TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!
Tag Archives: Aviation
It was our first shoot of the week for the Mid America Flight Museum. Departing Mt. Pleasant Airport almost one year to the day, the sun could not rise soon enough to cut through the chill of the Texas air.
Matt Bongers was at the control of the O-1 Bird Dog we were using as a photo ship when Scott Glover and Kelly Mahon joined up on our wing in the 1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin and a 1928 Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000 respectively. We did a few solo shoots first before having them join up together. The biggest challenge being the incredible amount of snot one can produce in the freezing air. Pretty sure no one will ever buy my camera now.
But I digress; Scott, Kelly and Matt quickly acclimated to the formation positioning, changes and lingo putting me at ease knowing the rest of the week will go smoothly. Once the sun began to peek over the light fog, steam also began to rise over Lake Bob Sandlin. Through the camera, it looked great, but my focus was on the two aircraft and how to get them to line up.
You see, my Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) seems to be getting worse as I age. Two different aircraft types typically result in two different angles of attack (AOA). An angle of attack refers to the perceived pitch of the aircraft. Some aircraft types have a perceived higher or lower AOA due to the placement of the wing, fuselage design, center of balance, etc. When formating two completely different aircraft, it’s not uncommon for the AOA to be different between the two. And that’s where my OCD comes in.
When it came to editing the resulting images, the solo shots were great! Everyone did a spectacular job. But when it came to selecting two-ship images to edit, nothing was calling to me. My OCD was kicking in big time due to the difference in AOA and what appeared to be an awkward formation.
Kelly Mahon wasn’t having any of that. He wanted to see formation shots so I compromised. I found an image that seemed surreal and majestic even though to me it was imperfect. The wings didn’t line up, it looks as though the aircraft are headed in slightly different directions, it just didn’t speak to me. Regardless, my issues shouldn’t get in the way of pilots and aircraft owners taking joy in their accomplishments. And let’s face it, flying these 80+ year-old aircraft in formation on a freezing morning is no easy task. They deserve every ounce of recognition for what they do!
So, I put my OCD aside and tried to approach it from another perspective. As someone who loves history and even going so far as to recreate historic moments, that was what I saw. The more I finessed the image, the more respect I had for our early aviators. This became a brief glimpse into the early days of aviation when pilots arose before dawn and began their cross-country journeys low over the countryside. They didn’t always fly in perfect formation, as a matter of fact, they hardly ever flew perfect formation. It was about getting from point A to point B and enjoying the smaller points in between.
To me, this image became more about drawing an end to the birth of aviation and ushering in the 1930’s with air racing, endurance and speed, improving commercial travel and making this world a little smaller. I didn’t feel it at first, but this has become my tribute to the pioneers of aviation; a good compromise!
Thank you to Scott Glover, Kelly Mahon and Matt Bongers from the Mid America Flight Museum for allowing me to document their collection. And thank you to Aviation Week Space Technology for awarding me 2016 Best of Show for this image.
About thirty feet away, a freshly restored P-51 Mustang was coming to life after a four-year restoration by Airmotive Specialties in Salinas, CA. The Mustang, a former air racer once owned by Lefty Gardner, was having her legs stretched by Eliot Cross as an historic resemblance to WWII Ace, Charles E. ‘Chuck’ Weaver’s aircraft. Knowing both Lefty’s and Weaver’s history, standing alongside this aircraft was simply magical.
It was about that time my phone rang; how I heard it over the roar of the Mustang’s Rolls Royce engine, I’ll never know. On the other end was good friend, Scott Glover of the Mid America Flight Museum in Mt. Pleasant, TX.
“Wanna Photograph Air Force One?” He asked.
Only a few weeks earlier I had heard about the purchase and intent to restore the first Air Force One, a Lockheed Constellation named Columbine II that had become President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal transport. Needless to say, I was beyond excited to have been asked to document such an historic moment.
