In the early days of the Hyphen, @jminer suggested I write up something about aviation photography for the new site. I've had some ideas kicking around in my head for a long time, and I finally sat down and put pen to paper.
Most of what I talk about deals with Canon cameras and Tamron lenses, simply because that's what I shoot with. This is by no means an endorsement for those companies, nor is it a knock against others. I know we have some very accomplished photographers on Oppo, plus others who have more limited knowledge and might be interested in becoming active in our hobby. As such, I have strived to find a tone that is informative without being abstruse or technical. If you're already familiar with shutter speeds and ISOs and apertures, feel free to skip that bit. You won't hurt my feelings. However, I'd love it if you find anything wrong with what I wrote!
I am crazy about airplanes. I’m not certain how it all started, but I think that much of my fascination stems from traveling between my divorced parents in the mid-70s. My brother and I flew unaccompanied, and our destination was usually Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, which at the time was the busiest airport in the world. The cockpit tours (we once got to throttle up the engines on a 727 when it pushed back from the gate), the din of jet engines, the crowds, the smells, the giant aircraft, the general hustle and bustle, and the nervous excitement of flying without parents, were all intoxicating to me, and I have carried those feelings with me my entire life. When my oldest son started showing an interest in airplanes, he and I spent many hours surfing through the photos at Airliners.net. And when I got my first DSLR, a used Canon 20D, I knew that aviation photography would be my next pursuit.
British Airways 747-400 landing at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2015 (Tim Shaffer)
Armed with my new-to-me Canon 20D, and the Tamron 17-50mm lens I got with it, I headed out to the airport. It was then that I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. At its most extended, the 50mm of the lens was simply no good for photographing airplanes a couple hundred yards away, even as big as they are. So the first lesson I learned was that I needed a longer lens, preferably something with about four times the reach of that 50mm. So I got a Tamron 18-270mm, a so-called super zoom. A lens with such a wide zoom range is great for what's called a “walk around” lens. It gives you both close up capabilities and very long reach in a single small package. But what you gain in flexibility you lose in speed and image quality.
The Tamron super zoom at 18mm and at its, er, full extension of 270mm (Tim Shaffer)
When we talk about speed, we are talking about the aperture of the lens, or the size of opening that the light comes through. The aperture is indicated by the letter f, also called lens’s f stop. Perhaps counterintuitively, a low number like f/2.8 or f/1.4 means a very wide opening, and this lens is said to be fast. A fast lens lets in lots of light, and allows you to use much faster shutter speeds. Lower f numbers also give you that lovely blurred background behind the subject, called bokeh. Higher numbers, or smaller aperture openings, let in less light, and require slower shutter speeds. These lenses are said to be slow, but that's not always a bad thing. Smaller apertures can help with sharper photos. Think about what happens when you squint. You are closing down the amount of light entering your eyes, but you are also able to see more sharply at a distance.
Vignetting is not always a bad thing. I took this photo of an F-86 pilot with my older 18-270mm lens on a very cloudy day when the lens really struggled in the poor light. However, I believe the vignetting helped turn this into one of my favorite photos. In fact, you can add vignetting in post processing. (Tim Shaffer)
All of this is to say that, if you get a super zoom lens, speed can be a limiting factor at its fullest extension. On my 18-270, the fastest I can get the lens at 270mm is f/6.5. And while that might not be bad for shooting outside on a bright sunny day, it can be a real problem if you are trying to shoot a sporting event or an airshow on a cloudy day with poor light. There are also other issues to deal with, such as a general lack of sharpness over higher quality lenses, and something called vignetting, which is when the edges of a photograph are slightly darker. That can usually be removed (or added) with photo processing software.
My current long-distance rig, a Canon EOS 7D with Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 zoom. It looks a lot more impressive with that big lens hood. (Tim Shaffer)
Ideally, if you want to get serious about aviation photography, you will need a lens that is long and fast. And this is where you can begin to throw down some serious money. I ended up with a Tamron 70-200mm zoom that maintains a wide open setting of f/2.8 throughout its zoom range. That means no matter what focal length I use, I can still dial it open to f/2.8. Now, would I shoot an airshow or at the airport at f/2.8? Generally not, though I spoke with a sports photographer who said he shoots everything at f/2.8. But if you’re going to plunk down $1,500-$2,000 on a lens, you want it to be useful in more than one setting, especially if you’re not getting paid for your photos. An f/2.8 70-200 is great outdoors at long range, and in most conditions, but it also makes a dynamite portrait lens.
