What you need to know to photograph an airshow

Here's how to capture aerial acrobatics -- from choosing the right lens to setting up your digital camera.

  • Freeze the Action

    Here come the airplanes--how do you get good, sharp, interesting photos? First and foremost, you want to freeze the action. That requires a fast shutter speed and the ability to pan along with the plane's motion.

    To get a fast shutter speed, I recommend that you use your camera's aperture or shutter priority mode, not automatic or program mode. Dial in shutter priority and, with the camera pointed up to the sky, dial in the fastest shutter speed you can. Or, in aperture priority, choose the smallest f/stop number possible, which will give you a fast shutter speed. Whichever way you do it, your shutter speed should be at least twice your focal length. So if you're using a 200mm lens, you should be shooting at 1/400 second or faster. That's really just a rule of thumb, not a mathematical principle, but if you're shooting a 200mm lens at 1/60 second, I guarantee you'll have a blurry photo. I took this photo with a 400mm lens and a shutter speed of 1/800 second. If you have trouble reaching a fast shutter speed, increase the ISO a little to make the camera more sensitive to light.
  • Find a Good Spot

    Make sure you know the airshow's schedule--some schedule aerobatic shows throughout the day, while others feature mostly static displays and ground events, but end with a single aerobatic show. Before the show you want to see, stake out a good spot.

    What's good? Generally, the more centrally you can position yourself along the viewing area, the better. That's where the announcer booth is located, and where the aircraft will tend to do their most interesting stuff. It’s also where the biggest crowd will form, so you might need to pick a spot early.
  • Use the Right Equipment

    You can probably guess that a [[xref:|digital SLR|Top 10 Digital SLR Cameras]] is going to give you better results than a point and shoot--but you can still get good photos with even a compact camera. The catch is that you need a long telephoto lens (generally at least 300mm) to fill the frame with passing aircraft. If you're using a compact camera with a top zoom of 120mm, most of your photos will show a big blue sky with tiny airplane-shaped flecks in them.

    Even so, wide-angle lenses can come in handy for capturing aircraft on the ground--called "static displays" in airshow lingo--and crowd shots. I typically bring my trusty 18-200mm zoom and a 400mm telephoto. And as you see here, shots of planes on the ground can be fun.
  • Experiment With Exposure Settings

    Take a few test shots and see how well your camera balances the exposure between the sky and plane. Often, you'll find the camera underexposes the plane, obscuring detail. If that's the case, adjust the exposure compensation dial on your camera to overexpose the scene by a stop or so. The sky might end up being brighter and paler than you'd like, but you'll get better exposure and detail in the plane, like in the shot shown here. You can, of course, use some photo editing magic to improve the sky. Read "[[xref:|Make a Dramatically Blue Sky|Make a Dramatically Blue Sky]]" for tips on doing that.
  • Pan the Camera

    Track the aircraft as it approaches, keep it centered in the viewfinder, and press the shutter release as you continue to follow through--like a golfer following through on a swing. That means you shouldn't mount the camera securely on a tripod. Tripods are okay (I use them at airshows) but you need to keep the tripod's head very loose so you can track and pan without being slowed down. That’s the technique I used to catch the jet shown here.

    There's an interesting exception to this faster-is-better rule: if you're shooting propeller-driven planes, a slower shutter speed will give you very attractive prop blur. It's a nice effect, but hard to achieve if you freeze the rest of the plane. Smooth, accurate panning is really important when you slow down the shutter speed.

    For more tips on photographing fast-moving objects, go to "[[xref:|Digital Photography Tips: Capture Summer Action|Digital Photography Tips: Capture Summer Action]]."
  • Keep Your Back to the Sun

    Airshows are especially tricky because you're trying to shoot a relatively small object against a large, bright background. If you're not careful, the camera will read the sky and say to itself, "Hey! That's bright. I'll lower the exposure to get a beautiful blue image." In the process, the camera underexposes the real subject: the airplane.

    There are a couple things you can do to mitigate this problem. First, avoid shooting into the part of the sky that contains the sun. Wherever the sun happens to be, shoot with your back to it so the sun helps illuminate the plane, not create a brighter backlight behind it. As a rule of thumb, I never press the shutter release unless the plane I'm photographing is at least 90 degrees away from the sun. Next, try out different camera settings.
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