Airshow Basics

Firebirds mirror.

Firebirds mirror.

Birds of a different feather . . . Air shows are a great excursion for the family - and a super way to extend your photography into new areas.  Here are tips and tricks to get you started.

Job #1 take care of yourself

It's easy to get caught up in the excitement and not realize you're getting over heated so take care.

  • Protection from the sun
    • Even on an overcast day, the dangers are there
    • Stay hydrated
      • Drink more than you think you need.  Waiting until you get thirsty is not good enough
      • Stay comfortable
        • Clothing that is light and breathable
        • Good walking shoes - you will be doing some "walking"
        • Accessories
          • Chairs, sun glasses and ear protection - to name just a few
          • Check the air show website for FAQ's, it's not uncommon for a show to prohibit bags - you may have have to hump your equipment in without your camera bag.


  • Lens selection
    • Short lens: something in the 24-70 or 24-105 range
      • Plenty of opportunities for wide angle crowd shots as well as static displays
      • In-flight lens: a 70-200 is minimum but a 70-300 is a better choice.  A lens that get you up to 400 is optimum
        • You'll want a variable telephoto as the aircraft are constantly changing positions


  • Camera body
    • Whatever you shoot with is fine
    • Bring an extra, fully charged battery
    • A comfortable strap (remember, you might not have your camera bag with you)

Some Basic Tips

Whistling Death . . . Japanese nickname for the plane that ruled the pacific skies..jpg
Whistling Death . . . Japanese nickname for the plane that ruled the pacific skies..jpg
  • Camera Settings:
    • Focusing Mode: AI Servo (as Canon calls it) is mandatory.  These guys fly pretty fast!
    • Multiple shots: set you camera to take images as fast as it can - you'll want to select from the best of a sequence
    • Aperture: it can be hard when you need light, but you don't want to shoot too close to your maximum aperture.  With even a single aircraft, you could need 12-20 feet of depth of field to get the entire ship in focus.
      • Single aircraft: f/8 is minimum, assuming a good distance between you and the aircraft in flight.
      • Multiple aircraft: f/11 is minimum, but f/14 is a safer choice
      • Shutter speed:
        • This one deserves a dedicated post (on its way) but some basics are:
          • Jets: you've got latitude here, use as fast a shutter as you can
          • Prop: this is where it gets challenging.  You want to see the prop "blur" in your shot.  This can require shutter speeds as low as 1/250th or lower.  But you need to have your panning technique down cold in order to ensure the aircraft itself is in focus
          • Harsh light
            • Most air shows take place during the middle of the day, not much you can do about it.  Here are a couple things to look into though:
              • Evening shows: many air shows will have a Friday night event at dusk - take advantage of these!
              • Get to the show very early.  Usually aircraft will be flying in during the early morning hours, including static displays.  This could allow you a shot or two with some good light
Blue Angels

Blue Angels

  • Expose for the aircraft - don't worry if everything else is blown out or blocked up
F-16 climbing

F-16 climbing

  • Composition considerations
    • Leave room to fly into.  Don't butt the nose of the ship right up against the edge of your frame
    • Look for different angles, including aircraft flying away from you - unlike animals or people, there is no "head angle" to worry about!
Falcon . . . weapons hot

Falcon . . . weapons hot

Pre-Show Tips

  • Check on show locations and dates
    • Especially the time the gates open
    • Special seating
      • Some shows (for a price) have VIP seating that can also include shelter and beverages
      • Flight line seating, get there early
        • Pay attention to the gate opening time.  If you don't have VIP seating, you'll want to get there early to grab a spot right on the flight line

In upcoming posts, we'll also take a deeper look at more advanced considerations

Check back soon for these informative posts.

Stay in focus,