Reach For the Skies and Shoot an Airshow


Here are ten top tips to make the most of your visit to a summer airshow…



How to shoot an airshow

Airshows offer an abundance of photographic opportunity. All image by Matty Graham



From the roar of the vintage engines as planes race by overhead, to the fun of characters dressed up in period outfits, there’s always plenty to photograph when you visit an airshow.

But there are always ways to make your images better and Matty Graham is here to share ten tips that will help you make the most from a visit to a summer airshow. So, chocks away! It’s time to capture your best ever aviation images…



Do your research


While any day out at an airshow will be fun, some events give you an opportunity to capture images that are even more special, with some vintage aircraft only making two or three appearances through the airshow summer season. The best approach is to check what the line-up will be before you book some tickets.



Pack the right gear


How to shoot an airshow

A good long zoom is your friend at an airshow



When you arrive at the show, you’ll see no shortage of photographers sporting massive lenses that look like cannons. Don’t worry though – while it’s nice to have a long lens, you can still capture great images with a modest 70-300mm lens paired with an APS-C camera.

Remember to also pack a wider lens for static aircraft and portraits, and bear in mind that if your budget does stretch a little further, there plenty of options you can invest in. Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 C OS HSM is a great-value telezoom that costs around £800.



Pick the right spot


Aircraft tend to stick to a rough circuit as they perform near the crowds. Remember, for health and safety reasons, aircraft can no longer fly directly over crowds, so take a moment to work out the route of the planes and then position yourself at the closest point to where they pass. In most cases, this will be near to the air control tower. If you can find a point of elevation this is a bonus, but most airfields are generally quite flat.



How to shoot an airshow

Try to avoid spots where other punters will interfere with your images



Sort your settings


If you stick to the Auto mode you’ll find your results disappointing. Instead, take control and when planes are flying past, select Shutter Priority mode, which is S or Tv on the mode dial.

Dial in a starting shutter speed of around 1/640sec, take a test shot and adjust the exposure from there. The aim is to keep the plane sharp but the propellers a little blurred, as this will add a sense of speed to the subject. Change the drive mode to burst, so the camera captures a sequence of shots when you hold the shutter button down rather than one at a time, as this will increase the chances of capturing that perfect moment.



How to shoot an airshow

A burst sequence



Fine-tune your focus


Planes move so quickly that if you use single shot focus, the subject will have moved by the time the shutter is pushed, leading to blurred images. Instead, select the continuous focus mode, which is also called AI Servo.



How to shoot an airshow



In this mode, the camera will aim to keep the subject in focus for as long as you press the shutter. This is the mode you should always use when shooting action.



Craft your composition


Leave the plane slap bang in the middle of the frame and you’ll be missing an opportunity to show the subject at its best. To really introduce a sense of movement and atmosphere to your frame, leave room for the plane to move into.



How to shoot an airshow



This will not only look more natural, but will also help tell the story to the viewer.



Keep it steady


If you’re lucky enough to visit an air show on a bright sunny day, your shutter speeds will be high and you won’t have to worry about blurred images. However, if it’s a little cloudier, you may want some help to keep the camera steady. Tripods aren’t a great choice for airshows as they can get in the way if the area is packed with the public for fellow photographers.

A monopod will prove far more portable, will take the weight of a telezoom lens off your arms, and will keep your shots steady too.



How to shoot an airshow



It’s not all about flying


Air shows are always busy events and there’s plenty to shoot on the ground too. Many guests attend the show in period costume, and most will be more than willing to stand for a portrait if you ask politely.



How to shoot an airshow



What’s more, there are usually even more planes on the ground, and this is where you can get a little more creative with your imagery. From low-angle compositions to tight detail shots, try mixing up focal lengths and angles to capture a shot with a difference.



How to shoot an airshow


How to shoot an airshow



Pack the accessories


Shooting bursts and using the autofocus intensively will not only fill your memory card quickly, but will also sap the juice from your batteries. These days memory is cheap, so pack plenty of cards and make sure they have fast write speeds (100mb/s or faster) so that your picture-taking doesn’t slow down.



How to shoot an airshow



Using a camera grip will allow you to pack an extra battery so you can keep shooting for longer. If you want to further extend the life of the battery, avoid using Live View or reviewing your shots for too long on the back of the camera.



Pro touches


To really move your air show imagery on to the next level, here’s some tips that will give your photos a professional look.

First up, don’t always go for plain blue skies as a backdrop. Adding in some white cloud makes the shot look more natural, while the tops of trees and buildings can add context to an image.

Also look for combinations of planes if two are flying together – one plane on the shoulder of another is a great first step. Remember, most airshows feature planes that are the last of their kind. Shots of these planes paired with other, older planes is exactly what stock libraries look for from professionals, so why not give it a go?



How to shoot an airshow



Click here to see a full calendar of upcoming UK airshows



About the Author

Matty Graham is a photographer and writer based in Lincolnshire.



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