10 Tips to Improve Your Aviation Photography


We see them every day overhead, and they always make us look up and ponder. Airplanes are a romantic concept because of the faraway places to which they can take us, and because of the amazing feat of flight itself! The fact that airplanes travel so quickly is something we all connect with. From an artistic point of view, their shape and design are very appealing. These are all factors that have driven me to get as involved with aviation photography as I am with wildlife.

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post by Moose Peterson

Aviation photography is a fast-growing community. More and more photographers are discovering that not only is it challenging—it's also a lot of fun. Plus, it requires very little gear. For me personally, it's a simple combination of wildlife and landscape photography. The plane is the wildlife, the rest of the photo is the landscape—and when you combine the two, you come up with my style of aviation photography. To help you light the fires and kick the tires, here are ten tips to lift your aviation photography off the ground.

1) Holding the Camera

This is the number-one tool, technique, trick and tip that you must master for aviation— and for all photography. There is little tripod usage in aviation work, mainly because of time, space and safety. However, you still must provide your camera with a solid platform to get those sharp images, especially in low light. The following technique must become a second nature for you, so practice, practice, practice.

Start with your left hand bent with the palm up. Then rest the lens barrel in your left palm. If you open your hand and the lens falls, than you’re not doing it right. Gravity should just hold the lens in your palm. Your right hand should grasp the camera body, with your finger resting on the shutter release. Activating the camera should be accomplished by a slight amount of pressure from your finger, firing the camera requiring just a little more pressure. You don’t want to lift your finger up and down to fire the camera. Bring your elbows into your sides, and have a rubber eyecup to bring the whole rig up against your face. Practice this until you’re comfortable shooting a stationary rock at 1/30 and getting a sharp image, and you’ll be doing great!

2) Panning

Panning is an old technique that we use to freeze the motion of a moving subject. It’s really simple. The camera is going to keep pace with the speed of the moving subject, and in doing so, as far as the camera is concerned, the subject is not moving. You can shoot at 1/20 while panning, and the subject will be sharp. Like holding the camera, you need to practice, practice, practice.

Using the proper camera-holding technique, follow the subject in your viewfinder by twisting at the waist. You don’t want to move the camera around to do this; you want to twist your entire trunk. This gives your camera a stable platform, and a smooth axis in which to turn. You can practice by photographing a dog chasing a ball. For aircraft, practice on cars driving by on the street. Practice at different shutter speeds to see how they affect the background blur, and to see just how good your panning is becoming.

3) Light is Essential!

Light is the very heart and soul of photography, and it’s how we bring romance to aircraft. Shooting in the early and late hours is the norm, but you’ll quickly find that aircraft most often are in the air during the noon hours. That’s just fine, because we can make that work in our favor. Unlike most photography, we use all three lighting patterns with aviation: front, side and back.

Use the light to tell only as much of the story as you need to. For example, planes have wings; however, you don’t need to have them all lit. Backlighting works if light is coming through the canopy where the pilot sits. It might seem out of place, but think of romantic landscape lighting when photographing aircraft and you’ll do just fine.

4) Giving Motion to Stills

This is essential, whether you’re photographing parked planes, or planes in flight. In our minds, planes are moving, flying through the air. In our photos, they are frozen in time no matter what the plane was doing when we went click. We need to give them motion, even though they're frozen in our stills. There are two easy ways to do this.

If the aircraft is parked, simply shoot from a low vantage point. Have a pair of knee pads (tarmacs are hard, and they get hot) and take a knee. Shooting up does two things: You see more of the underneath of the aircraft, and you take in more sky. That’s where the planes of our imaginations live. If a propeller plane is flying, go to Shutter Speed Priority, and use a speed less than 1/125. This will blur the prop, which gives it a sense of motion—even though it's a still image.

5) Clouds

Bald skies are lame, especially with aircraft! When we look up at planes in flight, we often see clouds behind them. When you watch a movie, airplanes are usually flying through clouds. That's where our hearts and imaginations place them. So clouds are a natural element that you want to incorporate whenever you can.

