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Tucker hammerhead stall

Air Show Photography

Fat Albert lifting off

There's something about flight that fascinates all of us. Whether it's watching a hawk soaring over the desert or marvelling at the tenacity of a World War II fighter pilot, chances are you've been captured by its magic at one time or another. Probably nothing inspires the awe of the aviation nut as much as the airborne gymnastics of an air show. The agility of the planes and the skill of the pilots wows us year after year. The sheer size of the C-5 transport, the poignant history of the Hanoi Taxi and the bubbly charm of performers like Patty Wagstaff just add to the magic.

Grabbing the moments on film, however, requires concentration and practice, not to mention a healthy investment in photographic gear. Most of what makes for successful air show photography is the same as what makes for any other successful photography, so much of the following material may be old hat to you. However, I've found that air show photography has a few quirks, and I hope that by relating these on this page, your next air show shoot will be more fun.

Cannon on A4

All of the photographs here were taken at the Cleveland National Air Show at Burke Lakefront Airport. The lakefront provides a beautiful backdrop for the show with breathtaking sunsets. If you like to travel to air shows outside your area, I'd highly recommend putting this one on your list. While you're here, see what the city has to offer.

The Days Before and After the Show

F-18 touchdown Some of the best air-show shots can be taken on the days surrounding the show itself. Often, the show opens for the press a day before it opens to the public and, if you can find a good vantage point, you can get a lot of pictures without the crowd getting in your way. This media preview day is often on a Friday

Blue Angels Tight Turn The evening before and the evening of media preview are also prime times to get photographs. Many of the ground display aircraft are arriving at these times and some of the pilots really ham it up for the cameras. The departures the evening of closing day also make great photo-ops. There will often be aircraft that don't depart the day the show closes. You can get shots of these making their takeoff runs the day after the show. The days surrounding the show may be your only opportunity to get in-flight shots of the more exotic planes. Such shots are usually harder to come by than in-flight shots of the flight demo aircraft.

In the last few years, security at airports, especially military airports, has made it much more difficult to photograph outside the airport before and after an air show. Doing so may invite questioning from the police or security people, and it is very advisable to make yourself known to them and to check before photographing at or a near an airport, other than during the air show proper.

Shoot Around Sunset

F-18 trio at sunset You've heard this one before and it's almost as applicable on pre- and post-show evenings. Shoot whatever you can when the sky turns golden (a.k.a "magic hour"). The shots at rignt of the trio of F-18s, the Hornet landing, the T-2 Buckeye's landing and the C130 taking off were taken at sunset on the Thursday evening preceding media day and the evening of closing day. If Sean D. Tucker is doing barrel rolls three hours before sunset, by all means shoot it, but get whatever you can during magic hour.

Gear

For most air show work, you'll want an SLR. When I first started, Wagstaff Skid I wanted to get a ZLR, but the man who whould become my photographic mentor talked me out of it (he was working the counter at the local Ritz Camera store). This is a man who has dangled out the back of a C-130 photographing the Golden Knights as they jumped out of the plane, so I figured he probably knew what he was talking about. I'm glad I listened.

A long lens is a must. The actual length of the lenses you'll need depends upon how far you are from the airport. I use a Tamron 400mm f/4 and often use 1.4x and 2x teleconverters for in-flight shots when outside the airport. Yes, manually focusing is tough with an f/8 lens-converter combination; this'll be covered later.

A long, hand-holdable zoom is also a help. I've Buckeye approach found that an 80-200 lens just isn't long enough for this work much of the time. I use a Nikkor 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6. Such lenses are often maligned in articles on usenet and elsewhere, but they're quite useful for air show photography. A 70-200mm f/2.8 style lens with a 1.4x or 2x converter will also fill the bill, though for the big planes, the extra width on the short end of a 70-300 or 80-400 range lens is nice. One caution about long telephoto zooms is that their quality is all over the place. The Nikkor 75-300 is quite good as such lenses go (have't used the newer 70-300 or the 80-400); not on par with the 80-200mm f/2.8, but still a great lens, in my opinion. Some others, however, have problems like vignetting, low contrast, poor color, soft corners etc. Run a comparison before you buy one of these.