Crop factor explained, sort of (KymFarnik)
Time for a brief side trip into something known as the crop factor. Thousands of words have been written about this, so I will write as few as possible. In order to make cameras more affordable, camera manufacturers use a smaller sensor than the one found on a full frame camera to capture the image. Some lenses are made specifically for a crop sensor, and the focal length of that lens (50mm, etc.) is what the lens says it is. However, you can usually put a full frame lens on a crop sensor body (though not the other way around). If you do, the smaller sensor effectively (not actually) makes the lens longer by a factor of about 1.6 for Canon and 1.5 for Nikon, or as much as 2 for a mirrorless camera. That means that a 200mm lens on a Canon crop sensor body (called APS-C) has an effective range of 320mm (200 x 1.6). That also means that the 70mm end of the scale becomes effectively 112mm, which is a lot if you're trying to shoot something close up. For our purposes, using a full frame long lens on a crop body can give you more bang for your buck when taking long shots at airports and airshows. The downside is a slight loss in pixels (quality), and a difficulty using the lens for anything closer to you.
Location, Location, Location
So now that you’ve got your gear, it’s time to go shooting. But where is the best spot? Like the real estate business, location is everything. Some of the greatest aviation shots you’ll ever see are taken from next to a runway, out the door of a helicopter, or on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Obviously, we don’t have access to places like these. So where can we go to get great shots?
The view from Founder’s Plaza at DFW (Kevin M via Yelp)
Many airports have dedicated observation locations, and some of them are in really good spots. I've taken many photos at Founder’s Plaza at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. It is situated on a hill on the northwest corner of the airport near runways 18L and 16R. It gives a great view of airplanes (mostly American Airlines, it must be said) landing from the north, or taking off if the winds have changed. These locations are also gathering spots for photographers, and it's a great opportunity to talk shop and talk airplanes. You can also get great information from these folks, such as good photography locations that they have used in the past. I got a fantastic shot of an Airbus A340, the only one I've ever photographed, because a spotter at DFW told me about a road on the other side of the airport.
Air China Boeing 777 flying over the iconic In-N-Out Burger sign at Los Angeles International Airport. Not only is this one of the most popular planespotting locations in the world, it's also a great place to get a burger while you shoot. (Tim Shaffer)
But not all airports have a dedicated observation area, and this is where the Internet comes in handy. There is a large body of plane spotters out there, and many contribute what they know to websites such as spotterguide.net. These sites give excellent information about where to go, and often, more importantly, where not to go. While the law guarantees the right to photograph just about anything you can see from a public space, some airports are not happy having you take photos. You could go all Melvin Belli and argue the constitutionality of what you are doing, but it’s best just to move on. These spotter guides also suggest places other than the dedicated observation spot, such as roads and parking lots near the airport. It’s important to remember, though, not to trespass where you’re not wanted, and be prepared to move on if asked.
This looks like a good spot. Photographers in the "photo pit" (Oregonairshow.com)
If you’re going to an airshow, my first recommendation for finding a good spot is to look for the folks with the long lenses. These are the professional or amateur photographers who are serious about what they are doing, probably have a lot more experience than you do, and congregate in the best shooting location. They're also usually good for conversation, since photographers, like pilots, love to talk about their gear. The center of the flight line, called show center, is where you'll find the announcer's box, and it is usually reserved for VIPs and those who pay for a seat at the middle of it all. But I have found that camping out just on either side of that section is every bit as good as being in the middle. And it’s no extra charge. Just decide if you want to be on the takeoff side, or the landing side (be sure to check the winds before you set up; planes always take off and land into the wind). I prefer to be on the landing side, since that means the planes will have to taxi back past you on their way to the parking area. Be sure to get there early, bring a chair, and claim your spot along the fence line. Once you've got your spot, you can wander around the static displays before the show gets too crowded. Even better, you can buy an early photographer's pass that lets you in to shoot the displays before the gates open to the general public. You get great morning light, and nobody standing in your picture holding a beer.