If you have lots of clouds, shoot wide, and don't worry that the plane might be smaller in the frame. If you have a small amount of clouds, shoot tight, and position yourself so you get in the background the few clouds that are available. If the plane is in flight, plan your panning to incorporate the clouds in the background. This is essential when shooting jets, because without a prop, you need clouds to give them a sense of motion in a still capture. If you’re really lucky, the clouds will be low, so as you pan, they blur in the background. Now you’re talking aviation photography!

6) Lenses

This is the easiest tip to write. You need just one lens to start. The Nikon 80-400 or Canon 100-400 will take care of 90% of your aviation photography needs. You’ll want a body that fires the fastest FPS you can afford, but when it comes to glass, one lens pretty much does it all. When you get hooked (and you will get hooked—be forewarned!), you will next want a wide lens, like an 18-35 or a 16-35. You don’t need a “fast lens,” since you’re often shooting f/11 to f/32, but you want the fastest autofocus operation that you can afford.

7) Start at Air Shows

Airshows are the perfect place to get started, for many reasons—the best one being that you get to know your subject. There are old and new, fast and slow, common and rare aircraft, and nearly every photographer ends up with their favorites. For example, I’m into Warbirds, which are considered WWII/Korea-era aircraft. But I have a fondness for biplanes. When you follow your passion, it shows in your photos, and that’s the best advice I can ever give you.

Air shows are also a great place to learn about the history of the aircraft, which is important. It's similar to what our teachers taught us about being a good writer: “If you want to write about a subject, you have to know it.” The same is true with aircraft. The better you know them, the better your photography will be.

8) Volunteer

Some of the best aviation photographers still volunteer their time. Be it at air shows, museums or a fly-in, volunteering incorporates everything I’ve already covered, with one important aspect added in: commitment. Many photographers have come before you, and some of them have damaged the goodwill out there by not following through. For example, they may have promised prints and never delivered them. Volunteering puts you in the right place at the right time, and that’s everything. When you just show up, pilots will sometimes offer to take you flying. You want to be there so you can say with a giant smile, "Yes!" Volunteer—you’re photography will thank you!

9) The Print

It’s really simple: A photo speaks volumes, and when you give a plane owner or pilot a print of them and their aircraft, the hangar doors fly open. Seriously, it’s that simple, and it’s that important. If you get really serious, getting a Epson 3880 might be the best investment you can make in your aviation photography.

10) It’s All About Relationships

This is the most important tip I can give you: Planes are all about people! The people that fly them, own them, and keep them running. These are the folks you want to build relationships with. You meet them at air shows, you meet them at airports, you meet them when you’re talking to someone else about aircraft. They are incredibly passionate about their skill and craft, and it’s something you want to tap into. Biologists have been the key to my success in wildlife photography, and pilots the key to my aviation success. You will find no better friends than pilots into whose hands you’ve put a print of their aircraft. Once you’ve done that, seriously, the sky's the limit!

Is there more to aviation photography than these ten tips? Absolutely! You can find more info in our Photographic FUNdamentals iBook and Taking Flight iBook. Both are available in iTunes under the Moose Press app. These tips will get you started in succeeding in aviation photography. The best group of shooters you’ll ever associate with are out there waiting to help you, and I guarantee you’ll have fun!


I got a job to take some images of airplanes near their hangars. What kind of camera and lighting would you recommend to make this possible. 

As far as which camera is recommended, I would say that would be personal preference.  I would recommend a camera that uses interchangeable lenses such as a DSLR camera or a mirrorless digital camera.  If you will be printing the images, then depending on the size of the images you wish to print, I would recommend a camera with high resolution, such as the Canon EOS R5 Mirrorless Camera, B&H # CAER5, the Sony a7R IVA Mirrorless Camera, B&H # SOA7R4A, the Nikon Z 7II Mirrorless Camera with FTZ Adapter Kit, B&H # NIZ72LAK, the Nikon D850 DSLR Camera (Body Only), B&H # NID850, and the Canon EOS 5DS R DSLR Camera (Body Only), B&H # CAE5DSR.  Medium format mirrorless digital cameras would also be good options.


