Aviation photography primer
It sounds simple: you need a quick DSLR and some good telephoto lens
Still, not all of us have unlimited budget, so often compromises have
to be made. In this chapter I'll try to help you to decide.
Most important rule
Your lens is more important than your body. Even in the digital era, where the cameras are more and more complicated (and affect the final image quality more), it's still the lens that has deciding impact on the quality of your image.
What's more: while cameras tend to come and go once in a while - either
they wear out, or (more often) become "mentally obsolete" -
the good lenses usually stay there forever, or at least, for many years.
Therefore, if at some point you're asking yourself "should I use the
additional $$$ to buy upper model of the XYZ body which has this nifty
ABC feature? or should I rather pay more to get a stabilized lens?
- don't, use the above answer.
- Focal length of at least 300-400mm (35mm equivalent).
- Relatively fast AF motor (preferably some kind of ultrasonic one, not the old, DC-type)
- Image stabilizer is highly desired, in particular if you are shooting the propeller-powered planes
You don't need:
- Very fast (as in aperture) lens. f/5.6 usually does the job, f/4 is just perfect. f/2.8 is a real overkill - remember, we're talking 300mm+ here!
Lenses useful for the aviation photography can be categorized in three
Low- and midrange zooms
Usually 70- or 75-300, f/5.6 at the long end, sometimes equiped with image stabilizer. Image quality wide open is not very good (but might be acceptable for you). They are usually quite light, way less than 1kg. Price range: 200-500EUR.
Canon 70-300. There are few variants of this one - all of them have rather quick, ultrasonic AF motor, but their image quality varies. Basically, the rule is: you get what you pay for. In particular, the 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS USM is quite nice (warning: don't confuse it with the 'DO' variant, which is more expensive and not really worth the price). But even the older, 75-300 f/4-5.6 are rather OK (apart from the 'II' variant which doesn't have USM motor).
Canon 100-300 f/4.5-5.6 USM. It's not manufactured any more, but relatively easy to get second-hand. It lacks image stabilizer, but is considered a bit better optically than its 75-300 cousins.
Canon 55-250 f/4-5.6 IS. It is often sold as a second kit lens with Canon amateur bodies. Well, at its price, it does the job, but don't expect wonders. It is definitely good for one thing: trying various focal lengths and deciding what is the next step
Nikkor 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 VR. It exists in two versions: 'G', using the old, mechanical focusing and 'VR', which, apart from the image stabilizer, uses an AF-S motor. Both are good value for the money.
Sigma 70-300 - it exists in two versions: DG and DG APO. The latter one is supposedly better, with some additional coatings, but it still lacks the quality on the telephoto end - and none of them have HSM motor.
Anything that ends up with 400/5.6, 300/4 or 200/2.8. Image is quite good, even wide open. Usually have image stabilizer. Some cheaper fixed-focal lenses qualify here as well. These lenses can weigh up to 2kg and cost anything between 500-1000EUR.
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM - the most classic airshow lens (and a reason why Canon might still be a better choice for hardcore aviation geek ). It combines a perfect focal range, fast AF, image stabilizer and a push-pull zoom, which works great when rapid changes are needed.
This lens is actually relatively old design, but still the only zoom that beats it is Nikon 200-400VR, with cost/weight in the top class.
Sigma 50-500 f/4-6.3 EX DG HSM - incredible focal range and, surprisingly, image quality much better than you'd expect from a "x10 zoom". Not in the 100-400's league, but still worth considering if you really want that 500mm
Sigma 100-300 f/4 EX DG IF HSM - quite interesting one. It has neither huge focal range, nor the stabilizer, but has one advantage: 300mm at f/4. If you know that you won't need anything longer too often, consider this one.
Nikkor 80-400 f/4.5-5.6 VR - Nikon's "could be" answer to 100-400L. Unfortunately, while the image quality is really OK, it is not an AF-S lens - uses old, mechanical focus mechanism and its speed leaves a lot to desire
Sigma 80-400 f/4.5-5.6 EX OS - Very similar to the above Nikon lens. Nice focal range, acceptable quality (but tad worse than Nikon), image stabilizer... but no HSM motor.
