- Museums vs. airports vs. airshows
- It’s not about what you know, but who you know
- What to shoot
- Air to air photography
- Making money
Every now and then I get asked on social media about photography and especially my aviation photography. From the gear I use to what an actual shoot looks like. In this blogpost, I’m going to try and give all info I have to give about aviation photography. I would like to start with a disclaimer that this post is based on how I do and experience things. A lot of photographers will do things completely different. I still make a lot of mistakes and every shoot I learn. So consider this post a work in progress. Maybe in a few years I will look at it differently.
Museums vs spotting vs airshows
First of all, aviation photography is a broad term. There are a million ways and places to shoot airplanes. I will focus on 4 main categories that are most common. Air to air photography will be a different part of this blogpost.
If you are new into aviation photography and don’t know where to go and shoot the planes, I recommend you to go to museums. It is by far the easiest way to get close to different types and it’s a good place to learn how to shoot. Often museums have tricky lighting and the planes are close to each other, but that is the perfect opportunity to learn how to use your camera. You will have to play with your settings and you will need some creativity to make decent shots.
When you got your first taste in aviation photography you can move on to shooting actual flying airplanes. Depending what types you prefer you can go to your local airport or airbase. A commercial airport is better because usually it’s more busy and gives you more opportunities to shoot. The bigger airports have a lot of spots where you can safely stand to photograph. Just google a little and you might find maps and tips for your airport.
If you have a local airfield with general aviation I recommend to go there often. I started out shooting at three local airfields and mailed my pictures to the email addresses of the local flying clubs. Most of my work was shit, but the pilots appreciate you sending them in. In some cases I got invited to fly which led me to meeting new people and getting more opportunities.
Of course airshows are a great place to shoot as well, but they also have their restrictions. Most of the times you shoot back lit photos, it’s crowdy, the flightline is far away, there are obstructions in front the static planes, etc. On the other hand, the saying goes: limitation breeds creativity. And I found this to be true. I went to several airshows when I first started out and since I didn’t have a wide angle lens nor a decent zoom lens, I had to be creative. I never learned more about composition and lighting than those first few years.
It’s not about what you know, but who you know
Sometimes you see half decent photos of something epic and you wonder how on earth this photographer got that opportunity. The answer is simple: he or she knows the right people.
If you really want to get the good shots and experience aviation you will need to know the right people. Again there are several ways. Some become pilots themselves and keep taking pictures on the side. That is one way of getting close to the action. But there are other ways that don’t involve money or studying. I already mentioned mailing your work to your local flying clubs. They like to get pictures from them flying around. Try and get to know them, become friends. You will see that a lot of them are great fun to hang out with. Maybe they’ll invite you to visit the airport or they will take you on a flying trip. Just don’t forget that it’s not a one way transaction, so be friendly and offer something back. Always give them full access to your photos. Lend them a hand where possible. Offer them to take pictures for their website or event for free. After a while these people become friends and it’s no longer a transaction and you will be in the middle of the action.
As in every niche in photography you will find gear freaks in aviation as well. People who diss on Canon because they use Nikon or vice versa, someone who buys an 800mm lens to outperform the guy with the 600mm and all that kind of nonsense. Although some of it might be banter and jokes it’s not all about the gear.
The best camera is the one you have with you. It might be true in some niches but in aviation photography that is a load of bullsh*t. You won’t get anywhere shooting jets with your iPhone.
I don’t know much about what cameras are on the market now, but the only requirement for aviation photography is a camera that has a manual mode and interchangeable lenses. Everything else doesn’t really matter. I use a Fujifilm X-T1 and X-T2.
The lens is what does the trick in aviation photography. What lenses you need is dependable on what you shoot most. I, for example, never shoot at airshows anymore so I don’t own any big zoom lenses. If you want to shoot at airshows a 400 or even a 600mm lens is a necessity. For static you can use any wide angle lens. A fish eye can be handy when shooting in museums and for air to air shoots you will need some diversity like a 24-105mm and 50-200mm. If your budget allows you, go for the light sensitive lenses with a low F-stop (F2.0 or lower). Always go for lenses with image stabilization.
