Tips and Tricks

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,