Canon 400 f/5.6L - Yes, it's not a zoom but it's price range puts it in this category - and it's really interesting lens. While it's rather dark at f/5.6 and has no stabilizer, it still has pretty quick AF motor and... well, it's a fixed focal, so expect it to be tack sharp even at 400mm and f/5.6. Best of all, it's relatively cheap, in the top-range zoom class. If you know that you will shoot at the long end most of the time, consider this one instead of zoom.
Large fixed-focal lenses
Basically, four: 300/2.8, 400/2.8, 500/4 and 600/4. Ultimate choice, no compromises about the optical quality - nor the price and weight. In fact, there is not much difference between two main DSLR systems here - they both offer stabilized/non-stabilized variants at any classical focal length, they are all extremely fast, image quality is as good as it gets... and are all really bulky and expensive. You get what you pay for.
300mm f/2.8. This is an ultimate lens for overall aviation photography that doesn't require extreme zooming. Small warbird/oldtimer meetings, where the runway is some 50m away and nothing clobbers the view - it doesn't get any better than a 300/2.8.
500mm f/4.0. This one might be better if your main subject are larger airshows, with high-speed jet displays, often a bit further from the public, needing a bit more close-up. The biggest lens that can be relatively easily hand-held!
400mm f/2.8. Get this one only if you know that you really need that f/2.8 (either for shallow DoF or for yet faster shutter speeds) and you are comfortable with shooting from the tripod most of the time. It's really bulky, the weight difference from 500/4 might seem small, but it's exactly these 2kg that change the game entirely.
If you are not sure - get either 300/2.8 or 500/4.
600mm f/4. Similar note as with previous one: if you really need these additional 100mm and you don't mind a tripod - fine. But if you are not sure - get a 500/4.
Note: Sigma offers a non-stabilized 500mm f/4.5 for much less than the Canon/Nikon offerings. If you don't mind lack of IS and perhaps a slightly worse image quality (but hey, it's a fixed focal after all!), you might consider this one.
Nikkor 200-400 f/4 VR. Last part ended with a fixed lens, let's end this one with a zoom as it really doesn't fit in there. This is probably the ultimate airshow zoom. Focal range, f/4 all over, image stabilizer, AF-S autofocus system... what more could you want? Well, it could be a) cheaper and b) lighter But if it doesn't scare you - get one, you won't regret.
While obviously, the bigger the better, with a bit of skills any
of these can produce some nice shots. The differences are more about
comfort and limits. But already with a "high-end zoom", you can quite
confidently say that you are not limited by your gear.
Zoom or fixed?
If you are just beginning your adventure, definitely go for a zoom. This will let you familiarize with different ways of composing the photo, after some time you will get to know what are the limitations, what are your most used focal lengths and how can you use your money best to get optimal results.
Still, once you will get really serious about this, you'll notice that all the "good guys" utilize fixed-focal lenses, mostly some kind of 300/2.8 or 500/4. They are more difficult to use - not only because of the weight, but also the fact that you can't adapt your settings to the distance any more. Rather, you have to wait until the scene will be just right.
On the other hand, this "disadvantage" actually makes you think more
about what you see - and, with some training, you'll notice that it's not
much more difficult than using a zoom.
Most important note: teleconverters work well only with good lenses. They degrade both optical quality and AF speed - making the latter often impossible.
As a rule of thumb, you should consider:
- TC x1.4 - for lenses up to f/4.0
- TC x2 - for lenses up to f/2.8
Nikon has also a TC x1.7 teleconverter. It is particularly appealing when combined with a 300/2.8 lens - thanks to great quality of both pieces this gives you almost an equivalent of a 500/4, for much less, both in terms of price and weight.
There are few exceptions to the above rule - if you have a good camera and
really good fixed-focal telephoto lens, you can consider using a combination
that ends up with aperture smaller than f/5.6. Typical example: Canon 400/5.6L
works not too bad with a TCx1.4.
Similarly to the lenses, there are aspects that are more and less important. What you do want is:
- Relatively fast autofocus system, performing well in the continuous mode.
