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Photographing an air show

Forethought and a good telephoto lens are the main ingredients.


You don't want to find yourself out of film or with no space left on your memory card when the grand finale of the air show is about to begin.
You don't want to find yourself out of film or with no space left on your memory card when the grand finale of the air show is about to begin.

Like many shows, whether in the theater, a circus tent or outdoors, air shows tend to build up to a finale when the day's most spectacular events take place. You want to be sure you don't run short of film or memory card space when the show is coming to its end. The grand finale usually features the "stars" of the show, and provides the best opportunity for the most eye-catching aerial displays.

You may think it strange that we begin this article discussing the conclusion of an air show. It is our way of reminding you that you must be prepared to shoot a lot of frames during the course of the event, which means having plenty of image storage capacity - enough to ensure that your picture-taking doesn't have to slow down as the show comes to its end or, worse, that you find you can't take any more pictures.

Planning ahead means more than taking care to bring plenty of film or digital recording media. Other planning considerations include shooting location, your personal comfort, lens selection and camera preparation.


SHOOTING LOCATION

You may think that just about any spot that gives you a relatively unrestricted view of the aerial displays will allow you to take your best pictures of the event. This is not necessarily true. There is more to consider in selecting a prime photography location.

To begin with, many of the interesting scenes at an air show don't take place in the sky, and aerial activities can occur at a variety of altitudes and distances. Parked aircraft, ground displays and interior hangar activities will require you to move around to capture the variety of scenes that present themselves. Close-ups of aircraft, pictures of pilots and other personnel, and even shots of the crowd cannot be adequately captured from just one position.

Before the show begins, though, you should have staked out the best possible location for a clear, unobstructed view of the main aerial performance area so that you can access it when the time is right. Claim your place in advance by setting up a couple of folding chairs and perhaps an umbrella (if permitted by the event organizers). Having a friend or assistant there to keep other audience members from moving into your space while you are away taking pictures elsewhere will guarantee you a good spot.

Many air show displays occur at ground level, sometimes inside a hangar, and often outdoors on the tarmac.
Many air show displays occur at ground level, sometimes inside a hangar, and often outdoors on the tarmac.

Selecting a good shooting location is critical to the success of your air show photography.
Selecting a good shooting location is critical to the success of your air show photography.

But, just how do you select the best spot to photograph the aerial portion of the show?

Aerial activities have their own set of considerations to be fulfilled to improve your photography of them. Above all is the selection of the single best possible location that will bring you closest to the action, subject to the following conditions:

  • the location of the sun (preferably behind you, although side-lighting is also okay),
  • the direction in which the sun is moving (preferably staying behind or on both sides of you throughout the day),
  • the absence of forgeground objects that can block or partially block your view (buildings, wires, poles, speakers, lights, trees, other people, vehicles, including aircraft and so on),

What to look for in selecting a great shooting location:

  • Be aware that an open, unobstructed, wonderful-looking spot may become the worst one if aircraft or large equipment are moved in front of it as the show progresses, blocking your view, at least at ground level. Find out by asking organizers if the space in front may be a staging or storage area during the event.
  • Checking with the organizers is a good idea anyway, since they may be able to point you to a prime area for photography. Just be sure to do it well ahead of the event, when they won't be too preoccupied to speak with you. Scouting out the location a day in advance is advisable, when possible. If not, try to show up at least a few hours ahead of the crowd.
  • If there is an announcer's booth or stand, your best place for photography can often be just in front of it, since its location will have been chosen to permit a good view for the officials.
  • A grandstand may be set up for the audience. Its location will likely be in a very good site for viewing the aerial action. Getting a spot in front of it or even selecting a seat on it may be a good idea for unobstructed photography.
  • Look around for the location that other photographers have selected. A large group of experienced-looking, camera-wielding folks in one place probably indicates that they are in a good photography spot.
  • Watch for background objects. A mountain, tall trees, the control tower or a multi-story building may look just fine as a backdrop for one or two shots, but will become tiresome if seen in almost every image. A clear blue sky or, better yet, one with a number of white, fluffy clouds is a better choice.
  • If there is a barrier that is not too high between you and the runway (a fence or railing, for example), try to get a space right up against it so you can easily look over it when taking pictures. You will be guaranteed to have no members of the audience in front.
  • If you just can't get to the front, a small, portable stepladder or even a crate may help you to rise above the crowd for a better view, especially of low flying aircraft or those taking off and landing.
  • If you arrive late and can't find a prime location in which to stand, consider whether you may get a better view from the upper story of an airport building, a nearby rise of land or even the back of your pick-up truck, on top of your RV or even seated on your car's hood in the public parking area.
  • Consider the direction in which aircraft will be taking off and touching down, and try to get a location that will permit you a frontal or partial-frontal view of them at key moments.
  • Check the show's program for information that may be helpful in choosing a location. Ask the organizers about any special events (such as rescue demonstrations, helicopter exercises, and so on.) that may take place close to the audience, and scout out a good location to shoot the close-up events that may be of interest to you.
  • In the ideal scenario, your location won't be too far from the public washrooms and refreshments areas. When you have a choice of two equally-good places, choose the one that is nearer these facilities.