My step stool for shooting over the fence at Austin. You can't really tell in this photo, but there is about 20 feet of open space between this raised area and the fence. Otherwise, that would be a really short fence. (Tim Shaffer)
Since commercial airports are restricted areas, fences can be a real problem at observation spots. In Austin, there is a raised area to stand on, but it doesn’t get you above the barbed wire fence. So, I take a step stool to stand on. That gets me above the wire, and there’s no fence in the bottom of my shots. (If you look through my collection of photos at AUS, you will see the barbed wire suddenly disappear from my shots once I figured out the ladder thing.) You could set up a ladder or step ladder next to the fence, but that’s not advisable. You’ll likely get chased away. One more thing to think about is where the sun is. At AUS, I get wonderful morning sun at my back, so I try to go out as early as possible. Sometimes, though, you can't control that. Many air shows have the audience facing the sun. In that case, try to shoot behind the crowd if possible.
Okay, so you’ve got your camera, you’ve got your spot, hopefully you’ve got your big hat and sunscreen if you’re going to be at an air show all day. Now you’re ready to start shooting. At its most basic level, photography is photography, but there are some tricks that can help you get the results you want. I like to think that I learn something every time I snap a shutter, and the biggest thing I've learned over time is that there is no photography without regret. You will always miss a great shot. It’s just part of the game. Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good, and the best thing you can do is improve your chances of being lucky by first getting a good location, and then understanding the three basic settings–ISO, shutter speed, aperture–and how changing any one will affect the others. If you shorten or lengthen one leg of a tripod, you have to adjust the other two legs to maintain balance.
The modes on my 7D. The green box is full Auto, P is Program, Tv is Shutter Priority, Av is Aperture Priority, M is Manual. I honestly don't know what CA or B do! (Tim Shaffer)
Photography snobs may look down their nose at somebody shooting a DSLR in Automatic mode, but I will be the first to say, “Why not?” It’s a great place to start, and you get all the benefits of your fancy gear plus the brains of the camera. Shooting in Auto can also help you see what the camera thinks a good setting for a given shot. After Auto comes what Canon calls Program mode. Here, you set the ISO based on conditions (in general, low ISO for a bright day and higher ISO for a darker or cloudy day), and the camera takes care of the shutter and aperture. When I was first starting out, I would use Program mode to see what the camera thinks is a good shutter speed and aperture, then plug those parameters into Manual as a benchmark. Then I could adjust shutter faster or slower or aperture wider or tighter from there. Just remember, though, that changing one leg of the tripod means changing at least one other. If you make the shutter faster, letting in less light, you have to open the aperture to balance that out, or raise the ISO. The Canon has a meter on the bottom of the viewfinder that lets you know whether or not the camera thinks your settings are too dark or too light. Pay attention to it, but don't live by it. I have found that with digital photography it is often better to shoot just a little bit dark and lighten it up in post processing. If an image is overexposed, however, it's gone forever.
US Navy Blue Angels at Fort Worth Alliance Air Show in 2017. Canon EOS 7D, Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 at 200mm and f/7.1, ISO 200 (Tim Shaffer)
In addition to Auto and Program, most DSLR cameras have Priority modes. This means that you select the ISO (or set the ISO to Auto and let the camera choose), and then select either Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority. That means that you get to select the f stop or shutter speed and the camera figures out the rest. For my 7D and 70-200 lens, f/7.1 seems to be the sweet spot for getting the shutter speed and sharpness I want. So I will often set the camera to Aperture Priority 7.1 and fire away. This comes with a caveat, though. Depending on where the camera focuses and meters, it can end up in a wide range of over- or underexposed photos. While these priority modes can be a great place to start, shooting manual is really the best way to go once you’ve become comfortable making adjustments, especially on the fly. That way, no matter where you point in the sky, or whether or not the sun glints off of a fuselage, you always get the same exposure.