You will want a tripod along T-6 Texan for the long lens, especially if it's a heavy one like a 400/4 or 300/2.8. When an aircraft arrives at or leaves the airport, it will always be in a traffic pattern dictated by the approach controllers or the tower. Unless you're directly under the approach/departure path, the aircraft won't cross directly overhead. Thus you can track it on the tripod without risking throwing out your back. Occasionally, a pilot will head straight for a group of photographers if s/he sees them and make an overhead pass (chopper pilots do this quite a bit). Fortunately, you can usually get these with your hand-held zoom, so the tripod isn't a hindrance. Using a tripod during the show (or if you ARE at either end of the runway) is quite another problem as you will soon see.

Much has been said about the tripod head. Except for the Arca Swiss, I've found that I hate that tendency of most ball-heads to dump the lens if the tension isn't set just so. If your lens has a tripod collar (most long lenses do), you can use a fluid-effect video head instead of a ball head. I have one and am quite happy with it. Tracking aircraft with a pan-tilt head like the Bogen 3047 is pure folly.

The Show Itself

Get to the Show Early

Trainer This applies to the gate as well as the flight line. Spend the first hour or so milling about and photographing the ground display aircraft and the spectators. This will give you plenty of time to get a good spot on the flight line. After you make the rounds and get the ground shots you want, make your way to the very front of the flight line (assuming you have no press pass) and camp out at that spot. This is where a partner comes in handy -- you don't lose your spot when one of you makes a trip for a burger. Security during air shows has become a much greater issue than it was a few years ago. Cooperate with the police and security personnel. Act professionally and couteously, and keep in mind that the security people may be on edge because their job is difficult.

B-25 Mitchell Wide-angle lenses are a big help for ground photos as they yield dramatic perspectives. They also allow you to get close enough to the aircraft to eliminate foreground clutter and still fit the entire craft into the frame. This can give you a very striking image or a very stupid one. You can point a 20mm lens away from someone and still get them in the picture on the sly.

I usually use my trusty Nikkor 24-120 and carry a 20mm prime for the really wide stuff. There is quite a difference between 20mm and 24mm. On digital bodies (except the Kodak DCS and Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II), you need about a 14mm lens to get the same perspective as a 20mm lens on a 35mm film camera. You can also have an 80-200 or 70-300 range lens available for candids. Remember that unless you can park your stuff in the press tent or you have someone willing to sit with your gear, you're likely carrying/pulling all your stuff while you're milling around the grounds, so changing lenses is a bit more of a project than when you're just carrying a body and a couple of light lenses.

Get a rolling bag! Or get a pull cart. Trust me, your back and neck will be under enough stress when you're shooting. Even young backs can get tired after a day at the air show. Towing your gear rather than carrying it will make your life trancendentally easier. Having a small shoulder bag for a lens swap when taking ground shots is a good idea too. I use a Tamrac holster for this.

Get Some People Shots Too

Let's face it, the aircraft are the stars of the show, but people are still interested in other people. If you get nothing but static aircraft shots, you don't get the full flavor of the event.

Look Up Cameraman Life-Flight Medic Flight Crew Moon Shot Baby

Look for interesting folks who seem to like having their pictures taken. There's nothing duller than a shot of someone who hates being photographed, nor is there much that smarts more than getting your camera driven into your nose (remember the kooks I mentioned earlier...). The ground and flight crews make great subjects as do the food and gift vendors. Many will really ham it up for you as soon as they see your lens pointed toward them. Look for groups of teenagers or college kids -- they have quite an affinity for the camera. It probably isn't a good idea to photograph the security people unless you ask their permission first -- let them do their jobs.

Flight Line Shooting

Angels Bank Once the show starts, you're taking in-flight shots (my term for it). This includes shots of the aircraft landing, taking off, taxiing and, in the case of jets, revving the afterburners at the end of the runway before takeoff. This is where focusing skills become paramount. Whether you're using autofocus or manual focus, you must learn to track-focus the aircraft. The peculiarities of each method will be covered in turn.

