Aviation Photography - Part Three

By Gary Hughes

In the second article in this series “Aviation Photography Part Two” we discussed some of the artistic aspects of aviation photography and these included:

Step 4: Choosing the right exposure and shutter speeds
Step 5: Getting the right Pose
Step 6: Post Production

In this part, Aviation Photography Part Three, we 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.

Kit and other Important Considerations
Memory and batteries:

My Canon EOS 1D MKIV has two memory card slots and so I have a 32GB and a 16GB card in each camera as I only shoot in RAW, and don't want to be looking for a card at an inopportune time. I take a spare battery for each camera. Each battery gives on average 1200 shots.

Clothing, headgear, and various bric-a-brac:
A hat that covers your face and if you prefer, a baseball cap, then ensure that you have plenty of sun cream. Earplugs are important as planes are loud. I do use them even though I love the sound of jets screaming by and I'm already partly deaf (my wife is convinced I am actually deaf!) thanks to the Army, but a couple of sets of disposable foam ear plugs are a good idea especially when in the “Pit” and a Harrier Jump jet is going through its routine just in front of you!

Folding chairs

Great for when you need a break during proceedings, and also to mark your spot. Bringing a friend, spouse, child, etc. is one of the best bits of kit to have with you and having a camera for them (if they don't already have one), is good so they can shoot a different perspective than you. And your buddy serves another purpose besides taking still more pictures: they can also run interference for you.

By surrounding yourself with friends you thus create a force field keeping the little ones who are yammering for a better view from stomping all over you or your kit (it will happen).


Good to have so you can keep hydrated, and not be required to go in search of refreshments during the show. Fill it up the night before and throw it in the freezer and throughout the day you will be rewarded with crisp, cool water.


Generally tripods are considered a bad idea as well as monopods. Either only gets in the way and makes things more difficult. But unless you are a strapping lad as indicated below, this will depend on you lens choice, for me, I never go without a tripod. It also helps as I do shoot with multiple bodies.

Wet Weather Gear

Weather for airshows generally needs to be good, but sometimes it isn't. Make sure you bring any wet weather gear you have, especially for your camera. I bring mine regardless of the weather report because weather forecasters have been known to get it wrong from time to time and there is only so much room for people underneath the wing of a Gripen or a Tiger Moth!

Air show Strategy

There are two types of airshows, the one everyone goes to and the one you find. At the risk of sounding spiritual, the airshow most people see is up in the air. If your goal is to capture the essence of the show, you need to look on the ground.

Being one of the first to get to the show will provide you with many photographic opportunities. If you have access to the air show grounds during sunrise or sunset, even better. This will allow you to get creative with silhouettes and the use of warm, soothing colours. Often, barricades aren't in place yet and even if they are, you'll still have a clear, unobstructed view of the static aircraft on the tarmac without the hordes of people in front. If air show documentation was something you had in mind, you'll have plenty of opportunities to capture on film the volunteers and workers setting up the show for the arriving crowd.

Another benefit to showing up early is the fact that aircraft may still be arriving. This will offer you beautiful morning light for those aerial images as well as intimate images of the aircraft as they taxi to position. Also, with the proper consideration, you may have a chance to speak with the pilots and aircrew in more detail as they prepare their aircraft for the public. You may not have this opportunity again once the crowds begin to arrive.

I enjoy the Sunday afternoon arrivals at Oshkosh and all the activity before the airshow starts each day as there are often once off visitors that provide excellent photographic opportunities. This very rare Fairey Swordfish that arrived before the airshow crowd had arrived.

Get to the show early to scope out the best possible location to shoot with. If you get there early enough you'll be rewarded by being right on the fence thus preventing youngsters from getting in front of you and ruining your shot. Once you get that prime location, set up your chairs and umbrellas and settle back until the show starts.

So it is a simple mantra, location, location, location.

Plan Your Day

Air shows acts are generally arranged in such a way that the really big acts happen towards the end of the program. Plan accordingly. Nothing is more irritating than an excellent day of shooting only to discover you only have three shots left on your last memory card to shoot the unusual act. Also, get hold of a program as it will give you an indication of what may happen. With aviation, things are subject to change, but have a look and see if acts are repeated over the airshow, as this will allow you to try different techniques.

Be prepared for disappointment. Missed timing, blurry shots, etc. Since you're shooting digital, shooting yourself happy isn't usually an issue, but don't go through the process of deleting all those less than perfect shots until after you go home. You never know what you will miss happening in the air while you're deleting those bad shots.

Since flight lines vary between airfields, as does the path of the sun, homework is your best bet to figuring out where to be. Here are some questions to ask yourself when choosing a location to set up:
· Which direction will the aircraft most likely be coming from?
· Where will the sun be heading throughout the show?
· How close is the crowd line from the end/beginning of the runway?
· Where is the best place to view the hot ramp during the air show?
· Where is show centre?
· Where will the audio trailer be located? (Just kidding!)
· Will there be audio speakers in the way of your line of sight during ribbon cuts and low flybys?

