How to Photograph an Airshow

Each summer, at air shows across the globe, awestruck spectators enjoy the power and precision of aerial demonstration teams and individual performers. In addition to what is happening in the air, there are often static displays on the ground. For photographers, these events provide outstanding photographic opportunities. After you shoot your first air show, you will likely return each year as I do. The tips below are based on my experiences at air shows around the New York area.

tips for air show photography

photo by Richard Jones

Day of the Show

It is recommended that you get to the show at least one hour in advance in order to find parking, and a shooting location. Air shows can be very crowded, with numbers reaching into the tens of thousands. By arriving early, you may be able to set your gear up in a prime area. Generally, the performers enter from the left and right, with their stunts done at “show center.”

air show photography

photo by DVIDSHUB

A good viewing spot is important, as it allows you to focus and track the incoming jets. When possible, I try to pick a place that’s in the shade with a full view of the show center. However, many airports and military bases do not have trees to block the sun. To protect yourself from the elements, I strongly urge you to bring sunscreen.

Lens Choices

When I photographed my first air show many years ago, I used a 28–135mm lens. Yet, unless the plane was flying directly above me, I found that much more reach was necessary. Today, I use a 70–200mm for action that’s directly overhead, and a 400mm for tighter shooting. My camera does not have a full frame sensor, so a 400mm with a 1.6 crop factor is actually an effective 640mm lens. Just remember, air shows are usually several hours in duration, and longer lenses can get quite heavy.

air show close up

photo by Tony Hisgett

Image stabilization is a nice feature, but a tripod will give your arms a break and allow you to create sharp images consistently. While the majority of my aviation work is shot with longer lenses, I find that wide angle lenses are also useful for performance teams that are spread out in wide formations. By utilizing a few different options, you can capture more of the action, and will come home with a diverse collection of images.

Shutter Speeds

Attempting to freeze the motion of something traveling over five hundred miles per hour is no easy feat. In order to achieve this, a fast shutter speed of around 1/1000 is recommended. Yet, like most aspects of photography, there are exceptions to this. With older planes, a shutter speed of 1/1000 will freeze the propellers. The effect actually reduces the appearance of motion, and gives the image an unnatural look.

To show the movement of the propeller, a shutter speed of 1/90 is a good starting point. However, you may have to adjust it slightly to 1/60 or slower, depending on the speed of the plane. Of course, with these slow shutter speeds you will want to pay close attention to your camera technique to ensure sharp images.

In-Camera Metering

Even today’s sophisticated DSLR metering systems can be tricked by certain situations. When exposing a jet against a clear blue summer sky, automatic camera settings will often properly expose the sky, and leave you with an underexposed plane. In order to have full control over the camera, I prefer to use the in-camera spot meter along with the manual exposure mode. Semi automatic modes can be effective as long as you are utilizing your histogram, and making adjustments as needed.

Most often, I find myself around 1/1000 of a second, ISO 400, and f/5.6. Of course, this can change drastically depending on the weather conditions of that particular day.

Focus

Rather than trying to frame the perfect shot, I like to use a high speed burst mode and fire off many frames for each pass. This technique increases the percentage of keepers. Following high speed objects this way takes some getting used to. Thankfully, most cameras feature continuous focusing, also known as AI Servo. This mode will allow you to continually focus on moving subjects. To use this feature successfully, keep your center focusing point over the aircraft with your cable release or shutter held halfway down.

As you follow the plane through your viewfinder, the camera will automatically adjust the focus as the aircraft gets closer. When you are ready to make an image, simply press the shutter all the way down. Luckily, air show organizers often arrange “photo passes,” where the pilot flies at a reduced speed. Don’t get too comfortable though, they return to full speed after just a few slow turns.

Memory

With all of this high flying, fast-paced action, you will likely go through many memory cards rapidly. I bring a portable hard drive with me, and download the contents of the card while continuing to shoot. Once I’m sure the images have been safely written to the drive, I format the card in camera and reuse it.

I like to shoot in RAW format whenever possible. However, if you are short on memory cards, and don’t have a portable hard drive, you may want to consider shooting in the Large/Fine JPEG format. This will allow you to f it more images on the card than RAW.

What to Look For

Smoke trails and after burner effects are great additions to an aviation image. Be ready for them, as they happen quickly. The trails of white smoke are actually created by pumping oil into the exhaust pipe. This is particularly interesting when used by an entire formation of planes.

how to take photos of air shows

photo by Andy L

The patterns of smoke can be used to make for a more artistic composition. In addition, it adds a bit of contrast to the otherwise plain blue sky. I also look to capture the interaction between two planes. When pilots are flying side by side with their wings nearly touching, a great deal of tension is introduced to the photo. By freezing this moment in time you are also showcasing the precision and skill of the daring pilots.

Enjoy the show!

About the Author
Chris Corradino is a professional photographer based in New York City (www.christography.com). His photography, instructional videos, and informative articles can all be seen on his website.

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8 responses to “How to Photograph an Airshow”

  1. cps says:

    Thanks for posting this! I’m going to the cleveland airshow soon & will be photographing the blue angels with my t2i/18-135mm combo! This article is excatly what I needed to get a rough starting point on what aperture/shutter speed I need to use. Thanks again!

  2. LOU says:

    This has been a great help! I often has fighter jets coming over our property and have always wanted to take some photos but was never sure on the correct settings. Thanks!

  3. Mav says:

    Do you have any tips on cleaning up and retouching the images? I’ve got some good stuff, but due to lighting and atmospheric conditions they are a little grey and muddy.

  4. tonyb says:

    These tips are pretty good, coiencidentally, I just put up my blog posting here http://www.abrandao.com/2013/04/02/air-show-photography/ then I came across yours. One thing you should stress is the importance of telephoto zoom lens, you really need a 400mm or longer to do most of these shows justice.

  5. mike penney says:

    Your advice on using 1/90 and 1/60 second exposure on these speedy machines is totally bogus…. The absolute longest shutter speed you should use here is 1/250th and I would be inclined to to be up in the 1/2000 range…
    1/250 will show lots of propeller movement…
    At 1/60th the photos are going to be fuzzy mush…

  6. Bill Dobbs says:

    Response to Mike Penney; I have seen the same advice from Moose Peterson and other professionals regarding shutter speed for photos of prop aircraft. They all agree on shutter speeds of 1/25 to 1/125 for a proper rendering of the motion of the prop.
    Unfortunately you have used rather agressive wording in your post. From those who have been there and done it, it appears you may be the one with incorrect information.

  7. Nathan Gates says:

    Using a shutter speed of 1/90 or 1/60 is not bogus. You must not know how to pan correctly. My prop pictures I use 1/40 and get complete circles instead of a blurred “X”. It takes practice and good panning.

  8. Ankur says:

    Well your post helped me in shooting a airshow in Singapore recently.
    See some pictures over here –
    UltraWideLife.com

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