Shooting Air Shows

I’ve gone to the air show at RAF Cosford for the last 3 years and whilst I’m by no means a dedicated aircraft shooter, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt in that time.

Storm Chaser _OHL6374 _OHL7441

Getting to Cosford

Don’t drive.   The first time my friend Anthony Holloway and I went to Cosford, we rather naively thought we could just drive there and park.  I mean, it’s an airfield and museum right?   Oh no.  Air shows are always packed.   We got onto the M54 and joined the queue on the hard shoulder.  When we realised we were still around 6 miles from the junction and the radio announced there was no more room on the site, we thought we were doomed to abandon the trip.  However, having left the queue, we soon passed the exit (and could have just exited there anyway tbh, but there was no room on the field now – who knows why people were still queuing).  We went on to the next junction and to the railway station in Telford.  Parked up in the station car park, bought a rail ticket to Cosford, and even better, tickets to the show – at a discount..  English Electric Lightning F1/P1B

Cosford is only one stop down the line and the station is right next to the airfield, so in we went.  There was a bit of a delay going back after the show, but my advice, is – look round the museum – it’s huge, and full of fascinating things.  By the time you’re done, the queues have gone and you can get a train back to Telford.


So what do you need to shoot an air show?  A telephoto zoom is going to do almost all of the work here.   I’ve been using a Nikon 70-300mm, which is a bit short – something in the region of 100-500mm would be ideal.  However, I’m not a dedicated aircraft shooter, and I have 36million pixels on my D810 sensor so cropping is not a problem.  Anthony puts his Minolta 500mm autofocus mirror lens to good use on his Sony A7 at these events.  A reasonably fast frame rate is also useful for some of the shots, although mostly, you’ll pick your moments, waiting for the light to strike the aircraft in the right way as it moves across the sky, and my D810 is no speed freak at 5fps.

My camera and lens combination weigh in at about 2kg so a good strap is useful.  I use the Black Rapid R which allows me to almost drop the camera down to its natural resting place on my right hip.

Other things you will need:  sun block.   Remember UV shines through cloud pretty effectively, and you will burn, on one side as you’ll be facing the same way all day, and you’ll have a rectangular shadow from your camera on your face too.  So don’t forget the sunblock.    Take a small fold up seat – and your back will thank you after standing still for 6 hours.   Take plenty of food and water – picking your way through the crowds to get a burger will take too long, and the gap will close up and you’ll lose your place.  Don’t drink tea or coffee – due to the diuretic nature of these drinks, you really only rent them, and will then need to go find a toilet – and once again, lose your place.  Just drink water._OHL7332

Where to stand

Ideally, right at the rope – i.e. as near as you can get, and with no one in front of you.  Mostly you’ll be shooting aeroplanes in the sky so heads won’t be an issue, however some displays get down pretty low, and take-off and landings can also make great images.   Also the Apache display team are known for blowing up bits of the ground, which can make for spectacular pictures.  So get to the front if you can, however if like me you turn up just as the first display is starting, you’ll put up with some people in front of you.

As to where along that line to stand, look for a big orange triangle out on the field.  This is the “datum point”.  The larger choreographed displays from teams like the Red Arrows use this to align their formations at the crowd, so for those split displays where they suddenly break off in all directions, this will give you a straight on view.  Also be mindful of ground vehicles and parked aircraft in the way, and the PA speakers.  Don’t stand under the PA speakers.  You’ll be deaf in 10 minutes.

Camera setup

You’ll need your autofocus system set to continuous AF.  Canon, of course have invented a non-sensical name for theirs and call this “servo mode” or something – which is a bit daft as the servo-motor is always involved, in single or continuous mode.  Now:  lets talk about buttons.  You really should disable AF on the shutter button – for good.  Almost all competent cameras and 90% of DSLRs carry a dedicated AF button on the back of the camera that falls under your right thumb.  This “holding the shutter button half way for AF and then pressing all way to take the shot” nonsense is just clunky.  Disable AF on your shutter button and use the dedicated back AF button to activate the AF – at any time.  This means you don’t have to worry about whether your camera needs to be in manual focus or autofocus, single or continuous – just leave it in continuous AF mode – forever.   With the AF on the shutter release disabled,  it only ever activates when you press the back AF button.

Shooting aircraft in the sky presents some challenging exposure problems – the sky is light, the aeroplanes are dark.   You can adjust this in post, however you also need to give your self a fighting chance and capture as much dynamic range as you can.   You can’t do any multiple exposure HDR tricks here as the subjects are moving rapidly, so expose as far to the right of the histogram as you can – i.e. push the exposure up as far as you can without blowing out so you can pull down the highlights and boost the shadows later.