Autofocus

Most AF cameras have some kind of focus-tracking method built in. Some older cameras like the Minolta Maxxum 2xi (my first SLR) have limited tracking that tries to lock focus on a moving object just an instant before the shutter fires. These, however, will not continuously track a moving object. Mid-to-high-end AF cameras, however, have continuous AF tracking modes. These will track-focus an object as long as you have the shutter button half-pressed (or the AF button pressed) and the AF sensor on the object. Most of the newer AF bodies like the Nikon F100 and Canon EOS-1 series have multiple sensors that will track an object from one sensor to the next. Many, however have a single AF sensor in the center of the finder. It is these that I will concentrate on since that's where most of my experience lies.

Falcon Climb Keeping the sensor on the subject is, obviously, paramount for successfully tracking the aircraft. This isn't too difficult with a single aircraft, but it isn't as easy as it looks with groups of planes, especially jets. You're trying to keep the sensor on whichever aircraft you want in the center of the frame, but you're also trying to compose and wait for the right instant to release the shutter. Plus, the planes are changing formation and individual planes are heading into individual maneuvers. Understanding this ahead of time will reduce your stress level a bit. FWIW, this is one of the rare times that I like the wide-area sensor setting on the N90s (the H90 and N70 have this too). This makes it a bit easier to keep the sensor on the plane than the tiny sensors on the newer cameras.

If you're using a multi-sensor camera, select your sensor and/or AF mode beforehand; closest subject priority doesn't really hack it with flight-line shooting -- if you get some guy's head in one of the peripheral sensors, you lose tracking on the planes. As the formation approaches, decide which plane you want in the center of the frame (or at your focus point if you're using an off-center sensor). Keep the sensor on that plane. Note that most of the multi-sensor cameras have an inter-sensor tracking function that allows the subject to move from one sensor to the next without losing the focus lock while the subject is between sensors. This is okay, but it has a time limit, and if you let the main aircraft drift off the sensor for too long, the AF system will lock onto whatever plane is in a sensor. If you're unlucky and no plane is inside a sensor area, you'll lose the focus tracking altogether.

If you're using a zoom lens, keep the "sensor-on-the-lead-plane" Thunderbird Bank concept in the forefront of your mind while you zoom so you don't lose the AF tracking. Take several shots as the planes approach! I find that if I wait for the perfect composition, I often wind up not taking anything because the planes break formation and leave me scrambling.

With single-sensor AF cameras, focus-tracking tends to result in the bulls-eye syndrome (subject dead center in the frame). This isn't always bad, but in many shots, it renders a rather static look. The standard remedy for this is to track the subject until you see the moment you want to capture, then hit the AF-Lock, recompose and shoot. When the aircraft is approaching your position at 200 or 300 knots, however, the time it takes to recompose and shoot is often enough that the craft is out of focus by the time the shutter fires. If you're lucky enough to catch the lone Blue Angels or T-birds pilot that screams down the flight line at 500 knots with the afterburners lit (thereby startling everybody), you can forget the lock, recompose and shoot dance -- the plane is just traveling too fast.

Tomcat Bank So how do you get around this? Think like a 6x6 shooter -- get the image on film first then crop later. I use the AF tracking on the N90s with an 80-200 or 75-300 (usually the latter) to track aircraft at the flight line, and I do get a lot of centered shots. I get around it by cropping after the fact. While this may raise hackles on the necks of some purists, it does give a more pleasing result in the final product. Heavy cropping will often result in a grainy image like the F-16 climb shot above (in the original Kodachrome, the plane is quite small in the frame), but light cropping for composition usually improves the shot. The shot of the Blue Angels banking (above right) was cropped to give the appearance of the planes having more space to the right (their left), thereby giving the impression that they have someplace to go. Of course if you can fill the frame, like with the Bronco lift-off shot below, cropping may become insignificant.

