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Aviation photography primer

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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 - 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?

General notes

Let me start with some general composition hints, unrelated to kind of aircraft, display etc.

To cut or not to cut?

[image]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: [image]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: [image]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: [image]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. [image]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: [image]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 surrounding sky.

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:

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: [image]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 effect.


(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: [image]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:

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 :-) [image]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

Solo displays

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 angle: [image]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:

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! :-) [image]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:

... 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. [image]Marganski MDM-1 Fox, Dittingen (Switzerland), 2007
EOS 1D MarkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/8.0, 1/400s, ISO100, aperture priority

Demonstration teams

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:

Formation figures

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 manoeuvre etc. [image]Asas de Portugal, Grenchen (Switzerland), 2006
EOS 1D MkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/9.0, 1/640s, ISO200, aperture priority

Opposition pass

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 wrong side... [image]Patrouille de France, Salon-de-Provence (France), 2007
EOS 1D MkIIN, 500/4IS + TCx1.4, f/8.0, 1/1600s, ISO250, aperture priority

Smoke traces

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: [image]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 display

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. [image]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 situation:

Wide angle

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! [image]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. [image]Northrop F-5E Tiger, Salon-de-Provence (France), 2007
EOS 20D, 17-40/4 @29mm, f/9.5, ISO100, aperture priority

Frog's perspective

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 :-) [image]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:

However, watch out for two issues:


Condensation effects

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: [image]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:

[image]Eurofighter Typhoon T, Emmen (Switzerland), 2008
EOS 1D MarkIIN, 500/4, f/4.0, 1/1600s, ISO200, aperture priority

Hot air

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 :-) [image]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)

RC models

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. For jet-powered 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! [image]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 event. [image]Pilot from the Pilatus P3 Flyers team, Lausanne (Switzerland), 2005
EOS 20D, 100-400IS @220mm, f/14, 1/125s, ISO100, shutter priority

Camera setup

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