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TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!

Air Show Photography Tips & Tricks


One of the most well attended airshows of all time was in Dayton, OH celebrating 100 years of powered flight in 2003.


Did you know that more people attend air shows than any other past time activity in North America? Not only are they the perfect outdoor activity for the entire family but also their safety record has set precedence for all other sporting events across the nation.

According to the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS), between 15 and 18 million people attend air shows annually. You would think there were a few cameras in that crowd. With so many people and so many photos to be taken, how are you going to keep your images original? Where is the best place to photograph? What does it take to get that perfect photo? Hopefully the following text will provide some insight as to the secret of capturing the essence and spectacle of air shows.

A friend once told me, “It’s not the arrow that hit the target; it was the archer’s skill which caused it to do so.” Although your equipment does play a vital role in the creation of your images, it is your skill and imagination that will enable your photos to be successful. Because of that, I can only give you a guide based on the mainstream fundamentals of air show photography and what type of equipment seems to work.

Your best bet for a successful system would be a camera with detachable lenses known as an SLR (Single Lens Reflex). This will enable you to see exactly what the camera sees including the ability to check focus and composition. The most notable benefit to SLR’s are the plethora of lenses available providing an enormous focal range. In that focal range, you could include wide-angle lenses starting around 17mm all the way up to telephotos in excess of 400mm. The two most common lenses carried are the wide-angle to medium range zoom of around 24-80mm and the telephoto zoom lenses ranging from 75-300mm.


A wide angle lens was necessary for capturing the behemoth C-5 Galaxy from atop the tail at Moffett Airfield.


For creating interesting effects of static aircraft, you could try fisheye lenses ranging from 8mm to 15mm. Or perhaps if you want to include a large area or an entire aircraft without too much distortion, Canon and Nikon (as well as many aftermarket brands) make lenses in the 17-35mm range.

When it comes to telephoto lenses, things get a little more complicated and if you let them, a bit more expensive. Although a zoom lens of 75-300mm will work well on just about all applications, with an aperture of F/5.6 or higher, some may find it a little restrictive. A practice, which is becoming more common, is to carry an additional fixed length telephoto lens with a range of 300mm or 400mm and an aperture of F/4. Not only are you able to use a full shutter speed or film speed faster with the lens by itself, but you also have the capability of adding a 1.4x teleconverter, which would change the 300mm F/4 to a 420mm F5.6 or the 400mm F/4 to a 560mm F5.6.

The resulting aperture and weather conditions play a big factor in your film of choice. If you have a fairly small aperture such as F/5.6 or F/8 or the weather isn’t exactly great, you may want to use a film speed (or digital ISO setting) of ISO 200 or 400 in order to increase your shutter speeds and stop the action. Unfortunately, the higher the ISO setting the more noticeable film grain or digital ‘noise’ becomes. Many photographers will shoot ISO 100 to achieve the sharpest possible images. If you are familiar enough with your camera manually adjust your setting to ISO 100 and take a meter reading of the approximate area in which you will be photographing. If the shutter speed is higher than the focal length of the lens, ISO 100 will work perfectly. If the focal length is lower, i.e.; shutter speed = 1/250 sec. and focal length = 400mm, use a setting of ISO 200 to raise your shutter speed to 1/500 sec. resulting in a shutter speed more than the focal length.


An F-15E pilot waits by his aircraft prior to the start of the MCAS Miramar Airshow


There are two types of air shows, the one everyone goes to and the one you find. At the risk of sounding spiritual, the air show most people see is up in the air. If your goal is to capture the essence of the show, you need to look on the ground.
Being one of the first to get to the show will provide you with many photographic opportunities. If you have access to the air show grounds during sunrise or sunset, even better. This will allow you to get creative with silhouettes and the use of warm, soothing colors. Often, barricades aren’t in yet in place and even if they are, you’ll still have a clear, unobstructed view of the static aircraft on the tarmac without the hordes of people in front. If air show documentation was something you had in mind, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to capture on film the volunteers and workers setting up the show for the arriving crowd.

Another benefit to showing up early is the fact that aircraft may still be arriving. This will offer you beautiful morning light for those aerial images as well as intimate images of the aircraft as they taxi to position. Also, with the proper consideration, you may have a chance to speak with the pilots and aircrew in more detail as they prepare their aircraft for the public. You may not have this opportunity again once the crowds begin to arrive.