I won’t go into backpacks too much or I’ll write a book instead of a blogpost. But a good backpack is necessity. I recently found my perfect bag. You can read about it by clicking the image below.
- A batterygrip is something I found very useful. It gives the camera a sturdy feeling and it allows me to shoot twice as long without changing batteries. This has come in handy during longer air to air flights where you can’t change batteries in flight. You really don’t want to have a dead battery halfway through a flight.
- A rubber lens hood has come in handy when shooting through canopies. Certainly in the Skyvan it saved me from a lot of reflections. Please be aware that a lot of the cheaper rubber lens hoods come off easily.
- I recently came across this rubber lens hood. It looks super handy, but I never used it so I can’t vouch for it: https://amzn.to/2LWpCyV
- Something I always have with me is a small blower to blow dust of your sensor or clean your camera and lenses. You will be happy to have it with you when you need it.
- Take enough (fast) memory cards with you. They’re cheap nowadays, so make sure you have enough GB’s. Shooting sequences off jets doing maneuvers will fill up your cards in no time.
- I always worked with a gorillapod in the past, but don’t be the amateur cheap ass that I am and invest in a good sturdy tripod. You don’t need it often, but you will be happy to have it with you during night shoots.
- Read all about my gear here: https://kit.co/GielSweertvaegher
I won’t go into the details of what ISO, shutter speed and F-stop are, but you can easily find out what each of these are and what effect they have on your photos by looking at these charts: 1, 2.
Of course these settings come into play when you shoot airplanes. Settings for shooting a helicopter or propellor plane are different than those of jets.
For helicopters and propellor planes you need to shoot at a slower shutter speed so you have some blur in the rotors and props (anything below 1/200th of a second). Fast moving subjects like jets will require a faster shutter speed (1/800th or more).
Don’t forget to adjust ISO and F-stop when you change your shutter speed. Also keep your desired result in mind. Do you want a shallow depth of field? Do you want grain in your photo?
Since memory cards are quite cheap nowadays I recommend to shoot in RAW at all times. There is no reason not to. Any decent computer or laptop will process them without issues.
I usually use single focus when photographing. Only when I’m taking air to air photos I switch to continuous focus, although I noticed that it’s not always working properly on my Fuji, sometimes resulting in an unsharp sequence.
Which brings us to the next point. Frames per second. Every DSLR or system camera has enough frames per second to shoot sequences. Just don’t forget to select the option when needed. It wouldn’t be the first time I want to shoot a jet breaking away only to realize I was still shooting one frame at a time…
What to shoot
Planes, obviously. But there’s a big difference between just taking a picture and making a good photo.
The most obvious ways to be creative is by changing angles. Use a ladder or go on top of a building to shoot from a vantage point. Go low and lay flat on the ground to shoot upwards.
Another way is by using leading lines to lead the eye of the viewer to a certain point. You can also focus on details that make for a pretty pictures or that tell a story. Don’t be afraid to do the opposite and go wide angle. Sometimes the plane is only of secondary importance and it’s actually the landscape or surroundings that are the main focus.
If you have the luck to fly you are in for some extra possibilities. Some photographers tend to focus on the cockpit itself, professionally removing the pilots from the frame. The saying goes: the engine is the hart of an aeroplane, but the pilot is its soul. So get that pilot in frame. It tells much more of a story too.
When the flying gets dynamic you should definitely start photographing. There are two options here:
- Keep your horizon straight and show your plane hanging on a side.
- Keep your cockpit level and show the world tumbling around you.
I personally don’t use a flash, cause I don’t like the lighting.
