Aviation Photography - Part Two

By Gary Hughes

In the first article in this series “Aviation Photography Part One” we discussed some of the technical aspects of aviation photography and these included:

Step 1: Choosing the right lens
Step 2: Choosing the right focusing mode
Step 3: Choosing the right drive mode

In this part, Aviation Photography Part Two 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.

Step 4: Choosing the right exposure and shutter speed

Aircraft tend to move very quickly, so you'd imagine choosing a sufficiently fast shutter speed to freeze the action would be most appropriate. If you absolutely want to freeze the action, then go for shutter speeds of at least 1/500, but these will also freeze the background, along with propellers on older planes, giving the appearance of a static aircraft just hanging in mid-air.

As with other moving subjects, it can often be much better to use a combination of slower shutter speeds with panning to follow the action as you take the shot. Get it right and the subject will be sharp, but the background (and propeller on older planes) will be blurred, giving a better impression of speed. The ideal shutter speed depends on the distance to the aircraft, the lens in use and the speed at which it's moving, so some degree of experimentation is necessary. A good starting point though is 1/100 in Shutter Priority, and this should also allow you to use smaller apertures, which will be more forgiving on focusing and lower ISO sensitivities for better quality.

If you're using Automatic Exposure, the most important thing to remember is that the sky is a lot brighter than the aeroplane. That means when the camera looks at the whole image and tries to expose as well as it can, it will tend to make the sky nice and blue and make the airplane a black silhouette. This is because the aeroplane is a relatively small part of the frame... so when the camera has to choose between exposing the aeroplane well (and making the sky extra bright) or exposing the sky well (and making the airplane extra dark), it will choose the latter.

This is called exposure compensation (Indicated on my Canon as EV ±) and something that many photographers tend to shy away from. What to do about this? There are two solutions.

One is to simply tell the camera to expose all pictures a little more brightly than normal. This is accomplished by the EV adjustment. Some cameras have it as a dedicated button; some have it buried in the menus. The icon typically looks like a square divided along its diagonal, one half black and one half white, with a little plus sign on one of the diagonal halves and a little minus sign on the other diagonal half. By choosing this option, you will have the chance to move a slider a little to the right of centre (expose more brightly) or a little to the left of centre (expose more darkly). You probably want two or three clicks to the right. Your choice may vary, so you'll want to experiment a little bit. For example, for white airplanes you won't need to do this at all, but for dark airplanes you might want to move the slider about three clicks to the right. Again, this will depend on your camera, on how bright the sky is (i.e. you probably won't need to do this if there are dark stormy clouds on their way), and how dark the aeroplane is (the darker, the more you'll want to over-expose).

The other thing you can do is to tell the camera to do "centre-weighed" exposure, or "spot" exposure. Like centre-point focusing, this will tell the camera to only pay attention to what's at the very centre of the frame, or at least to weigh it more heavily while considering how to expose. If you pan well enough to keep the aeroplane over the centre, and if the aeroplane is taking up enough of the frame, the camera might expose properly just from that. However, in my experience this is not enough, and you still have to move the EV slider a click or two to the right. But at least you won't get as much variability in your exposure, and you won't have to worry as much about how dark the airplane is versus how bright the sky is.

If you're using Shutter speed Priority, Aperture Priority, or Manual Exposure, then here's what you do:

When shooting jets, you want the fastest shutter speed you can use. This could mean setting your aperture to wide-open, but most photographers find this leads to a big drop in sharpness, so the typical thing to do is to shoot at about 2/3 of a stop narrower than wide-open. This means that if you have an f5.6 lens, you shoot at about f7.1. And if you have an f4 lens, shoot at about f5. Basically, two clicks down from wide-open. If this leads to unacceptably slow shutter speeds (i.e. you notice a lot of camera-shake blur, no matter how steadily you hold the camera), increase your ISO a little bit. While I try to use ISO 100 as much as possible, many photographers happily use 200 all day, and using 400 on a cloudy day should be acceptable, but again, you need to get to know the ranges of your individual camera.

When shooting propeller-driven aircraft, you want to shoot with the slowest shutter speeds you can handle, so that you capture the blurry disc of the propeller blades instead of freezing them into little sticks. This is commonly called “prop disc” and is highly regarded in professional aviation photography circles. It gives life to the plane! That means going as slow as you can, before the whole image is ruined from camera-shake blur. How slow is that? Well, the general rule of thumb is that the slowest speed is your focal length. If you're shooting with a 300mm lens, then the slowest you can safely shoot is 1/300s before the whole thing gets blurry. Shooting with a longer lens, like 500mm, means you should shoot a little faster, i.e. no slower than 1/500s, to minimize camera shake. Now, as with all rules of thumb, these can be adjusted as follows:

If you have image stabilization / vibration reduction, you should be able to beat this rule by a factor of two or so: shoot at 1/150s with your 300mm lens, shoot at 1/250s with your 500mm lens. If you're good at holding your camera steadily - elbows against your chest, viewfinder pressed against your face, fingers gripping the camera gently - then you should be able to go even slower. I normally have my camera set on Shutter speed Priority and start at 1/60th and go up to /125th to get a range of pictures.

The first picture was shot at 1/2500th and you can see that the prop has been stopped, but the rest of the plane is sharp.

The next picture was taken at 1/160th in order to get the required prop disc. This being a turboprop with more propeller blades, the shutter speed was a bit higher than normal.

