Aviation photography primer
It's for a good reason this chapter is the first one on the list. You can have superb gear, master perfectly all the tricks of the exposure modes, know your dials & buttons by heart - but still, if everything you are doing is the side-shots of landing planes, this won't make it any good.
On the other hand, if you "feel" the composition, you have good ideas,
know how to vary the results etc. - even if you shoot some local airport
traffic, in the fully automatic mode, you can end up with nice pictures.
Learn from the best
This could as well replace most of this tutorial. Nothing will improve composition of your
photos more than looking at good ones made by others. I don't mean watching albums of Mr Tokunaga,
or top picks on Airliners.net - for a while these might be out of your reach, for purely
technical reasons But even on your local aviation forum there are certainly few
"normal" guys whose pictures you admire. Make yourself a special bookmark folder. Everytime
you have this "Hey, I like it! I was there too, why I didn't take it this way?" feeling,
save the link - and review all these once in a while. How was it done? Why this and not
other way? How would I make it even better?
Let me start with some general composition hints, unrelated to kind of aircraft,
To cut or not to cut?
Volksplane VP-1, Schaffhausen (Switzerland), 2008
EOS 1D MkIII, 70-200/2.8IS, f/11.0, 1/160s, ISO100, shutter priority
What dictates the layout of an aircraft photo is the fuselage and the entire composition should be turning around it. Look at the above photo: it has most of the wings clipped. How would it look like if I didn't crop it this way? You'd have a small, blue aircraft, with lots of surrounding vegetation everywhere and probably some blue sky above. Would it be better then?
The answer is: it depends. If your intention is to shot a landscape with a plane, then yes. But if the goal is to picture an aircraft in flight, then I think it's better as such. Closeup, slight angle, propeller blur... all this adds some dynamism and makes it a bit more interesting.
In particular, in a frontal (or nearby) perspective, it's OK to clip a part
of the vertical stabilizer as well. Otherwise, your photo will appear unbalanced,
with a large object at the bottom and lots of empty space above. Example:
Dassault/Dorner Alpha Jet, Dijon (France), 2008
EOS 1D MkIII, 500/4IS, f/4.0, 1/640s, ISO125, +1EV, aperture priority
Cropping is not limited only to maintaining balance, keeping the important things
exposed etc. It can be also used to achieve some more creative effects:
Dassault Mirage 2000C, Orange (France), 2007
EOS 20D, 70-200/2.8IS @200mm, f/4.0, 1/1500s, ISO100, aperture priority
Technically speaking, the above image is bad - the nose is clipped, there is
a portion of second intage visible in the bottom-right corner, not to mention rotation.
But still, it's nice, isn't it?
Not just wings
The above rule of filling in the frame extends to much more than just clipping
out the control surfaces. You can as well crop only the front part, in particular for
the rotation/touchdown, when shooting a bit from the rear:
Boeing 747-406M, Amsterdam Schiphol (Netherlands), 2006
EOS 1D MkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/10.0, 1/800s, ISO200, shutter priority
... or go even further - crop just some interesting parts of the aircraft - landing
gear, engines, tail with a paintjob, canopy... anything that your telephoto lens
allows you to do.
Northrop F-5E Tiger II, Axalp (Switzerland), 2008
EOS 1D MkIII, 500/4IS, f/5.0, 1/4000s, ISO640, +1EV, aperture priority
Vary the zoom levels
The goal of the above is not really to convince you to crop all your
photos until you can count the bolts! Still, the principal rule remains
the same: try different setups. If the circumstances are good,
even an aircraft centered in a 1/3 of the frame, rest of it being sky -
can look nice:
Airbus A380, Le Bourget (France), 2007
EOS 1D MkIIN, 100-400IS @100mm, f/8.0, 1/800s, ISO250, +4/3EV, aperture priority
Surely, this is a bit against what I've written in the beginning about cropping -
but again, this is precisely when I'd want to show the aircraft and the
Give it some space to fly
If you want to include entire aircraft (in movement) in your photo, avoid
cropping it too close to the nose. This will make a weird impression "there
is a plane, it's moving, but... where? It has nowhere to fly to!". So:
leave it some space in front, more than on the back.
