Air Show Photography: Getting In and Getting The Shots
By Chris Armold
There's nothing quite like the roar of a high-performance military fighter, flying 30 feet off the deck, screaming past you at just under 700 miles per hour. What's even a bigger rush is when you're in the front row equipped with your camera and armed with the skills and a strategy to get stunning aviation photos. It's not every day one has opportunity to photograph aircraft, especially aircraft that are performing stunts and combat maneuvers. However, with a few pointers and a bit of experienced insight, any professional photographer who understands the basic fundamentals of our craft has the potential to shoot epic air show images.
©Chris A Photography
Accessing the air show: There are two ways for a photographer to attend an air show. You can pay the admission and walk in the front gate, set up your lawn chair and do your thing. The alternative, and my preference, is to try to work the show as a freelance media photographer. Air shows are huge events that must attract tens of thousands of attendees to be viable. That requires promotion and publicity. Reach out to your local air show organizer, tell them you're a pro shooter and offer your services. If you freelance (as I do) or shoot for any type of media outlet, request a media credential. The worst thing that can happen is the organizers say no. However, if they say yes, the benefits of photographing the show as a freelance media photographer can include a parking pass, access to a media area, preferred shooting locations, and often a shaded area reserved for photographers that's stocked with water and a place to stash gear.
Ask to attend and photograph the air show media/rehearsal day: This is a great way to avoid the crowds. Every air show that features an aerial demonstration team such as the USAF Thunderbirds, the USN Blue Angels, or the US Army Golden Knights will have a non-public practice day. Normally these rehearsal days are open to media and professional photographers. On media day, not only can you photograph the aerial rehearsal, you may have the chance to meet the crew, in addition to being given a close-up opportunity to examine and photograph the aircraft. It's an amazing opportunity for any photographer who has the initiative to ask for it. Finally, media photographers are occasionally given the opportunity to fly in some of the aircraft. I've flown aboard several vintage WWII aircraft including a B-17, a C-47, and with the Blue Angels, simply because I'm a photographer.
©Chris A Photography
Suggested equipment: A digital SLR with an assortment of lenses is the way to go if you want to get great shots. Depending on where you're shooting from, photographing a single aircraft using your 300mm lens works well, but it may be too much glass when shooting multiple aircraft and aerial demonstration teams. When four or six planes fly past in formation, if you're in the front row with long glass your angle of view can be too tight. I rely on my 70-200mm lens most often when I'm shooting an air show, especially if there is a multiple-aircraft display. Don't neglect to bring along your short glass because there will be dozens of static display aircraft to explore and photograph. I tote a 50mm lens and a 14-24mm super-wide for the majority of my static display compositions. Bring your monopod along, but leave the tripod at home unless you plan to shoot really slow exposure static display images. You're not going to need it as you'll be swinging that glass left and right, up and down far too often.