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Airplanes and helicopters are very cool, and an air show offers a collection of cool aircraft. And, if you are like me, you want to not only take a ton of photos at air shows, you will want to come away with a bunch of “keepers.”
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
Air shows are fun for everyone, and, if you just want to go to see cool aircraft on the ground and in the air, not too much planning is needed. The basics, for everyone: Bring a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and stay hydrated!
For the photographer, it pays to do some scouting, if possible. Depending on the air show, the performers will do a practice flight on Thursdays, during which the pilots get familiar with the airspace. Friday will be a dress rehearsal. Saturday and Sunday will be the actual shows. Depending on the venue, you may be able to preview the show by viewing the Thursday and Friday action. This allows you to become familiar with the performers and their routines. Take photos and take mental notes. It’s fun to be surprised by a jet team’s “sneak passes,” but it is even cooler to know it’s coming and have your camera pointed in the right direction!
Be it at a civilian airport or a military base, an air show is not the time you want to be hopping fences, testing security, or going around roped-off areas in the name of getting a great photograph. It is never cool to trespass, and doing it at an air show can endanger yourself, the performers, and get you in a lot of trouble.
The performances at an air show are incredible to watch, but be sure to enjoy all the aircraft on exhibit on the flight line. And photograph them! A snapshot of a parked “helo” or warbird might just be a snapshot, but try to study the light and the angles and look for creative and engaging photographs. Air shows are crowded. Don’t be afraid to include the crowd in your photos to help give the images a sense of place and activity.
The default best place to watch and photograph an air show is at show center, as close to the flight line as possible. The problem? Everyone else knows this! Sometimes you should pay to sit at show center and, often, it is a mass of people. In the crowd, you’ll likely be surrounded by tall people who love to feature their heads and hats in your photos. If you can shoot there, great, but know there are alternatives.
As you work toward either end of the flight line, the crowds will thin out and you will have more room to work. Also, positioning yourself in these areas can afford you unique views that are not seen at show center, because aircraft may be turning directly overhead before or following their passes down the flight line. Here is where some scouting during the practices may help.
Bleachers afford an elevated view of the action—a nice thing. However, you might be farther away from the action. It is a tradeoff. Scouting helps here, as well.
Air Show Insider Tip: If you are going to be in the bleachers, try to sit near the top. The air show’s main action happens over the flight line, but if you can see behind you, you will catch another show in the distance. For anyone who has flown formation flights in aircraft, one of the most challenging and dynamic maneuvers is the “breakup and rendezvous.” Aircraft break formation and then must rejoin the formation. This flying involves intense and dynamic maneuvers that are almost more difficult than what you see in front of you at an air show. It will likely be too far away to photograph, but sitting high in the bleachers can show you this behind-the-scenes action and piloting skill during respites between show center passes.
Clouds are your friends at air shows, as long as they are not low enough that they cancel the shows. Bald skies are nice, but boring for photos. Some show teams may perform their “low show” if the ceilings are too low. The “low show” is decidedly less exciting to watch, but it can be way better to photograph due to the backdrops and lighting, so embrace it!
Photography is all about the light. You can request that the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds fly during the “golden hour,” but that probably won’t happen. Air shows happen when the light is usually the worst, but if you can come early, or stay late, you might be able to get some great shots of the static aircraft on display.
You can use any kind of camera to take great air show pictures. But, when catching the action of jets streaking overhead at 500 miles per hour, the modern DSLR camera is going to give you your best chance of capturing a great image, due to its autofocus capabilities and speed. However, you can still make compelling images with a point-and-shoot or mirrorless camera.
You should get as close as you can to the action. Many times, the best photos are the ones in which the aircraft fill (or even overfill) the frame. You will want to bring the longest telephoto lens you feel comfortable carrying around all day long. I used to shoot air shows with zooms that went to 200mm and even used teleconverters, but then settled on a 300mm f/4 lens for the combination of focal length and portability. I haven’t looked back since.
