Photographing Air Shows
With the warm weather heading our way, I can’t help but to get excited about shooting the raw power and energy of the upcoming air shows. Every Memorial Day weekend, there are two big shows at Jones Beach in Long Island. I’ve also travelled to New Jersey and Staten Island to see some exciting performances. To find out if there is an air show coming to your area, check out www.airshowbuzz.com.
Day of the Show
It is recommended that you get to the show early in order to choose your shooting location. Air shows can be very crowded with numbers reaching into the hundreds of thousands. By arriving early, you may be able to get up front, and avoid people stepping in front your lens. Generally, the performers enter from the left and the right, with their stunts done in the center. A good viewing place is important, as it allows you to focus, and track the incoming jets. When possible, I try to pick a place that’s in the shade, with a full view of the performance area. However, many airports and military bases do not offer this luxury as they take place in a large airport or military base. To protect yourself from the elements, I urge you to bring sunscreen.
When I photographed my first air show many years ago, I used a 28-135mm lens. Yet, unless the plane was flying directly above me, I found that much more reach was necessary. Today, I use a 70-200mm for overhead action, and a 400mm for tighter shooting. Many photographers feel that 300mm is also a very useful focal length for this purpose. Just remember, air shows are usually several hours in duration, and longer lenses can get quite heavy. A tripod will give your arms a break, and allow you to create sharp images consistently. While the majority of your shooting will likely be done with the longer lenses, you can also create some unique images with a wide angle lens. This is especially useful when a performance team spreads out in formation and flies towards you.
Attempting to freeze the motion of something travelling around 500 miles per hour is no easy feat. In order to achieve this, using fast shutter speeds around 1/1000 is ideal. However, there is one exception in which a fast shutter speed is not advisable. With older planes, a shutter speed of 1/1000 will freeze the propellers. The effect actually reduces the appearance of motion, and gives the image an unnatural look. To show the movement of the propeller, a shutter speed of 1/125 is a good starting point. You may have to adjust slightly from there depending on the speed of the plane.
In Camera Metering
Even today’s sophisticated DSLR metering systems can be tricked by certain situations. When exposing a jet against a clear blue summer sky, the camera readings will often properly expose the sky, and leave you with an underexposed plane. To counter this, it is a good idea to use your histogram, and shoot slightly brighter than an 18% grey. One way of getting this extra light into the camera is to use a faster ISO. Don’t hesitate to utilize ISO 400-800, as noise levels on the newer bodies has improved a great deal. If grain is still a concern, you can always apply noise reduction in the digital darkroom after all the planes have landed.
For moving objects, most cameras feature continuous focusing, or an Al Servo mode. To use these settings successfully, keep your center focusing point over the aircraft with your cable release or shutter held halfway down. As you follow the plane through your viewfinder, the camera will automatically adjust the focus as the aircraft gets closer. When you are ready to make an image, simply press the shutter all the way down. Rather than trying to frame the perfect shot, I like to use a high speed burst mode and fire off many exposures for each pass. This technique increases the percentage of “keepers”. Following high speed objects this way takes some getting used to. Luckily, air show organizers often arrange “photo passes” where the pilot flies at a reduced speed. Don’t get too comfortable though, they return to full speed after a few slow turns.
With all of this high flying, fast paced action, you will likely go through many memory cards rapidly. I bring a portable hard drive with me, and download the contents of the card while continuing to shoot. Once I’m sure the images have been safely written to the drive, I format the card in camera and reuse it. I like to shoot in RAW format whenever possible. However, if you are short on memory cards, and don’t have a portable hard drive, you may want to consider shooting in the Large/Fine JPEG format. This will allow you to fit more images on the card than RAW.
What to Look For
Smoke trails and after burner effects are great additions to an aviation image. Be ready for them, as it happens quickly. The trails of white smoke are actually created by pumping oil into the exhaust pipe. This is particularly interesting when used by an entire formation of planes. The patterns of smoke can be used to make for a more artistic composition. In addition, it adds a bit of contrast to the otherwise plain blue sky. I also look to capture the interaction between two planes. When pilots are flying side by side with their wings nearly touching, a great deal of tension is introduced to the photo. By freezing this moment in time you are also showcasing the precision, and skill of the daring pilots.
The Need for Speed
Once you shoot your first airshow, you will likely catch the aviation bug as I have. After shooting many air shows over the past several years, I put together a presentation with some of my favorite moments. You can watch it here.