Ah, summer. Farmers markets, flip flops, and heat waves. It’s also the season for air shows! Last weekend, we went up to the Rocky Mountain Air Show, which was not only the first air show that I’ve tried to tackle with a camera, it was my first air show…period!
The air show provides in interesting combination of great potential for amazing imagery along with a horrible, horrible shooting environment. Still, if you keep a few of these tips in mind, you’ll increase your changes for making some images that you’ll be proud of.
While not technically a photographic tip, it’s hard to take pictures if you’re in an ambulance due to heat stroke. Remember to drink a lot of water, take a break in the shade in between events.
The Sun Is Your Friend
The abundance of sun meant that achieving higher shutter speeds to capture images of the fast moving aircraft was not a problem. Plus, it makes for some nice lens flare.
The Sun Is Not Your Friend
The air demonstrations ran from noon to four, meaning the light was directly overhead casting contrasty shadows everywhere. The are no trees, and no shade to be had. The aircraft are metal, often shiny, and reflect that brightness right back in to the camera. Really dark shadows, really bright highlights, particularly for the static displays. Using the on-camera flash as a fill light helped somewhat.
Shutter Speed Is Your Friend
In case you didn’t know, jets are fast. Really fast. If you want to capture a crisp image of a moving aircraft, a high shutter speed and a smooth panning motion are key. I saw a few other folks with a monopod which probably was great for the static displays, but for the varying angles and altitudes of the air demonstrations, I suspect it becomes impractical.
Jets are fast…
Shutter Speed Is Your Enemy
On some of the propeller aircraft in the air demonstration, using too high of a shutter speed had the effect of freezing the propeller that, to me, looks unnatural. Back off the shutter speed a little bit so that you get some blurring (or a full circle blur) of the propeller so that the final image shows that the propeller was, in fact, moving and keeping the aircraft moving forward. The propeller aircraft are generally slower, as well, so slowing up the shutter speed a bit shouldn’t reduce the sharpness of the aircraft itself, especially if it’s on the ground.
Where’s the propeller?
Polarizers Are Your Friend
There was a lot of light bouncing off a lot of different objects at the air field. Buildings, aircraft, food trucks. With all that light bouncing around, the sky was also very desaturated. The polarizer really did a good job filtering out a lot of the stray light.
Rich, blue skies
Polarizers Are Your Enemy
With the sun directly overhead, I found that I was constantly adjusting the polarizer when shooting the aircraft on the left doing tricks, then on the right. When I forgot to adjust the polarizer, I’d get really oversaturated blues in the sky on one side or the other. Also, keep in mind that circular polarizers don’t really do anything for reducing glare off bare metal surfaces. There is a lot of metal at an air show.
Also, don’t forget the ISO. While I shot most of the day at ISO 100, there were a few times when I wanted to shoot at a smaller aperture and a higher shutter speed. In order to do that, I bumped up my ISO to 400 or 800. When it’s so bright out, it’s natural to think that your ISO should be as low as possible, but even at noon in a desert, there might be a need to bump up the ISO now and again.
Finally, bring long lenses. While the air demonstrations are generally in a controlled space, when you’re talking about aircraft, that space is a mile wide and a mile high. Wider lenses are great for the static displays, but you’ll really want a long lens to fill the frame, as much as possible, with the aircraft in flight.
A mile up, some guy jumps out of a plane…
Overall, it was an enjoyable day, and I managed to make a number of quality images. We’ll definitely head up again next year, and now that I know what to expect, I’m excited to give it another go.