- About 8-10 megapixels (all today's cameras have more anyway)
- Burst mode of at least 4fps with a buffer for 10-20 images
- Small shutter lag
- Two control dials, for easy tweaking of aperture/shutter speed and compensating exposure at the same time.
- Top LCD display, for a quick preview of the camera settings
What you don't care about is:
- High ISO performance - you will rarely go above ISO400 anyway
- Movie mode
- Live view
- Huge screen
- ... and most of other nifty features that today's cameras are packed with.
Again, you can classify most of the DSLRs in three groups:
- Basic, entry-level ones. Typically they have no second control dial, no LCD screen, slow burst modes with intentionally crippled buffer, barely acceptable AF system. But hey, they can take great photos too and cost no more than 500EUR, often with a kit lens.
- "Enthusiast" or "semi-pro". Average-to-good AF, usable burst mode, quite responsive and snappy, usually featuring top LCD screen and a second control dial. Price range: 500-1000EUR.
- Professional cameras - for the purpose of aviation photography, this is mostly equal to "photojournalist's cam". Extremely good AF system (usually employing 40-50 sensors), burst speeds of 8fps+, large RAW buffers, barely noticeable shutter lag. In addition, they are mostly weatherproof, with rubber seals around all the critical points. Price range: 3000EUR+
There is no really much point in listing the specific bodies... they
change too fast and in fact, they offer just what is listed in the specs.
Cross check against the above points and get one that fits your budget.
Canon or Nikon?
Doesn't matter, really. Both systems offer range of equipment that is wide enough for any kind of usage, starting from amateur shooting through the fence of a local airport, up to professional airshow photojournalism. So, there is a room for evolution, no matter where you start.
Some thoughts (valid as of mid-2009):
- Both system have vast amount of low-range equipment available. Nikon is lacking a bit some cheap lenses with ED motor, but there are plenty of third-party ones available. Canon has been putting their USM motors in all of their lenses since forever.
- Nikon seems to be better in the top-range, with a full-frame D3 body and 200-400VR lens - none of them having Canon equivalent. However, Nikon's top lenses are horrendously expensive, costing much more than their Canon counterparts.
- Nikon midrange bodies seem to be better as well, with both D300 and D700 being way above Canon's semi-pro offering.
- But then, there is no real equivalent of Canon's 100-400IS - which dominated the hardcore airshow crowds for past few years.
For most of us, it doesn't really make difference either. All other
camera systems (Olympus, Minolta/Sony, even Pentax) offer enough variety
for an average airshow enthusiast. Still, the variety is often limited -
once you "grow out" of the mid-range gear, you might end up not having
the lens in chosen system.
So, what should I buy?
If after all the above you are still undecided, first suggestion: don't go
asking on the random forums, but follow a simple rule: get whatever most of
your friends have. This will let you get some first hand
experience/mentoring and let you lend some of their lenses if needed (even if
for trying before you buy).
Using compact cameras
Lots of today's compact cameras offer incredibly looking zoom ranges, often up to 500-600mm of 35mm equivalent. They would seem like ideal candidate for airshow photography - light, large closeups, high resolution...
Unfortunately, they are not. Main reason is the AF speed - while the DSLRs use an array of optical sensors with dedicated circuitry, hidden behind the mirror, the compact cameras focus just by analyzing image captured by the main sensor. Currently available electronics is just not fast enough to process such amount of data quickly enough to provide a comparably fast autofocus system.
Besides, the P&S cameras usually feature relatively long full shutter lag - up to 0.5s. This makes it very difficult to capture the right moment of the fast-moving action.
If you would still like to use one, there are two tricks that can be helpful:
- In the compact cameras the depth-of-field is usually quite big. Let's take for example a Powershot G5 - if you set the longest focal length, f/3.0 and focus to the distance of 30 meters, the focus zone spans the area from 17 to 110m. The hyperfocal distance (wide open!) is just 40m. So, the solution seems obvious: switch your camera to the manual focus - and don't touch it any more.
- With the focus locked the above way you should already have gained quite a bit on the shutter lag. You might make it even better by half-pressing the shutter when you follow the plane, trying to find the best angle. Just make sure that the camera doesn't block the exposure - you might lock it in one place and take the picture in another, doing a 45-degree turn towards the sun in the meantime...
