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Aviation photography primer

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While the first chapter was focused on non-technical aspect of photography, this one will be more about buttons & dials. I will try to give you both some generic explanation of various camera settings and proper ways to use them, as well as some real-life examples for the particular objects.

Note: I assume that you don't need an explanation what the particular camera settings actually do - if you do, please refer to your manual.

Second note: I'll try to be as gear-neutral as possible, but there might be few Canonisms left - sorry for that :-)

Shutter vs aperture priority

The common approach among the photographers is that:

However, in practice, it's all entirely up to you. After all, both these modes finally end up with the same: a combination of aperture and shutter speed and you can achieve exactly the same results using both.

Example: if you have a mediocre quality lens which is not performing very well until stopped down to, e.g., f/8.0 - why not just fix the aperture to this one, so the lens works optimally? If you notice that the shutter speeds are getting too short for a propeller blur, you can always stop down a bit more.

T=1/F rule

A common rule of thumb among the photographers is that in order to get some sharp photos at focal length of X milimeters, you need to shoot at least at the shutter speed of 1/Xs (or faster). This remains true for the aviation photos, but with some additional remarks:

All these are explained below.

What about non-full-frame cameras?

Most of the consumer cameras don't have a "full-frame" sensor, but it rather occupies just a part of the 35mm frame. It's referred to as a "crop factor", usually it's 1.6x, 1.3x, or 1x (for a full frame sensor). When calculating the "safe" shutter speed using the discussed rule, you need to multiply the focal length by your crop factor. So, for a 400mm lens on a "1.6x" body, the calculated speed should be: 1/640s.

Single vs continuous AF

It seems pretty obvious and in fact it is: for moving aircrafts, use the continuous AF mode, except if you really know what you are doing. Typically this will be the case for low-cost gear:

In the above case, you might prefer to just prefocus on the aircraft once using Single-Shot AF and then, fire some more shots without changing the settings. Then, eventually fix the focus again etc.

Selection of the AF points

Most of cameras offer some choice for AF points that will be used during the continuous AF tracking. The idea is that if the moving aircraft is not covered by the center point, other ones catch up.

However, watch out! If you enable other AF points, they will try to focus on anything they "see" and, if camera decides that, for whatever reason, the "other" object is more important than your plane, it will refocus to it. This will cost you not just one bad frame, but also time it takes to move the lens elements to focus closer/farther and then, to focus on the aircraft again.

Try both settings and use whatever gives you better results. On my EOS 20D, I tend to use center AF point just for the above reason.

Some higher-end cameras might offer custom functions for further tweaking the AF behavior. For Canon 1D series, the most interesting ones are:

Both these settings let you avoid the above mentioned pitfall when using AI servo. In any case, read your manual thoroughly, you might find some really useful (and hidden deeply in the menus) things that you'd never think your camera can do.

Note about static display photos

For the static display - obviously, you want to use the Single-shot AF :-) One note: you might be tempted to stick to the center AF point and use the focus & recompose technique to frame your shot. Beware! Static shots are usually:

Choice of ISO speed

For obvious reasons it's recommended to use low ISO values. This will ensure that the image is noise-free and will help in post-processing.

However, don't try to stick to ISO100 at all costs. Today's cameras are really good at managing noise and, for the daylight conditions, even ISO800 might give some good quality results. Remember: it's better to have a tack sharp image with 1/1000s and a bit of noise than a blurry, noiseless one at 1/200s.


Recent cameras usually employ some kind of Auto-ISO mode. It could be a blessing for aviation photos, if done right. Unfortunately, at least Canon's implementation is far from perfect - it sometimes pumps sensitivity up to the ridiculously high values, giving combinations like ISO800, 1/8000s, all at 200mm and with good lighting. Try yours, perhaps it will be better.


As with exposure modes, there is a "common wisdom" that tells you to use the central or spot metering. This way, the aircraft is always exposed properly (as long as it is in the center)

But in practice, use whatever you want :-) You might find evaluative modes fitting your style of shooting better, especially when combined with...

... Exposure correction

Whichever exposure mode you select, the camera will try to average whatever it "sees" through the AE sensors, trying to make image as neutral ("gray") as possible. While it works for most of the real-life scenarios, it is not always good for aviation photos - in particular, for the aircrafts in the air.

In a typical scene: moving object in the center, rest of the frame being the sky - the latter will have more impact on the overall exposure than you might want it to. To some extent it might be avoided by using one of the centered metering modes... but if you are (like me) not into chasing the plane with a spot meter and 400mm mounted... this is when exposure compensation kicks in :-) It lets you tell the camera what you think is important in the frame.

Typical nasty scenario is: black aircraft on the bright sky. Camera's way of thinking will be: "OK.. most of the frame is bright, there is just that nasty dark spot in the middle... let me make the sky nice" And, in effect, the black aircraft will stay... black :-) To avoid this, add a bit of compensation. The sky will get brighter, but you'll at least get some details of the plane. The colors might get a bit dull, but you can fix this with post-processing. [image]Avro Lancaster B.1, Fairford (UK), 2006
EOS 1D MkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/9, 1/250s, ISO200, aperture priority

Expose for the lights (RAW)

If you are shooting in the RAW format, it has one convenient property: you can, to some extent, recover the details from the blown out parts of the image (a bit like on negatives). Reasonable limit is about 1-2EV, depending on the kind of scene, for anything above you will start to notice some colour distortion.

What's more, this recovery is practically loseless. While extracting data from the shadows will always bring some additional noise, the way DSLR sensor works means, that bringing the highlights out from the blown out parts, will actually decrease noise a little bit.

Practical consequence: if you are not sure which settings to use - try the "brighter" ones (add some correction etc). Even if it blows out, you can catch up while developing RAW file.