CONSIDER YOUR PERSONAL COMFORT.

Attending an air show is usually a day-long activity. You should be prepared by bringing:

  • refreshments,
  • food for lunch and an afternoon snack,
  • sunglasses,
  • a sun hat,
  • UV-blocking sun lotion,
  • binoculars,
  • portable seating,
  • an umbrella for shade or for the possibility of rain,
  • a blanket or ground sheet, and,
  • a warm jacket in case the weather turns cool.

A small, folding stepladder can double as a mini-table and also help in seeing over the crowd. Having a number of Ziplok baggies to use in protecting your camera from rain or dust, and for carrying spare digital memory cards, film and fully-charged spare batteries, can be a "lifesaver". Wearing a multi-pocketed photographer's vest will allow you to carry filters, spare lenses and other necessities. A cell phone will keep you in touch with others who are not attending the show.

A note of caution, though. Many air shows have stringent rules about what may or may not be brought onto their grounds, usually for security reasons. You would be wise to check their website or to place a call before leaving home to learn whether you can bring questionable items with you.

If you find a good shooting location beneath a shade tree, you will thank yourself for choosing it when the hot noonday sun begins to bear down. If you are really lucky, you may commandeer a shady bench, a large, flat rock or even a picnic table for your own use.

If you are fortunate enough to have settled beneath a shade tree on a hot day at the air show, be sure its foliage doesn't block your view of the aerial displays.
If you are fortunate enough to have settled beneath a shade tree on a hot day at the air show, be sure its foliage doesn't block your view of the aerial displays.

A telephoto lens is essential for capturing good close-ups of aerial activities.
A telephoto lens is essential for capturing good close-ups of aerial activities.

WHAT ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT AND AIR SHOW SHOOTING TIPS?

It goes without saying that you will need a telephoto lens to bring many of your subjects closer, especially during the aerial displays. A good zoom lens that has strong telephoto capabilities will be very useful. If you don't have a quality zoom lens with a telephoto setting that gets you close to your aerial subjects, a 200 mm prime (fixed focal length) telephoto lens will generally do an adequate, even an excellent job, probably better than many zoom lenses due to its sharpness. If you are fortunate enough to have a super high-quality zoom lens, like the versatile Nikkor 70-200 mm ƒ-2.8 lens shown on the left, sharpness will not be a problem. Yes, you can certainly make use of a 300 mm or greater length lens, but you will probably find that it will bring you in much closer than you want to be for many of your shots. Super-long telephoto lenses will fill the frame with an aircraft and show greater detail, but you may wish to show a formation or a manouver instead, requiring you to be not so close.

Since air shows generally take place during good weather, when skies are sunny and bright, you will be able to use a slow film or digital ISO sensitivity setting in the range of ISO 100 or 200 and still have fast shutter speeds, providing you with high-quality images that can be enlarged without significant deterioration in the event you wish to produce sharp prints that show close-up detail. A fast lens can be used at its widest opening since depth of field is generally not a factor due to the distance from you to your high-flying subjects.

An air show is one event in which you should consider using a polarizing filter, especially for scenes that include the sky. It can add drama by darkening the sky, and eliminate unwanted glare.

If the weather should change and the sky should darken, change your digital camera's sensitivity to a faster ISO setting, or switch to a faster film, in the range of ISO 400 to ensure the continued use of fast shutter speeds. Be prepared for some image deterioration, though, especially with enlargements or cropped images that may show increased graininess.

