Better Basics For Aircraft Photography
Story and Photos by Scott Germain -



Author's Note: has received a large amount of mail from visitors asking how certain shots on this site were taken, and asking for help in getting better shots of their own. This article is an attempt to answer some of the questions posed. It is hoped that this will be helpful to a number of people without coming across as too high and mighty. It is the author's opinion that experience over time, trial and error, good equipment and lots of practice result in good shots.

And a lot of trash, too!

Author's Note - This is a graphic intensive page; please be patient if you have a dial-up connection.

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Photography's Golden Rule states, "Never show anybody your trash..." That is about to be broken here, but it's for a great cause. You are going to take better photographs of airplanes. If you're a regular visitor to this site, you are probably going to take photos of warbirds and air racers, so you will see a lot of photos of these aircraft. However, the following information will transfer to everything you could possibly take a photo of. From cars to people, architecture to sports; better basics will help you make better photographs for yourself, your family and friends, or for publishing.

Whether or not you are a seasoned photographer or a rookie, a basic understanding of a 35 mm or digital camera is required. Even having the most basic understanding of how a camera works, and the tools you have within the camera, will advance your skills tremendously. Spending an hour or so with the manuals is a must. Understanding the controls and the display within the camera will allow you to make quick changes while you shoot. Flexibility is key during shooting; you should be able to capture the moment no matter what happens. Changing light, changing location, or fast action may only allow you a half second opportunity to hit the shutter release.
Camera Geek Stuff

Most cameras, especially mid and higher end models, have several light metering modes, two autofocus modes, manual focus and film setting controls. There are too many cameras with many different controls and configurations, so spend some time with your manual to become familiar with your particular camera. It may seem dumb, but actually sit with the camera and the manual and practice changing modes and metering so you can do it effortlessly when you shoot an event.

Understanding the terms associated with the camera will allow you to manipulate the controls and produce quality images. This subject could literally fill a multitude of books - and it does. You don't have to be a professional to have an understanding of how the camera works, and how to make certain changes to make good photographs great ones. Normally, the camera's automatic settings do a creditable job of metering and focusing, but there are a lot of times where you will want to make some changes to craft a photograph the way you want it.
So What Can You Change?
As it turns out, quite a lot. And you will want to experiment with all of these settings and compare the images you make to see what works for you and what does not. Digital images have an advantage that allows you to immediately view the photo and make on the spot corrections. Below are some items that you can fiddle with to change how your photograph turns out.

Shutter Speed - Faster shutter speeds mean you can stop a spinning propeller, but depth of field suffers. Slower shutter speeds allow a moving object to blur within the photo and you get a greater, or deeper, depth of field.

Aperature - This mechanism within the lens is like the pupil in your eye; it opens and closes to allow more or less light onto the film. The measurement of the aperature is defined as the "f stop," and has a number. The lower the number (f1.5) means the lens is "fast" and allows a large amount of light into the camera. This will result in acceptable shutter speeds, even in low light situations. To get better depth of field, using higher aperature settings around f15 - f22 cuts down the amount of light entering the camera and slows respective shutter speeds.

The Relationship - Obviously, there is a relationship between shutter speed and the f -stop. There is a very narrow exposure gap where aperature and shutter speed results in a good photo. So, if the shutter speed changes, so will the aperature. The range where this relationship exists depends on the film you use. If the film you use is rated at 100 asa, it is not particularly sensitive to light, and will allow your camera to shoot photos with a fast enough shutter speed and good depth of field. If the film you choose is 400 to 800 asa, this is rather "fast" film and more sensitive to light. The camera, when you dial in the film's speed, will match the film's rating to the light coming through the lens and provide you with very high shutter speeds and less depth of field.