Manual Focus/Focus Assist Schemes

Bronco Liftoff Manual focus presents a different set of problems. Infinity focus is quite a distance away with a 400mm or 500mm lens, and when you're on the flight line, there's a significant difference in focal distance between planes flying over the flight line and those out in a pattern. Trouble is that the difference on the focusing ring between these two points is only a few degrees so you need to practice a lot to make focus-tracking an instinct. The first year I used manual focus at the air show, I had maybe a 50:50 ratio of soft to sharp shots. Some of the ones I missed were (or would have been) real gems. Probably the most challenging situation is that in which the plane is coming right at you or moving straight away from you. The lone Angel/T-Bird plane screaming down the flight line is one of the most extreme examples. This is when the focal distance is changing the fastest.

Practice, and lots of it, makes perfect (or as close to perfect as you can get without fast AF). At first, you'll find that you hesitate a lot, mainly because you can't remember which direction to rotate the focusing ring when the pressure is on. The second big hurdle is overshooting -- i.e., turning the focusing ring too far. Overcoming these tendencies takes a lot of patience. If, like me, you have a 3rd party lens whose focusing ring rotates opposite to that of the lenses made by your camera manufacturer, you need to work that much harder to get the focusing down.

Tomcat Taxiing

If the police will allow it, head out to the airport and focus-track the airliners arriving and departing, but make sure you're cleared to do this with the security people first. You can also go to the local duck pond and track geese in flight. If you can't set up at the local airport and you don't have a place to track birds, head out to the road and focus track cars (though I don't recommend doing this on a holiday weekend because of all the drunk drivers). Focus tracking kids on the soccer field is also good experience, though make sure the parents and coaches are okay with you doing this (think about how you'd react if some stranger just showed up and started photographing YOUR kids...).

Don't let yourself get discouraged -- this takes time. After several outings, you should see a significant improvement in your focusing skills. Don't stop there, however, as focus tracking is NOT like riding a bike -- it's a perishable skill. You need to practice regularly to keep improving and stay sharp.

Grey Whale Liftoff

Three caveats here -- First, if you wear glasses or contacts, make sure your prescription is as good as it can be. I keep noticing slight changes in my vision and a corresponding change in my ability to focus on the matte portion of the screen. I can get pretty close, but not dead on. Getting my eyes checked and a new pair of glasses solves the problem to an extent which leads us to caveat #2. As you get older, your ability to see the screen changes. Your eyes don't focus down to 3 feet any more, and 3 feet is about the effective optical distance to the screen through the prism. You can fix this on most of today's cameras by adjusting the viewfinder diopter. On older cameras like my beloved F3, and older N-series bodies, you can get diopters from Nikon that will correct this. I would imagine the same is true for Canon, Minolta, etc. If you can't find them new, scour the rec.photo.marketplace groups and stores in your area. I am in the process of buying the whole set for both the N90s and F3 as I don't want to be left out in the cold if my eyes change again. Last, don't expect as high an "in-focus-shot ratio" with manual focus as you get with AF. I find that I just can't respond as quickly as a good AF system.

Stunt Plane at Sunset

To track your progress, use digital or get cheap film and shoot like mad. Such practicing is the perfect role for a digital camera. You can shoot all day and not spend a cent on film or processing, and you can change the sensor speed (a.k.a "sensitivity") if the light changes. If all you shoot is film, Ritz Camera has cheap print film that is just repackaged Fuji film. If you can, use the slower speeds so the grain doesn't obscure any tiny flaws in your focusing. However, don't be afraid to use a faster film or sensor speed if you practice in lower light. I like to practice focus-tracking birds, and since many species are most active around dawn or dusk, I often used Superia 800 pushed one stop to freeze the action. Superia 800 (a.k.a Superia X-tra) can be had in 4-packs of 24-exposure rolls for about ten bucks. It's great film and it pushes to 1600 with very little penalty. In fact, I like the definition better at 1600 than at 800 in some cases. If the light is good, I shoot it at 800 to save on the push processing fees. I haven't tried the 1600 and 3200 speed films, but they might work well. Give them a try. Again, if you can afford a digital SLR, film becomes a non-issue for this. However if you're going to shoot the show on film, there is something to be said for practicing with the same camera(s) that you'll use at the show.