Security at military airshows can be somewhat strict and an inconvenience, but a necessity. Be sure to know what can and can't be brought with you to insure a speedy search.


There have always been some restrictions imposed by air show officials for the safety of all those attending. After recent events, security issues have become more intense as well as a bit more frustrating. With a little foresight and preparation, many of the impositions can be overcome.

Some common things not to bring to most air shows would be cooler’s backpacks, large camera bags, weaponry of any kind, scooters, skateboards and lawn chairs. Specifics vary between shows.

Getting around these limitations takes a little bit of imagination and sacrifice. With the exception of being physically searched once, I have yet to be given a difficult time wearing a photo vest. Photo or fishing vests can serve many purposes, which can alleviate security hassles. The large pocket in the rear of the vest is used to hold water and a small snack. The pockets up front hold my additional smaller lenses, flash equipment, spare batteries, cell phone and other peripherals. A small hip pouch with two pockets is used exclusively for film (one pocket exposed, the other unexposed) or memory cards if shooting digitally. I keep my larger lenses attached to the camera bodies with shoulder straps. Not only do I have quick access to the equipment this way but also security can readily check their authenticity. If you pack only what you need, a photo vest will eliminate the need for a backpack, cooler and large camera bags.

Instead of bringing a chair, if prohibited by security, you may want to think about bringing a towel to sit on instead. Personally, while in search for photo opportunities, I rarely have the opportunity to sit down anyhow.


Choosing the proper location to shoot while at the show can set you up for some unique and powerful images.


Since flight lines vary between airfields, as does the path of the sun, homework is your best bet to figuring out where to be. Here are some questions to ask your self when choosing a location to set up:

– Which direction will the aircraft most likely be coming from?
– Where will the sun be heading throughout the show?
– How close is the crowd line from the end/beginning of the runway?
– Where is the best place to view the hot ramp during the air show?
– Where is show center?
– Where will the audio trailer be located? (Just kidding!)
– Will there be audio speakers in the way of your line of sight during ribbon cuts and low flybys?

While at some air shows, the aircraft will follow the length of the runway the entire time they are in front of the crowd, others will use show center as an apex and approach from behind. For the shows that use the straight pass approach, choose either end of the crowd line, preferably the opposite end of the approach pattern. This will give you a much longer period in which to capture head on photos of the aircraft. For the shows that use an arch pattern and approach from behind position yourself closest to the approach and you will have access to closer, tighter formation shots than from show center.

If they’ve positioned the crowd line close to the beginning or end of a runway, choose what is most important to you. Do you want photos of an aircraft at idle preparing for takeoff or images of the plane as it is just lifting the front wheels? Perhaps you are looking for the aircraft to be in wheels up clean configuration low to the runway, if so you should be as close to the end of the runway as possible.

Do you like to photograph the performers signing autographs or waving to the crowd as they climb out of the aircraft? Try show center, but get there early.

Be extra cautious of speaker and audio systems that may be in your way. Since most of the time the action is in the air high above, we just don’t think about it. However, if you would like photos of jet cars, or low flying aerobatics such as the ribbon cutting maneuvers, you may want to position yourself a little more carefully.


Heavy rain adds to the drama of this 'Red Tail' P-51. Weather can be a defining aspect of any image.


If this were a perfect world, the sun would be to everyone’s back and there would always be a soft breeze cleansing the hazy sky. Unfortunately airports aren’t built for the once a year air show convenience, so improvisation becomes vital to great and unique images. Sometimes, weather can even become your greatest ally!


Blue Angels against an overcast sky in Abbotsford, British Columbia 2003.


If aircraft are flying during cloudy days, chances are it will be a low show, (if a show at all!). Low shows enable you to get even closer to the action than normally possible. Some performers, or teams such as the Blue Angels, alter their performances according to the ceiling provided thus allowing for different formation shots. When shooting under a completely overcast sky, overexpose the image by 1 to 1.5 stops. The bright sky tends to trick the camera into thinking it is too light for the current shutter speed and you will wind up with a silhouette on every shot. Other great advantages of cloudy skies would be the statics. Clouds act as a big diffuser softening the light and eliminating harsh shadows. Adding an 81A-warming filter will help reduce the bluish tones in the film’s appearance. Most digital cameras will correct this bluish tone if the Auto-White Balance mode is selected.

