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Aviation photography primer

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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.


You need:

You don't need:

Lenses useful for the aviation photography can be categorized in three groups:

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.

High-end zooms

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.

Some examples:

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.

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:

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.

Camera body

Similarly to the lenses, there are aspects that are more and less important. What you do want is:

What you don't care about is:

Again, you can classify most of the DSLRs in three groups:

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):

Other systems

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:


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 socks etc.


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:

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:

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.

For a bit more specific advice: the ones from Hyperdrive[external] have a very good reputation. Yes, they're expensive :-(

Flash-only setup

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.

If you can afford it (still, it depends on how much you shoot), go for it.


Photo backpack / bag

Most well-known brand is Lowepro[external]. 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[external] 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" :-D If you are flying a lot and have lots of gear to carry, have a look at the ThinkTank products[external]. 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: [image]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 :-D 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:

My typical backpack configurations are:

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 :-)

Further reading

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