F-14 Taxiing Remember that the reciprocal rule, to avoid camera shake, the shutter speed should be at least 1/lens_focal_length, is critical for long lens shooting hand-held. If you're using a 400mm lens, keep the shutter speed at or faster than 1/500th sec. As you add teleconverters, you get a double-whammy -- lens speed decreases and the shutter speed you need to avoid camera shake increases. Thus when you're out practicing focus-tracking, using fast film can help you avoid camera shake.

However you choose to practice, you must make focus-tracking a second-nature activity or you will end up frustrated at your inability to keep up with the aircraft on air show day.

Note: All AF cameras and most manual focus cameras have some type of manual focus assist built into them. With AF cameras, the focus lamp or LCD will indicate when the object in the focus sensor is in focus. In manual focus cameras, this is usually a split-image rangefinder surrounded by a microprism collar. If your reflexes are significantly faster than mine, you might be able to use this to focus-track an aircraft. On the F3, I've found that the microprism is more practical for this than the split-image, though it's still not that easy to use for focus-tracking. Except for AF cameras with multiple focus sensors such as those noted above, using these focus assists for focus-tracking will also lead to subjects centered in the frame.

Slow Lens/Converter Combinations

So how do you focus accurately when you have a lens/converter Tanker & Clients combination slower than f/5.6?? First, the reason I chose f/5.6 in that question is that f/5.6 is the speed at which AF sensors start having trouble locking on the subject and manual focus assist devices start to become ineffective; the split image begins to black out at this speed and the microprism collar loses its shimmer. By f/8, no AF camera will reliably detect the focus (except maybe the EOS-3, at least that's the buzz) and the focus assists on manual focus cameras become useless.

There are several things you can do to mitigate this problem. First, you need to focus manually since most AF systems fall down with an f/8 or slower lens. Use the matte portion of the screen if you have a split-image and/or microprism on the screen. On cameras like the F3, the split-image/microprism focus assist becomes pretty much a big black dot in the middle of the finder image, so you might consider an all-matte screen for your camera. Most manual focus cameras have these available. I have the type-B screen for my F3 and am considering putting an F4 type-B screen into it because it's brighter (F3 and F4 screens are interchangeable). You can also pre-focus on a point and shoot when the aircraft enters the finder. This works great for runway shots and in-flight shots down the flight line (or any other situation where you have a fixed ground reference) but, for obvious reasons, isn't so hot for shots in which the plane is up in the air.

Wing Walker

I've found the best solution for in-flight shots when focus is difficult is to shoot a lot while trying to track-focus. You're bound to miss quite a few shots, but you're also more likely to get a few keepers. A tripod can help, but you're still trying to track an object that's moving well in excess of 100 knots in many cases. The motion of tracking combined with the dim finder image from the slow aperture can make it difficult to track-focus -- tripod or not. Further, using a tripod at the flight line can be a major headache (more on this presently). Using a tripod from outside the airport, as stated above, is usually a good idea.

One last note about focusing. Propeller driven planes are very prone to vibration, so there may be times that the image looks a bit fuzzy even when you've nailed the focus. This is especially true of stunt planes. According to a man who has been shooting air shows much longer than I have, this is most likely to occur when the plane is doing a maneuver that requires full engine throttle. The harder the engine is working, the worse the vibration. The point at which a plane stops at the top of a hammerhead stall is a good example.

Shoot Hand-held

Next time you go to an airshow, wander over toward the press tent and Stealth see how many tripods you spot. There probably won't be many. In several years of shooting at the Cleveland National Air show, I've seen few tripods in the press area other than my own, and all I used it for was to hold the camera/lens when reloading. I can't recall seeing many monopods either. When you're on the flight line, you're tracking aircraft that are skittering all over the sky and often going behind you. It isn't unusual for you to track them in an arc of 235 degrees or so at varying altitudes, and that often involves them going directly over your head and out behind the crowd. If your camera is on a tripod, tracking such a maneuver will necessitate stepping over at least one of the legs to keep the craft in your viewfinder. With slow moving stunt planes or wing-walking acts, this isn't terribly difficult, but with military jets moving at a minimum of 180 knots, it's just about impossible. You run a very high risk of tripping over the tripod and sending yourself and all that expensive low-dispersion glass to the pavement (not to mention looking/feeling like a complete idiot).