Centering and weight balance
Following the previous hint: either put your object in the center, or frame the photo so it's deplaced a bit in the direction opposite to the way it moves. Sometimes, this might be a choice between:
- adding extra space in front
- or cropping the wingtips
Either solution is fine. What is not is a frame, where the fuselage and
the engines occupy left 50% of it and the rest is occupied just by remaining part
of the left wing:
Boeing 757-200, Geneve Cointrin (Switzerland), 2007
EOS 1D MkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/8.0, 1/500s, ISO100, aperture priority.
Despite warm morning light and nice paintjob, this photo just feels bad!
It should be improved by either cropping the left wing, so the fuselage is centered
in the frame, or by leaving some more space in front of the plane - with the same
(It's mostly for the static photos and the takeoffs/landings). Don't let your photos get skewed relative to the horizon. If needed, adjust them a little in post-processing, to avoid the "everything is sliding left" impression.
It might be often difficult to find what does "level" mean In particular, for the photos taken from an angle, lines that seem to be horizontal - like the runway, edge of a fuselage, or even... horizon itself might not necessarily be what you need to level to. The simplest approach is to make the vertical objects vertical: trees, edges of the buildings, street lamps etc. Don't be surprised if you find no way to do it right.
While "just a little" skewed photo usually looks ugly, if you deliberately add
some distortion, it might actually add a nice touch:
McDonnell Douglas F/A-18D Hornet, Meiringen (Switzerland), 2008
EOS 1D MkIII, 500/4 IS, f/4.0, 1/400s, ISO320, +1EV, aperture priority
Most of the time you don't have much choice. For the displays in the air, your background is the sky. For the takeoffs or low-passes, the point is mostly to blur it. For the static display - it will be often just annoying tons of details distracting the eye from the main object.
Still, try to make it right:
- For the static shot - find a place where you have least clutter in the back
- Low pass - watch out for distracting objects on the other side of the runway. For example, at RIAT you will find annoying banners once in a while. Shoot your burst when the aircraft is in-between them.
- Dynamic display - try to catch it while it's just entering the cloud.
In some exceptional cases you might actually have an interesting background
for the dynamic displays. Classical example is the Axalp shooting range.
But even there, you can make it good or better
McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet, Axalp (Switzerland), 2008
EOS 1D MkIII, 500/4 IS, f/4.5, 1/1250s, ISO500, +4/3EV, aperture priority
During a solo display, you are likely to see the aircraft from all the possible angles. There are good ones and less good ones. A classical "photo pass" is the one where the aircraft banks slightly towards the public, to show its upper surfaces.
Hint: you don't need to catch it exactly the way it's performed. It's often
interesting to rotate your camera a little, to have more interesting
Dassault Mirage 2000C, Orange (France), 2007
EOS 1D MkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/8.0, 1/1250s, ISO250, aperture priority
Unfortunately, most of the fast jet solo displays will show you the "wrong" (bottom) side of the plane. The practical reason for this:
- Aircraft is in some kind of turns most of the time
- These turns can't be done over people's heads, but rather in front of them
- ... and preferably with positive G-factor
But there will be always some moments when even the "bad" side of the
aircraft will let you shoot something nice. Think ahead: where the aircraft
is now? What do you think it will do next? How will it be facing the sun?
Think it might be interesting? Shoot!
Lockheed Martin F-16C, Orange (France), 2008
EOS 1D MkIII, 500/4IS + TCx1.4, f/8.0, 1/1000s, ISO400, +2/3EV, aperture priority
If you are coming for two (or more) days of an airshow, try to note what are the interesting moments of the demonstration. This way, you won't be surprised by things like:
- launch of the flares
- touch and go
- high speed pass with the condensation clouds
... each of them giving you the possibilities for a good photo.
Gliders are particularly difficult object to photograph, especially in the air. They are small, thin, don't make the "speedy" impression just by their looks - and don't have the propellers to blur.
Fortunately, almost all glider displays use some kind of smoke. This is your
chance to get some interesting images.
Marganski MDM-1 Fox, Dittingen (Switzerland), 2007
EOS 1D MarkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/8.0, 1/400s, ISO100, aperture priority
First approach of taking photos of the display teams would be of course to treat
them just as a set of single airplanes. This works, all the above rules still apply.
