I was recently asked to write a guide to photographing airshows for my local photographic society. To make it easier to access, I’m publishing a version of it here.
Airshows are one of summer's most popular outdoor events: about 4 million people attend them each year in the UK. They offer photographers endless opportunities for pictures - and not just of planes in the air. Something to be aware of at any airshow are the people: pilots, ground crew, and very often re-enactors; not only that, but the other spectators and photographers offer the street photographer loads of possibilities. You don't need to take a long lens along, although for shots of individual flying aircraft, bring the longest lens you can lay your hands on. For everything else – including the patterns in the sky made by display teams – a normal standard zoom will be fine.
Aircraft on the ground
All airshows feature planes on display on the ground. Very often there are tours of the flight-line on offer, or flight-line walks before the flying starts. You don't have to photograph the whole plane, the details such as the curves on the lines of the props, or signs on the fuselage are worth investigating. Re-enactors interacting with the aircraft can add great atmosphere.
Aircraft in the air
Since the Shoreham tragedy, aircraft have tended to fly further from the crowd line, so you'll want a long focal length lens if you want to get clear pictures of individual aircraft. Most aviation photographers use a lens that goes to around 400mm (full frame equivalent), but longer is usually better. Having said that, many aircraft (and most display teams) leave smoke trails while displaying: these can make attractive patterns in the sky, easily photographed with shorter focal length lenses.
Try to look for dynamic angles on aircraft in flight, or juxtapositions of aircraft in formation. A great angle to look for is the “topside pass”, where an aircraft banks over showing its top (dorsal) surface, and coming towards you.
Generally, set your camera to aperture priority (A or Av) for jets and shutter priority (S or Tv) for propeller planes.
Fighter jets move really fast, so try to use a very fast shutter speed, around 1/1500-1/2000, to keep them sharp: a simple way to get a fast shutter speed using A/Av is to open your aperture wide, and set an ISO to give a fast shutter speed. This way, if the light deteriorates, you'll still get correctly exposed shots, even though the shutter speed may drop a bit. Alternatively, set the shutter speed manually, and use auto-ISO to ensure correct exposure if the light changes.
With prop planes, there is nothing worse than a propeller frozen static in flight. So, for props, use shutter priority, and a speed around 1/250 sec, panning carefully with the plane to get the effect of prop movement, while keeping the plane sharp. Helicopter blades rotate more slowly than props on fixed wing aircraft: you may need to go below 1/200 sec to get a good motion blur on them.
On take off and landing for both props and jets, it is good to add motion blur to the background to convey a sense of movement: if you are confident of your panning technique, try following the aircraft using 1/80-1/125 sec (but expect to lose a lot!) At shutter speeds slower than 1/80, even more dramatic effects can be had, but parallax often kicks in. This means that, for instance, as the plane moves past you, the angle of the wing tip closest to the camera will change at a different rate than the fuselage: this means that it may not be possible to get the whole plane sharp, no matter good your panning technique. (Don’t let this put you off - give it a go!) One further wrinkle is that on a bright day, even at minimum ISO, you may get f/20-f/22 at these slow shutter speeds, and that will reduce your image quality, especially on small-sensor cameras.
Modern image stabilization (IS or VR) built into lenses and some camera bodies can really help to minimize the effects of camera shake at slow shutter speeds: even at around 300mm focal length it is possible to get a good proportion of shots sharp at low shutter speeds. On my own cameras and lenses, I've found that VR is helpful below 1/500sec exposure, but I have it switched off for shutter speeds faster than 1/500. In general terms, this means that for props I have VR on; for jets, it is usually off. Be sure that VR is switched to normal not active if that is what your lens supports on older Nikon lenses. More recent lenses do well on sport setting.
Metering for exposure
Different cameras have different exposure metering capabilities, so rather than try to cover them all, I’ll just refer to general metering exemplified by my Nikons.
My general experience is that standard matrix metering works fine, as long as you dial in some exposure compensation. I’ve heard of people recommending spot metering for flying aircraft on the grounds that an aircraft, being intrinsically darker than the sky, should be metered specifically. This does not work for me: with my wobbly hands I can never keep the spot on a fast moving plane.
You'll likely need to set positive exposure compensation, especially when aircraft are flying against typical UK grey skies. Try starting with +2/3 - +1 exposure compensation with matrix metering and go from there, pushing the bright peak on the histogram (that represents the sky) as far over to the right as possible without getting clipping. Set the blinkies (highlight warning) on: keep an eye on them and the histogram as the light changes during the day, and be prepared to make frequent changes.
Interpreting the histogram on the back of your camera for metering purposes. (a) The original image from the camera. An image of a Hurricane on a topside pass is shown in the figure above: this is an unretouched Jpg exported from a Nikon NEF file via PhotoMechanic. The aircraft is correctly exposed, and the plain, cloudy sky is rendered as a bright grey. The exposure was 1/125 sec, f/8, ISO 64, at 500mm with the exposure compensation set to +1 with Nikon's matrix metering. (b) The histogram on the back of the camera can be used to judge a good exposure. The graph is taken directly from the back of the camera for this figure. The histogram shows the number of pixels in the image (Y-axis) plotted against their brightness (X-axis). The sky shows up as a broad peak towards the right hand side of the plot, ie there are a lot of bright pixels that represent the sky. On the middle and left of the plot are a smaller number of darker pixels: these represent the aircraft. Note that there are no pixels squashed right up against either end of the plot: this means that the darkest areas of the aircraft are not blocked out as solid black, and the sky is not burnt out to white. Because the sky dominates the picture, left to its own devices the camera's metering will tend to represent the pixels of the sky as more of a mid grey and so under expose the plane. By dialling in +1 exposure compensation in this particular instance, the whole picture is brighter, so all the details of the aircraft can be rendered in the picture, without blowing out the sky. A good exposure can usually be set simply by using exposure compensation to push the bright sky peak on the histogram as far over to the right as possible, while making sure it stays within the scale of the X-axis. You’ll need to set this on a case-by-case basis, and keep an eye on it throughout the day.
Patterns and trails
One of the most attractive elements to photograph at any airshow are the patterns made in the sky by smoke trails, especially those left by display teams. You should not need a long lens to make these kinds of pictures, although having one gives you more options.
Small plane, big sky
Despite the apparent monster size of some aircraft, it does not take very long, once an aircraft has left the ground, for its size to dwindle, and it becomes a small aircraft in a big sky. Positioning a small aircraft against a sky with dramatic cloud formations or amazing light can have a very strong emotional impact. Again, this is something that does not need a big lens.
Before and after the flying, there are likely to be pilots and crew attending to their planes or being briefed. Sometimes, there will be re-enactors around the planes, or walking among the spectators, dressed in period costumes, providing extra atmosphere.
Keep an eye out for other spectators: they are a rich source of images (just try to be respectful, and avoid portraying other people in unflattering ways: what goes around comes around).
More than anything have fun. And don't forget to put the camera down from time to time. Don't watch airshows through just one eye :-)
Where to find out about airshows
Flightline UK offers a calendar of events
UK Airshow Review (UKAR) is a fount of information generally, and many great photographers post pictures on their forums
Originally published 2018-09-25. Updated 2019-08-29 to include Patterns and trails plus Small plane, big sky.