Air Show

Air Show Tips - Shutter Speed



An ultimate shot for me!

P-51 Mustang captured at 1/160th of a second on a low and fast pass.

Generally speaking, you can shoot jets at a very high shutter speed - unless you're looking for a certain type of effect (more on that later) but with prop driven planes it's important to shoot slow enough to show as much motion in the propeller as possible.  Yes, this is easier said than done - as the Mustang in the shot below illustrates.

shutter speed too fast.

shutter speed too fast.

Quick Tips

  • Determine you current "stable" panning shutter speed
    • Start at 1/750th and begin working down from there
    • Practice good panning techniques
      • Plant your feet shoulder width apart
      • Keep your elbows tucked in
      • Pick a spot on your target and keep one specific focus point on that spot
      • Pivot at the waist
      • Gradually start to slow your shutter
        • Different airplanes will have different "sweet spots" - as high as 1/350th of a second all the way down to 1/60th of a second

Take a look at the shot below taken at a later air-show and compare it to the "frozen" Mustang above.  Sharp focus is maintained but with a nice pleasing blur in the Mustang's prop.  You don't get the feeling that the aircraft are just hanging in the sky but rather a good sense of motion.

acceptable shutter speed.

acceptable shutter speed.


Generally speaking, you can use a high shutter speed on jets - makes for easier shooting and with a jet's speed you may need it.  There are times, however, when you'll want to reduce your shutter speed based on background and simliar situations.  The shot below is a good example, higher shutter speed for the jet worked just fine - but a slower speed would have significantly blurred the background creating an even greater sense of speed.

F-86 Sabre

F-86 Sabre

One last consideration for slower shutter speeds, be sure you're not dealing with three axis movement.  You can manage a shutter when:

  • the plane is moving closer or farther away from you (autofocus does this)
  • the plane is moving forward (a good panning technique handles this one)

However, if the plane is rotating, rolling or pitching up dramatically at the same time it's moving forward - you'll start to pick up some blur as you can't pan in multiple directions.

Multi axis movement

Multi axis movement

Have fun and don't get discouraged, it takes time!

Stay in focus,


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,


Perspective Matters

A low perspective almost always adds interest. 

Whenever possible, shoot at eye level (or the equivalent in your subjects) to gain interest, perspective and drama.  It's comfortable to make pictures from your standing position but that rarely gives you the best angle.  Squat, get on your knees, sit or lay down.  Like my friend Rick Sammon says "use you camera like a spaceship!"

For the shot in this post, I scoped out a spot on the return ramp and laid down, waiting for the turn,

Stay in focus, 


Aircraft Panning Basics


Panning Shots - The Practice is Worth it!

It takes practice and patience to develop a good panning technique, but the shots captured will make you proud.  Chances are you already have some of the basics down and just don't realize it.  Panning relies on good form and a steady motion - similar to a golf swing, skeet shooting and other activities.  Here are some quick tips to get you started:


  • Don't move your feet or your shoulders - pivot at your waist
  • Consider the arc of your pan, and face closer to your ending position - twist back to get to your starting point
  • This places what should be your best balanced position towards the end of your pan, allowing for better control
  • Holding technique

    • There are many ways to do this and not necessarily "one" right way - this is how I do it:
    • Press the camera against your face to increase stability.  A larger, cushioned eye-cup can make this more comfortable and effective
    • Tuck your elbows into your side, increasing stability
    • Lean slightly into your shot - this will create a more stable "triangle" between your face, front hand and tucked in elbows


  • Checkout the article on Air Show Shutter Speed to learn more about proper settings and the different scenarios you will encounter
  • Shutter speed will be limited by your panning technique, with propeller driven aircraft requiring the most skill.  Begin your practicing with no lower than 1/750th of a second shutter speed and move down as you become comfortable
  • Spread your feet about should width apart - provides a stable platform and good balance

    P 51 Mustang<br /><br />
1 160th Shutter    and 200 MPH

    Select your target

  • While you can use multiple focus points, I've found it best to use the single point selection option - and lock it on target
  • Pick a spot on the aircraft, place your focus point of choice on it and keep it there (yes, easier said than done)
  • This doesn't have to be the center point.  As illustrated below, your target won't necessarily have a viable center spot
  • Aperture 1

    Aim and move

    • Depending on your target and the arc it's traveling, the speed will not be constant - you'll have to adjust with your target
    • The bike shot below (shutter speed of 1/ 180th) was extra difficult as the bike and plane were not traveling at the same rate of speed for most of the run.  20 images yielded only one that was sharp enough.
    • The bike shot below (shutter speed of 1/ 180th) was extra difficult as the bike and plane were not traveling at the same rate of speed for most of the run.  20 images yielded only one that was sharp enough.
    • Once you've locked your focus point in place, practice your panning
    • Aperture 2

      Follow through

      • You want to shoot on continuous - as fast as your camera can go.  With practice you'll surely get better and have more "keepers" but even the best rarely achieve better than a 50/50 average keeper rate on difficult targets
      • Start early . . . end late
      • Begin your shooting sequence a second or two early - it will give you time to get the "rhythm" and allow your image stabilization to spin up
      • Use image stabilization?  Well, it depends.  Read up on your camera / lens.  Some systems have a special setting for image stabilization during panning
      • At the end of your series of shots, keep the motion going past the point of action.  You will naturally tend to slow down at the very end and you want to ensure you're still in rhythm when your last shutter click occurs


      • There really is no substitute for it, and it's amazing how much better your equipment seems to work when you practice!
      • Don't get discouraged.  Action shooting has a lot going on, focus on one issue at a time (panning, lower shutter speed captures, exposure, composition) and build up gradually.  Want to learn some other Air-show basics, check out this article from the beginning of the 2013 season.

      Have fun and stay in focus!


      Friday Funnies - June 15th

      B83H2614 He Went . . . That Way!

      It's all fun and games to the spectators at the air shows, but it's a deadly serious business to the performers.

      These men and women are true athletes in every sense of the word - think of the strength, endurance - and guts - it takes to perform these stunts.  These performers are also carrying on a tradition that extends back to just after the first world war, although there were some early pioneers such as Didier Masson, Lincoln Beachey and Glenn Curtiss.

      "Barnstormers" delighted the crowds, gave rides and introduced the upcoming generation to the thrill of flying and the importance of air power.

      Looking for some good clean family fun for next Saturday's movie night?  Be sure to check out Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines! A great movie from 1965.

      And the next time you see these guys on the ground after an air show, take the time and pay them their due.

      Stay Focused,