What lighting would work for your usage needs would depend on the size of the airplane you will be illuminating.  I would recommend three (3) lights minimum; you may use one aimed at the rear/tail section of the plane, one aimed at the mid-section of the plane, and one aimed at the front of the plane.  Depending on the size of the plane, more lights may be warranted for more even coverage.  As you would be shooting on location, battery-powered monolights such as the Profoto B10X Plus OCF Flash Head, B&H # PRB10XPF, the Godox AD600Pro Witstro All-in-One Outdoor Flash, B&H # GOAD600PRO, the Impact Venture TTL-600 Battery-Powered Monolight, B&H # IMVETTL, the Godox AD400Pro Witstro All-in-One Outdoor Flash, B&H # GOAD400PRO, or the Westcott FJ400 400Ws Strobe with AC/DC Battery (US/No. America Plug), B&H # WEFJ400S.

I'm photographing avionics panels in private planes and looking for a lens for full frame Canon body.  Have an old 17-35 that is super sharp, but looking for even wider, without fisheye.  I looked at the 14mm, but it has the rounded lens face and that seems to make ghosting worse on the dash when I have to shoot the panel outside.  It would also be nice to have it not be 2K as I see there is a 10-22 for EF mount that are around $300.  I only use it for a few shots during a session. Thanks!

The Canon 10-22 is an EF-S mount lens and the last thing you want to do is stick an EF-S lens into an EF mount. If you're looking for an affordable wide lens, try one of the full frame (EF) primes. Or go with off brand ones from Sigma, Tamron or Tokina.

When going wider than 17mm, most wide angle lenses tend to have a convex front element. The Irix 11mm f/4 Firefly Lens for Canon EF, BH # IR11FFC is a lens to consider since it offers little distortion for something, while being very sharp and having minimal ghosting. If you can get past it being manual focus only, then it's an excellent option. 





Thank you for the information about the Irix 11mm lens.  I don't mind manual, but since I'm usually in very tight quarters with very little time, if you have any recommendations for wide angle auto focus lens, that would be great!

Hello Veronica,

You're welcome! In terms of an excellent wide angle lens with autofocus, the Sigma 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon EF,  BH # SI12244C would be one to consider. 






I am looking into buying a Canon T7i or Nikon D5600. I do not want to spend a lot of money on telephoto lens. Are there any suggestions for a telephoto lens for less than $600?

An affordable telephoto zoom for either Canon or Nikon in their respective mounts would be the Tamron 70-210mm f/4 Di VC USD Lens, B&H # TA70210N & B&H # TA70210C.


Both cameras would give you a crop factor, with the Canon giving you a 1.6X crop factor and the Nikon giving you a 1.5X crop factor.

Hello I have a canon 80d and a 400mm lens based up here in Alaska and want to really get into aviation photography and possibly get a job with the miliatary how would i do that? Should i talk with a recruiter?

How do I get propellers round and not look like they're still?

Hi Phil,

To get "prop blur" you have to lower your shutter speed. To get a minimally decent amount of movement, you'll want to shoot at least 1/125. The slower, the better, but it will take practice, because panning and shooting with that slow a shutter speed at 400 mm is going to introduce a lot of camera shake. Shoot with your high-burst rate on, and fire away as the aircraft gets near. With practice, you'll get a "keep rate" of about 10-20%. 

Also, shoot with your image stabilization off. It might sound counterintuitive, but you will have much better luck getting those tack-sharp images of prop blur when your lens isn't trying to float its glass steady.

If you have a really steady hand, you should have no problem, but if your hands aren't so steady (like mine), it's going to take a lot of practice. I was throwing away just about every single shot I took when I first started trying to get that nice full circle. It takes time, but the payoff, once you start seeing those nice, sharp images with prop blur, is worth the time and frustration getting there. 

Thanks for the useful tips - good reading.