I typically use shutter priority, with some positive exposure compensation dialled in.  Take some test shots of the sky and figure out a reasonable compensation value that is still going to remain inside the bounds of your sensor’s dynamic range.  I also lower the ISO down to the base (64 on my D810) and turn on auto-ISO, so the camera will maintain my desired shutter speed, even if it gets a bit dark.  You’ll adjust this from display to display and we’ll come back to this in a moment.

Shutter speeds depend on whether you have propellers or rotors in the scene.  If not, go for 1/320th – 1/800th or so for jets to ensure a sharp image.   For prop driven ‘planes though, you need the prop to be blurred  (just like the wheels on a race car if you want to imply movement), so try 1/80th to 1/125th.   Helicopters are a PITA – the rotors move really slowly, and you’ll need to be at 1/40th or so to get any real blur on them.   Trouble is, they also vibrate, so with a shutter speed that low, you’ll  often get 2 images of the helicopter a few pixels apart.



Mostly, you’re gonna track a single aircraft, with your thumb jammed on the AF button, and fire away as the ‘plane gets close.    I like to leave quite a bit of space around the aeroplane  and at 300mm max focal length, a lot of the time, I have no choice anyway.  However, what this does is allow me to frame up later with some space in front of the aircraft for it to “fly into” and room for some smoke trails if the display has them.

Formations for the most part don’t make for dramatic images – I mean, a bunch of aeroplanes flying past in formation.    They’re all small specks in the sky if you get the whole flight in.   However there are some set pieces you can prepare for.   The Red Arrows will perform a number of “breaks” when the aircraft all split in different directions, with smoke on.  If you parked yourself in front of the datum point, they’ll be coming straight at you.  How will you know when they’re about to break?   Well, certainly at Cosford, and maybe at all air shows for all I know, they will relay the radio transmissions from “Red One” who will say “break” – which is your cue to hold the shutter button down.   Make sure you zoomed out a bit for this as once they break, you’ll need to follow the nearest for focus and keep the others in frame for as long as you can._OHL5678

The crossover/Synchro.  Two ‘planes will break off from the formation and head off in opposite directions, and then come at each other in a high speed, low level game of chicken, passing within a few feet of each other.   Your mission, is to get both aircraft in the shot, fairly close together, but not behind one another.  Now – you can only track one ‘plane, but you need to keep your other eye (the one not jammed into the viewfinder) out for the other guy.   They should cross over the datum point, but it’s easier to track one aircraft in the viewfinder and the other with the peripheral vision in your free eye.  When they cross, the other ‘plane will be travelling in the wrong direction for your panning, which will blur it.  To counter this, you need to shoot the crossovers at 1/3000th of a second or faster.  1/5000th should be a safe bet.  Remember to set it back to something more reasonable after the crossovers as the camera will have bumped up the “ISO” to get you that speed.

Weaves.  If the aircraft are coming low,  from one side to the other with smoke on and they start to coil around each other, this can make a nice shot.  In this case, I tend to put the lead ‘plane on the far side of the frame, with more space behind them than in front, to get the coiling smoke trails.

Look for nice light – at Cosford, the sun will be on your right, and slightly behind you later on.  Moody clouds make for more dramatic images than clear blue skies, especially if the sun shines under it.  Some stunt aircraft like the Pitts Special will tumble back into the smoke trails, which looks really nice in the right light.

Catch the re-heat on aircraft that have it such as the Typhoon, or F-18.  Also look out for the condensation that occurs in low pressure areas around the wings as these planes pull some serious acceleration.


Crop mode on Nikon D8xx series

To get an extra 1fps from your Nikon D8xx series camera, enable 1.2x crop mode.  This will bump your D800/E up to 5fps and the D810 to 6FPS.  Watch your framing though – this is really useful for single aircraft displays that aren’t too big.  I have the 1.2x crop mode and full frame mode bound to the video button and commander wheel so I can toggle it without delving in the menus.


Post production

This is really s game of contrast.  Lightroom CC 2015 now has a very nice slider, which for some reason is buried down in the effects panel (you know, the one where the “effect” hangs out – i.e. vignetting) called “De-Haze”.   Play around with this.  You may find you need to dial down the blue saturation if you use De-Haze.

Bump up the shadows, bring the exposure and highlights down, an the contrast up.  Bring the black point back down, and white point up.   Also look at the colour of the aircraft – if you can separate it from the sky based on colour, try lifting the luminance of the aircraft colour to brighten it.   Apply a brush to the aircraft and lift the shadows some more.     Maybe apply some mid-range contrast or “clarity” for extra shiny on metallic aircraft.

If the ‘plane is big enough in the frame you may also try some dodging and burning to accentuate the form of the fuselage.

Plus – while you’re at Cosford, the museum is a living library of stock images waiting for you to grab them.  The English Electric Lightning further up the page is, of course hanging up in the cold war hangar.  I shot the sky right outside the entrance, and the re-heat I took from the Typhoon I shot earlier in the day.


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