The aircraft was purchased as part of a lot of five Lockheed Constellations which were to eventually be heavily modified for low-level, high-acrage crop spraying. Three of the acquired Constellations were converted, one was used for parts and the fifth aircraft was denied certification by the FAA due to incorrect landing gear. Apparently the military chose to replace Columbine II’s stock landing gear with that of the more robust L-1049 variant and the FAA didn’t like that. Due to the cost of replacing the landing gear, the aircraft sat in the Arizona desert.
Fast-forward to March 18, 2016, nearly a year after that initial phone call, when the diligent work of Dynamic Aviation, with the assistance of the Mid America Flight Museum, came to fruition and Columbine II took to the skies once more.
For the rest of us, that was our cue to head to Marana, AZ, and begin the next phase. She was to embark on a cross-country trip to Bridgewater, VA, where she would undergo a thorough restoration and become a flying museum piece.
When I arrived in Marana, I was able to see first-hand the amount of work the two teams had put into getting the nearly 70-year old aircraft flying. Structurally, the aircraft is like new, but the years still took its toll on the aging aircraft and like most things her age, everything needed to proceed slowly and with extra caution.
The crew moved all of the aircraft closer to the runway the night before departure. On the apron sat Karl Stoltzfus’ King Air chase aircraft as well as his new pride and joy, Columbine II, in addition to Mid America Flight Museum’s immaculate B-25 ‘God and Country’, which would become the platform from which the flight would be documented.
The key word used throughout our briefing process and conversation was, ‘document’. Sure, I had high hopes of in-your-face dramatic formation positioning, precise lighting, stunning prop blur and every other image a photographer strives for when going on a photo mission. But, this was not that…it was not a photoshoot.
Typically, when flying with another aircraft being photographed, I’ll position them by asking for minute movements in relation to the photo platform; 5 feet forward…10 feet down…10 feet back, etc. The challenge lies with the subject aircraft’s pilot making fine adjustments to the throttle and yoke in order to accomplish those positions. Doing these types of maneuvers in a partially restored aircraft which still needs the input of a flight engineer in addition to the pilot and co-pilot, would put unnecessary strain on the already aging mechanics of this special aircraft.
Sitting in the back of the B-25, the Connie approached slowly and cautiously over the course of nearly an hour. As pilot, Lockie Christler; co-pilot, Scott McDonald and Flight Engineers, Tom Woodward and Tim Coons inched the aircraft closer to the B-25, I was able to provide some basic suggestions like, more to left, more to the right, stack high, stack low and scissor. Precise positioning was out of the question as was a change in our heading. Basically, what you see is what you get, and I was perfectly happy with that!
One of the biggest technical challenges was the focal length of the lens vs. the shutter speed required to get motion in the propellors. Most of the air-to-air work was shot with a Nikon D810 and 70-200 f/2.8, mainly used at the long end. Rule of thumb, (prop-blur aside) is that the shutter speed should be equivalent to the focal length being used, so at 200mm my shutter speed should have been no slower than 1/200 sec. to insure sharp images.
That simply wasn’t going to happen. The RPM of Columbine II’s radial engines were significantly slower than that of a P-51 or aerobatic Extra 300. In order to get full rotation of the three-bladed assembly, a shutter speed of 1/40 was needed. In the freezing cold tail of windy B-25, the Kenyon Labs gyro saved the day. Had it not been for the improved stabilization of the gyro, many of the images would have been unusable.
Over the course of the 4.5hr flight to Mt. Pleasant, TX, I was able to get in some Yoga courtesy of crawling over the bomb bay and under the flight deck to get to the nose. Although it had probably been some ten years since I’ve had to do that, it was a stunning reminder of what these 20-something year olds were faced with on a daily basis flying B-25’s into combat zones during WWII. The big difference, we didn’t have anyone shooting at us and the temperature at 9500ft was far more bearable than their high-altitude missions.