Partly Cloudy
Even better! Partly cloudy skies add depth to your images. Instead of having a plain blue background, now you can add dimension and distance, and with proper timing, frame the aircraft amongst the clouds. Framing could involve using a wider-angle lens to give the aircraft “placement”. Cumulus clouds work great for depth during the midday. When evening starts to approach, look for “God rays” or beams of light shining down through patches in the sky. A wide angle works best for these shots.


Shooting directly into the sun can result in dramatic silhouettes.


It seems as though airports are specifically constructed so the sun is in your face…the whole day! Definitely a situation that requires a lens hood. Lens hoods keep stray light off the front optic of your lens. When light hits the front optic, it bounces off of the various other optics inside the lens causing haziness. By avoiding this, contrast and clarity is gained. If the sun is directly in front of you, try timing your photos so that the aircraft flies directly in front of the sun. Most of the time, this will cause your camera to increase the shutter speed instantly resulting in a silhouette of the aircraft. Obviously, be careful when dealing with the sun. As if it isn’t bad enough just looking at it, now you’re magnifying it as well!

Aircraft Photography
So you have your equipment, you’ve decided what film to use and now you’re on the prowl looking for anything that flies. Then what? Even though your meter will tell you to shoot at a specific shutter speed / aperture combination, that’s something you’re definitely going to want to experiment with.

If you feel your camera may be tricked by odd lighting conditions, take your telephoto lens and point it towards the tarmac. The gray tarmac will give you a good average 18% gray reading that you should be able to apply elsewhere in the same direction. Just remember light changes, so recheck your meter reading every half-hour and only use this technique during midday light. Most cameras have very sophisticated metering systems that should do just fine without using this technique, however. Photographing aircraft is difficult. There, I’ve said it! It takes lots of practice and skill.


Since jet aircraft have no visually moving parts, bump up that shutterspeed to insure sharp images.


Jet Aircraft
Select the fastest shutter speed possible. Since jet aircraft typically move at a fast rate of speed, stopping the action is much easier said than done. To achieve this, set the camera to its “Aperture Priority” mode and select the widest aperture your lens will allow. This will cause the camera to select the fastest shutter speed possible based on your surrounding light conditions.

The only exception to selecting the fastest shutter speed for jet aircraft would be if there were a background such as a hangar or mountainside. In order to create a sense of action and speed; set your camera’s shutter speed to 1/250 -1/500 of a second. Those shutter speeds also work if there are scattered Cumulus or Cirrus clouds in the background as well.

Another tip that works well with just about any aircraft, especially jets with no reference points other than blue sky, is to tip the camera. An aircraft caught on film making a standard pass can become monotonous. By tilting the camera ever so slightly, you can make the aircraft appear to be in a subtle climb or descent. Be careful not to angle the camera too much though as the sun and shadows on the aircraft tend to tell stories of their own.


While most photographers strive for a perfect 'prop-circle', any amount of blur will give the sense of motion.


Helicopters and Prop Planes
Remember that shutter speed / focal length rule, not to let your shutter speed drop below the numerical amount of your focal length? With propeller driven aircraft, you may have to break this one. The maximum shutter speed you should use is 1/250 of a second regardless of focal length. By using any speed higher than 1/250, the aircraft’s propellers will be frozen and look unnatural.


Even more difficult are helicopters as their rotors turn much slower than an aircraft's propellers.


Blurring the props will take practice and consume a lot of film, but the outcome is well worth it. This technique will also require a lot of practice panning with the aircraft.

Helicopters are even more difficult to photograph when attempting to achieve this effect. Since helicopter blades are much larger than propellers, they don’t rotate at such a high RPM; therefore an even slower shutter speed must be used. I tend to set the camera between 1/60 and 1/125 of a second. Try to support your camera with a tripod or monopod and if that is not possible, use a flight-line fence, barricade or post to do the job.

Most importantly, if you feel the shot’s worth getting, take many. Even if you feel as though you were steady as a rock, our natural progression of movement when depressing the shutter button is to dip the front of the camera. Even pros with many years of experience have to throw out images because of this phenomenon. And while we’re on the topic…you are supporting the lens with your other hand, right? This will help fight against possible movement during exposure.

Most of all…Have Fun!
Go with friends and family, enjoy the atmosphere and don’t be afraid to look around. There are many other things to be seen while everyone else has their eyes glued to the sky.


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  7. Pingback: Air Show and Aviation Photography Tips and Tricks, Part II « Tyson V. Rininger's Blog

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