Again, rule of thumb: take twice (or more) as much as you think you will ever need. Batteries are neither heavy, nor costly (doesn't apply to pro gear) - trips to the airshows are! You don't want to end up in the early afternoon with your camera out of juice.
Remember, the batteries don't like neither cold nor heat. Don't keep them
in the wide open backpack, exposed to the sun. If the environment is cold
(Axalp ) keep them protected with some
You might consider an UV filter for your main lenses. You never know when you'll end up facing heat from a jet engine turning around on the taxiway just in front of you and throwing all kinds of dust in the air.
Circular polariser might be often useful for the static shots,
letting you make the sky more blue and avoid reflections in the surfaces.
But attention: most of the modern planes' canopies are made of plastic that
creates very nasty, rainbow-like effects, if shot through a polariser!
Portable storage devices (PSD)
With the flash memory card proces being relatively high, common approach was to have:
- few (2-3) mid-sized memory cards
- and a portable storage device, with internal hard disk
- ... or, alternatively, a laptop
Once in a while, the cards would be dumped to the storage device and reformatted. Good thing about such approach is that the storage capacity is virtually unlimited - current 2.5" drives have way more space than anyone might need.
However, there is one pitfall: do not cut corners on the storage device you choose. The cheaper ones tend to be very slow, eat batteries fast and are prone to failures. Don't get fooled by the manufacturers' specifications, offering lots of nifty features like colour LCD screens, reading RAW formats etc. You really want your PSD to do only two things - and do them well:
- Read the data as quickly as possible
- And last as long as possible on a single set of batteries
Commonly agreed measure is "autonomy" - ie. "How much GB of data can this download on a single charge?". For a good device it should be somewhere around 50-100GB. Again, don't trust the advertisements - search photography forums for real life opinions.
While PSDs offer almost unlimited capacity, they are still real hard drives - with moving parts, CF slots that might get their pins broken etc. It's much easier to have just a bunch of flash cards enough for entire day and download them later - why not to a portable drive, sometime in the evening?
As of mid-2009, the flash card prices went down to the level that it starts to actually make sense to have a short-term storage solution based solely on the flash memory. For most common formats (CF and SDHC), you can easily get 32GB of good quality (e.g. Sandisk Ultra II) storage way below 100EUR.
Most well-known brand is Lowepro. Their Trekker series backpacks is something you will probably see most at the airshows. Build quality is generally very good, with lots of padding, spare dividers etc. If in doubt, and not strictly limited by the budget - get one of these (that fits your size).
Tamrac makes good ones too. Considered just slightly worse than Lowepro's (fans will probably disagree). If you want to cut a bit of $$$, check out their Expedition range.
When travelling by plane, there is one bad thing about photo backpacks: they look like photo backpacks as in "Hi, I'm probably heavy, I have lots of annoying straps. Weigh me. Put me through the size check" If you are flying a lot and have lots of gear to carry, have a look at the ThinkTank products. These guys are experts at making bags that look as innocent as any other carry-on bag in a row, while still holding enormous amount of gear inside - safely. Unfortunately, at the very high price tag.
Ah, in case you haven't realized yet: never check your photo bag in on the
flight. Never ever. Beg, shout, put all the gear around your neck ("personal items"),
ask for a talk with the boss. If you expect issues at the gate - take less gear, in
the smaller pack, ensure that it is within weight and size limits. But don't ever
let the luggage people touch it.
Tripod / monopod
Not quite useful, if you ask me. Today's airshows are packed with thousands of hardcore enthusiasts, all of them trying to get as close to the front line as possible... you won't have a chance to setup a nice tripod stand there.
However, if you are happy to shoot from some more distance - feel free.
It's not too useful at the airshows - they usually have quite regular programme, you know in advance what is going on when. However, in some circumstances it might help - in particular, if you are hanging around the fence waiting for the departures/arrivals.
You shouldn't need anything too fancy - a plain, old Maycom AR-108 will
do the job just fine.
