, particularly if you shoot a fast 400 or 600mm lens–a monopod is a better choice if you’ve got a lens too big to be easily hand held. And speaking of lenses…

Lenses for static subjects can range from wide angle to normal–a DSLR kit lens would work well–but once aircraft start flying telephoto is the name of the game. The FAA mandates airshow safety standards and once flying demonstrations begin the bulk of the airborne activity will be at least 500 feet from the closest spectator point. There may be occasions when aircraft approach closer or even overfly the spectator areas, but these will be limited and typically involve straight and level flight at or above 500 foot altitude and lower speeds. We’ll discuss some ideas for shooting locations a bit later.

With your subjects at a distance, APS-C sensor or mirrorless models with sensors that produce crop factors are attractive for shooting air demonstrations due to the 35mm equivalent focal length increase applied to lenses. As a practical matter, 400mm in 35mm equivalence is probably a good starting point, but even at 400mm solo aircraft (aside from large performers such as a C-130 or C-17, below) are going to be relatively small in the frame. Both aircraft are seen here full frame at 300mm.

Things get better with formation flights, but it’s safe to say you probably can’t have too much lens to shoot the flying portions of an airshow. High resolution cameras help as their large files give you leeway to crop away larger empty portions of the frame without degrading image quality. Some, but not all, of the images for this article have been cropped to 12 x 8 size at 240 dots per inch; the 240 dpi figure allows for prints that are virtually indistinguishable from 300 dpi while maximizing cropping size.

Camera Settings

First and foremost, there are basically only two settings for shutter speeds at an airshow: jet and prop. Fast shutter speeds help capture fast moving jets by helping minimize camera shake while panning; slow shutter speeds blur the propellers or rotors on planes and helicopters. Jets basically have no moving parts externally and look the same at 1/125 of a second as they do at 1/1250, but it’s more likely your shot will be sharp with the fast shutter. But a propeller plane or helicopter shot with a fast shutter will have a  propeller or rotor that appears stationary (or nearly so) and the first thing the viewer thinks is “why has the engine stopped?” Here are two shots of formation flights; in the first the propeller has a bit of blur, but more would be better. In the second, the propellers have a nicer blur to them.

Make sure you blur the propellers. On helicopters, the main rotors turn much slower than the propeller on an airplane, so blurring may not be as pronounced–however, the anti-torque (tail) rotor spins fairly quickly, so a helicopter shot with some main rotor blur and a nice blur on the tail rotor is the goal here. The Marines’ V-22 Osprey needs a fairly slow shutter to blur its rotors. A good starting point for blurring props and rotors is 1/125 second and adjust as necessary.

Once you get the hang of capturing sharp images of fast movers, you can start slowing that fast shutter down a bit – this will tend to blur any terrestrial features and adds to the sensation of speed in the image–assuming your camera technique is good and the aircraft remains sharp. Keeping the subject sharp trumps having an artsy background.

A quick and easy way to jump from jet settings to propeller planes and helicopters is to use Aperture Priority for jets and Shutter Priority for propellers. Aperture sets the fastest shutter speed given your ISO sensitivity while Shutter lets you set a slow shutter to blur propellers and rotors. Both work well on front lit subjects and clear skies with the camera in a matrix form of  exposure metering. Cloudy bright skies will cause the camera to underexpose so plan to either add in some exposure compensation or shoot in Manual mode to fine tune exposure–and don’t forget to check image histograms to help you zero in on the exposure no matter which method you use and under any conditions.

At shows where the aircraft are backlit, I tend to shoot Manual and expose for the shaded portion of the aircraft using center-weighted metering and histograms, trying to balance shaded detail without overly blasting the highlights. Shoot RAW for everything if you can–you have more post processing options to manipulate images than with JPEGs. RAW is more work, but the end result is worth it if you’re looking to max out image quality.

Location, Location, Location

Typically, airshows offer vast expanses of tarmac (taxiways and aircraft parking areas adjacent the show area) from which to view the show, but there are three areas to keep in mind when deciding where to set up for photo opportunities: the show line, the crowd line, and “show center”.

The show line is the line of flight that will be used by most of the performers most of the time, and typically will be oriented along a runway so as to provide the aerial performers with a ready reference to the minimum safe distance from the crowd and spectator area.

The crowd line is the barrier that contains and restricts the crowd from approaching the show line, and is typically at least 500 feet from, and generally parallel to, the show line for some distance.

