I'll be back in three weeks to finish kicking your ass.
IMPORTANT: Christmas Lights. Those of you who are placing Christmas lights/decorations in your yards, would you please avoid anything that has Red or Blue flashing lights together? Every time I come around the corner, I think it's the police and I have a panic attack. I have to brake hard, toss my beer out the window, fasten my seat belt, throw my phone on the floor, turn my radio down, and push the gun under the seat. All while trying to drive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I like to think about Oppo like somebody's garage. A bunch of folks come over while somebody turns a wrench, and they crack some beers and talk about cars, and sports, and personal stuff, and whatever else is on their mind. There's a common thread, but it's not the only thread. And right now, vaccines are really important to some of us, particularly the older farts like me. I like hearing that my friends are getting some measure of protection against this obnoxious apocalypse. Ain't nothing political about that.
I built the Amelia Earhart set last night and I think it's fantastic. Some have expressed disappointment over the Vega not being scaled to the Earhart Minifg, but that doesn't bother me at all. It would be a VERY big model indeed if it were to scale, which of course, would not be a bad thing. All in all, I think they did a superb job with this tribute set.
The mini map the Earhart Minifig is holding shows the route from Newfoundland to Ireland. The folks at Lego don't miss much.
Probably not, but it sure as hell hurts.
I have a bad back. I have to be careful, lest I do something that causes it to spasm or whatever it does. Then I'm hobbling around in pain, unable to sleep, etc. It's been a while since I've had a full-on back spasm like the first one years ago that sent me to the hospital. But I'm having one of those now.
What did I do to get this way you might ask? Doing strenuous yard work? Lifting something that was too heavy?
I was sitting on the edge of my bed yesterday morning and I bent down to scratch my knee. That's it. Something tweaked above my pelvis and here I am again hobbling around the house with my walking stick. And what really pisses me off is that I have been exercising, stretching, doing sit ups, all the things they tell you to do to keep your back healthy. This is completely out of the blue.
What I've learned over the years is that no matter what I do it will hurt. But I have to keep going, keep moving, because sitting still just makes the muscles seize up even more. If past history holds out, this will last about three or four days and then go away like it never happened.