Air Show Photography Tips

I've been photographing air shows off and on for almost three decades, but have taken it seriously for about ten years now. It's been a quick learning process and I thought I'd pass on what I know to anyone interested. You'll be pleased to know it's rather simple.

1. Equipment. I prefer a digital SLR because they are large, can be steadied against the forehead, and have a minimum of obtuse and confusing menus. Things happen very fast at an air show and you can't be preoccupied with a myriad of camera settings. KISS! My personal preference is the Nikon D90 (I don't think it's made any more), but any "prosumer" grade DSLR will work fine. Don't worry about which brand of DSLR is better; use the one that works for you.

2. Lens. This is one area where the American ideal of "Bigger is Better" is actually true. I have found that the minimum focal length you can get by with on a DSLR is 300mm, depnding, of course, on your CCD/CMOS chip size (physical size). Ideally you need a 500mm lens, but nothing longer! Remember, not only do telephoto lenses magnify your subject, they magnify your mistakes. So the more image magnification you have, the more lens shake and blurred pictures you're going to have. Keep it between 500mm and 300mm. Remember, though, you get what you pay for. Until I can afford the 500mm Nikkor AF of my dreams, I'll have to do with my Tamron AF 500mm. It does the job amazingly well, but there are better lenses out there. With the cheaper lenses, cropping and enlarging reveal sometimes unacceptable chromatic aberration and blurring around sharp edges, like wings and tail surfaces. See my Miramar Air Show 2010 pics for this effect, and decide if you want better images than this, and can afford a lens that will deliver superior images. One more hint: take LOTS of pictures. You're going to ruin a lot with camera shake and other mistakes, so do what Ansel Adams did: through volume, put statistics on your side. Out of 300 pictures, you're likely to get five really good ones. Works for me.

3. Lens Speed. Not a problem. Most air shows take place during the day in bright sunlight. You do not need some megadollar f/1.2 lens; a modestly priced f/5.6 will do you just fine. Sacrifice a little bit of resolution by setting your ISO at 800, and you'll still have a shutter speed around 1/2000th with an f/5.6 lens.

4. Tripod/Monopod. No! Remember, things happen very fast at an air show, and most tripod heads, including the fine Bogen and Gitzos I've worked with, just don't have fast enough or smooth enough action to pan with a jet that's pushing the speed of sound. Even a supposed "fluid" head doesn't allow the rapid panning necesary. Also, since you have to pan through an arc of 180 degrees or more, with your eyes glued to the viewfinder and not to your feet, you'll likely be tripping over the tripod legs. I have. It's embarrassing and you end up not getting the shot. Likewise, a monopod is also a hinderance. If the jets did nothing but high speed passes at eye level, a monopod would work fine, but jets don't do that; they zoom all over the sky. The bodily gyrations necessary to catch jet acrobatics don't work if your camera is tied to the bulk of a monopod (you may even snap the camera off at the thread mount). Trust me, hand hold everything. This also makes the miles of walking at an air show much easier if you're not lugging those extra pieces of metal around.

5. Focus. Auto focus is a must! Use the most versatile, quick-focusing mode you have. It your camera automatically refocuses on objects moving toward or away from you, great...use that mode. If not, keep tapping the autofocus button as a jet approaches of recedes. Remember, depth of field is much lower with long focal lengths. I've found out the hard way that a jet focused upon when one mile out will be miserably out of focus when it reaches show center. By whatever means, keep refocusing constantly, like every second. Constant refocusing also prevents your camera from losing focus altogether and doing that closeup-to-infinity hunt that it does when it can't find anything to focus on. If that happens, you'll lose the shot.

6. Timing. As they say, timing is everything. By timing, I mean arrive early (way early) and stay late. You need to arrive early to make sure you know where the best shots will be. You also avoid the long entrance lines by arriving early. You catch lower, more dramatic sun angles early for your artistic shots. By the same token, stay late. Again, you avoid long exit lines, and you also get the dramatic evening light for artistic shots.

7. What to Wear. Remember folks, it's a brave new world that we live in. If you take a camera bag, you'll be stuck in a long entrance line waiting for your bag to be searched, and you may even be told you can't bring it in because that particular show may not allow knapsacks or ice chests. Have a camera body for each of your lenses and just wear them around your neck. This streamlines the entrance process. Likewise, do not wear a photo vest, as this again may make you subject to a very delaying search. My advice is this: wear attire with lots of pockets. If you are military, wear a flight suit or BDU/DCU/ABU/WhateverBU. If you are civilian but think you can get away with a flight suit, wear one (but don't wear any military insignia on it). The flight suit not only has lots of pockets, but may open some doors for you once you get inside that civilian attire otherwise wouldn't. Remember, though, don't impersonate a military member or federal employee. If questioned, tell the truth that you're a civilian. The bases are usually okay with this...after all, it's an air "show," isn't it? And you're just "showing" your spiffy new flight suit, aren't you? Don't keep your gear in the flight suit pockets, though; you'll beat it to death just by walking around. It's okay to store spare batteries and memory cards in a flight suit, but use the suit's pockets mainly for storing your non-photo stuff like bottled water, snacks, a hat, sunblock, etc. And if you wear a flight suit, please wear appropriate military-looking footgear, such as black boots or the desert tan or green as appropriate. Wearing sneakers with a flight suit just makes you look like a dork, and you're not fooling anyone.

8. Sunblock and Hat. Wear them!

9. What to Shoot. I include this because it isn't always obvious. Remember, a lot of the action at an air show isn't necessarily in the air. There's lots to shoot around you. For example: guys, there are lots of hot looking women out there; ladies, there are lots of hot looking guys out there, particularly the jet crews (believe me, I stood my share of static displays while in the Air Force and it's true!). Keep your eyes open and use your imagination. See the above picture.

10. Media Pass. Of course, you can avoid all the hassle listed above if you can get yourself a media pass ahead of time. I heartily recommend you try. You may need to apply for one several months in advance. You'll get preferred parking, quick entrance, and access to the best photo spots.