fr de en

Aviation photography primer

» Table of contents » Main page

General hints

This section contains all the non-technical, non-photographic aspects of the photography - as in: where, when and how? :-)


This is the first (and, actually, the only important) problem. In a sense, it's similar to the nature photography - you will not make something out of nothing. So, if you like to photograph the strategic bombers, but the only thing close to you is a small local aviation club - you've got to learn with what you've got. And it's worthwhile to learn on what you've got, as you never know when the club will be transformed into an USAF airbase :-)

... But even if you are lucky to live close to the place where your favourite breed of "birds" live, there comes another problem: how to get close to the birds without annoying the "caretakers"? :-) It's not that bad for civilian aviation (see below), but in case of a military airbase it often goes down to:

... or just slow, painful "getting inside" the environment. Unfortunately, usually you can't "just go there". If you are not well known photographer, or you don't have one of the 'advantages' listed above, then sorry - no kiddin' with the army.

It gets a bit easier when it comes to the civilian planes. Typically, if you go to the nearby airport, get a good spot and just start shooting, nothing terribly unpleasant will happen. It doesn't mean that nobody will complain at all! The airport security is sometimes picky, but in fact, apart from telling you to go away they can't do much.

Another advice: it always pays off to have a look around, search for some local aviation fan clubs, something that will let you "get hang of it". Apart from the obvious gain in the knowledge, it will let you make some new friends, exchange links to the good spotting places, the photos etc. Such groups sometimes organize spotting trips or base visits, where you can get some extra opportunities. In the extreme case you might end up at the flying school :-)

At the end of the day, there is the simplest (and unfortunately, the most expensive) solution: the airshows. And this is what this whole website is about: to help you get to the airshows and take some cool pictures.

[image]Enthusiast crowd at Airpower05 - Austria, 2005
EOS 20D, 100-400IS @100mm, f/9.5, 1/2000s, ISO400, -1EV, shutter priority

When and how?

Anytime! :-) You can find some events all the time around the whole Europe - season starts in early spring and ends in late autumn. The really hungry ones can even go further (Dubai, New Zealand, South Africa, US), where the events are held during the European winter :-)

But I'd rather tell you more about the actual positioning during the event.


No matter if you are at a big airshow, shooting the airliners, or getting some static shots of general-aviation planes at the local aeroclub, try to vary your position. Starting with a good spot at the centerpoint is fine - but once you are full of these perfect takeoff shots, go somewhere else:

It's really simple: different positions -> different angles -> more interesting photos.

Multi-day events

In particular, if you are coming for more than one day of an event: on the first one, try to get all the "classical" shots from the single, optimal viewing point. Then, the following day - experiment, walk around, you don't even need to be in front of the crowd line all the time.

Keeping your spot

Speaking about the crowd... airshows became a really popular sport these days. It's easy to say "you need to move around" - but in practice, you might end up desperately trying to keep your carefuly chosen spot at the crowd line for entire day. Otherwise, once you move, you'll end up 10 meters further, with hundreds of people in front of you. [image]Enthusiast crowd at Leeuwaarden Open Dagen - Netherlands, 2006
EOS 1D MkIIN, 100-400IS @130mm, f/7.1, 1/1000s, ISO640, shutter priority

For an emergency solution, check some notes about using a stepladder in the equipment section.

Follow the sun

While applying the Rule #1, you don't need to be completely random. Instead, try to always keep the sun behind your back. If there is nothing blocking the access, just move freely around the runway. But even if what you have is just a long, straight crowd line (hopefully with the people on the southern side), start on the right and, around noon, move to the left side - this will keep your angles as good as possible, relative to the sun.

If you are unlucky and the spectators' area is on the "wrong" side of the runway - do everything you can in order to get to the "right" one. Use the ladder, find a tall building in the neighbourhood, rent a long telephoto lens, climb the trees if you have to :-)

Get your timing right

Actually, it's not just a rule for the aviation photos, but a general one: you get the best images in the morning or in the evening. The plain, strong midday sun makes them bright, sharp, contrasty... and boring. What's more, with a strong light from above, you usually get some nasty looking shadows under the wings.

Unfortunately, the airshows are mostly held outside the "golden hour". You have to: a) arrive as early as possible and b) leave as late as possible. This way, you have a possibility of shooting some arrival/departure photos in a nice sunlight. [image]Douglas DC-2, Geneve Cointrin (Switzerland), 2007
EOS 1D MkIIN, 100-400IS @400mm, f/9.0, 1/250s, ISO100, -1/3EV, aperture priority

Remember: one good photo taken at 8am or 6pm is worth five good ones taken at noon!