On the ground, you will want a normal or wide-angle lens to capture aircraft up close. These lenses will also come in handy when and if you want to capture more dramatic wide shots of the sky being painted with smoke trails from the performers. These wide views can be a welcome and artistic change from the tighter action shots of the telephoto lens.
Air show action can be fast and furious. If you have the means, you might want to carry two bodies—one with your telephoto and one with the wider lens. You can switch cameras much faster than you can switch lenses and keep pace with the action. If you photograph air shows with one body, inevitably, your wide-angle lens will be on the camera when you need the telephoto, and vice versa.
Some folks recommend a monopod for the big telephotos at air shows. I tried a monopod once. Once. When shooting things all around me and straight up, the monopod was a huge hindrance. I don’t recommend it for air shows unless you are shooting a gigantic lens and know generally where you need it to be pointed. A gimbal head on a tripod might be a solution, but you limit your mobility with a heavy setup like this.
I had an early lens with image stabilization. “Eureka!” I thought. This was the key to perfectly sharp air show photos. Click, click, click, at an amazing air show in Virginia. I got home, excited to see the photos on the big screen. Almost all of them were blurry. The stabilization system could not keep up with my panning. I now turn IS/VR/OIS off when shooting air shows and have lost sleep over those photos. The systems have improved dramatically since then, but I learned my lesson and won’t go back to using it.
In general, I shoot raw. At an air show, during the performances, I take a lot of photos. Therefore, I shoot JPEG so that I can get the largest number of images on each card and help the camera to avoid buffering issues if I ask it to save too much data at once after a long burst of images.
There are few things worse for the air show photographer than having your head down, trying to delete images from a card so that you can take more photos while you miss aircraft fly overhead. Bring lots of memory cards. And then bring more.
If you have a non-photographing partner, they can help you time your shots and help spot the action. When Blue Angels solos were flying in opposition, my brother would give me a countdown to their pass at show center. I could pan with one airplane and start shooting as they got near. Also, it is fun to look at your LCD and say, “Nailed it!” and high-five someone.
It’s difficult to keep pace with autofocus technology these days but, unless you are determined to put all of the aircraft on Rule of Thirds lines, it’s best to use the center autofocus point (or points) and use continuous autofocus.
I generally shoot in center-weighted metering mode unless I want a specific look to a shot. With a bright sky and relatively darker aircraft, you can run the risk of washing out the sky or silhouetting the planes as the camera tries to balance between large bright areas and small dark ones. Check your shots as you shoot, and adjust as needed.
Continuous high, friend. Air shows are as action-packed as action gets. Release the shutter and let the camera click-click-click-click until the action ends. Check your shots. Rinse. Repeat.
In general, when aircraft are overhead, you want the highest shutter speed possible (caveat in the next section). You might think that demands using Shutter Priority mode and dialing-in a fast shutter speed. That can work, but what I do is set my camera to Aperture Priority mode at f/4 to f/8 (depending on how bright it is). This way, the camera will always give me the fastest shutter speed possible for a given aperture and this is very helpful as you pan across a sky where the brightness changes. This also is the range where most lenses give peak performance, as far as optical quality and sharpness.
As I just mentioned, you’ll likely want to shoot with the fastest shutter speed available for the ambient light levels and the aperture you are choosing. The caveat is when it comes to rotorcraft and propeller-driven aircraft. If you shoot them at very high shutter speeds, you will freeze the rotors and propellers and it will appear that you are photographing a detailed plastic model floating in midair. Try shutter speeds of 1/125 or slower, to ensure you get some dynamic blur of the spinning parts!
Last, but not least, don’t forget to just watch and enjoy the air show. Seeing the performances through your eyes and not your viewfinder is an awesome experience. If you can go on multiple days, you might want to leave the camera behind for one day so that you can just relax and enjoy the spectacle.
What other air show tips do you have that you can share with your fellow B&H Explora readers? Tell us in the Comments section, below!