With Scott Glover at the controls of the B-25 and Matt Bongers sitting right seat, they managed to position the twin-engine bomber to reveal the Constellation’s beautiful lines from the rear-quarter view. Add the sprawling American countryside to the equation and you have your photoshoot-esque images of an American icon coming back to life.
The complete restoration is estimated to take 3-4 years and will take place in Bridgeport, VA. Once finished, Columbine II will be the only civilian-owned Air Force One and will travel across the country educating people on the history of presidential aircraft as well as how Columbine II changed the course of history regarding all aircraft that would eventually transport the President of the United States.
Special thanks to Karl Stoltzfus and his incredible crew at Dynamic Aviation for making the impossible possible along with his aircrew, Lockie Christler, Scott McDonald, Tom Woodward and Tim Coons. Without the incredible friendship and enthusiasm of Scott Glover and his crew at Mid America Flight Museum; Matt Bongers, Gregg Williams, Erik Johnston, Frank Glover, Jr., Linda Cortelyou and many others, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. Thank you for this incredible opportunity!
If you’ve already checked my first tutorial on tips and tricks of photographing an air show, this section will introduce you to the aspects often overlooked. To most, an air show is an event that takes place in front of a crowd, but if you look carefully you’ll find that an air show, or any event for that matter, provides photographic opportunities all around.
A fun challenge to noticing these opportunities is to ditch every lens but one. Force yourself to shoot with a single 50mm lens and see what happens. Eventually you’ll find yourself becoming more selective with the finer details on an aircraft, including atmospheric conditions that were once outside your field of view, or capturing the expressions of joy on people’s faces since the aircraft flying are no longer an option.
The first section concentrated mainly on the overall aspect of air show photography like prop blur, lighting and positioning. In this section we’ll cover the more artistic and detailed side of air show photography like macro, individuality, journalism and documentation.
It’s all in the details
Going back to sticking with one lens is undoubtedly the best way to exercise creativity. Although our minds know what it is we want to photograph, the limitations of a single perspective force us to find a way of conveying the story we want to tell within the confines of what the camera will allow.
Historically, (though not literally) a 50mm lens on a full-frame D-SLR is equivalent to what we see with the human eye in relation to the perceived distance to a subject. Of course our peripheral vision enables us to see a wider field of view than what a 50mm allows. This is where our eyes conflict with what the camera will let us do. It is our creativity and ability to artistically compose an image within those confines that makes someone an artist in the true sense of the word. Rather than forcing something to fit within a frame by zooming in or out, dealing with limited composition options will allow a photographer to become more creative with other aspects of photography like depth of field, spot metering and placement of the main subject. These finer details will lend to the overall mood of the image.
With that concept in mind, pick out a detail on an aircraft you find intriguing. It could be a leading edge slat, a pitot tube, even the corner of a fuselage window. Abstract photography is an art form all its own and can add a curious element to your air show photography collection.
Extreme Wide Angle
Now that digital photography has equaled the constraints, or versatility, of the film world by providing an economical 135mm full-frame sensor, extreme wide angle imagery can add an element of wonder.
Both Nikon and Canon are increasing their share of wide angle lenses and pushing the boundaries of optical technology. This enables the photographer to create worlds the viewer has never seen before. If photography’s rule of thumb is to show an ordinary object as it has never been seen before, wide-angle photography can become quite an asset.
Some examples of potential wide-angle photography ideas would be to capture the enormous tail of a C-5 Galaxy in its entirety or the exhaust of an F-15 Eagle. Practical uses would be the interior of an aircraft where the confines couldn’t be captured any other way. Extreme examples would be concentrating on the lengthy nose of a jet or even capturing a child from below, looking skyward at a passing formation of aircraft.
Wide-angle photography is a pretty forgiving technique in that there is so much in the frame. Often times you can ‘shoot from the hip’, so to speak, by capturing images without the need to look through the viewfinder. Aiming the camera in an approximate direction and angle will yield fairly predictable results as compared with trying the same technique using more precise telephoto lenses.
