Aviation Photography Primer From A Pro


As you dig through last year’s air show pictures do you find yourself cringing?  Did they turn out poorly composed or do they just look generally  amateur?  We caught up with professional aviation photographer John Lackey of Fly By Photography to get some pointers to help us improve the look and feel of our aircraft photos.  Follow these tips and you’ll have this year’s air show photos hanging on your wall!  — Rob Burgon, Chief Editor, Tally One

By John Lackey, Fly By Photography

I’ve had an interest in aviation for almost as long as I can remember. Both of my grandfathers were pilots, so perhaps it’s genetic.  As a child I built models of aircraft and amassed quite the collection of reference material to aid in accuracy. I loved the photos in those books and magazines and had always wanted to be able to take photos like those for myself. That opportunity came when I began attending the annual open house at Andrews AFB in the late ’70s and early ‘80s. My weapon of choice was a Kodak 110 pocket camera. Remember those? Needless to say, my photos didn’t look much like the ones in the books and magazines, and I gave up on photography for a while. Fast forward to the early 2000s and digital photography, and back to Andrews I went with my new 5 megapixel Kodak point and shoot. The photos were better but still not like those great shots I remembered as a kid. Fortunately, we now had the internet and a treasure trove of information for aspiring aviation photographers if they were inclined to hunt for it, as I was. In 2005, I purchased a Canon 20D digital single lens reflex or DSLR camera and a Canon 100-400mm L lens. A week later I was at NAS Oceana photographing an airshow and finally producing images I could be proud of.

I’m a self-taught photographer and until rather recently haven’t taken any formal instruction in photography. For those interested in taking the step into aviation photography or any photography, the internet and your public library are great places to start.  Some things that you’ll want to be familiar with are composition, exposure control, and the aviation photographer’s most valued skill, panning.  In order to take a sharp photograph of a fast-moving object, that object must be kept in the same position on the frame for the duration of the exposure. Believe it or not, jets are easy. You can choose a fast shutter speed, 1/800-1/1000 of a second, and get a sharp shot. You can do the same with a propeller-driven aircraft, but you’ll stop the motion of the prop, which just doesn’t look right.  To keep from stopping the prop, you’ll need to lower the shutter speed and use smooth panning to capture an image with a sharp aircraft and a motion-blurred prop. Most difficult of all are the slowest movers of the bunch, helicopters.  A helicopter’s long rotors spin quite slowly and require a very low shutter speed to blur and very accurate panning to achieve a sharp photo. Panning is a skill that needs to be learned and routinely practiced. Fortunately, you don’t need to wait for an airshow to learn or practice.  You can stand by the side of a road and photograph passing cars or go to the local airport and photograph the planes landing and taking off.  Most important of all is lots of practice.


For equipment, I recommend a DSLR camera for its quality and versatility.  That said, you don’t need the latest and greatest DSLR currently out there to get great photos. As a matter of fact, especially if you are on a budget or not sure you’ll stick with photography, you might even considered purchasing used equipment to start with.  I personally shoot using Canon equipment, though Nikon makes equipment that is equally good. For lenses I’ll recommend Canon because that is what I know. Nikon users will be able to find equivalents to what I recommend.  For shooting ground-to-air a good budget lens would be the Canon 70-300mm
telephoto zoom lens. They are readily available at a reasonable price and offer a good zoom range for capturing anything from a single aircraft to a formation. My personal lens of choice is the Canon 100-400mm L zoom telephoto lens.  It’s a step up from the 70-300 and offers an additional 100mm of reach.

Airshow photography can offer up some challenges for the photographer.  The preferred time of day to take photographs is the “Golden Hour,” the hour after sunrise or the hour before sunset. Unfortunately, airshows don’t typically take place during those hours. If you do have an opportunity to photograph at a twilight show, take it; it’s a great experience.  Worse still is that we don’t get much choice on where we can place ourselves to photograph a show. As an aviation photographer you always hope the sun will be behind you, offering blue skies and a front-lit aircraft.   Frequently, we end up with the sun somewhere in front of us, forcing us to compromise on exposure and trying to shoot as best we can in the direction opposite the sun. This is where having a lot of experience and practice under your belt will really help you out.

Here are a few things to consider before you head out to the airshow.  What sort of photographs do you want to take home with you? Getting to an airshow early and setting yourself up at the show center is always tempting, but is that really what you should do? Where will the sun be throughout the day? If the sun will be on your left, for most of the day, for example, might it not be better to set yourself up on the left side of the show line so that you’ll be shooting opposite the sun, toward your right so that the aircraft is a bit more front lit and the sky bluer? Also, keep in mind that the aircraft are typically doing most of their maneuvering at either end of the show line and less maneuvering is done at show center. Did you want to get a shot of the F-22 coming at you nearly head-on as it turns for its next pass or a shot of its side profile as it flies by you? What about bad weather? You can get some of your most dramatic shots when the weather isn’t entirely cooperative. Do you want to catch the F-22 riding on a 30-foot plume of afterburner flame? Overcast days offer a great opportunity to get that shot. Did you want to photograph the Raptor with its wings engulfed in clouds of its own making with streamers of vapor rolling off the wing tips? Humid, frequently cloudy weather will offer that opportunity. Of course, I’ve already mentioned twilight shows, which aren’t to be missed if they are offered.

Over at Fly-By Photography, we are looking forward to the upcoming airshow season and the return of most of the military open houses and military teams. I’ll again be bringing home several thousand images of aircraft from each show weekend, but this year my personal goal is to include a lot more photos of the men and women who keep ‘em flying.

** Brent Owens and I catch up with John in Episode 9 of Slipstream Radio – to be released soon! **


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