Shooting an Air Show

I went down with some of my photog friends to an airshow at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX. I've never photographed planes in the air and I was excited to get the opportunity. This was kind of a learning under fire experience since I knew relatively nothing about this kind of action shooting. I thought I'd share what I learned during this great experience.

The first dilemma I faced was what equipment to take. For the best image quality I chose to take my Canon 5D. Glass was a bit of a problem though. My longest lens is a 70-200mm and I was pretty sure that 200mm wasn't going to cut it. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a 100-400mm lens for the trip. This was a great choice, as most of my shots ended up being in the 300-400mm range.

Normally, I'd take a tripod and a wide angle lens along on any photo outing. I knew there would be opportunity to photograph planes on display, but I opted to take just the one telephoto lens. There were several reasons for this. First, security was rather tight and it initially sounded like camera backpacks wouldn't be let in (it turns out that they were, with a search.) Second, this was a crowded event and I figured that the planes on display would be surrounded by people (not the best for HDR work.) Finally, I thought it would be best to just travel light and not have so much to carry. Parking was a good distance from the entrance, making runs back to the car to swap out gear impractical.

I had the gear and my mission was clear. Grab shots of planes in the air. I also figured I'd get some closeup shots of artwork on the planes and other details on the ground. Anything else I could capture with the relatively long focal length lens would be icing on the cake. I ended up snapping almost 600 shots, coming close to filling up 3 4GB cards. Of course, not all were keepers but I came away with a lot of great shots.

Here is a synopsis of what I learned in this experience:

1) I'd say that you need a lens with at least 300mm of focal length. I took some shots at shorter focal lengths, which worked out fine when the planes were making close passes. Trying to crop a useable picture when they were further out just didn't work. Even this close pass of a B-29 bomber was taken at over 300mm.

2) You'll more than likely need to use exposure compensation to bump your exposure up any where from +1/3 to +1. If you don't, the planes will just be dark shadows. Check your shots and histogram frequently!

3) On a bright day, it's almost impossible to see your LCD screen. I had a heck of a time reviewing shots and I was kicking myself for not buying a Hoodman Loupe when they were on sale a while back. I'll definitely be getting of those in the near future!

4) Focusing on fast moving small objects is tough. I noticed that the distance scale fell into the infinity zone virtually all the time. In retrospect, I'm wondering if it's worth it to try and autofocus at all instead of just setting the lens to infinity and firing away. I focused on bigger planes and set the lens to manual focus most of the time and that seemed to work.

5) The best way to get clear shots is track planes and pan with them. It's kind of like skeet shooting in way, without the lead. I tried to pick them up as far out as possible and track them in close, firing 2 or 3 shots when then got in as close to filling the frame as possible. Zooming out to find them and then zooming in when you lock on one may be necessary.

6) For jets, you want fast shutter speeds. Probably no less than 1/500. I tried to keep it at 1/1000 or higher. Setting my ISO to 200 and my aperture at 5.6 in Aperture Priority mode seemed to keep the shutter speeds fast enough.

7) For prop planes, you want slower shutter speeds. Why? Well, if you use fast shutter speeds the propellors will be frozen and the planes look like a toy model floating in front of a blue screen! I found that shutter speeds of 1/200 to 1/250 worked well. I set these speeds in Shutter Priority mode for the prop planes.

8) Shoot in RAW format. I always do anyway. This gives you the most control over the exposure, allowing you to adjust things in post processing. This can mean the difference between an awesome shot or an image ruined by underexposure or blown highlights.

9) Take lots of memory cards and take lots of shots. Memory is cheap and if you made the effort to attend the event you want as many good shots as you can get. You'll have a lot of throwaways, believe me!

10) This is kind of subjective, but I find that shots of the planes approaching or tilted toward the camera are more exciting. Straight profile shots on a fly-by or the rear of the plane flying away just don't do it for me.

Bonus tip: Prepare yourself for a day in the sun. Stay hydrated and take a break in whatever shade you can find periodically. Put on sunscreen. Wear a broad rimmed hat. Wear comfortable shoes.

There you have it, several tips based on personal experience from my first air show photo shoot. These events are a blast and I highly recommend them. Checkout some of my photo highlights from the show in my air show set on Flickr.