There is however a downside to wide-angle photography. The extreme effect of these lenses is of a niche style. Be careful not to overdo it as too many extreme wide-angle or fisheye images contained within a portfolio could become monotonous and routine. The idea is to mix it up and only use these lenses during appropriate situations.
Nothing turning on something burning?
One of the key elements to aviation photography involving a propellor or rotary driven aircraft is no doubt some form of prop-blur. The technique of slowing down the shutter speed to give a sense of action is one of the most challenging vices an aviation photographer faces. If the shutter speed is too slow, the photo becomes blurry. If the shutter speed is too fast, propellors or helicopter blades look frozen resulting in no sense of motion.
With that being said, most photographers let out a sigh of relief when a jet takes to the skies. Since there are no visibly moving parts, there is no need for any form of blur. Or is there?
Capturing some sort of motion when photographing jet aircraft can be a challenge. To accomplish this, slow down your shutter speed when there are partly cloudy skies present or the aircraft is flying low enough for there to be some sort of background.
Since images of jets streaking across a solid blue sky are very common, a sense of motion is already perceived. Freezing the jet against a mountainous background isn’t going to kill the image or leave the viewer wanting more, however blurring the background or adding that element of motion will only add to the impact of the photograph.
Thinking outside the genre
Often times photographers will check out the work of other photographers in their field for new ideas or techniques. Improving on those techniques is what pushes photographers to achieve new and exciting imagery. But what if photographers expanded their research to cover aspects of other genres of photography.
Motor sports photography shares many similarities with that of aviation in regards to equipment and technique, but what styles could be adopted by either genre to put a spin on things?
Ever notice how automotive photographers will ask that that the parking lights remain on during a shoot? How about the front wheels being turned hard right or left? Many automotive photographers tilt the camera to provide a sense of action even though the vehicle is parked. These are just some of the ways automotive photography techniques could be transferred successfully to aviation.
Of course it doesn’t end there. Aircraft are pointless without their operators, so why not check out cutting-edge portrait photography. The individual components of an aircraft all working together are crucial for the aircraft’s success. To better concentrate on those components, check out commercial or studio photography techniques. Even other fine art photographers can provide suggestive tips like white space, symmetrical and asymmetrical examples as well as abstract imagery.
All too often we limit ourselves according to what the status quo may be at that given time. As IBM initially coined, artists need to continually “think outside the box”…or viewfinder. Take your pick.
Black & White will never die
Sure, film is just about dead. There are a few of us still trying to keep it alive by using infra-red, medium and large format C-41 and transparency films, and others. But all and all it’s safe to say, sadly, film is dead. Fortunately black and white lives on and probably always will.
Although some cameras will allow black and white photography through various custom functions, my advice would be to ignore these features. After all, why would you limit yourself. If you shoot in black and white, that is all you will get, black and white. If you shoot in color, you will not only get a useful color image, but with the proper techniques, a beautiful black and white image to add to your gallery.
When done correctly, a black and white photograph can bring back the nostalgia of the day when warbirds or period correct aircraft are illustrated. With the advancements in technology and improved photographic techniques, photographers can bring the past to life in ways we could only imagine back then.
For the best black and white practices, brush up on old school black and white printing techniques such as dodging and burning, maintaining shadow detail and perhaps even understanding how the Zone System works. In regards to best Photoshop black and white conversion techniques, a quick browse on your favorite search engine should do the trick. But the one tip I’ll suggest is to not use the ‘desaturate’ tool or the straight-forward black and white conversion tool. Use of these tools will result in muddy and low-contrast gray images. Take your time and do it right.
Place the plane game
Finally, there’s composition. Normally this would be a biggie on the list of techniques a photographer would use to convey their vision, and by all means, it should be. But airplanes move fast and trying to put them where you want them isn’t always easier done than said.
In the world of art there are rules. In that same world, these rules can occasionally be broken, but knowing when and how to break those rules only comes once a photographer has learned to respect and obey those rules. One of the biggest and most well known rules in photography is the rule of thirds.