But team displays give you some additional opportunities:
This is what the group flying is about, right? Most of the team displays will consist
largely of formations of few planes passing in front of the crowd. Similarly to the
"photo pass" mentioned above for the solo displays: you don't necessarily need to
take these photos as they are seen. Try rotating your lens to fill the frame better,
try to find the two aircrafts that arrange in a particularly nice figure during the
Asas de Portugal, Grenchen (Switzerland), 2006
EOS 1D MkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/9.0, 1/640s, ISO200, aperture priority
Again, common point of most of the team shows: two (or two groups) aircrafts coming from both sides and crossing their ways in front of the public. There is one easy trick for these: track with your lens the one coming from the side where your "strongest" eye is. At the same time use your other eye to anticipate the exact moment of the crossing. Then, just shoot a short burst.. and you should get it.
This method has one disadvantage: you never know if "your" plane won't be passing on the
Patrouille de France, Salon-de-Provence (France), 2007
EOS 1D MkIIN, 500/4IS + TCx1.4, f/8.0, 1/1600s, ISO250, aperture priority
They are actually used by most of the dynamic displays overall. Starting from simple white one, that barely marks its presence, to a colourful presentation of Frecce Tricolori, that would lose a lot if there was no smoke.
But in any case: it is a part of the spectacle. Try to get some of the
shots showing this. The easiest is to leave some space behind the formation. It doesn't
violate the balancing rules described above, as in this case your object is not
just the aircrafts, but the smoke as well:
Frecce Tricolori, Kecskemet (Hungary), 2008
EOS 1D MkIIN, 500/4IS, f/4.0, 1/4000s, ISO320, +1EV, aperture priority
Most of the teams will draw some kind of smoke figures in the sky (and guess what,
it will be the heart most of the time ) Have your wide-angle lens ready.
Static displays are a mixed bag when it comes to taking pictures. The aircrafts are usually surrounded by some kind of barriers - either just the strips of plastic tape, or the real, metallic ones... In any case, they're a pain in the neck, as it's hard to avoid them getting into the frame.
Probably the best case is when the barriers are relatively far from the
object. Then, you are relatively free to make the wide-angle shots and
for the details, you can always catch up using your telephoto lens.
North American T-6G Texan, Bex (Switzerland), 2007
EOS 1D MkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/8.0, 1/250s, ISO100, +1EV, aperture priority
Surprisingly, the closer you are to the aircraft, the worse. Reason:
you are not the only one who wants to get there - and all the others
magically pop out in your photos There are few ways of handling such
Most of the people around you will use compact cameras. Bad thing about them
is that they usually don't offer too wide angles of view. If you have a
DSLR, even a 1.6x crop one, with a kit 18-xx lens, this gives you an advantage
Just get closer an get your shot - but don't be a jerk, don't stay there
for more than you absolutely need!
Lockheed Martin F-16C Falcon, Fairford (UK), 2007
EOS 1D MkIIN, 17-40/4 @26mm, f/5.6, ISO100, +1EV, aperture priority
In the most extreme case, if you have a really ultra-wide lens (35mm equivalent
of < 20mm), or even a fisheye, you can get even closer. But then, the
photos will be so much distorted that having some heads won't make a big difference anyway.
The ultimate way: if you can't get in front of the crowd - get above it!
Even a 0.5m of advantage might get you a clear shot.
Details, reflections etc.
Static display is a good opportunity to catch some close-ups. Look out for
interesting shapes, curves, reflections, shiny drops of rain on the
canopy... use your imagination.
Northrop F-5E Tiger, Salon-de-Provence (France), 2007
EOS 20D, 17-40/4 @29mm, f/9.5, ISO100, aperture priority
Easy way to add a bit of 'punch' to your photos is to... get down on your knees You will need a relatively wide-angle lens (20-25mm of 35mm equiv.). Get your camera as low as you can - ideally, up to the point where the grass just in front of you will get out of the depth of field (but still won't obscure your object). Try to find interesting angle - spot on from the front/below, slightly from an angle, roll your camera a little. Be creative.
