Aviation Photography - Part One

By Gary Hughes

I have been asked to do a three part article series on aviation photography from an amateur hobbyist perspective with some of my tips and tricks learned from the many more proficient photographers out there. This is by no means a definitive technical article and the bottom line is that each person will hopefully develop a style of their own over time, but an understanding of the basics does go a long way to ensure that the quality of your photographs improve over time with practice. Aviation photography is the same as flying, you will never stop learning.

Aviation photography at the various air shows is a great way to get close to interesting aircraft in-flight and come away with some action images. Like all styles of photography though, there's a few guidelines to bear in mind for the best results.

In this part (part one), I will cover lens choices, focus modes and camera drive modes with some examples of each. This will allow you to understand and experiment with the technical aspects of your equipment, a principal requirement for successful aviation photography and of course the foundation of the other topics that will be covered in this series.

In part two of this series I will dive into the artistic aspects of aviation photography and focus on exposure, pose or positioning and to a limited extent, post production.

Part three of the series will deal with planning and some practical considerations to make your excursion to the next air show more efficient, enjoyable and of course, to produce more successful aviation photographs.

Apologies in advance!

I cannot say that I will cover all the techniques or the types of equipment available. The terminology used in the article will refer to my preference to the use of Canon equipment, so I do apologize to not only those on the dark side, but also those who use other brands. I will be primarily dealing with the use of a digital DSLR, not the “point and shoot” or muk-and-druk as compacts are often referred to. I do not possess any idea how these operate, but I am sure the basic techniques discussed will also be applicable. These are the techniques I have developed and I am comfortable with, and with practice the resulting pictures that I am taking have consistently improved over time.

The other point that I would like to make is you need to develop your own style. Yes - every time I look at somebody else's pictures from the same shoot, it seems they are better or they were in a better position etcetera, but the issue is too develop your own style and become proficient at that. That goes for all forms of photography.

Another point I would like to make, is that equipment is only part of the overall photographic process. The person behind the camera, the composition and post production all play their part in the final result. You may not have access to the best equipment around, but if you are in the right place at the right time and have planned your shoot well in advance and with an understanding of the basics, there is no reason as to why you will not be able to take those coffee table book type pictures.

So here goes:

Step 1: Choosing the right lens

Air shows let you to get much closer to aircraft in flight than under most circumstances, so you may not need a particularly long lens to fill your frame with a decent image - indeed when planes are zipping past at high-speed, very long lenses can prove frustrating, as I have found using my 800mm lens at Oshkosh while in the “Pit”. Yes - until I have “warmed up” (this is the exercise regime I convince my wife I am doing!) and got back into the rhythm, there are a lot of throwaway images, but when you get the one you are looking for, the effort is worthwhile. If we were still in the age of film, I would have been bankrupt by now, but with digital, it provides a lot of leeway.

In my experience, I have found the ideal focal length is 200-400mm. This focal length is adequate for most air show photography on cropped or full-frame bodies, allowing you to zoom-in and get relatively close during distant runway or circling shots, or zoom-out for closer flybys. Of course if you're further from the action than you'd like, or wanting to capture very distant or high elevation shots, then a longer lens in the 400-500mm region will be ideal.

The other issue with lens' choice may be determined by how many bodies you have. If you only have one body as you are starting out, the decision of the lens to use becomes important. There are two important reasons not to change lenses:
· The time taken, you will miss the shot, so variable zoom lenses such as a 100-400mm are popular for this reason, and
· Dust, the scourge of the sensor!

I normally use three Canon EOS 1D Mk IV bodies configured as follows:
· Canon EF 800mm f5.6 IS USM
· Canon EF 400mm f4 DO IS USM
· Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 IS USM II

With the variation of the focal lengths, it allows me to take pictures of aeroplanes when they're a little further away, i.e. when they're coming towards me from the end of the runway. So it's easier to get head-on shots and other unusual angles, rather than just relatively boring pictures of the side or belly of the airplane as it's going past you. Longer focal lengths also make it easier to shoot tiny aerobatic aeroplanes, as well as Remote-Control aircraft and other things you may see.

I do enjoy the Canon EF 800mm f5.6 IS USM as it will allow one to get those pictures that are either “in your face” without having to revert to cropping to get the effect and pictures at a longer distance which allows the effect of heat haze etc.

The other lenses I will have in my bag for static and really close up shots are:
· Canon EF 8-15mm f4 Zoom fish-eye
· Canon EF 24-105mm f4 IS USM.

Step 2: Choosing the right focusing mode

Most cameras offer continuous autofocusing (AF) options, which can track moving action. In the ideal world, these are the modes you should go for, but during an air show the action may simply be too fast for your camera and or lens to keep-up. The bottom line is to experiment and check your results after each sequence. Try continuous AF modes first, but if your results are not in focus, it may be better pre-focusing at a set distance and taking the shot as the aircraft enters that spot.

Focusing can be tricky when your subject is moving at almost the speed of sound. Therefore use centre-point focusing! Most cameras look at several spots all over the frame, then tweak the focus a little and sense how much the contrast is going up and down in all those spots, to decide at which focus setting there is most contrast overall (since, when things are in focus, the edges of dark areas get darker and the edges of light areas get lighter and they no longer blur into each other).

The problem with this is that an out-of-focus sky looks just like in-focus sky - just blue all over (or grey as the case may be). So if the camera is looking at a bunch of spots on the frame, and one of those spots is on the airplane and all the others are in the sky, the camera will have to tweak the focus for a little while before it realizes that all the sky spots are basically un-focusable, and that the only spots that look any sharper when you tweak the focus is the spot where the airplane is. This takes a while and is not as precise. So you might as well tell the camera: Hey, the airplane will be in the centre of the frame, so just try to sharpen the focus at the centre point and ignore everywhere else. This will make your autofocus faster and more precise. It will also force you to work harder to keep the aeroplane on that centre spot, which brings us to... Pan carefully!