Getting in / getting out

(related to the above, but from non-photographic perspective)

Most of the general airshow crowd comes to the airfield late in the morning, when the actual spectacle starts. Don't feel like being stuck in the traffic jams, queuing for tickets, desperately looking for a good spot in the crowdline? Just get there early! No real limits there, ideally, just show up when the gates open.

I told you above that it's best to stay until the very end. It's indeed true, also from the practical point of view - by then, most of the people will be already stuck in traffic and you can slowly walk to your car through the almost-empty airfield.

But... sometimes you're in a hurry (long way home and having to get to work next morning). Hint: it's quite common that the organizers leave the main attraction until the very end. Usually it's some kind of a well-known aerobatic jet team (Patrouille de France, Red Arrows etc). You certainly already have some good photos of it, don't you? Then, what about leaving just when they start the demo? This way you'll get ahead of the big crowds :-)

Good weather is bad weather

... and the opposite. This might sound a bit like contradictory to what I've said above, but: if you're after some unusual photos, then rain, snow, fog, all these are your friends. With a perfect, sunny weather all the day, even with the sun on your back, you'll end up with the "typical" photos - perhaps even not too bad (if you get your angles right), but still common ones.

But, once there is just a bit (or preferably, more) of humidity in the air, the whole new world opens:

So, don't get discouraged by the forecasts :-) Go there anyway, you might be surprised by the end result.

Better side of the fence

While stuck in the crowd, you will often see the people walking freely along the restricted area, taking pictures. You might wonder how did they get there? There are few genres:

As the first three are rather self-explanatory :-) let me cover the latter two.

Spotter access / photo days

Some larger airshows introduced a good practice of allowing limited number of amateur photographers some special access. This might be either a possibility of visiting the arrival/rehearsal days (where security restrictions are usually much less tight), or providing special photo points during the actual event. Or, sometimes just all-access pass :-)

If you ever see such opportunity, try to get into it. You need to be quick - often it's limited to 50-100 people and the demand is high. What's more, the registrations are sometimes opened at random times, you might need to watch the airshow webpage few times a day to catch up.

One of the aims of the reviews on this page is to provide some details about such extra opportunities available at the events - check out the particular articles for the details.

Spotter packages is actually my preferred way of attending an airshow. It avoids an embarassment of pretending to be a press (see below), it's usually prepared by the people who know what the photographers want - taking into the account things like direction of the sunlight, angles towards the runway/taxiway, clearance around the static aircrafts (no barriers) etc. Right people in the right place :-)

NOTE Be sure to check the terms & conditions before you sign up for the spotter package. Quite often they mention providing some photos free of charge to the organizers, sometimes they go a bit further. It's up to you to decide if you're OK with them - before signing up.

Getting accredited

Or: "how to pretend to be PRESS" :-D But seriously: don't, if you absolutely don't have to. Today's airshows are plagued with applications from various spotter groups, photography forums etc., with self-made 'press cards', all of them pretending to be as much of a "professional aviation resource" as possible ;-). As the organizers are often in a hurry, they don't have much time to spot the difference - and end up with either limiting access to the real professionals (in order to accomodate everybody), or just letting everyone in, ending up with a crowd of people spoiling the show for general public (see below).

There is another, more honest way (that I personally use most often these days). You need to be at certain level first, ideally with some nice portfolio webpage. Just write to the organizers and say openly: "hi, I'm an amateur photographer, these are my photos, look, they're all high in Google when searching for the event images... What about me joining your team and shooting some nice ones for you?:-)". If your work speaks for itself, for most small and mid-sized events, you might just get in - often, ending up better than the media members :-)

Once you get there...

... don't forget where you came from :-) Don't get in the way between the public and the show - especially, if you're wearing one of these light green/orange security vests (they look really nasty at the photos ;-)). If you do - get down, so there is still some view above you. Get closer to the fence, this way you disrupt less people (and you can spread the impact by moving around). Be nice!

Find yourself a spot which is not useful for the public photography anyway. When the static display is between the crowd and the display area, my favourite one is to get right in front of some large warbird. And I get a nice shadow from the wings as a bonus :-)

Remember, ideally you should be invisible to the public. The more photos of yourself you find in the Internet later, the worse you behaved :-) Just like these guys: [image]"Accredited photographers..." Kestenholz Flugtage, 2009

Last updated: 14-03-2010, 17:44