5 Tips for Capturing Air Show Photos

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Blue Angels | Traverse City National Cherry Festival

Blue Angels

Air shows are one of my most favorite events to photograph. I’ll never forget my first air show when I saw the stealth F117 during the first year it was made public. Every year we do our best to make it up to see one of the best air shows in the country at the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, MI. It’s not a large air show rather its the location and the jaw-dropping Blue Angels that always make it a very special event. The Blue Angels literally fly just above the tree tops as they burst over the sandy beaches and across the beautiful Traverse Bay. This year was the first time I was confident in my abilities to come away with some keeper images. Here are my top 5 tips for capturing air show photos that greatly increase the odds of capturing some keeper images.

  • Go Long. There is no substitute for long glass when taking air show photos. You don’t need fast glass just long glass. I recommend at least 300mm lens on a crop sensor camera which provides a little extra reach with the 1.6 crop factor i.e. my 400mm lens setup on the crop sensor Canon 7D results in a 640mm focal length.
  • Panning is key. Panning is a technique where you pan your camera along with the moving subject and hopefully end up with sharp images even with slow shutter speeds. When shooting extremely fast and some times supersonic jets, panning with the action is key to capturing tack sharp images by setting your camera to AI Servo (focus tracking mode), panning and capturing the jets as they fly by. The best way to practice this is to shoot birds in your backyard. They are way more difficult to capture and you’ll quickly learn the panning technique when trying to capture a bird in flight. Then when its time to shoot the air show, it’ll be second nature and far easier to pan with a jet.
  • JPEGs for best performance. I capture in RAW mode for just about everything except fast action when I need the full burst speed of the Canon 7D’s 8 shots a second which is only supported when shooting JPEGs. The extra shutter performance and memory buffer expansion, for me, is worth sacrificing the benefits of shooting RAW in these situations.
  • Trust the Histogram. Air shows are typically during the middle of the day in harsh light which is why you don’t need fast glass but it can create some exposure challenges. If its cloudy out, the white clouds can really mess with the sensor on the camera. Use Spot Metering to make sure you are metering on the plane. I often find that +1 exposure compensation is a good starting point. I’ll take a few shots, check histogram, make sure my exposure reading is close but not hitting the far right.
  • Know your subject. One of the golden rules of photographing any subject and its vitally important for capturing special images at air shows. For example, capturing jets is totally different then capturing prop planes. When photographing prop planes, you want to lower the shutter speed to 1/200-250 sec thus ensuring the props appear in motion. When shooting jets, you want to use highest shutter speed possible to capture special atmospheric events like a spontaneous cone shaped cone when jets burst through the sound barrier and go supersonic.

Canon 7D
Canon 70-200mm w/ 2x extender @340mm
ISO 800, f/8.0
1/1250 sec exposure

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