Taking pictures of helicopters to me is the same as macro photography. It requires a lot of patience and practice. Good results are very satisfying and one can feel very proud of getting the desired result. Helicopters, whose rotors spin relatively slowly and need a good fraction of a second to go all the way around, ideally should be shot at about 1/30th of a second, which is easy when they're taking off right in front of you and you can use a 28mm wide-angle lens (but hold on to your hat if you're that close!), not so easy if they're hundreds of feet away and you need to use that big 300mm lens and beat the rule-of-thumb by a factor of ten! Of course, you don't HAVE to shoot that slowly. If you can do it, it will make the rotors/props look nice... but if it makes the whole image blurry, then just shoot faster and screw the prop-disc!

This was a panning shot of the helicopter taken with the Canon EF 70-200 mm F2.8 IS USM II lens at 1/25th at f32. With the slow shutter speed I was able to get a decent disc on the blades, and at the same time get a nice blur on the background to give the illusion of speed. This was taken “hand held” which is also quite unusual, most of mine are with the longer lens situated on a tripod.

In general, I find that shooting aerobatic airplanes at 1/400s, warbirds at 1/250s, and rotorcraft at 1/100s, makes for prop blur of about half the arc (commonly referred to as butterfly wings!). I prefer to go at the following speeds (1/200, 1/125, and 1/50) to get the full disc. Those who shall remain nameless will even decide on the shutter speed depending on the type of engine, i.e. piston or turbo prop and whether or not it is a two or three blade prop. Many photographers can do it and it does require practice, but the choice is yours so if your pictures continually come out blurry, settle for shooting a little faster. (Again, better to get a sharp aircraft without full prop blur than a whole picture that's blurry). You'll have to find for yourself how slow you can go.

The following picture combines both a slow shutter speed to get the prop disc and panning at the same time to get the movement of the plane along the runway on his opening sequence. This was shot at 1/125th.

If you're exposing manually, then you use the appropriate aperture for jets, or the appropriate shutter-speed for props, and then pick the other settings that lead to pretty good exposure. Be mindful of the fact that some directions will be brighter than others (because of where the sun is, because of clouds and their shadows, etc.), so you may need to tweak your exposure settings when you shoot in different directions.

If you're using aperture priority (typically for jets) or shutter speed priority (typically for props), then the camera is choosing the other exposure settings according to what it thinks is a good exposure. Basically, the sky is a lot brighter than the airplanes, so the aeroplanes will come out too dark, so you need to over-expose, either by manually tweaking the EV slider to the right, or by telling the camera to only pay attention to what's at the centre of the frame (aircraft) and not the edges (sky) while exposing. You will also need to do this differently depending on whether the aircraft is light or dark coloured.

So whether your exposure settings are fully manual, partly automatic, or fully automatic, you'll still need to do some tweaking as you go. Luckily, Photoshop and other tools are good enough that you don't have to get the exposure (or the panning or the focus) EXACTLY right.

If not, RTFM (this means read the F@#!ing manual).

Step 5: getting the right pose

With planes zooming past at high speed, you often feel lucky to even get one in your frame let alone position it in a pleasing manner, but as you become more confident and proficient, the question of composition and poses becomes more relevant.

A professional wildlife photographer said that the use of a flash during the day, or getting a hint of the sun in an animal or birds eye provides a sparkle which adds “soul” to the picture. The same with prop disc on a propeller driven plane, something that will be chosen by an editor if having to decide between two similar pictures. It just adds that punch required to bring that photo to life.

Hint; try not to use a flash to bring out the eyes of the pilot! It may be rather distracting.

I feel the same way about planes. The views I personally find most pleasing show the plane approaching, rather than completely side-on or receding. Best of all is the moment just before the plane is side-on, where you see the front view slightly angled, but with a good view of the fuselage. Here I tried to get the uniformity that this display relies on by bunching the tail planes on take-off.

This may sound obvious but as you're swinging a camera and lens across the sky, it's surprising how many completely side-on or rear views you'll capture. Of course, this is entirely personal, and there are also exceptions, such as a view of jet engines in afterburn as a plane recedes into the distance.

Likewise, have a think about the background. The most dramatic shots are often those where the plane appears close to the tops of buildings or the landscape. Even if the background fills the frame, or just touches an edge of it, it gives the shot context and the opportunity of blurring for an impression of motion. Shots of planes overhead against a blank sky are rarely as exciting, unless you're capturing the flames of a fuel-dump or a jet afterburner.

With the local airshow circuit it is quite easy to plan which shots you would like to achieve as there is not a vast selection of different acts from show to show. Whist this is a shortcoming compared to say the UK or the States, it will allow you to practice and refine you techniques as you will get too know the sequences which will allow you to plan the shots you want to get. The issue here is to try and better you shot selection and to go to a show with a shot in mind and execute that.

The following shot was possible as the sequence had been done the day before so I planned to ensure that I was positioned to get this shot when it presented itself.

The following shot was taken at the Mafikeng airshow and created a mirror type image as the two jets passed each other. I don't think I will be this lucky again. This shot was not planned!

Step 6: Post Production

Half the work of getting good images of airplanes (or anything else) is post-processing your photographs on the computer using tools like Photoshop or Lightroom.

This is a whole separate subject and not part of this article, but each photographer should have a "workflow: a preferred set of tools to use and order in which to use them. Similarly to the way photographers archive their pictures, each individual's editing techniques varies quite a bit, and hence as I have mentioned earlier, it's important to develop a style. I often change mine after talking with another photographer, as I learn that their technique saves some work or produces slightly better results.

I use Lightroom, an Adobe product for all my DAM (digital asset management), i.e. cataloguing of pictures and basic adjustments and preparation for either the web or competitions.

The latest version of Lightroom has been released and is certainly something that should be considered as it will add value to you post production without getting bogged down in a big program such as Adobe Photoshop.

Also ensure that you follow a well-constructed backup procedure and ensure that you do regular backups of your pictures in two separate locations.

In part three of the series we will look at 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.

Aviation Photography
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