Millions of photographs will be taken during this year’s airshow season, with many shared online.
Want to make sure your photos stand out from the crowd? How about a few pointers from a professional photographer who specializes in aviation?
Hayman Tam is a long-time contributor to General Aviation News, who was gracious enough to offer these tips on how to improve your airshow photography.
What equipment to use?
Nowadays smartphones are the camera of choice for the vast majority and their capabilities are improving all the time. A sunny airshow environment will yield results good enough for web and social media use.
Video capabilities of phones are also quite good for sharing online.
Point and shoot cameras are the next best thing. With larger image sensors, better quality lenses, and more control options, you can get really good images.
Then there are the advanced/pro level cameras. With even bigger sensors and much longer focal length lenses, these are the tools of choice for capturing airborne aircraft in the best way possible.
Spare camera batteries (or smartphone powerbanks), plus extra memory cards are always recommended.
With long lineups of static aircraft, sometimes a panorama format is a better option. This can be achieved with smartphones or using image stitching techniques for the edit-savvy users. Just be sure to position yourself at the midpoint to balance the curvature of the panorama.
Make a dry run first to see if your camera position will capture everything, like tall rudders.
While we all want pictures of the airplanes, images of fellow airshow fans admiring display aircraft are good to balance out the photos. And, at big shows like SUN ‘n FUN and Oshkosh, you’ll have to embrace the fact that there will usually be people in your shot.
Lights, Camera, Action
Lighting is one of the biggest factors in photography. The most fundamental tip I can share is to keep the sun behind you when possible. This will yield the best results, minimizing shadows and showing true colors.
Of course, the arrangement of the display aircraft and the airfield layout will certainly challenge you as the sun position changes throughout the day.
Oftentimes I will shoot most of the static aircraft in the morning before the airshow performance begins, and then reshoot many in the afternoon light because the sun may be more favorable.
Late afternoon light will give a rich boost to colors, so it is worth hanging around the tarmac as everyone else rushes to the exits once the flying performances are done.
Use of the built-in flash on a camera can be handy to get light into shadows, whether it’s a dark cockpit or lighting up a face under a hat.
Care in composing a photo can make a huge difference in making your photos stand out from others.
Most people will instinctively take their photos with the camera at standing eye level. While there is nothing wrong with that, kneeling down gives an entirely different perspective.
Getting a low angle on an airplane will give more sky in the background and can remove some of the distracting background clutter.
Similarly, how you position yourself relative to the plane is a very effective way to avoid having unwanted objects appear in your photo. A few steps to the right or left, or kneeling down just a bit, and now the power pole is hidden behind the tail, or maybe a group of people in the background is now hidden behind the fuselage.
Timing is Everything
When to go for the best photo opportunities?
Arrive early. There will be less people on the ramp. This can also be a good time to capture owners with their aircraft, performing last minute preps.
Look for opportunities to access the hot ramp to photograph the performing aircraft.
As mentioned previously, late afternoon light is a great benefit so it can end up being a long day.
If you have the chance, go the day prior to photograph arriving display aircraft or the last day as planes are departing.
Ground to Air
Ground to air photography is a challenging endeavor for anyone, even for those of us who do it all the time.
Once again, it’s all about the light. Choose a location that will maximize the amount of sunlight coming from behind you.
Some airshows are horribly backlit by the sun, which makes the sun unavoidable for everyone.
Panning is a huge part of successful ground to air photography. Panning is a technique where you pan (move) your camera along with the moving subject. If done right, the airplane will have sharp focus.
Camera settings are whole other topic to wrestle with. My entry-level suggestions for jet aircraft would be aperture priority mode set at f/8. Prop planes would need shutter priority set at 1/250 sec as a starting point.
The slower the shutter speed, the more propeller blur is achieved, but panning technique is critical as the speed slows down.
A speed of 1/250 or even 1/320 would still show motion in the prop and give you a fighting chance for a focused photo.
Shooting prop planes when set up for jets will give you a sharp photo of the plane, along with a sharp photo of a propeller frozen in motion.
By no means is this a complete tutorial, but is the advice I would share with someone if we happened to be standing next to each other at an airshow.
Good luck, have fun and don’t forget the sunscreen!