But, keep in mind that you may not want to use a super-fast shutter speed for all of your air show photography. Fast shutter speeds stop action. You may want to show some blur in a propellor-driven aircraft's propellor blades, or it may look like a model aircraft instead of one that is actually in flight. A shutter speed of 1/125 sec and sometimes as fast as 1/250 sec will probably show propellor blur, depending upon the speed of the propellor's rotation. You may wish to experiment, using faster or slower shutter speeds for various aircraft, to get just the right blur effect. Bear in mind, though, that your shutter speed should not be too slow for the length of the lens you are using, or you may have undesirable overall blur. If a propellor-driven aircraft is coming straight at you, more or less, its head-on direction may conceal the effect of the image's overall blur when photographed at a slow shutter speed. Shoot it, and evaluate the amount of blur afterwards. You may be surprised at how sharp the aircraft appears while its propellors are spinning just as you hoped, with the right amount of blur. Experimentation like this will, over time, give you reliable results.

You have probably noticed there has been no mention thus far of using a tripod, even though you will be shooting many pictures, indeed most, with a telephoto lens. Lens stability - the main reason for using a tripod - is not that essential when you are using very fast shutter speeds. And a tripod may limit your ability to quickly or easily aim your camera upwards to shoot aerial performances. The main advantage of a tripod at an air show, when the sky is bright and there is plenty of light for fast shutter speeds even at slow ISO settings, is to bear the weight of the lens and camera. If you are using a super-long telephoto, in the 600 mm range, a tripod can alleviate the burden and give your arms some rest. Big lenses can weigh ten pounds and more. A tripod can also help in the smooth, continuous tracking of an aircraft or a squadron when using a big lens, but you can also do that without a tripod with no great difficulty if you are feeling strong. Most of us, though, will be using much smaller and lighter telephoto lenses, and will find that a tripod just gets in the way and limits our mobility. Before you decide to leave your tripod at home or back in the studio, though, read our comments below regarding helicopter photography. A tripod may, after all, find good use at an air show when helicopters become part of the action.


Helicopters are something else.

Chopper blades rotate at slower speeds than the propellors of most aircraft. Why? Because the blades are larger, and don't need the high rotation speed of airplane propellors for lift. This is good for getting helicopters airborne, but bad news for photographers who want to photograph them and show prop blur, since shutter speeds must be slower than those used for propellor-driven airplanes. A shutter speed of 1/60 sec or 1/125 sec may be needed to show blur in a helicopter's blades, making it difficult to avoid overall blur, especially with a telephoto lens. Fortunately, helicopters tend to move more slowy than fixed-wing aircraft. Using a tripod or another camera stabilization method may be the best answer, providing lens stability while using a slower shutter speed.

Jet aircraft don't need slow shutter speeds.

Since they don't have propellors, jet aircraft need not be photographed using a shutter speed that is slow enough to show propellor blur. Use your fastest shutter speed for jets, unless you wish to show background blur when panning. A shutter speed of 1/125 sec or 1/250 sec will slightly blur the background of a fast-moving jet that is flying diagonally in front of you, giving the illusion of speed.

Ground level pictures.

Photo opportunities at an air show are not all above you in the sky. Aircraft that are taxiing, landing, taking off, waiting on the runway and stationary are photographed at ground level, as are displays, crowd scenes, airport equipment and service vehicles, and many military and airport personnel.

There are two main problems in getting good pictures of subjects on the ground at a popular air show - crowds in the way, and the inability to get close enough to a scene. A telephoto lens will bring distant subjects closer, and beating the crowds by arriving as early as you can (or staying around when the show is over) will make it easier to get unobstructed pictures. If you arrive very early when the sun is coming up or remain behind until dusk, the light may provide you with the opportunity for dramatic shots of aircraft, including those that may be arriving or departing.

Showing blur in a helicopter's blades or an airplane's propellors conveys motion, but requires a fairly slow shutter speed. A fast shutter speed
Showing blur in a helicopter's blades or an airplane's propellors conveys motion, but requires a fairly slow shutter speed. A fast shutter speed "freezes" the action, as shown in the water drop picture above. A fisheye lens shows both audience & display.
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