For some strange reason the human eye has a problem viewing something that is dead-center. For example, a sunset looks more appealing when the horizon is 2/3rds of the way down the photo. A portrait is more pleasant if the subject’s eyes (or sometimes head) is placed 2/3rds of the way up the photo. A child running to the left looks better on the right 2/3rds of the image and the opposite of a child running to the right also holds true.
The rule of thirds seems to have a greater importance with moving objects, such as aircraft, due to their direction of motion. Our minds need space for the aircraft to go. An aircraft thundering off the edge of an image leaves the viewer no imagination for its continued flight. Essentially it just ends. This also leaves the viewer with an uneasy and awkward feeling.
Allowing the aircraft room to maneuver on your photo not only leaves a pleasing feeling with the viewer, but also lends itself to be more versatile. Dead space (or white space as it is known in the graphics world) makes the image more appealing to magazine designers since there is now room for tons of text.
Strategic placement of your subject doesn’t always come naturally. Over time the photographer will become better at understanding what works and what doesn’t. Once the rule of thirds becomes second nature, breaking that rule will become more understandable.
And when should a photographer break that rule? Most often, when symmetry is concerned, utilizing the rule of thirds is simply impractical. Going back to the example of a sunset, if there happens to be an incredible reflection of clouds upon a lake’s glassy surface, go ahead and place the horizon in the middle of the frame. That will allow for brilliant symmetry. Many aircraft posses that same form of symmetry where breaking the rule of thirds might apply.
Most importantly, have fun! Air shows are a form of entertainment and should remain entertaining.
For many of us, the DC-3 is seen as a tired workhorse of the skies, a third world answer for passenger and cargo transport. A fuselage full of chickens and wooden boxes might be high on the list of stereotypical thoughts. The gathering of DC-3’s and C-47’s in Rock Falls, Illinois quickly grounded that mindset and illustrated to everyone that the DC-3 is strong, active and still filling a void within the aviation community.
On the weekend of July 23-25, a record number of airworthy DC-3’s and military C-47 variants came together at Whiteside Airport in Rock Falls, Illinois for what would be called ‘The Last Time’. Although the original goal was to have 40 DC-3’s on the tarmac, due to weather and other complications, 27 made it to Whiteside. Of the aircraft gathered, 8 were military C-47 variants, 15 were DC-3’s with 10 of them being former C-47’s. Additionally the world’s only C-41 and C-41A were present along with an AC-47 gunship and one of only two flying DC-2’s in the world.
My entry into the world of the ‘Dakota’ began earlier in the year with a call to a good friend. Brooks Pettit, one of the operators of the American Flight Museum in Topeka, Kansas and pilot of the AC-47 gunship, ‘Spooky’, was working with the organizer of the The Last Time, Dan Gryder.
The plan was to divert from going straight to Oshkosh for the annual Airventure Fly-In and head to Kansas City instead. From there I would join up with the AC-47 crew and fly the short trip from Topeka to Whiteside in the gunship. Sounded like a great plan!
Stepping into a DC-3, the first thing most people notice is the steep floor and the slight workout necessary to reach the cockpit. With the start of each engine, a puff of smoke and a world of vibrations, ‘Spooky’ quickly took to the skies. There’s no doubt this plane was built to fly as the floor would conveniently level off once airborne. Once over Whiteside, we could see we’d be number four on the ramp. The party was just starting.
Although the local weather at Whiteside was excellent, a storm band was closing in preventing many of the aircraft from arriving Thursday afternoon and through the following morning. The aircraft that had touched down quickly became the subject of many photographers as lightning strikes and rolling storm clouds made for impressive backgrounds.
The storm continued on through the night and into the morning enabling most aircraft to make it in by late Friday afternoon. By Saturday morning, whatever aircraft could make it were either parked on the tarmac or occupied giving rides.
