24 Tips on How to Photograph Air Shows


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

A USAF Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle in afterburner

1. Planning

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!

A United Airlines Boeing 747-400 makes a high-speed pass over the Golden Gate Bridge.

2. Scouting

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!

The US Navy Blue Angels

3. No Trespassing

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.

Air shows can be all about details.

4. Take it All in

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.

Here come the Marines! Here comes Fat Albert! There goes Alcatraz Island!

5. Location: Show Center

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.

A US Navy Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet approaches supersonic speeds.

6. Location: The Ends

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.

The US Navy SEAL Leapfrog parachute team member

7. Location: Bleachers

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.

The US Navy Blue Angels were forced into their “low show.” But here, the clouds and overall texture of the sky make for a dramatic effect.

8. Weather

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!

Who put that monolight there?

9. Light

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.

USAF Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle turns hard.

10. Camera

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.

A clean US Navy Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet

11. Long Lens

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.

A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 Fagot

12. Wide Lens

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.

Don’t forget the helicopters... or cool helo pilots!

13. Two Bodies

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.

The Canadian Snowbirds in a loop

14. Ditch the Monopod

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.

Yankin’ and bankin’

15. Image Stabilization

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.

Not your everyday air show guest

16. Raw versus JPEG

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.

Escape from Alcatraz... to Canada!

17. Memory

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.

Diamond formation

18. Spotter

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.

Why am I suddenly wanting frozen pizza?

19. Camera Settings: Autofocus

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.

Ready... break!

20. Camera Settings: Metering

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.

“He’s coming right at us!” – Controller Steve McCroskey, in Airplane!

21. Camera Settings: Motor Drive

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.

Turnin’ and burnin’

22. Camera Settings: Shooting/Exposure Mode

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.

Don’t forget the helo pilots.

23. Camera Settings: Shutter Speed

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!

Pulling Gs

24. Enjoy the Show

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.

Air shows are beautiful.

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!


Thank you for the tips! I wish O had read the article before heading off to an air show recently. I will keep my notes for next year's air show. 

We're glad you found the tips useful but sorry you didn't find them in time for the air show you attended. There's always next time, though! Thanks for taking the time to post your comments, and do enjoy that next air show, to which you will arrive equipped!

Well, you coud try your back and front yards. The Huntington Beach air show is over the water and the seating is on the beach. Lucky for me the approach and exit routes are litterally over my house and neighborhood. The sound and sights at the speed and altitude of the Bluue Angels is wow, and wower. I jus twish I could get a good capture.

Hey Mike,

When I lived near Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, I got a front-row seat to some of the air show. Unfortunately, the condo canyon I lived in didn't allow for extended viewing of each pass!

Thanks for reading!

I would add:  23A, Check your ISO settings.

When I am shooting in good light with 1/1000, I use ISO 250 or 400, depending. But if I drop the shutter to 1/250 sec to blur a propeller, I shift ISO to 100 or even lower. Otherwise, the lens will stopt down too much.

If the jet is backlit or it is cloudy or it is very late in the day, I go up in speed. It may be just me, but I find I prefer slightly noisy images to blurred ones.


Good tips, David! Noise vs. blur...the age-old debate!

Thanks and thanks for reading! Sorry for the delay...we were on break!

Excellent article and comments.  I'll add a couple of thoughts.

I've been shooting air shows for a long time, and found that it is easy to get involved shooting the action in front of you and ignore many other possible shots, so pay attention to everything around you.  Numerous commenters have said this but it helps to remind yourself to keep asking what else is going on.  (Watch for the Blue Angels over the SF city skyline as they're turning, while everyone around you is still watching the sky over the bay.)

Rainy weather can shut down a flying performance, but wet static displays can provide some really good shots, especially if the crews are with their planes.  It also gives you the opportunity to get to know the people behind the machines.  Some of them have great stories.

