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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.

Clean the sensor and the lenses: The bright blue sky in the background of your air show photos will look amazing but will also make every dust speck look like a UFO. Be meticulous and try to eliminate all of those distractions before you take the photos. If you haven't cleaned your sensor in a few months do it now.

Research the demonstration team using YouTube and the Internet: If you're photographing the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds or any of the major demonstration teams, use YouTube to research the team's past performances. Each team has a set routine they fly, which is normally set to music and narrated. By doing some online research you'll have a heads-up about when solo-aircraft will be doing high-speed passes, maneuvers, etc. Don't just watch the performance video, listen to the narration as these shows are timed with the performance of the planes. By using online resources and becoming familiar with the performance, you'll know where to point your camera when everyone else is scanning the skies.


©Chris A Photography

Crank down the shutter speed for propellor driven aircraft: Shoot prop planes and helicopters with a shutter speed slower than than 1/500th of a second so that you don't “freeze” the prop. This looks looks unnatural and unappealing. Consequently, you'll probably need to close the aperture a bit on your lens to compensate for the shutter speed needed to create that classic “prop blur.” In the exceptional circumstance below, I kept the shutter speed high to catch the breaking tape in this high-speed maneuver.


©Chris A Photography

Practice following a moving object: Jets are fast. Really fast. You're going be swinging that glass from side to side and up and down like never before. As silly as it sounds, if you want to try to capture an F-16 blowing down the runway at just below the speed of sound you need to practice swinging that camera. Following a moving object with a camera and keeping it in focus is difficult. You can practice by photographing moving cars on a highway or even birds in your backyard.


Use your monopod to create interesting perspectives: I use my monopod only when I get tired of hand-holding my Nikon D3 with a 300mm lens. Ninety percent of the time I'm shooting an airshow it's all hand-held shooting. While a monopod can certainly ease the burden posed by the weight of gear, it makes swinging that lens up high and fast to catch some high-flying action difficult, but not impossible. For the most part I use my monopod when I'm shooting static display aircraft. I can mount my camera on the monopod and use the camera timer to get some amazing photos by holding the camera above the plane or at a level angle I can't reach. Be creative. Use texture, finish, and creative composition to make your static shots look vastly more interesting than just a parked airplane.

Exposure and aperture considerations: If the weather is good enough to fly that means you're going to have more than ample light for photos. Even if it's overcast, when you're photographing aircraft in the sky, forget about the exposure meter because it's lying to you. The camera will typically indicate that your image will be massively overexposed and will encourage you to make adjustments. Ignore it and shoot in manual as much as possible to maintain complete control over your equipment. Remember to read the direction of the light and be aware that from one end of the runway to another, lighting and contrasts can be completely different, consequently, you need to be prepared to make adjustments on the fly. Use your digital capability to shoot test shots and check your results often until you've acclimated to the task and have your gear dialed in.

If you have the chance to fly: Try to be the first one in line, introduce yourself to the organizer/pilot as soon as you can, and ask if you can sit in the cockpit and photograph the flight. That is the view you want. That's where the action is. No one sitting in the back of the plane is getting anything cool. Let the writers and radio people sit back there.

With a strategy, a bit of practice and a willingness to be bold and creative, most professional photographers will find air show photography exciting and challenging. While you may only shoot an air show once or twice a year, tracking its fast action is going to improve your adjustment reflexes and will help you become better acquainted with your camera. Bottom line, you'll be better equipped to get those epic images, and the skills you learn will make you a better overall photographer.