Air Show Photography
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.
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
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
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
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.
For most air show work, you'll want an SLR. When I first started,
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.
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.
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
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"
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Slow Lens/Converter Combinations
So how do you focus accurately when you have a lens/converter
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.
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
Next time you go to an airshow, wander over toward the press tent and
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
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.
For the most part, I shoot slides, so the metering has to be pretty
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.
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
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.
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.
If you're a professional and you need to submit fine-grained images
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
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.
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
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.
A Few More Sights From The Show