In 1966 I was a young Army paratrooper and was in an airshow jumping out of a C-123.  Top Sgt was a great guy and allowed me to lead the stick out the left door, which was facing the crowd.  Being young and dumb I did not have a "jumpable" camera with me. The Air Force had three (!) loadmasters on board.  After takeoff they lowered the ramp slightly and two of them layed on the ramp, one with an 8mm movie cam and the other with a  35mm rangefinder cam.  The third stood at the cockpit bulkhead taking shots of us going out the doors.  An Assoc Press picture, shot from the ground, of us jumping was in the local papers, but the AFBase paper had a lot of good pics from inside the plane.  Some of those prints were sent to our HQ to be distributed to the troops.  Later, (on GI pay) I acquired a series of small, inexpensive used cameras to take in the air with me and got some memorable shots - troopers in the air, action shots in the air and on the ground, technically not great but not bad either, but not possible any other way.  The handiest was a Kodak 126, with a spring driven motor, in a hard case, but I also used small older 35mm cams.  Used, small, and cheap is especially good when you're grunting through the mud or carrying an M-60 and ammo.

So the lessons learned are:  1. always maintain situational awareness, especially in the air or around equipment.  You'll be safer and possibly get pictures you otherwise wouldn't have seen.  2. Be nice to everyone - you can help each other out and have far more good experiences.  3. If you're just starting out, don't obsess about equipment; do the best you can with what you have and can afford.  You'll like your good shots and learn from your not-so-good ones.  50 years from now the memory will be what is important, not your prized lens.  4. If you're up in the air on a fun ride, or hanging out the door of the tourist chopper, or hanging on to anything while trying to get that perfect shot, keep your equipment secured with at least one good strap, preferably more.  Dropped photo gear can be dangerous - and expensive.

I did acquire much better cameras and lenses later, but now I'm 73 and don't want to carry a lot of gear around anymore.  At airshows I used to use two Nikon FE2s (lightweight) w/one motordrive, 28-85, 80-200, & 50/1.4 and a lot of Kodachrome and Tri-X.  Now I keep it light - I use one body, either d90 or d5300, 18-140 & 70-300, and a small soft case for the unattached lens, batteries, SD cards, & water bottle.  I shoot jpeg to minimize computer time because time at a computer is no fun.  So lesson 5: Have fun, enjoy the show, and don't forget a floppy hat with a brim.

Hi George!

Thank you for your service, Sir!

All great tips...even though it comes from an Army guy! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience!


I failed to point out that during the jump I described the ramp was the rear cargo ramp.  The two AF personnel at that lowered ramp were taking pics and movies shooting out the BACK of the plane, at us after we had exited and while our chutes were opening.  An unusual position (back then) that necessitated properly securing equipment, and why I put in tip #4 - for the guys lucky enough to be shooting from any kind of vehicle - especially in the air in any kind of aircraft.

As far as thanks for my service, none is needed. It was an honor to have been able to serve. I prefer military air shows to civilian shows because of that - that's the next generation highlighting their part of combined arms.  Despite different eras, we have a lot in common.

(And Hueys, Snakes, and Little Birds are still "choppers" to us old timers.)

Ha! Thanks for clarifying, George!

Choppers? Its way cooler to call them "helos" like those of us who wear gold wings! :)

One important tip that I have not yet noticed in the comments is the need to make an extra effort to support an especially long and heavy lens when hand-holding shots (the only way I ever shoot air shows). This is even more important when using a long lens plus a teleconverter. Despite being careful,following aircraft as they quickly pass overhead puts extra force from momentum on long lenses. This can cause minor flexing at the lens mount which, in turn, can lead to sudden "communication errors" and an inability to autofocus. If this happens, partially remove the battery or release the lens, and then reattach. That should reset the camera's electronics. Turning off the power switch does not work, at least in my experience. Note that this flexing under force can eventually lead to a bent lens mount, which will not be covered under warranty.

Thanks, Jan! I personally have never experienced that. What lens/body combination(s) have you seen this happen with? I ask because no one around these parts has heard of this issue.

Thanks for mentioning it and thanks for reading Explora!


I have experienced this with my Nikon D4S and also my Nikon D5, while shooting with the Tamron 150-600mm G1 (D4S) and the Tamron 150-600mm G2 + 1.4x teleconverter (D5). I will be using both cameras this weekend to shoot the NASCAR races at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana (assuming that it does not rain, of course).

ccording to Nikon national service, where I took both cameras for service, they have occasionally seen these happen with their own lenses too. Really Right Stuff makes a $400 bracket which ties the lens and the camera together, but I think that using it would make it difficult, if not impossible, to carry the camera using my Cotton Carrier. Since I typically carry two heavy camera bodies and lens combinations, plus a heavy backpack, for hours at a time when I am covering events, I am not inclined to forego using my Cotton Carrier, which I really like (no strain on my neck or shoulders, and the camera bodies are held securely). Instead, I will just redouble my efforts to support the lenses while I shoot.