By the way, it gets even more funny with a fish-eye lens
Actually, it is not only about the static display photos - you could apply the same
technique to the aircrafts rolling down the taxiway. If there is enough space, just get
down to the ground, listen to the people around you making stupid comments... and enjoy
your photos that will be much more interesting than theirs
Antonov An-2, Kestenholz Flugtage (Switzerland), 2009
EOS 1D MkIII, 17-40/4 @28mm, 1/50s, f/10, ISO10, shutter priority
Using polarizing filter
In good weather you might consider putting the polariser on your lens. It will help you to:
- reduce contrasts between the objects and the sky
- make the sky "more blue" (in particular, if you don't have the sun exactly behind you)
- make the colours generally nicer
However, watch out for two issues:
- With a wide-angle lens, using a polariser is likely to get you some vignetting. Not only it will emphasize the lense's one, but also add its own, coming from the fact that different areas of the image will get the sunlight at different angle.
- Most of the modern aircraft canopies are made out of plastic, which has tendency to produce some rainbow-like effects if shot through polariser. It's not obvious to spot while shooting, but looks quite nasty on the pictures.
The fast jet displays will be often accompanied with various cloud-like effects ardound the wings. They are caused by a sudden decompression of the humid air during rapid manoeuvres. If the aircraft is making a steep climb up, air pressure above the wing will go way down - up to the point, where the vapor contained in the air will be able to turn into drops of water, way below the normal temperature.
If you like this kind of effects, rain is your friend - or at least, if not a rain, then at least lots of humidity in the air (seaside, mountains etc). The more water in the air, the nicer the effects.
Probably the most spectacular condensation effect is, so called, Prandtl-Glauert cloud:
McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet, Mollis (Switzerland), 2007
EOS 1D MarkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/7.1, 1/640s, ISO400, aperture priority
The mechanism is slightly different, related to a phenomena that appears when the
aircraft approaches speed of the sound. But the principle, remains the same:
areas where there is a sudden decompression of the humid air.
Figter jet solo displays use them a lot - and they might add a nice touch to your photo. Watch out for:
- Tight turns in front of the public - especially vertical ones, as you migth see the bottom part of the aircraft lit by the sun (See above shot of a F-16)
- Touch & go (usually around the middle of the display)
- Or simply during the takeoffs
EOS 1D MarkIIN, 500/4, f/4.0, 1/1600s, ISO200, aperture priority
Both good and bad news here Most of the time - bad. During the hot, summer days, the flat, open surface of the airfield will be certainly covered with layer of the hot air. Most of the time, it will simply ruin your photos of the ground objects (including aircrafts on the runway) taken from the distance.
To some extent, you can get around it by using panning. If the exposure will be long enough, movements of the hot air will be partially "averaged" by lens movement, while the aircraft is still sharp. But other than this - no solution. Check your camera LCD screen once in a while - if you see the haze being a problem, just wait for a better moment, perhaps the wind will blow it away for a while.
Good news is: the big amount of the hot air, preferably coming out
of the engine, can be actually interesting! Either it will make a nice,
blurred backdrop behind the plane, or... in front of it
McDonnell Douglas F/A-18D Hornet, Meiringen (Switzerland), 2008
EOS 1D MarkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/8.0, 1/200s, ISO200, +2/3EV, aperture priority
(on the above photo, the hot air is coming from another Hornet that just turned
away from the taxiway)
Good thing about RC models is the incredible variety of the things people do. You don't have much chance to see a flying SR-71 Blackbird any more. The Thunderbirds are not likely to move back to the F-84 Thunderjets either. But all this is possible in the RC world and often the details are reproduced with amazing precision.
But keep in mind: The RC models are really difficult to shoot in
flight. They fly much closer and (relatively) much faster than the regular planes.
ones it often comes down to a crazy hunt with your telephoto to even have
something in the frame. Once you do, you might need hundreds of photos to
get something sharp. But if you do, the effects might be really cool!
F-84G Thunderjet - RC model, Hilzingen (Germany), 2008
EOS 1D MarkIII, 500/4, f/7.1, 1/800s, ISO200, +1/3EV, aperture priority
It's not that much of a rule for the aviation photos - but you don't have
to concentrate exclusively on the aircrafts. The spectators, airfield
installations, staff, kids playing with the small planes and, last but
not least, the pilots - all of this can add to a succesful coverage of the
Pilot from the Pilatus P3 Flyers team, Lausanne (Switzerland), 2005
EOS 20D, 100-400IS @220mm, f/14, 1/125s, ISO100, shutter priority
Now, that you know a bit about how the photos might look like, let me tell you a bit how to tweak the buttons & dials of you camer. Continue to the article about exposure
Last updated: 14-03-2010, 17:30