Depth of field is not important for shooting flying aircraft because the lens is normally focused at infinity with nothing behind the aircraft but sky or clouds. In other words, you should feel comfortable shooting with the aperture wide open in terms of depth of field, which will give you maximum shutter speed. The trade-off you should consider is that some lenses lose clarity at large apertures. You need to experiment with your equipment for the best overall shutter speed and aperture combination for clarity.
Along with technical elements of clarity, good photographic technique is essential. This means accurately panning with the action. Panning involves following the aircraft with your viewfinder in a smooth sweeping motion as the aircraft flies by. When the aircraft is framed to your satisfaction, press the shutter release while continuing the smooth sweeping motion. It takes some practice. When you pan the camera, your pictures will have a clear image of the aircraft and the background will be blurred.
When an airplane is flying slowly, it is easier to pan and it moves a shorter distance while the shutter is open; thus you are more likely to get a clear image. This goes against your natural intuition to photograph a screaming F-14 fighter on a high-speed pass. Although such passes are impressive to watch, you won’t be able to portray the speed of the aircraft in your picture and you will be disappointed in the final image.
1. Shoot Take-offs and Landings
Take-offs and landings provide the best aerial photo opportunities. Aircraft will be flying more slowly during takeoffs and landings, which will help you obtain clearer pictures. Also, the ground provides a visual reference to give the illusion of speed in the picture.
Take-offs of fighter jets that have afterburning engines can be spectacular. You can often get a shot of the afterburner flame during takeoff. Slight underexposure of the scene will make this an impressive shot.
The white smoke of the wheels hitting the runway on landing will form a spinning vortex that makes an interesting shot. Timing is everything to catch this shot.
2. Be Open to the Unexpected
Not all of the action at an air show happens in the air. Actually, I am usually more interested in the static displays and the pre-flight and post-flight activities when shooting at an air show. Take a look at the planes parked on the ramp and talk to the pilots. Also, watch pilots doing pre-flights, especially with precision demonstration teams like the Air Force Thunderbirds, Army Golden Knights, and Navy Blue Angels. These are opportunities for great photojournalistic shots.
3. Try A Different Angle On Action
Keep an observant eye on the action at an air show. By shooting a series of related photos, you can portray a different overall view of the action. For example, during pre-flight of a group of North American T-28 trainers, I negotiated a spot next to the taxiway and set up for the parade of planes to pass by. I tried to frame and shoot each plane the same way as they were taxiing out for takeoff. Likewise, I shot each plane from a different angle and distance as they returned from the aerial demonstration. When the pictures are viewed as a set, they tell an interesting story.
4. Photograph from Natural Viewpoints
When shooting static displays of aircraft, there are “natural viewpoints” of airplanes that please the eye. Natural viewpoints are obtained by shooting airplanes off-center from the front or directly from the wing tip. These viewpoints show the entire aircraft and appeal to its natural aerodynamic sense. Most of the time, you will capture the engines, the cockpit, and machine guns, insignia, and other interesting elements of the plane from these two angles.
5. Pay Attention to Autofocus
Autofocusing cameras can have difficulties locking focus on aircraft in flight. The problems are caused by an airplane that is too small in the
viewfinder for the autofocus to lock, or due to low contrast between the clouds and the aircraft, which also prevents autofocusing. The solution is simple: turn off autofocusing and focus the camera manually. Most of the action will be focused at infinity, so set the focus and forget about it. The only times I use the autofocus mode in my camera are to shoot aircraft on taxiways, take-offs, and landings. [Editor's note: We've had good results shooting airshow action with long lenses on AF 35mm SLRs in continuous AF mode.]
6. Shoot with the Sun at Your Back
As in almost all situations, keep the sun at your back while taking air show pictures. This is basic, but it works and it makes dramatically better pictures. With the sun behind you, the chance for flare caused by direct light hitting the front of the lens is much less. Your shots will have much better color saturation with less haze and washout.