An important aspect of photography is story telling, and it’s a great way look at aviation the broadest sense of the word. After all aviation photography is more than photographing airplanes. If it was limited to this it would be called airplane photography. I’m a firm believer that aviation photography is about more than the planes. It’s about the people you meet, the pilots and crews who keep the planes flying. It’s about the places that it brings you to: the countries, the airfields, the museums, etc. It’s also about the experience. Flying is fun and will make for some amazing memories. Aviation photography is about capturing all of those things. Airplanes could actually be completely secondary in aviation photography. Here’s what you can photograph:
- The airport
- every object that is not an airplane
An often heard remark from aviation photographers is: ‘it sucked, it was backlit’. When life gives you melons, make lemonade. If you shoot backlit, make epic silhouette photos. I personally like to do this, but I have to admit that not all backlight is equally photogenic. Sometimes you will need a little luck.
My personal favorite light is sunset light. It’s not always easy to do this because airshows are often finished before sunset (although there are many sunset shows nowadays.). Spotting is better option, but even then you need some luck.
A special category that needs some extra attention is night photography. Here the tripod comes in handy. Below you will find the different steps you go through to set up the perfect night shoot.
Step 1: find a plane.
This should be the easiest step, but it isn’t. When was the last time you were close to an airplane at night? Turns out there aren’t many occasions for night shoots.
The easiest way is to have a friend who is willing to take out his plane at night. Maybe you don’t know any pilots and you will have to go to organized night shoots. Several museums, airshows and airfields organize these events. This will be your best shot at doing a night shoot. On the upside you won’t have to deal with organizing anything yourself. On the downside you are dependable on the organization. You can’t change lighting or reposition the plane. There also might be a couple of hundred other photographers going for the exact same photo. All of them armed with tripods…
Step 2: find a location
When you go with the second option of an organized night shoot you can skip this step. If you are setting up your own night shoot you want to find a good location. A runway or in front of a hangar are popular choices. Try to avoid dark or cluttered backgrounds. They distract the viewer.
Step 3: Choose a light source
Again, you can skip this if you went for the organized night shoot. But finding a good light source is crucial to the succes of your shoot. Some photographers use huge spots that light out the entire scene, others use flash. I prefer more ambient light. Just enough to light out the plane and set the atmosphere. Preferably there are two light sources to evenly light the plane. On one shoot I did with a friend we used car lights to shoot a F-16. It worked out perfectly.
If possible, ask the pilot to put on the lights on and in the plane.
Step 4: use a tripod
Put the camera on a tripod. You can try handheld, and sometimes it works like a charm, but with the slower shutter speeds a tripod is a necessity.
Step 5: camera setup
This is the tricky part. Everyone seems to have their own way of doing this. Here’s what I do. I first put the image stabilization off on my lens. Then I select the timer modus and put it on 2 seconds. This prevents the image of being unsharp because of the vibrations of clicking the shutter release. I then select a lower ISO and a higher aperture and then play around with the shutter speed until I have the desired results.
Air to Air photography
The highlight for many aviation photographers is doing an air to air photoshoot. There’s nothing more exciting in this niche than flying with a jet or an oldtimer on your wing. There is so much going on during such flights! You can read what it is like by clicking the image below.
Even though it is one of the most exciting thing to do, it is also the hardest to organize. It involves a lot of planning, cooperation of several people and it’s expensive.
Planning and briefing
The first step in the right direction is having the right contacts. If you don’t know the right people, you don’t fly. My first air to air flight was with a pilot I met at a local event. He invited me to do a flight and it turned out to be a formation flight. Later I contacted several established photographers. One of them became a good friend and gave me lots of air to air opportunities. Again, it’s not what you know that matters, it’s who.
A big part of aviation photography is planning. Safety is a big issue. Always have a briefing with all pilots involved and everyone who needs to know what is happening (ATC for example.). First let the pilots know what you want to get out of this flight and check with them if all your wishes are realistic. Then proceed to the actual flight information (frequencies, speed, altitude, formations, timings, etc.). Make sure that all pilots involved are used to formation flying. It’s not a give, believe me… Also work out an emergency procedure both with the pilot of your photoship and with the pilots involved in the formation.
After briefing it’s time to check personal safety. How will you be secured? Is your camera secured? Your lens? Is there anything loose that can fall out of the plane? These are considerations that need to be taken seriously. A simple rule is that everything that is not secured to your body or the plane stays on the ground. Changing batteries or memory cards aren’t allowed.