Thanks, Jan! That is surprising to hear, but I am glad you took the time to comment for the benefit of our other readers!

Yes, poor NASCAR drivers and their inability to drive in the rain! Scary! :) 

Good luck shooting and thanks again for stopping by!

I tend to spray and pray, as many air show photographers do. As a result, I shoot RAW all the time. Generally, I'm processing one or two images from a series made during a pass; the rest aren't peak of action, so discarded. At 1,500 images a show, who can afford the time to process all of them? Shoot RAW and keep only the best.

Second, either select all the images made under the same lighting conditions and autosync the common processing changes - white balance, white point, black point, etc., - and then fine tune only a handful. Another option would be to process one image, make a preset, and apply the preset to many images at once.

Shooting RAW doesn't need to mean spending more time at your computer than at the airshow! 

Hey Kevin,

Looks like the raw crowd is drowning me out a bit! Lucky all you with fast computers and cameras! If you had my laptop, you might switch to the 2.4MP D1 and start to enjoy life again!

Thanks for reading! Great shots!

I think that photographer, Jeff Cable, found out with the Canon 5D III found out that it buffers faster to the CF if the SD card is removed. If an SD card is in the camera, the buffering rate defaults to the speed of the SD card. I'm skipping the Blue Angels performance at Beaufort MCAS to concentrate my resourses on the Great American Eclipse happening over my backyard; besides the Blue Angels will perform in 2019 either at Beaufort or Charleston. The Thunderbirds should perform at Shaw AFB in 2018.

But Jeff is a Lexar Ambassador.

PS: My approach would be to have the CF card in my pocket and shoot using the SD card for performers other than the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds. Prior to  he start of the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds, I'd remove the SD card and put in the CF card; like I did when I put a new roll of film in prior to the Thunderbirds performance.

I'll be shooting at the MCAS Beaufort show this weekend, can't wait!!! 

Always bring a hat and sunscreen ! I've learned the hard way ! And make sure you put sunscreen on your hands, ears and back of neck. 

Many of us have, jon! That is why it is in tip #1! :)

Thanks for stopping by!

I'd modify a couple of those.

#15 A lens with a competent and moder IS system should have a panning mode. That does make a difference. I shot the Planes of Fame airshow two different years, same body both times, once with a cheap Tamron 18-270 with a very basic IS system, then with a Canon L Series 70-300. I used stabilization both times. The second year's shots were much sharper and the only difference was the lens. 

#16 & #17. On a 20MP camera, you can get 300 RAW files per 8GB, so a 32GB card could easily hold 1200 shots. Don't shot JPEG; bring bigger cards. They're cheap.

#20. When I'm shooting anything action related and I can be confident that the lighting conditions will be consistent throughout the event (middle of the day, the sun isn't ducking in and out of clouds), I usually dial in the exposure before the main action starts and shoot on manual.

Hey Paul.

Modifications welcome!

#15...I cant find anyone to give me an answer...I switch from portrait to landscape format a lot when I shoot air shows. I know the VR on the lens I used to own wouldn't accommodate panning in both axes. Are people finding new VR/IS systems allow this?

#16/17...I partially agree. The one drawback of raw, even if your camera can handle it, is the added post-processing time. I recommend everyone weigh the pros and cons and make their own choice.

#20...Great tip!

Thanks for reading, Paul!

Two things.

If there are going to be military jets, ear plugs are more than a suggestion. Some of the surprise passes are ear damaging loud, and disrupt your concentration. F/A-18s are probably the worst, but a Harrier hovering in front of you comes close. They like to show off the F-16's ability to go straight up, pointing the exhaust right at your ears. My other thought is about the props. I don't get a nice disk at more than 1/60th. Also, for best results, shoot the plane flying toward the sun and you between them. That helps really show the disk. Choppers are a little easier when they're hovering, but the rotational speed is a lot slower, so you really have to drag the shutter. And, of course, get ready for some heavy editing!

Hey Mike!

Another good plug for ear plugs!

One thing...they are helos...not choppers. Unless you are in the Army. :)

You are 100% correct on editing! Ugh. Thanks for the reality check!

