Local air shows are fun and great places for aircraft photography so here’s a few beginners tips.
What to take
Apart from your camera gear and every memory card you posess. Water, a hat and a fold up waterproof. Airfields are flat, exposed places. If the weather is good you are going to get hot and thirsty and there is no shelter and a queue for the refreshments. If it is not then you are will want to keep you and all that expensive camera gear dry. Steps, chairs and tripods are pretty pointless accessories and will just hold you up, aggravate other spectators and get in the way.
To get anywhere close to the action you are going to need a reasonably long telephoto lens. Something 200mm to 500mm is ideal as it needs to be hand holdable. Aircraft cover a lot of ground very fast and are almost impossible to follow using a tripod. I always use two camera bodies one with a 400mm attached and another with a zoom. If you do not have a telephoto concentrate on the static aircraft or photos as in composition below.
Learn to Pan
Panning is the art of following a moving object with the camera. Follow the aircraft, take the photo and, most importantly, keep panning smoothly. It takes practice so find any moving objects, cars, people playing sports, and practice.
Auto focus is great but sometimes it ‘hunts’ when the aircraft is not filling your frame or choses to focus on a distant bird or cloud rather than your subject. Learn when to switch to manual focus and practice with it.
Watch the sun and adjust your exposure
Lighting is important in all photography. The position of the sun will alter the textures and shadows in your pictures. Inevitably when photographing aircraft you will find yourself with a dark subject against a bright sky. Adjust the exposure, usually be adding plus 1 or 2 stops. Do not burn out the sky. A polarizing filter helps if the aircraft is against a blue sky.
Free PDF on Exposure
Where to stand?
A lot of spectators aim to grab a position at the centre of the display line. When I go to air shows I often meet the same photographers close to the end of the display line. The crowd is thinner here so there is less likelihood of getting a spectators head in the foreground of our panned photo. We are also either close to the point on the runway were a lot of the display aircraft will touch down as they land or the point were they lift of. How do we know which end is which? Look at the windsock. Aircraft, especially smaller ones land and take off into the wind as closely as possible. No wind? Watch any pre show arrivals.
Allow the plane some space to fly into. An object that the brain knows is moving always looks odd with more space behind it than in front of it.
If you cannot get close include the smoke trail, an interesting cloud formation or the spectators in the picture. Aerobatic aircraft will often climb vertically leaving a smoke trail, stall and flick into a vertical descent against the smoke. If you are ready with your camera upright it can make a great picture. More on Composition
Watch (and listen to) the display
Pilots will often do a high speed run in whilst the commentator says ‘and now running in from our left (or right) is the . . .’ Many warbird display pilots will sweep along the crowd line in a fast pass before pulling up into a tight wing over. The aircraft almost seems to stop at the top of the arc, a good time for a shot with a long lens, before accelerating down and retracing the same path adding in some aerobatic manoeuvres on the way. They then fly one or both directions slowly with the wings banked toward the crowd. At this point the aircraft is an easy target and you will hear camera shutters clicking all around you.
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Sometimes, despite all the preparations and experience you just get lucky and press the shutter at just the right moment.
Having had a great day out you will have a disc full of photo graphs to edit and caption. Read How to Caption Aircraft Photos
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