Of course these last few rules only apply when you use a photoship with an open door. There are, after all, a lot of different options.
A back seat is one of them. I’ve done shoots in a T-6, Yaks, Extra 300, Chipmunks, Sv-4’s, etc. Most of these offer a wide view and most of them have no canopy or one that can be opened in flight. If you have shoot through the canopy I suggest you use a rubber lens hood in order not to scratch the it and to prevent reflections. Always clean the windows before take off! These planes can have other disadvantages as well, I touched upon these in a previous tutorial about aerial photography. You can find a small snippet below.
(…)it’s important to look at the wings. A low wing aircraft will block most of your downward view which is a bit of a problem when shooting aerial photos. High wing aircraft are usually better, but you still might have struts or even engines in the way.
Of course there’s also a difference between doors off (or open) vs doors on. Even on a helicopters it makes a huge difference. During my ride above New York I was hanging out of the helicopter with my feet on the skids. On the flight above L.A. it was with the door on and my possibilities were immediately limited. Also a lot of shots were ruined because of reflections. though those are easily prevented by using a rubber lens hood. Some planes can also fly without doors or with the door open. (…)
Read full blogpost: https://gielsweertvaegher.com/2019/04/02/a-guide-to-aerial-photography/
Another option is us using a plane with an open ramp. My experiences are limited to the Skyvan. The view from the Skyvan is extraordinary. The planes can join in any position between 2 and 10 o’clock. On one occasion we even had a C-130 on our 12. This offers unlimited options.
A last option, often regarded as the least good option, is a co pilot seat. In my humble opinion, these are just as good as any other photoship.
There’s a whole variety of possible formations you can use for your flight. I won’t go into details, but plan these formations bases on your photoship. For example, a wide formation behind the Skyvan doesn’t work. Just google a little and see what is possible. Also don’t forget to brief some maneuvers too. A plane breaking away or doing aerobatics make for a much more dynamic photo.
The most important consideration for air to air photography is the cost. The planes involved don’t run on water. Make sure you worked out a deal about who pays what before taking off. No one likes surprises afterwards.
The Aviation PhotoCrew
Those of you who think all of this is a little too much on their plate. There’s a service for everything. I’m a member of the Aviation PhotoCrew and we organize air to air flights. You can sign up for a flight and we take care of everything else. We’ve been doing this for 10 years now and shot with dozens of air forces and even more pilots, organizations and companies. Make sure to take a look at our website if you are interested. Just don’t forget that these big projects (most of them several days and several flights) don’t come cheap!
Here’s where the magic happens. Once more I would like to make clear that everyone does this differently. Below is how I work.
Adobe Bridge is an easy to use program that I use to watch my photos in full size and make a first rough cut of which ones I will edit. I don’t always use this because sometimes I will make the selection right away in Lightroom.
In Lightroom I import all my photos and make a selection. I usually give 5 stars to those I want to edit. The rest go unmarked. I then go through all my presets and look for one that works on the photos I’m about to edit. You can read all about presets in one of my previous blogposts. Just click the image below.
When I found a preset that works I will fine tune. Don’t just use the basic editing options. Also have a look at the ‘tone curve’ and ‘HSL sliders’. That’s where the real magic happens. The tone curve allows you to play with highlights, shadows and midtones. HSL gives you the possibility to change the hue and saturation. For those that are more experienced in Lightroom, the ‘split toning’ and ‘calibration’ will give you further possibilities to color grade your work.
This is not the right place to do so, but I promise I’ll write an extensive tutorial on Lightroom in the future!
What I use a lot are the radial filter, graduated filter and the adjustment brush. These three tools allow you to select certain parts of the image and edit them separately. This has been one of the biggest game changers for me.
I will keep this part short because I don’t have much experience in selling aviation photography. You can read why by going to the blogpost below.
So that about wraps up my guide on aviation photography. I tried to touch on as many points as possible. Feel free to contact me with editions, questions or comments.
Thoughts, comments, questions? Let me know in the comment section below!
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