While at some airshows, the aircraft will follow the length of the runway the entire time they are in front of the crowd, others will use show centre as an apex and approach from behind. For the shows that use the straight pass approach, choose either end of the crowd line, preferably the opposite end of the approach pattern. This will give you a much longer period in which to capture head on photos of the aircraft. For the shows that use an arch pattern and approach from behind position yourself closest to the approach and you will have access to closer, tighter formation shots than from show centre. Also follow the plane for the length of the runway; you may not know what may happen!

An article in a recent EAA magazine said that the damage caused was in the region of US4.5 million!

If they've positioned the crowd line close to the beginning or end of a runway, choose what is most important to you. Do you want photos of an aircraft at idle preparing for take-off or images of the plane as it is just lifting the front wheels? Perhaps you are looking for the aircraft to be in wheels up clean configuration low to the runway, if so you should be as close to the end of the runway as possible.

Do you like to photograph the performers signing autographs or waving to the crowd as they climb out of the aircraft? Try show centre, but get there early.

Be extra cautious of speaker and audio systems that may be in your way. Since most of the time the action is in the air high above, we just don't think about it. However, if you would like photos of jet cars, or low flying aerobatics such as the ribbon cutting manoeuvres, you may want to position yourself a little more carefully.

I usually do not make use of the cordoned area for the uber photographers (unless it is the “pit” as they only take 10 at a time) so as to get different shots, and also today, everybody is a photographer! Also you will probably meet “Ken Alles” who will be full of advice. As they say in the classics, there is always one in every fourball!

Also make sure you know the whole program planned for all the days. For instance, on the Saturday evening at Oshkosh there is a night airshow which is fantastic. It does offer up photographic opportunities, but I find it more fun to set my camera with a wide angle lens on and on bulb mode to take a time lapsed picture of a routine and actually watch the display.


If this were a perfect world, the sun would be to everyone's back and there would always be a soft breeze cleansing the hazy sky. Unfortunately airports aren't built for the once a year airshow convenience, so improvisation becomes vital to great and unique images. Sometimes, weather can even become your greatest ally.


If aircraft are flying during cloudy days, chances are it will be a low show, (if a show at all). Low shows enable you to get even closer to the action than normal. Some performers, or teams will alter their performances according to the ceiling provided thus allowing for different formation shots. When shooting under a completely overcast sky, overexpose the image by 1 to 1.5 stops. The bright sky tends to trick the camera into thinking it is too light for the current shutter speed and you will wind up with a silhouette on every shot. Other great advantages of cloudy skies would be the statics. Clouds act as a big diffuser softening the light and eliminating harsh shadows. The following picture was taken at Oshkosh 2011 on a very wet and grey day, but it helped to enhance the actual picture and I managed to get the shot as it came through the clouds. This was shot at 1/2500th at f4 with a Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 IS USM which tells you how low the cloud base was. The show closed shortly afterwards due to weather.

Partly Cloudy

Even better! Partly cloudy skies add depth to your images. Instead of having a plain blue background, now you can add dimension and distance, and with proper timing, frame the aircraft amongst the clouds. Framing could involve using a wider-angle lens to give the aircraft "placement". Cumulus clouds work great for depth during the midday. When evening starts to approach, look for "heaven rays" or beams of light shining down through patches in the sky. A wide angle works best for these shots.


It seems as though airports are specifically constructed so the sun is in your face…the whole day! Definitely a situation that requires a lens hood. Lens hoods keep stray light off the front optic of your lens. When light hits the front optic, it bounces off of the various other optics inside the lens causing haziness. By avoiding this, contrast and clarity is gained. If the sun is directly in front of you, try timing your photos so that the aircraft flies directly in front of the sun. Most of the time, this will cause your camera to increase the shutter speed, instantly resulting in a silhouette of the aircraft. Obviously, be careful when dealing with the sun. As if it isn't bad enough just looking at it, now you're magnifying it as well.

Also you can nuse those very hot days and incorprate the haze and such like to get the feel into the picture.

Remember Static Displays

Remember the static displays; they're easy to forget in all the excitement of the day. If I'm able to go to a show over multiple days such as Oshkosh, provided there is no change in the acts, I'll try to spend one shooting the flight displays and then another shooting the static aircraft and crowds. It's difficult to shoot both in a single day, so if you can break it up, more the better.

The Last and Most Important strategy is to have FUN

Airshows are great. Airshows are fun. Don't get so engrossed in shooting that you forget to have a good time. Even after dozens of airshows over the years and seeing thousands of aircraft in flight, I still get goose bumps every time a Mustang screams past. I still well up inside whenever the sun glints off the wingtips of the old jets, and I no longer jump during the sneaks (that is because of the ear plugs!).

So in conclusion, understand your equipment and know the various combinations of shutter speed, aperture and the use of the ISO in determining your settings for the different types of shots to be attempted.

Know the limitations of you lenses, and by knowing this it will allow you to get a better understanding of the position that you want to occupy at the airshow, location, location, location.

Have a plan or a strategy for the day(s) so that it becomes second nature and reduces the amount of stress involved with the shoot.

Finally as I have said before, have fun!
A final parting shot from Oshkosh 2011.

Happy shooting.

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