I have aCanon 5D MkII with a 100-400mm lens and my biggest struggle is getting good exposure on the subject in flight - especially the undersides always too dark and lacking definition. This is with warbirds and jets alike. Any suggestions? thanks

Hey Simon,

The key is your metering mode. If you use spot metering, it will help you'll expose for the underside of those aircraft. Your camera is certainly fast enough to keep up with the action and adjust exposure. Or, you can manually expose on one pass and use those settings for the next.

Beware, however, the sky will get washed out to white. I personally prefer the silhouettes in these shots over a blank sky.

Check out my article here as well as all the awesome tips posted by other photographers in the comments following the article! https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/24-tips-how-photograph-air-shows

Thanks for stopping by!


I'm been considering upgrading my lenses from my kit lenses for air show photography, and was just wondering about lens choices. I currently run with a Canon Rebel T6i, and my longest lens is the 55-250mm STM lens.

I see as a Canon shooter, the Canon 100-400mm is recommended. But would you also recommend going for a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, plus a 2x teleconverter combo? I'm considering the new Tamron 70-200mm G2 as an option, and with the Tamron 2x teleconverter, I get the same amount of reach, and have a fast zoom to boot for other types of photography.

While you could use the 70-200mm with a 2x teleconverter with the T6i and a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens there will be some drawbacks. It will reduce the avialable light by 2-Stops, and provide much slower autofocus then then using a lens without the teleconverter. On a well lit day, the exposure issues would not be a huge setback, however if using this air shows where quick autofocus is a must, this will slow you down. I would recommend going with the Canon 100-400mm for this reason. 

Hi, ive been spotting for about 4 years and was thinking about purchasing a 150-600mm lens, I was wondering if you would have any exerience with the Sigma 150-600 vs the Tamron 150-600. Is there an obvious better choice?




It would be hard to go wrong with any of the 150-600mm lenses currently on the market.  That being said, I would likely lean towards one of the Tamron 150-600mm options.  The first generation 150-600mm is a solid performer, with fairly consistent center to edge sharpness throughout the entire focal range.  While the newest version of the lens, the G2, has improved vibration control, build quality, and a slightly enhanced optical design.  The G2 also adds compatibility with Tamron’s new teleconverters for extra reach. 

In another realm, there's commercial aircraft.  That's a whole different animal since, depending on the airport, you may be dealing with authorities who, justified or not, may not share your enthusiasm.  Their response, if any, can vary from airport to airport in the U.S., and from country to country, even in Europe.  On the downside, intrasigence won't get you anywhere and may have even legal repercussions.  In other cases, however, local photographers have worked very hard as a group to establish cordial relationships with the airports including the establishment of viewing areas.  I'd Google the term "spotters" and the particular airport in which you're interested.  You'll be amazed at the number of like-minded photogs you find from every walk of life who are willing to share their tips...and you'll probably make friends.

Relationships, as Sam said, are everything.  I'd add that those relationships - with airports and spotters - often take time.  But you'll inevitably learn more than you can imagine.  The worst thing you can do is lose your cool.  The aviation community is a tight one and word will get around pretty quickly if you're a hothead.





Thanks for reading and thanks for the comments, Dave!

Just to be clear, the article was written by Moose Peterson and posted by Sam...sorry for the confusion!

I am highly considering buying a 500mm telephoto lens in 2days ( I know not enough time to get short & understand replies ). I am asking those in the know as I have never used one before.😮 I will using it on a 450d & I am a VERY , VERY KEEN AIRSHOW ENTHUSIAST!!!  Will I be doing the right thing in buying this as I also have a 70 to 300 zoom lens aswell. 

Having the 500mm focal length will definitely be a great option for taking photos of the planes in the air.  Though, if you aren’t used to shooting primes, one of the super telephoto zoom lenses might be a better option than a 500mm prime lens.  If you would like recommendations on lenses, our have specific questions about lenses that you are looking at, I would suggest sending us an email.  [email protected]

I bought an Sigma 50-500 lens. Love it . It covers virtually all of my aviation photography needs. Attached to my D90 body .