Good advice--all of it. To your equipment list, I always take earplugs in case a Harrier lifts off--some of the aircraft can be quite loud and if you do a lot of air shows....nuf said. Some air shows, such as the annual EAA event have tall stands for photographers to get above the crowds, but they are some distance from the flightline. Sometimes a good spot is where the aircraft rotate (lift off) on the runway. If the show runs more than a day--go as much as possible as lighting and position can change. Hand held equipment with stabilization has worked well for me.

Hello J. Gary,

Thanks for the ear plug plug! Good idea!

Great tips!

Thanks for stopping by!

I have always enjoyed airshows and, when I used to bea ble to afford it, flew myself in SEL magic carpets.  On my FB page are some exmples of what I've taken since I started using a digital camera, one, Oshkosh (going off end an since '97) has been great for me.  Two from the same show, OSH '11 have gotten first place in AvWeb and EAA and another from OSH '15 was my first and only published shot.  This year I will be trying my first 'pro' glass, renting a Sony 70-400 G2.  I agree with the slower shutter speed on prop planes.  I have more shots than I can count of prop planes looking like they were going in for a dead stick landing!  The warbirds need from 1/125-200 and the high power Red Bull type can go a bit faster.  I would love to be able to get a job for a media company doing airshow pics, but there's probably too much competition and it seems like everyone gets the same shots at a major event.  Small community airshows are nice too...not too crowded but still plenty to see.  https://www.facebook.com/gary.austen/photos_albums

Hey Gary,

The way to tell if the prop plane (if it is not a classic wooden prop, in most cases) is dead sticking is to see if the prop is feathered. The only way to do that is to freeze the action!

Thanks for sharing the link and stopping by!

Lots of great suggestions here.  I don't have much to add other than a link to my air show photo website.  My website also includes a complete list of North American air shows.  http://www.aero-pix.com/

Thanks for sharing the link, David! Great pics!

1. Use medium to high end cameras with at least 3 fps. Shoot raw mode or raw+jpg. Try to use pro glass lenses especially on the telephoto shots. I recommend a wide angle zoom for artsy shots, normal range, and telephoto or zoom for the action to at least 300mm. You don't need the fast 2.8 glass most times so you can get a mid-priced pro-level lens. The Canon 100-400 L lens is a good example.

2. Pick different locations. Center stage is where most action is but it is also cluttered with planes that may interfere in low level fly bys and taxi shots. Usually the ends are better and support cleaner shots. I photographed some airshows from outside where the sun angle was much better than inside. Look at all the possibilities. Corners at the spectator areas are usually nicer especially with teams.

3. Go to an airshow where the sunlight is behind you. For example - on north-south runways, make sure that the spectator area is on the west side. Silhouettes are often nice but if you have a show with sun in front of you, especially with dark planes like the Blue Angles, it will be very poor. It will be way too backlit.

4. Make friends with aviation people. Volunteer with the airshow or do extra shots for some of the teams or owners. This may get you access to the practice show. The practice shows are nice in that you can get many of the planes that will not fly, entering the airport and before they cover them up and put cones around them. There is also less people and you can move around to different places. Note - this is not open to all. The way to get in is to know someone, a plane team, airport people, or to write for a publication or blog. In other words, media credentials or get escorts. Knowing someone ahead of time is important. You will not be allowed into the practice show with the regular show tickets.

5. Try reserving front line seats or locations like photographers areas or special areas. You will have more room and possible amenities. Again, only if the sun is behind you. It may come at a cost, but sometimes it is well worth it. Some airshows do not know photography and have "professional photo pits" for a cost but they are in the wrong angle for shooting. If you will do all the show days, stay until the very last minute possible on the last day to possibly capture some departing planes, which at times were static planes not flown in the show.

6. Bring business cards. If you talk to owners or teams, hand them out. Perhaps you can meet them at a later date in their home airport and they can position planes for you for additional shoots. In an airshow there will be hundreds more professional and top amateur shooters there. These airhshow shots will NOT be exclusive to you only - but you can always set up a plane or helicopter at their home airport your way in good light without anyone else there so this is why you may want to make contacts with owners and teams and visit them off-show.

7. Practice shutter speeds especially for props and rotors. Use low speeds like 1/60 or lower for these. You can go much higher for jets. It is always silly looking when rotors of helicopters or props are frozen. Practice panning. If planes are going to do high speed low passes, I pre-focus on an area in front of me where they will pass - with about 30 degrees on each side. Then I just worry about the shutter and not the focusing. For example, a P-51 Mustang will do a low flyby over the runway. I will focus on that runway in front of me and slightly to the sides and shoot only in that area. This is also good for takeoffs and landings. Avoid taking shots of planes at a distance because 1. they will be too small 2. they will have heat haze, and 3. you produce unecessary shutter cycles on your cameras.

