9/26/2017 0 Comments
My Airshow Photography Adventure & 4 Tips to Help You Get Better Airshow Photographs
One of my favorite things to do is go to an airshow. Honking big planes, fast jets, crazy cool stunt bi-planes, helicopters, and so much more make these events tons of fun. And with all that's going on it's a great chance to practice and hone photography skills.
Now it's been years since I've been to an airshow, and now that our son is old enough to appreciate the planes we decided it was worth taking him out to one. With our house near the flight path for Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar we had the benefit of watching the Navy's Blue Angels practice for the airshow, and my son was infatuated with them. To be honest, any big, fast, and loud vehicle fascinates him, but he just couldn't stop talking about the Blue Angels. So, on this past Sunday (September 24th, 2017) we packed up the car and headed over to the MCAS Miramar for the airshow and so our son could see the Blue Angels.
Since MCAS Miramar instituted a clear bag policy, and we didn't have any clear bags suitable, I was limited on what I could bring as far as camera gear. So, I decided to travel light with my Canon 5D Mk III, my 70-200 f2.8 and 50mm f1.4 lenses, and 5 memory cards (a 32GB and 4 x 8GB cards). I opted for the 5D Mk III over my crop sensor 7D simply because I wanted the better auto focus. The 7D would have given me a little bit more range putting my 70-200mm at a max of 320mm focal length.
Full Frame vs Crop Sensor - The Lens Conundrum
Today's DSLRs typically come in either full frame or crop sensor. While there are pros and cons to both, more than what I want to go into here, there is one major thing to remember. That is, unless the lens your using is designed specifically for a crop sensor camera you're going to have to apply a magnification factor to take the crop sensor into consideration. Since I'm a Canon shooter this means if I'm not using a lens designated EF-S, I have to multiply my lens focal length by 1.6 to get the true focal length I'm getting.
If you're thinking about buying a DSLR camera with a crop sensor this is something to be aware of. It's even more true when it comes to buying lenses. Most photographers will tell you the lens matters more than the camera, and I find this to be true as well. So when shelling out the money for a good lens you should consider if you're ever going to buy/use a full frame camera.
Lenses designed for full frame cameras can be used on crop sensor cameras, but the opposite isn't true. Lenses designed for crop sensors CANNOT be used on full frame cameras. I made this mistake when I bought my 17-55mm f2.8; I bought the EF-S (crop sensor) version and now I can't use it on my 5D Mk III full frame camera. Had I done the opposite and bought the normal lens, I wouldn't have a true 17-55mm f2.8 on crop sensor, I'd instead have a 27-88mm but it would still be usable.
Whatever you decide to do, be sure you review the pros and cons and know why you're making your decision.
Travelling light with camera gear, I knew that my iPhone could pick up the slack if I wanted to take any photos of my son while we were at the airshow.
If you haven't been to an airshow, there is definitely a lot to look at a do. Between static displays, vendors, food, and the flight displays you definitely won't be bored. (Unless of course you're a tired 3 year old who woke up early and wasn't getting a nap that day.) My goal for the day was to capture a few cools photos, but really was to give my son a chance to experience an airshow and see the Blue Angels.
So after seeing some static displays (where I took no pictures), grabbing some food, and buying my son a toy Blue Angels airplane, we made our way to the free viewing area located on the right side of the paid chalets and bleachers. The free area of course was packed, but we managed to more our way up to the front before the events we wanted to see kicked off - The Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF), the Patriot Jet Team, Sean Tucker and Team Oracle, and the Blue Angels.
Despite the crowd around us and having my son on my shoulders most of the time, I was able to get some cool shots of each. And my wife was a saint by holding our son for a bit so I could get some photos without having the extra 35 + lbs of toddler on my shoulders.
Here are a few of my favorite photos from the MCAS Miramar 2017 Airshow
Photographing an airshow can be fun, and as I mentioned they can give you the chance to practice and hone your photography skills. Between the fast moving jets, slower moving helicopters and prop planes, sunlight, sky and weather, there's a lot to take into account.
Here are a four not so basic tips to help you out.
1. Determine your shutter speed.
Your shutter speed is going to determine a lot of things when it comes to shooting at an airshow. How you set your shutter speed is going to affect you lighting, how you capture those props and rotors, and how you capture those jets zooming by.
Capturing planes and helicopters with their props and rotors stopped is cool, but not very realistic. I recommend using a shutter speed of 1/500 for prop planes and helicopters. This will give you a good speed to capture the aircraft movement but will help prevent the props and rotors from looking stopped.
When capturing jets, you're going to want a much faster shutter speed. I suggest something in the range of 1/1250 or faster as a starting point. This will help you capture those fast jets as your pan to track them.
In both cases, the faster your shutter speed the less ambient light (sunlight) to light the photos. After you choose your shutter speed adjust your f-stop and ISO to get the exposure you want.
The difference shutter speed makes can be seen in the two photos above. In the left photo of the MV-22 Osprey the shutter speed is 1/800 and you can see how the propellers are frozen. In the photo on the right, the prop on the Oracle II bi-plane can be distinguished but is blurred enough to convey motion.
2. Exposing the aircraft correctly.
You've got your settings dialed in based on your fast shutter speed, but things still don't look right. In fact, the aircraft look really dark!
What happened? Well, you're camera says the scene is exposed great, but most of the time the underside or side of the aircraft is shadowed and hard to see.
I recommend exposing to the right. This means pushing things open a little bit more, but not to the point of clipping your highlights. If you look at the histogram on your camera, you'll want to adjust your settings so that the exposure shows the bulk of data on the histogram to the right of center.
Consider how to correct this: Your exposure triangle says you can adjust the ISO, f-stop, and/or shutter speed to brighten the image. You've adjusted/set your shutter speed for your subject, so that means you can increase your ISO or open of you aperture (f-stop).
I often opt to increase ISO and keep my f-stop above f5.6 and closer to f7. Every situation is different, but in these cases I find the sunny 16 rule to be thrown out.
In the photo above you the shutter speed is 1/1250, f5.6, and ISO 100. With the sun nearly directly overhead, the lower aperture of f5.6 helps to keep the underside of the aircraft not too shadowed. And a little boost to the shadows in post processing helps to make the aircraft more than just silhouettes.
3. Predict where the action will be, and pan with the aircraft.
Knowing where the action will be and following the aircraft through will help you to get the best photos possible. Most performers follow the same routine each day of the airshow, scouting the performances ahead of time can help you know where the action will be. Also, keep in the mind the way the airshow is set up. The paid seating areas will be right in front of where most of the action will take place.
Panning your camera with the action will help you to better capture the aircraft. Panning takes practice, and making sure your focus is where it needs to be is always one of the toughest things to do. Only practice and familiarity with your camera can help there.
By panning with the Blue Angels I was able to keep their formation framed in order to capture this photo with their smoke trail behind them.
4. Backgrounds can make or break the image.
An aircraft against a plain sky is not all that interesting. Find and use something in the background to help convey direction and location, or to input some drama into the scene. Or try to get the aircraft in a turn or acceleration where the contrails appear on the wings to help add drama to the photo.
A lot of performers will use smoke to help show where the aircraft has been and what it has done. This smoke can be the perfect addition to the image and will help convey direction and movement.
Another option is the sun. Knowing where it is in the sky and using it as the aircraft passes or climbs can throw some awesome lens flare and drama into the image.
Hopefully you'll find these tips useful. And if you'd do, I'd love to hear about them! Leave a comment here or tag me when you post to Instagram!
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