I'm planning on doing my brother's senior shoot at a hangar, he's currently studying for his pilots license, so I thought it would be appropriate. I'm not shooting any aircraft in motion, so would a 24-105mm or 85mm lens be suitable for a senior-style shoot, with the planes as unique features, but not the main point?

Hi Gabriela -

I like the 24-105mm for it's flexibility when shooting from a fixed position and it would be better suited for shooting inside the hangar then an 85mm prime lens.   Depth of field would be more easily manipulated as well. The 85mm is a true "portait lens" and might not be the best choice in this situation, since the airplanes are co-starring in this shoot with your brother.

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  [email protected]

Will you be also using a decent flashgun & with a diffuser. & a 50/55mm lens for some really nice close-ups aswell. As I think 85mm is not ideal personally for that lovely close up without getting too close. You might be surprised at using a 85mm but, personally I don't think so. 

Had a few questions , will shutter speeds of 1/1000 or more still show prop blur ? Also lets say i'd want to keep the pics sharp of fast moving planes, cant we set the aperture to a high f - like f-13, keep the iso @ 400 and shoot with manual focus set to infinity ? This way id never have to focus any moving plane , especially in an air show. Will this give quality shots or is a poor substitute to AF Servo?

I would not shoot faster than 1/25 shutter, but you can shoot at 1/60 with a mono-stick or pllace one leg 6 inches or so further/back in front of the other, hold your breath and squeeze off the shutter slowly. I have found this works most of the time  to show prop movement, and this works for panng as well.  I have been a photographer since 1974. Good luck!

I have a new Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 on my D300. It is great for focal length, but you are saying to shoot a long lens at slow shutter speed?  How do you steady such a big lens, while moving, panning, zooming all to frame the scene, AND keep the image sharp and have propeller blur?


That is quite the question indeed... From what I've read, the Nikon 200-500 is in the neighborhood of 5 pounds. It is possible to shoot hand held, but you have to be very steady in your panning ability. I would practice panning with cars, or with dogs at a park for example. No matter what kind of image stabilization a lens has, it still boils down to how good the person is using it.

Especially when you are talking about prop driven aircraft, my friends, who shoot a lot of this stuff, tend to shoot in the neighbor hood of 1/60 to about 1/125 for lenses in the normal zoom range like 80-200. Some even shoot it as slow as 1/15-1/30, something that I myself find difficult to do. It takes practice not only in the motion of panning, but controlling your breathing and slowly pressing the shutter. But when you add in zooming as well, it makes it that more difficult.

I've shot my share of aircraft, mainly jets. My experience with prop planes has been more of the hit and or miss. I myself need to improve in that as well. I bought the first non-IS version of the Canon 400mm f2.8L in 1992, not too long after it came out. It weighs almost 13.5 pounds by itself and I've hand held it shooting the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds and other assorted jet aircraft. I don't do it as much anymore since I had complete reconstructive shoulder surgery, but I can still do it for short period of time. Mind you, jets are easier to pan than props, but the same principles apply. STEADY motion of panning, controlling one's breathing, not jamming the shutter, but most of all, it takes practice.

I don't have all the answers to your question, but as I noted, I do have experience shooting aircraft and I also shoot motorsports (NASCAR, NHRA and IndyCar). Believe me, it takes a lot of pracatice to be really good at it. I still have difficulty with panning too as do many of my friends. There is no magic spell for it, just practice.

Hope this helps you out.


Thanks! I photograph RC planes & Helis. This post helps a lot. I have a Nikon D3100 and an 80-200. I am able to use a tripod; often as a monopod. Do I need to make any moditications to your tips above?

I usually end up using sports mode for the shutter and then experiment with manual apperture and focus. Small aperture to flatten the image and focusing on and object hoping that Ive picked the correct distance. I then shoot a burst. I've experimented with where I stand. On the side centre of the runway where tracking is harder but the shots that do work out are cool; At one end where tracking is easier but focusing is like roulette. 

I'm very interested in learning Aviation Photography...