Fast mode switching

If you follow the guidelines up to the point, you will often find yourself constantly switching between two sets of settings. They will be similar to:

Spend some time mastering switching between these. Depending on the camera, you might be able to change all that within <1 second.

Some cameras offer so called custom modes that let you register whole setup of the camera under a quickly accessible preset. While it's tempting and useful in the short run, don't forget that you are still in control and check out these dials once in a while :-)

Propeller-powered planes

One of the first rules every aviation photographer learns is: blur that prop! - or the aircraft will seem to be "hung" in the air. It's both a blessing and a nightmare - first, because, if done properly, it gives the photo a nice, "dynamic" touch, not easily possible with jet planes which have... well, nothing to blur :-) But on the other hand, it requires shooting at low shutter speeds, which, combined with the usual focal length ranges of 200-400mm, needs a bit of effort.

My first advice: don't make it a fetish. While it's really cool to shoot the dynamic displays of the helicopters at 1/30s and have the props forming impressive full discs - this doesn't need to be your primary goal. You'll eventually arrive there :-) but first, learn to just make them look nice. [image]Christen Eagle II, Kestenholz Flugtage, 2009
EOS 1D MkIIN, 70-200/2.8IS @200mm, f/16, 1/30s, ISO100, shutter priority

Second tip: it all depends on the plane type. Or rather, on the rotational speed of the propeller. Here are few values that I consider reasonable (as in "don't shoot faster than these") for various aircrafts:

RC models (the ones that have props, that is)1/1000s
Modern aerobatic planes (Extra 300 and alike)1/500s
Older aerobatic planes (Bückers etc)1/200s
Warbirds (Texans, Mustangs...)1/200s
Oldtimers and general aviation1/160s

If you stick to these, your photos should not have that nasty "hung" feeling. Of course the slower you can do, the better. But keep in mind that a blurry photo at 1/100s with full propeller disc is probably worse than a sharp one, shot at 1/400s, showing just a quarter of it.

See also the section about panning below.

Jets (in flight)

As mentioned above, there is not much to blur here... so you can focus on having sharp photos. Therefore, advice: use aperture priority mode! Set your lens either to wide open, or (if it doesn't do too good optically then) stop it down by 1-2EV and let the camera maximize the shutter speed.

While shooting, watch out the speed - if it gets dangerously slow (1/200 or so), you might want to bump ISO to 200-400.

By the way, precisely the same rules apply to the gliders :-) Or just about anything that flies and has no propellers.


When the aircraft gets low and the background becomes more varied than just the sky - it's your chance to put additional dynamics into the photos by using panning. It simply means:

If done right, it will result in a sharp aircraft and nicely blurred background, giving great impression of speed. This technique is typically used in the following situations:

[image]Aermacchi MB-339 - Frecce Tricolori, Payerne (Switzerland), 2004
EOS 10D, 70-200/2.8IS @200mm, f/22, 1/60s, ISO200, shutter priority

Numbers and limits

Mastering panning takes some practice. Reasonable effects start at 1/160s, but for the really nice photos you need to go way lower, up to about 1/30s. Few simple rules:

It would seem that there is no low limit on the shutter speeds and it depends entirely on the camera handling. Unfortunately, it's not true. If you keep decreasing the shutter speeds, at some point you will notice that parts of the aircraft become blurry. This is a result of different angular speeds relative to the camera. While, at the fast shutter speeds it is negligeable, if you try the extreme panning, it starts to be visible (and annoying). Sadly, nothing can be done about it :-( These are simple laws of optics/geometry, no way to get around them.

The closer you are to the object (thus, using shorter focal lenghts), the more annoying it gets. If you try some panning shots of large airliners, using 70-100mm lens, you'll notice this effect already at 1/100s! For the smaller aircrafts, like the display jets on the takeoff, it's usually visible starting at 1/30s or so.

Stunts at takeoff

Starting aircrafts, especially the solo display jets, quite often do some cool tricks right after the takeoff. But, if you're panning them, you might still be in the "1/30s" mode, when they get airborne -> blurry (and possibly underexposed) photos in the air. The trick is:

With a bit of practice, you can do all these at the same time within a fraction of the second - and voila, you have a photo of F-16 both panned at the takeoff and shooting flares up there :-)

Static display

In general, not much to say here "technically" - these are just usual photos after all. Just keep in mind the above note about the "focus & recompose" technique - and keep an eye on your DoF, especially if you're shooting wide-angle.

Night photos

If you are lucky to be able to shoot some static photos in the night (or in a badly illuminated interiors), you really want to use a tripod. Then, the setup is:

[image]McDonnell Douglas F/A-18D Hornet, Payerne (Switzerland), 2005
EOS 1D MkIIN, 24-70L @63mm, f/5.6, 1.3s, ISO100, aperture priority

Some people recommend a remote control (wired or wireless) in addition - I don't think it's really necessary. Pressing the shutter causes some minor vibrations to the camera, but few seconds of delay is enough for them to stop. And even if they don't (entirely), considering the shutter speeds you will be getting (few seconds) they won't really change much.

Normally, aperture priority mode (perhaps combined with some exposure compensation) will do just fine. But if you find the results not matching what you want, just grab some average parameters (like: f/8, 6s) and use the manual exposure mode. Try few test shots, adjust parameters as necessary, until you're entirely happy.

Final thoughts

By now, we've covered both technical aspects and composition. You should be ready to go shooting now! Feel free to explore other parts of this website to give you some possible trip ideas.

Alternatively, if you don't feel armed well enough yet - continue to the chapter about the equipment :-)

Last updated: 14-03-2010, 17:34