8. Always shoot like if you are using film. Practice on setting up your shot and trying to fill the frames. Don't get lazy and shoot tiny. Imagine - people buy higher resoluton cameras but then they shoot tiny - so what is the use of getting those cameras when you will not use its full potential.

9. If it is cloudy etc you can still shoot - just practice photoshop by using the raw editor, HDR generator, or simply doing some black and white images which they can still be interesting. Don't overdo the HDR though. Try to keep it natural. Use it oly to bring out better highlights on clouds etc and plane. You can do that on Photoshop's raw editor.

10. Have fun and enjoy the show - that is the important thing!


Hey Joe!

Thanks for all the tips!

Great stuff!

All excellent suggestions.  I've been shooting the local air show for four years now and gotten some very pleasing shots.  We've had the Thunderbirds and the Canadian Snowbirds as well.  2018 we get the Blue Angels.  I have a question for you or anyone in the discussion.  I can get my timing right on the planes meeting for a high speed pass but I cannot get both planes in focus. One will be great and the other fuzzy.  Some of it might be that one is near and the other rolls to the back but I think there is more to it than that. Anyone have any suggestions?

Knots, David...knots! Great shot!

Hey Eddie,

David is correct. You are likely panning with one and then shooting as they pass. The relative speed (to your camera) of one plane is zero and the other one is somewhere around 300 knots. Anything moving that fast at a close distance will likely be blurred. It is not a depth of field issue.

Someday in the not too distant future, someone with a big lens (f/2.8 or bigger) and an electronic shutter at insanity speed and noiseless high ISO will get a relatively sharp image of both planes. Let's just hope they have a global electronic shutter instead of a rolling one! You heard it here first!

For us mortals with "average" lenses...the only thing you can do is crank the shutter speed to the maximum and try to reduce the blur as much as possible.

Thanks for reading!

I have the same results, but I think that it helps to show motion. It is easy to slow down the shutter speen to show action with a prop plane. The second blurred plane helps to give the image some needed action. 

Cheers, Greg

The Photo Guy

Great, useful comments from everyone!  Here's a few tips I've picked up.  I'm a portrait photographer but photographing airshows is a real thrill that I do occasionally.

If you can find an airshow with the "Tora, Tora, Tora" performance (a re-enactment of Pearl Harbor) it will take your breath away just to watch it let alone photograph it.  In San Antonio in early November they usually have the show every 2 years and they perform there but I think they tour nationally.  As the Japanese "Zero" planes dive bomb on the ground crews detonate fire balls to simulate actual bombs.  You will see large flames and the sky will fill with smoke.  I can guarantee you have never seen anything like this in your life!  A 200mm zoom is good for that show as you will want to photograph the squadron and the action and not necessarily individual planes.

Try the unusual.  Most people are photographing the planes in flight.  Try instead other things like photograph the flags, the cartoons on the fuselage of pinup gals and creatures, closeups of the well-worn handles and faded guages, photograph from unusal angles where nobody else is. Lay on the ground, move closeup to the planes, try a super-wide, bring out those old special effect filters you haven't used in years.  I'm a believer in filters even in the present day of photoshop.  Why? Because when you put a filter on a camera it affects HOW YOU PHOTOGRAPH because it influences your perception of the subject.  You will likely perceive your subject in a different way than if you shoot straight for everything.   It will be a fun day to shoot and build memories!

If you don't have pro equipment you can still get great images.  At my first airshow in early 2000s I was using the original Canon Rebel 6MP with a Sigma 28-200mm lens at ISO 200 or ISO 400 in aperture priority mode.  Those super zooms can produce excellent results if locked in at f/11 which is the "sweet-spot" for them.  If you're going to use a consumer camera and shoot JPG, set the camera to boost saturation before you start shooting.  Most everything you shoot will need to be at +1 exposure comensation because the bright sky will underexpose the planes if you don't do that.  Shoot at different exposure comensations. Remember you can correct for underexposure much more than overexposure but plan to do most of the shooting at +1.