Monopods are better, but remember that an F-18 can accelerate in a vertical F-14 braking on landing climb and can go from right in front of your nose to 12,000 feet in just about nothing flat. Tracking such a climb requires either lifting the monopod off the ground, thereby nullifying its usefulness, or stooping to keep your eye at the viewfinder. I can feel my back going out already...

Who needs it? Flight line shooting is best done hand-held. Yes, the big lenses are heavy, but that's easier to deal with than the headaches involved in using a tripod or monopod. If you have to do a little weight training to get your arm, shoulder and back muscles in shape, do it.

Metering

For the most part, I shoot slides, so the metering has to be pretty Thunderbird Formation close to get the right exposure. A northern blue sky is pretty close to 18%grey, so if the subject is more than about 20 degrees from the sun, I've found I can let the camera meter the scene without any compensation and get a pretty good exposure.

Overcast conditions are a little tougher. An overcast sky tends to underexpose the subject because the sky itself is so much brighter than the plane. In the tests I've done at the local airport in Cleveland (Cleveland Hopkins Airport in case you wanted to know), I've found that an exposure compensation of about +1.3 stops gives the most consistent results when using autoexposure. However, this can vary with the degree of overcast, variability in meters, etc.

Gee Bee

What has worked well for me is using manual exposure mode and metering a grey card that's facing roughly the same direction as the sides of the planes I'll be shooting. I'll sometimes close up by 1/3-stop to be sure I don't overexpose. The big caveat with this is that you MUST meter frequently in overcast conditions to determine whether the light has changed. If the overcast is pretty constant, you won't find much change in your readings for most of the day. However if there is a front overhead or if the sky is starting to clear, you can wind up off by as much as a stop without realizing it. Overcast usually changes slowly, and when you're concentrating on composition and focus, it's easy to lose track of changes in the lighting conditions.

Note' Bene': The above works well for me with my equipment. However, to get good results, you should test the conditions in your area with your own gear. Burning a few rolls of film in the weeks before the show will help you get the right settings when the planes are flying.

Fat Albert Closeup

What doesn't work is the old trick of assuming that lawn grass is 18% grey and metering it like a grey card. I've used this method a thousand times with print film and always gotten good results. However, I did this one year at the air show with slide film and got shots that were at up to about a stop overexposed. Subsequent trials showed that the lawns at the airport were consistently a full stop darker than the 18% grey card. There may be lawns that are close enough to 18% grey to give a good meter reading, but there's enough variance in the grey level of green foliage that it's not reliable for determining the exposure on slide film.

So why the disparity?? Metering the lawn works well with print film probably because print film has as much as four stops of overexposure latitude. This means you can overexpose the shot by as much as four stops and still get a decent print. In fact some pros purposely shoot print films at speeds slower than their rated speeds to get better saturation and more punch. Slide film, on the other hand, is VERY unforgiving of any overexposure. The close-up of the Blue Angels C-130 (known as "Fat Albert") with the Cleveland Browns flag was overexposed by about a half stop. I was able to get it looking decent in Photoshop, but note that you really can't see the subtle curvature of the top surface of the plane and the colors are a little off. If you're unsure of the exposure with slide film you should bracket the exposure. If there's no time to bracket, which there usually isn't at an air show, try to err on the side of underexposure.

Film

If you're a professional and you need to submit fine-grained images Golden Knights on slow slide film, then you already know which films you need to use. If you're shooting the air show for kicks, you have a bit more flexibility. Velvia works pretty well with fast lenses, but for the lenses I use (300mm f/5.6, 400mm f/4 with converters, etc.) I like the extra stop I get with ISO-100 films. I've had good results with both the Kodak and Fuji ISO 100 films. Astia was a little less saturated than I like, but the Kodak E100 series, Kodak Elite Chrome 100 and the RDPIII worked well. The older Provia 400 was a bit too grainy for me. Haven't tried the newer Provia 400 yet.