While it used to be mainly spotter's item - to get above the airport fences - you can see the people with ladders more and more at the airshows. In principle, there is nothing wrong about it - unless you are a jerk and push yourself to the edge of the crowd line. Don't. With a ladder you have advantage anyway, you can stay few meters further and let the others get their shots too.
Alternatively, take a ladder as a safety measure - but once you eventually
get to the crowdline, use it as a seat only
BTW, the above doesn't apply when you're going to the Netherlands
On any kind of airshows/spotter days there (which are actually quite good),
in all the top photo spots you will see a line of 2m+ stepladders, put
tightly against the fence, making any photography from behind impossible.
If you can't beat them, join them Get yourself one and go with the flow.
Another sticky topic. Again: if used for their real purpose, respecting everybody around, they are entirely cool. Get some 20-30m from the crowdline, get down with your kids and enjoy the spectacle in the air. I actually have one myself
But, as always, there are people who use them not exactly with others
in mind... let me leave the following without comment:
Windshields at Duxford Flying Legends, UK, 2008
EOS 1D MkIII, 24-70/2.8L @24mm, f/5.0, 1/500s, ISO200, +2/3EV, aperture priority
(if you're wondering: no, these folks didn't stay seated)
Just as with the stepladders being Dutch thing, the windshields seem to be
English specialty Fortunately, some airshows recently started to either ban
the windshields, or (even better) allow them only at some distance from the crowdline.
What do *I* use?
DISCLAIMER: I'm a gear-o-holic I have probably three times as much equipment as my photos would justify... but coming from a technical profession, I somehow admire the technology and for me it's part of the fun in the whole hobby.
I use only Canon equipment - not that I'm a particular fan of the brand (just the contrary, I don't like quite a few bits), I just happened to start with it and built my system upon. Here's the list:
- 500/4 IS - my primary lens nowadays. Frankly, I'm addicted to it I tend keep it on even if it's gets too close. I use it mostly wide-open, because of the great background blur. Even for the props, I go down to ISO50, underexpose etc - just to keep the lens as open as possible, as it really shines there. For the big events, it's often coupled with a 1.4x teleconverter
- 300/2.8 IS - this one is useful for the smallest events and the ones where I need to pack extremely light (I put 2x teleconverter on it then). It's nice for panning shots as well, as it's easier to hold steadily than the 500mm. Here too I try to keep as close to f/2.8 as possible, often too close - getting my photos partially out of focus
- 70-200/2.8 IS - perfect for the the static walkarounds (details), also good for the panning shots if runway is really close.
- 100-400/4.5-5.6 IS - it used to be my primary lens before I bought the 500mm. Then, it used to be mounted on second body all the time as the secondary one - but now, I use it much less often. Nothing really bad about it, just the above ones are better
- 17-40/4 - for anything requiring wide angle (mostly static displays).
- 2x EOS 1D-class bodies (currently 1Dmk2N and 1Dmk3).
- Enough CompactFlash cards to keep me running through the day
- Lowepro backpacks - Pro/Nature/Mini Trekker, depending on the need. I prefer the ProTrekker, unless I have to fly (it's too big) or I need to pack very lightly.
- No tripod, well, not for the airshows at least. I can hand-hold the 500mm already around 1/100s anyway (and still working to improve )
- And yes, I do have a small stepladder
My typical backpack configurations are:
- 500, 300, 70-200, 17-40 - "full-featured" version, for the biggest events where I go with a car.
- 500, 100-400, 17-40 - whenever (for whatever reason) I can't take both long telephotos, but I still need long reach. Then, 100-400 is replacing both 300mm and 70-200.
- 300, 70-200, 17-40 - if (for whatever reason) I can't take 500mm, or if long focal length is less of a priority (I compensate with teleconvertters then)
- 500mm and one body - for going up the hill at Axalp
Don't be fooled by the above hi-tech list. As you can see from the descriptions, most of the photos
on this page were made back when I used the 100-400 zoom
This actually concludes the actual "how to make cool pictures" part of this page. There is yet another chapter with some more general hints about the airshows - feel free to check it out too!
Last updated: 14-03-2010, 17:34