I photograph at the annual shows in San Antonio. Often it is blue sky so check your sensor for dust BEFORE you go to the show. Otherwise you can easily remove it in Lightroom/Bridge. 

A polarizer is a good filter to have on hand but you can acheive similar results by selectively saturating the blue sky in Bridge/Lightroom.

The airshow is the place that you will want a lens shade.  I rarely use one but at an airshow they are a must.

I have been shooting RAW since late 2000s.  Yes you can't fire off as many photos but the contrast extremes between the shadow side of the plane and the brightly lit clouds neccesitate RAW.  I watch the planes and the light. If I'm shooting the underside (in shadow) I bump the exposure +2 f/stops.  I find that I get the best results in general by using RAW at ISO 200, very high shutter speed for jets, boost saturation, and I increase the contrast everywhere except the planes themselves using a local adjustment brush in bridge or lightroom.  Smoke trails are much more dramatic if you boost the contrast.

Another reason to shoot RAW, years from now software will be even better and I have been able to take phots from a decade ago (when I first strated using RAW) and make the photos even better today than the day they were photographed because of software improvements. I have revisted my old photos and applied modern enhancements from plugins like Topaz that didn't exist in the late 2000s and made new creations out of them.

Realize these jets are moving VERY FAST and there is a camera lag between pushing the button and taking the photo. Start tracking the jets several seconds before they reach the desired point and get a focus lock (or just turn the autofocus off and set to infinity as depth of field should be more than adequate).

Last, enjoy the show, learn the history, feel the patriotism and remember the sacrifices and accomplishments of past generations who fought valiantly and sacrificed to keep our country (and the world) safe from tyranny. 

Frank Portell



Hey Frank,

Superb tips! Thank you!

You make some excellent points about lens hoods, shooting raw, and sensor dust!

The "unusual"....the details....great stuff! I 1000% agree!

Thanks for stopping by!

Oh man! The 'Torah Torah Torah' is amazing! I've been going to air shows my entire life and I love that part.

In addition to the "Tora, Tora, Tora" flight demo, the A-10 tank busting attack, and the Viet-Nam downed pilot rescue offer a very thrilling low level show.

Get your spot on the flight light early--whether it is on the edge on in the center.  You'll want to be as close to the rope as you can get.  Plan B: grab shade under a wide body aircraft's wing and shoot from afar.  Both locations fill quickly.  Bring friends and take turns making food/drink/restroom runs.

Nice Article Todd. Very useful tips. Always good to know how other fellow shooters, it helps to check your own mehods and try new things. I just shot my first show of the season last Saturday, at Titusville. Always a blast!

You made me curious about the VR... I might try to turn it off next time and see how it goes!

Some of my shots here: cubaneight.net 

Great shots, Luis!

Thanks for sharing!

It seems that some people are liking VR and others do not. Verdict is still out on this and polarizers based on the comments below!

The high shutter speeds you are using to capture air shows negate the need for IS. If you're tracking, you would never use it anyway! Also after shooting a few airshows I suggest the use of a polarizing filter which can take nasty reflections off the plane and darken the (blue) sky behind it.

Hey Matthew,

The polarizer seems to be a bit polarizing amongst the air show photography crowd. I will record you as a vote for the polarizer. I personally like the extra light, but I can see the benefits of the sky darkening!

Thanks for stopping by!

Todd, Great tips and images.  Shot last air show in New York in September 2016 with Canon 1dx w/ 300 2.8 ex 1.4 and Mark IV with 70 - 200.  After reading your article I went back to see which rig I used more.  Much to my surprise it was about 50/50.  Will be shooting New York Air Show in July and I plan use the same 1dx rig but I will try the using a 5DS R with the 70 - 200 and some wide angle shot with it too.  Here are some samples from September.   Criticism ALWAYS welcome.  http://www.sandytambone.com/New-York-AirShow-2016/

Hey Sandy,

You, too, have the gear angle covered!

Thanks for sharing your link and the great shots! No critique needed! 

Just remember, the Blue Angels are better! :)


You are too kind.  The July show features the Blue Angels.  Photographed them in Melbourne, Fl in 2015.  Hard lighting there shooting against light to the south.  New York show shooting to the north.  I hope to get decent images of your "Better" Blue Angels.  Maybe see you there. 

Hey Sandy,

No worries!

I actually looked up their schedule a bit ago and saw that they were going to be "local." I may make it, but am usually in Rhode Island on the weekends! We shall see!

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