I used Kodachrome 64 at the air show one Blue Angel Taxiing year. The results were a bit disappointing. The color saturation was less than that of the E100S, Provia, and other films I've used. I've always thought that Kodachrome was a little reddish. I have to wonder if that red cast mutes the cyan in a blue sky. This isn't to say that Kodachrome isn't useful for other projects -- I just didn't like it for the air show.

For overcast conditions, I like Kodak E200 (haven't tried other ISO-200 films). If the overcast is a little heavier, I'll push this film one stop -- it pushes beautifully. I've not tried the latest crop of ISO-400 slide films, so I can't comment on them directly, but I'd recommend testing them before you shoot the air-show.

Just to be on the safe side, I always take several rolls of ISO 800 print film, especially for pre- and post-show days.

Ian Groom Starfighter Pass P-51 Mustang B-17 Guns Whale Taxiing Tomcat & cloud

Myths

There are a few "rules" that I've heard at one time or another, and I have shots that put the kibosh to some of them. Here are some examples.

Myth #1: Don't Shoot in Overcast Conditions

This is a tired old adage I've heard a million times, and it has some truth to it, but it's far from a hard and fast rule. Have a look at the leftmost shot below. A front was rolling in and the air was loaded with smog from the factories along the river. Yet the sheer size of the aircraft still hits you. Note the guy poking his head out the top hatch of the plane -- I think the C5 is the only craft that requires a "taxiing navigator..."

The day I took the shot in the center it had just rained and the air was soaked. The plane (an F-14) was doing a high speed pass and the vapor clouds it was generating were spectacular -- the plane was literally ducking in and out of clouds of its own making. Of course this made it very difficult to focus as I couldn't see the plane in the finder long enough to track it. I just aimed, started focusing as best I could, tripped the shutter when the focus looked like it was roughly in the vicinity of being right and hoped for the best. Technically, the shot stinks. It's blurry, it's hard to tell what kind of plane it is, it's almost monochromatic, etc. In reality, it draws raves from just about everyone who sees it -- it just looks fast>. You've heard it before -- the only rule of composition is that there are no rules -- and these shots are examples. Conventional wisdom dictates that because the light was so dull the shooting should have been lousy that afternoon, and I have a lot of dull shots that support that contention. But there's also an adage that the best shooting happens in the worst weather. High speed planes and high humidity almost always make for some spectacular effects, so keep your camera at the ready when the clouds roll in. Of course, you'll want to have some kind of protective bag for your gear and have a sheltered spot scoped out if the rain starts. I spent part of one air show day under the wing of a C-17 with other spectators ducking the rain until I finally bagged it and went home.

Myth #2: Don't Worry About What Happens Between Acts

Again, a grain of truth, but a bad idea. At the 1996 show, an F-14 and a 1950s vintage F7F Tigercat flew a demo called "The Flight of the Twin-engine Cats."

Tomcat & Patti Fat Albert-Flag Thunderbird Bank

The demo was okay, but what happened next made for a shot that is one of my favorites. The Tigercat landed first, and, as the Tomcat was turning into its downwind approach, Patty Wagstaff left the runway and joined it. What followed had the crowd in stitches. Patty appeared to play the Tomcat pilot like Costello plays Abbott and the result was the shot at left. I'm sure this was all orchestrated and that the two pilots were in constant radio contact, but the appearance was hilarious. And to think I almost stopped to reload...

The take-home message is that occasionally something unexpected happens between acts, especially when you have a bunch as competitive as military pilots and stunt competition entrants. So keep your eyes peeled between acts -- you may get the best shot of the day.

Myth #3: Always Get Close-ups for In-flight Shots

One of the most spectacular things at an air show is the smoke trails left by the aerobatic teams. You don't always have to use the long glass to get good shots.

Stearman Formation Thunderbird Break Stearman Formation

A Few More Sights From The Show

Prowler Takeoff Roll Blue Angels Maneuver Mustang Liftoff Blue Angels Slow Pass Patti Wagstaff Chopper Sillhouette Sunset over Erie Prowler with wings folded Another Sunset Red Baron Crew Jim Spring Photographs Crowd B-17 Flying Fortress
Copyright Don Atzberger, 2005

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