Those are probably the most important two words on this page. The more smoothly you pan, keeping the aeroplane in one place in the frame as it flies, instead of wobbling all over the place as you struggle to keep up with its motion, the more sharply it will be focused, the less camera shake there will be and the more deliberately your shot will be composed. Keeping up with a quick-moving subject by panning well is definitely the most important skill when it comes to shooting airplanes. The following picture was taken at Oshkosh 2011 and is an example of a panning shot at 1/125th; f13 with a Canon EF 400mm f4 DO IS USM and a Canon 1D MkIV.

This was taken in 2007 at 1/100th; f25 with a Canon 5D and the Canon EF 400mm f4 DO IS USM lens.

This was taken in 2007 at 1/100th; f25 with a Canon EOS 1DMkIV and the Canon EF 70-200 mm F2.8 IS USM II lens.

I would suggest getting down to your local airfield when there is some activity and practice this before you go to an air show. This technique is invaluable and will help with all forms of photography, so when you are in the Masai Mara one day, you will get the cheetah chasing down a Thompsons gazelle easily. The technique of smoothly moving your whole body so as to keep a moving aircraft right in the middle of the screen is something that takes some practice and finesse. And don't worry if you struggle with it at first. Most people do.

There are some tricks you can learn, too. For example, you may find yourself pointing your feet towards the direction where the airplane comes from, and then twisting your body more than 90 degrees as the airplane flies past you and away in the opposite direction. This normally results in one falling over, or giving those rib muscles a good stretch, something you will only feel the next day! It's much easier to point your feet 90 degrees to the airplane's path, so that you're looking slightly to one side as it comes, then looking straight ahead (in the direction your feet are pointing) as it passes, then looking slightly to the other side (rather than twisting drastically) as the airplane flies away.

Use continuous focusing! When you half-press the shutter button, most cameras will (by default) find something to focus on and then "lock" the autofocus and go "beep beep". From that point on, as long as you're holding down that button, the camera is focused on things a certain distance away, anything closer or further away will be out of focus. So if you focus on an aeroplane as it's coming your way, and your camera goes "beep beep"... well, the airplane is getting closer, so it will be out of focus when it passes you, until it's past and getting far away again. This autofocus mode, where the autofocus locks as soon as it's in focus is not good for moving subjects!

Much better is a mode called "continuous" autofocus, which is often buried in the menus under “custom functions”, where most people fear to tread. When you turn on "continuous" autofocus, the camera will continually try to keep the frame in focus. (If you're using centre-point autofocus, like I recommended earlier, then when you put the camera into continuous mode it will always try to keep in focus whatever is right in the middle of the frame, as long as you're half-pressing that shutter button). So as the airplane moves closer and then further away, "continuous" autofocus will try to keep up with it, rather than "resting" as soon as it finds good focus.

Also remember that you are using battery every time you are using the shutter button to focus. The other option that is available on prime Canon lenses is what is called autofocus stop buttons, which are found on the black ring near the objective lens and allow autofocus to be temporarily suspended. An example of when I commonly use this feature is while shooting sports in AI Servo AF mode. I frequently want to grab a portrait using the focus and recompose technique. So, I focus on my subject, press one of the AF Stop buttons, recompose and take the shot. I get my portrait and I am immediately ready to go back to the action. Another example is when shooting wildlife in motion such as running animals, birds in flight and want to capture a static scene.

Another panning shot at 1/80th at f18 with a Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 IS USM II as I had forgotten to reset my shutter speed after taking some pictures to get “prop' disc”. The fact that I got the plane in focus can only be put done to the fact that I had had a couple of days panning practice before this shot. It does make for a nice blurred background, and the blurred marshal also adds to the dimension of speed in the actual picture.

This brings me to another tip. After each sequence, you should get in the habit of doing a reset on you camera(s) to a basic setting, so that if something sneaks up on you, that you are in a position to get the shot. Also by knowing what is on the actual program will help you plan for each session to ensure that your camera(s) are set up correctly. But then again there are decisions to be made, especially when there is a fly past of a mixture of jets and piston aircraft do you shoot at 1/125th to get the prop disc and lose some sharpness on the jets, or at a much higher shutter speed and risk getting the prop stopped and no blur.

Step 3: Choosing the right drive mode
Like many photographic disciplines, the key to maximising your chances of grabbing a decent image of an aircraft in flight is to simply take lots and lots of photos - hundreds or even thousands if you can. It'll take time to sort through them after the event, but the more you take the more chance you have of grabbing a good one. Unsurprisingly then, the continuous or burst drive modes on your camera are the ones to go for during action sequences, allowing you to grab several frames on each flyby. As for file formats, I only shoot in RAW which will of course give you more flexibility for adjustments, but depending on aspects such as you storage card size, camera buffer and the fact that you will be going to shoot hundreds of images, you may want to opt to shoot in JPEG only.

My camera is set in ALSERVO mode and high speed frame rate, which on the EOS 1DMkIV is 12 frames per second. I will discuss “prop disc” in the next section, but the following three pictures were taken in sequence using the high speed function on the Canon EOS 1DMkIV with the Canon EF 70-200 mm F2.8 IS USM II at 1/100th and f14.

If you really good, you can get an alternating pattern. Don't ask me how this happened!

In part two of this series we will look at the artistic aspects of aviation photography and focus on exposure, shutter speed, pose or positioning and to a limited extent, post production.

Aviation Photography
Aviation Hobbies

Copyright © 2024 Pilot's Post PTY Ltd
The information, views and opinions by the authors contributing to Pilot’s Post are not necessarily those of the editor or other writers at Pilot’s Post.