Vought F4U Corsair at the Central Texas Air Show. This photo was taken in Shutter Priority mode, with the shutter set at 1/200 second. The camera did the rest, choosing an aperture of f/17 to compensate for the slower shutter. Looking back, I think I would have preferred a slightly slower shutter. Remember that bit about photography and regret? Oh well, it's still a good shot. (Tim Shaffer)
When I get to my spot, I usually take a few throwaway shots just to find a baseline setting (this gives me enormous respect for the photographers who got it right without instant results). Jets go fast, so I want the fastest shutter speed I can use. If I’m shooting a propeller plane, at an airport or an airshow, I want a slower shutter speed because I want to have the props blurred. It doesn’t look very good to have the props frozen in the air. A shutter speed of 1/200 or 1/160 gets me there, but with a long lens it can be a challenge to hand hold shots at slower speeds. A general rule of thumb is that you don’t want to use a shutter speed slower than the focal length of your lens if you are hand holding. Once I've dialed in a basic setting for both prop planes and jets, I save them to two programmable slots on my camera. Then I can quickly switch between the two and not miss any of the action. In general, though, you will get the sharpest shots with the fastest shutter and the smallest aperture you can get away with. But again, there is always a trade off. The smaller the aperture, the more dust on your sensor appears in the photo. And that means more time spent in post processing covering them up.
Slow shutters aren’t just for props! With practice panning, you can also get nicely blurred backgrounds on moving objects. This gets even trickier when you are standing on the top step of a step ladder. Here, an American Airlines A318 lands at Austin. It was shot at 1/200 second, f/7.1. The aperture was wider open because the the early morning light wasn’t that bright yet. On a sunny day, such a slow shutter would require an aperture of f/15 or higher. (Tim Shaffer)
Not All Airplanes Are In The Air
So far, this discussion has focused on taking pictures of moving airplanes. But not all airplanes, particularly at airshows, are in the air. Static displays are a great way to get up close and personal with aircraft you might never see anywhere else, and you get the chance to talk with the pilots and crews who fly these amazing machines. I’ve had some great conversations with pilots, because if there’s one thing a pilot loves to do, it’s talk about their airplane.
Randy Henderson in his Taylorcraft DC12 Texas T-Cart (Tim Shaffer)
While that big long lens is good for long distances, you will need something smaller for the parked planes. Remember that 17-50 lens that was too small for shooting at the airport? Well, it turns out to be great at taking close ups of aircraft. However, changing lenses in the field is a drag, so ideally you would carry two cameras: one with the long lens for long shots, and one with the short lens for closeups. Taking pictures of an airplane on the ground is a great way to document which aircraft were at the show, but I’m more interested in finding dramatic angles, details, or other little things that the causal observer might miss. For some photos, it can be helpful to place the camera on the ground and shoot up for an interesting shot. Or hold the camera over your head and shoot down on something. As with any photography, taking every picture from a vantage point of six feet off the ground can get boring.
Fort Trimotor at the Georgetown Air Show. For this shot, I put the camera on the ground and tilted it up. It took a couple of tries to get the angle I wanted, since I couldn't look through the viewfinder. I also added a little fill flash to lighten up the underside of the wing. Along with that BA 747 at the top, this is one my favorite shots that I've taken. (Tim Shaffer)
Experiment with angles, different apertures for blurred backgrounds, anything that can make for an interesting shot other than just a portrait of the plane on the ground. You may also wish to take notes so you can remember the aircraft you saw when you go home to edit your shots. And finally, be sure to take plenty of extra batteries and extra storage cards.
Cessna O-1 Bird Dog detail. This was taken with the camera set in Aperture Priority mode at f/2.8. The dial is in focus, but more distant objects in the background are blurry.
I hope this has shed some light on how I take my aviation photographs, and I also hope that I may have inspired others to get outside and get shooting. The next article will cover how I go about editing what can be thousands of raw photos taken at an air show. I’d love to hear from the Nikon and mirrorless crowd in the comments, as well as any other tips or suggestions the community might have. And, as always, corrections are always welcome.
If you'd like to see more of my work, head over to my Aviation Photography site.
Thanks for reading, and happy hunting!