“Show Center” designates the center of the flying display area and serves as a reference point for the aerial performers. Typically, announcers/media and stands for spectators (if provided) will be located  at/near show center on the crowd line. While horizontal flight will typically traverse the length of the show line, vertical maneuvers are typically performed at or near show center. Special effects such as pyrotechnics will often be set to go off in this area as well.

From a photographer’s standpoint, the most important consideration is to be somewhere on the crowd line–literally, be at the actual barrier. While some aerial demonstrations take place high enough that you can shoot them from somewhere in the crowd, low level parts of the performances and aircraft and other subjects of interest on the runway/taxiway require a clear field of view right to the ground.

Being at/near show center can be advantageous as performers may conduct some of their demonstration relative to that point–such as initiating a high performance takeoff, turn or climb, or greeting the crowd after a demo.

As a practical matter, the larger airshows tend to provide seating located at show center and extending some distance along the crowd line in either direction–corporate sponsors and VIP viewing areas also take up some of the line, so you may find yourself having to position away from show center and perhaps even on either end of the crowd line. As crowds form before the show, the last portion of the crowd line that fills in tends to be the ends–and if a show has seating or other activity blocking the crowd line at/near show center, the end of the line is where I try to set up. Here’s a quick comparison between shooting at show center  versus shooting show center from the end of the crowd line: the close up of the Harrier is 300mm, full frame from show center; the long shot is 400mm, cropped to 12 x 8 at 240 dpi from the end of the crowd line.

The ends of the crowd lines offer shots of aircraft during ingress and egress to/from the show line. You may catch them angled toward you and in a bank, while they may go simply straight and level once on the show line. Here are two shots of an F-22–we were in a parking area north of the end of the crowd line as the Raptor came inbound directly overhead before making a left turn to pick up the show line.

Two more shots from the end of the crowd line…

One advantage of shooting from the ends of the crowd lines: sometimes the performers cut the corner a bit as they are inbound to, or depart the show line and you get an aircraft inadvertently passing closer than the 500 foot minimums.

Another major consideration in picking your spot is the orientation of the light–one end or the other of the crowd line may have better light on the aircraft as they pass by, and front lit is definitely preferable to back lit. A quick way to gauge light: hold the palm of your hand up and swing it along the path the aircraft will travel as they pass by your position–the palm represents the side of the aircraft facing you. If a portion of the pass has light on your palm, you’ll get your best results shooting aircraft in that portion of the sky.

Odds and Ends

Clean your camera sensor before an airshow–all that sky in the background will show every bit of dust or spot on your sensor in every image. You can post process to remove spots, or use a dust reference photo if your camera has that function, but it’s easier to just go with a clean sensor in the first place. Take a blower brush to clean the front element of your lens(es) from time to time during the show.

I personally think aircraft look best as they approach or pass by in a bank so you can see the top of the fuselage/wings, but there will be opportunities to shoot the undersides that you should take advantage of. If an F-22 flies at your show they will often do a pass at a high angle of bank with the weapons bays open; some civilian performers and both the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds have paint schemes on their undersides that are worth capturing and just about any jet looks good from behind if the afterburner(s) is/are lit, producing flame from the engine exhaust nozzle(s). 

Be ready for the “sneak pass”. Both the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds do a sneak pass, usually during the first half of a program. Typically, the four plane formation will come by at a fairly leisurely pace, attracting the crowd’s attention. As this flight departs the show line at one end or the other, one of the solo performers is already inbound at extremely high speed and arrives at show center literally before the sound of his engine(s). The sneak pass is the fastest pass of the show and is meant to demonstrate how a small, agile aircraft can ingress/egress a combat zone. Any time a formation comes by, keep your head on a swivel to see where the solo aircraft are–the sneak pass guy will generally line up along the show line well away from show center and be inbound at an obviously high speed, arriving at show center as the formation flight has turned out of the way.

Heritage Flights have become a popular airshow feature, and involve flying modern and vintage aircraft in formations together. Usually, Navy/Marine Corps and Air Force/Army Air Corps aircraft fly together, but you may get a mix of any or all of the service aircraft in single formation as well. This two plane formation features a P-51D Mustang and F-15E Strike Eagle, arguably the two greatest fighters of their generation. The P-51 is painted in the colors of the 357th Fighter Group and then Lt. Lowell Williams, who gave me my check ride I began to fly with our local flying club.

These are some ideas for shooting specific aspects of an airshow, but there’s so much activity and photo opportunities that an airshow is really a target rich environment for a digital camera. Try out an airshow with your camera and watch some exceptional aviators ply their craft.


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