Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

Making Better Memories

MnDOT Aeronautics


Courtesy of Gary Chambers

Tips for aviation photography

You can enjoy aviation events all year long with your photographs. The goal is to take photos you will want to look at, post on social media, print and hang on the wall.

The tips here are simple and universal for all of your photography subjects. We will concentrate on composition, lighting, and exposure, but first a few words about safety and general tips.

You can't enjoy an event unless you do it safely. It is tempting to get a unique image but do so by obeying all crowd lines and volunteer's instructions. Set a good example. Even if you have a long history around aircraft, follow the crowd rules. You can serve as a good example to folks that are new to aviation that are unfamiliar with the hazards. AIRPLANES ARE LOUD. WEAR HEARING PROTECTION. Enough yelling, let's talk about photography.

Know your camera

If you fly, you know your airplane. If you photograph, know your camera. Be comfortable with all of the features before the event and practice. Don't wait for an airplane to be passing in front of the crowd to wonder why it won't focus. Most cameras have a mode "A." Your manual will say it is for automatic, I say it is for average. Using modes such as shutter priority, often abbreviated Tv for Time Value will let you adjust to get a nice propeller blur or a sharp image of a jet flying past.

Use the viewfinder instead of a rear-viewing screen so you can brace the camera against your face for a steadier image.

Unless you want your images to look like most everyone else's images, vary your camera height. Sitting can allow you to brace the camera even more by keeping it close to your body and add more sky background to your photo. Likewise, holding the camera high over your head can give a pleasing result.

Lastly, memory is cheap. Take images at the highest setting possible. Nothing worse than getting a great image that is only good for viewing on a cell phone because the file size is too small.

Let's get creative!

We'll keep it simple with three items: composition, lighting, and exposure. The first question to ask is what is the center of attention? It may be the whole airplane or just the pilot. What story do you want to tell with your image? Look to see how your eye flows through the image. If a plane is flying right to left, place the subject on the right side of the image so the motion causes the eye to flow towards the center of the image. If the right to left flying plane was on the left side, the direction of motion would carry the viewer's eye off the image on the left side. One other decision on compilation is how much of the image the subject occupies. You can zoom in on the subject, have the subject nicely framed, or have the subject a small part of the image where the aircraft is part of a larger scene like a seaplane landing on a glassy smooth lake near sunset.

The lighting rule of thumb is to have the light at the photographer's back. That is not always possible at air shows. You can have dramatic effects on backlit subjects. Again, don't wait for the day of the event to practice with light. The best light is morning and evenings. It is often called the golden hour in morning and evening but the best light may only last minutes. Noontime sun can be harsh with a lot of contrast characterized by really dark shadows and highlights with little to no detail. I avoid it if I can get the image at any other time of day. Overcast days may not provide much in the way of contrast but clouds can act like a giant soft-box you would find in a photography studio.

Courtesy of Gary Chambers

The last of our creative trilogy is exposure. Photos of planes flying with stopped propellers is caused by a shutter speed so fast that the propeller appears motionless and the plane looks unnaturally to be hanging in the air. This usually happens at shutter speeds faster 1/250 and faster that is 1/500, 1/800, etc. Those fast shutter speeds work well for jet aircraft. 1/125 and slower for a pleasing blur on a spinning propeller.

These tips are just a starting point for making lasting memories.

Challenge yourself to expand your creative envelope. The internet is full of ideas you can use.

Camera stores and photo clubs are also good sources that offer human interaction to answer questions.

Stay safe and have fun.


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