It was decided the night before that Saturday morning would prove to be perfect for a three-ship DC-3 flight showcasing the various models. Dan Gryder would lead the pack in his DC-3, the 2nd oldest airframe flying today, followed by Brooks Pettit and Robert Rice in one of the few modified AC-47 gunships currently touring the country, and Scott Glover in a very historic C-47 having served in multiple WWII air operations including D-Day. Flying the Cessna 210 photoship was Tucker Nelson in addition to a second photoship with Greg Morehead in a T-6 ‘Texan’.
Each evening, Dan Gryder and the band would rock out with the visiting DC-3 pilots and crew. Before long, the band moved to the tarmac playing under a wing amongst more than two dozen DC-3’s and continued to jam into the early morning hours.
During the day, the tarmac was filled with spectators who were given unique opportunities to tour the various airframes. This gave some of the museum aircraft a chance to raise the funds necessary to keep ‘em flying. The gathering was not only recognized by media and aviation enthusiasts from around the world, but was probably one of the largest events the local community had seen in some time.
While some spectators toured the aircraft, others meandered through the maze of food and souvenir vendors located near the parking lot. For those looking for more of an adventure, C-47’s ‘Tico Belle’, ‘Southern Cross’ and ‘Sky King’ were offering a limited number of rides.
Sunday night marked the the eve of “The Last Supper”. All members of the flight crew from each aircraft were treated to a wonderful dinner hosted by the local eatery, Long Shot. Throughout the weekend, locals from Rock Falls provided free transportation, discounted hotel rates and more.
On Monday, July 26th, the dream of Dan Gryder was about to come true with a massive number of DC-3’s taking to the skies. Their destination was the Experimental Aviation Association’s annual Airventure Fly-In at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Throughout the course of the weekend, only one aircraft had prior obligations at Oshkosh requiring an early departure from Rock Falls, so the number of participating DC-3’s fell to 26. Still an amazing number!
One issue that remained unresolved was the use of a photoship for the mass arrival at Oshkosh. Originally Dan Gryder had enlisted the assistance of a CJ-6 Nanchang, but due to mechanical difficulties the aircraft was not able to make it. Saving the day was Mike Filucci who got in touch with good friend, Jim ‘Pappy’ Goolsby who was on his way to Oshkosh in a similar aircraft. I had the fortune of flying with ‘Pappy’ during the 50th Anniversary of the CJ-6 Nanchang a couple years prior as well as during a special assignment at his home airport. I couldn’t have asked for a better stick!
Shortly before noon, engines began to turn. Sitting on the tarmac in the back of ‘Pappy’s’ CJ gave me a panoramic view of two dozen DC-3’s in motion. One by one, they began launching out of Whiteside airport. Unfortunately, not everything went perfectly. During run-up, ‘Tiger Lady‘ (C-47 N47060 / AF 42-100603) had issues and removed herself from the line-up and C-41A (N341A / AF 40-070) aborted take-off for mechanical reasons. A third DC-3 returned to Whiteside due to oil temperature problems.
Those that made it into the air gathered in groups of three with a fourth in a disjointed position. It was similar to a standard fingertip formation with the number four aircraft flying further on the outside than normal. During the course of the trip each group of four would slowly creep up on the group ahead of them until a single mass formation could be achieved.
Circling the gaggle of DC-3’s was a Bonanza, a B-25 photoship and our CJ-6 with Nelson Tucker taking up the lead in his Cessna 210.
About 30 miles from Oshkosh, the mass formation began to take shape. Twenty-three DC-3’s, or forty-six radials, approached from the West blanketing the skies in metal. Not since World War II had this many of this airframe type come together for such an impressive sight.
After flying over Wittman Field, the formation separated into individual aircraft. One by one they landed on RWY18 taking only sixteen minutes for all to touch down.
The experience was one that defied the name. For most, the hopes that there will be “Another Time” lingers on the horizon. But for now, “The Last Time” simply proved the determination and passion in keeping the workhorse of the skies alive, is a dream held by many and will be for some time to come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.