This begs the question - what results do you want? There is a perception that shooting fast subjects requires fast film (400 asa or higher). NO! You can do that, but your image quality will probably suffer. Film with ratings of 64 or 100 asa allow acceptable shutter speeds in daylight and cloudy lighting situations and keep the grain down within the film. This makes a lot of difference when you make prints from your slides or show them through a projector. Image quality should be a top priority for you.
Let the Camera do the Thinking - Shooting Modes
Today's cameras are nearly foolproof when it comes to how easy they are to use and the images they produce - even by novice photographers. Again, the understanding of the cameras modes and controls will allow you to pick and choose the mode or metering mode for a particular setting. Today's cameras normally offer Program, Shutter priority, Aperature priority, Manual and a Custom mode for shooting. Even older cameras like the Pentax ME Super provide an automatic mode, shutter and aperature shooting modes. These are entirely acceptable and work well.
Program Mode - The term used for an automatic mode where the camera takes care of the relationship between shutter speed, aperature and film speed. The camera will have some sort of finger wheel or buttons to toggle the shutter speed or aperature to the value you desire. Most cameras display all of this information within the viewfinder. For subjects such as air racing, this mode works very well when the photographer uses the finger wheel to change the shutter speed to the desired value. Program also allows you to customize via the camera's menu to set the camera up for your shooting scenario.
Aperature Priority Mode - This mode allows the photographer to choose the desired aperature setting while the camera chooses the appropriate shutter speed for correct exposure. Again, a finger wheel or buttons allow the changes to be made quickly.
Shutter Priority Mode - This mode allows the photographer to choose the desired shutter speed while the camera chooses the appropriate aperature to support it. The same finger wheel or buttons allow the changes to be made quickly. When shooting fast action subjects, this is also a good mode to use.
Manual Mode - This allows the photographer to select both the shutter speed and the aperature to suit the situation. The camera's metering system is still used, and another display in the viewfinder shows if the exposure is under- or overexposed.
Camera Metering Systems
Images contain a multitude of colors, textures, shadows and highlights that need to be effectively metered to produce a usable photograph. Because of the ever changing lighting conditions, the light meters in modern cameras have several different modes to allow the photographer to make changes that suit the conditions. Knowing the different metering modes of your camera is a definite requirement to achieve good results.
When the sun is behind you, the camera has an easy time metering the light on the subject and providing the correct exposure. When the light source moves in front of you or off to the sides, this is when metering becomes very important. You'll have to massage the metering to get the correct exposure. In conditions like these, the camera's system can be easily fooled. On the same note, this can also provide some interesting and artistic "mistakes."
Matrix - The camera takes the light within the entire frame into account and sets the aperature and shutter speed. It measures both bright spots and shadow within the frame to get a balance, sets the shutter and aperature, and takes the shot when you press the release. You'll be able to see the settings on the cameras' display within the viewfinder.
Area - The camera narrows the metering area down to a smaller area in the center of the viewfinder. This becomes more important when the subject is backlit or if there is a lot of contrast within the frame. Also good for metering a person's face when the surrounding area is lighter or darker. 
Spot - The camera further narrows the metering area to a "spot," allowing careful exposure on a single object or one that is substantially backlit. This is the better choice in metering the racers at the pylons since they are backlit. Transfer this to any other shot you want to take when the subject is backlit.
Photo Philosophy 101

With the basics of handling the camera out of the way, it's time to examine the reason you take photographs. The reasons could be as varied as you want; to record an event, to show action or to accumulate reference material. You might want to begin an archive for others to use, to publish in print, or to make your own web site. For most people, photos are keepsakes and tangible memories of an event they attended or were part of. Whatever the reason, understand that you are doing one basic thing - you are communicating via images.

Whether it be film or digital, the images you record will be a record of a place and time in history. Even though we are recording air racing or aircraft, these events almost certainly contain emotion and people's reactions. We may shoot 90 percent of our photos on aircraft, but also remember that it's the people that build them, fly them and fix them. If you learn who the pilots and crew members are, you can greatly add to your photographic experience by capturing these people and their emotions during the event. 
One other point to remember is 'what do you want to take away from the event?' A balanced record will show an overall collage of what went occurred. Individual aircraft, groups of aircraft, aerial action, particular races or dramatic events will add greatly to your collection. While you are shooting, take stock of the photos you already have taken, and balance your future photography to record all of the aircraft and events to provide a wide base of material. Three hundred photos of one aircraft and five shots of other aircraft will not be a very good record of the event.


Like anything else in life, if you want to produce a good product, you need good gear to do it. In terms of photography, buy the very best equipment your budget will allow. Beginning with the camera body, you'll want one that has the usual modes, bells and whistles. Most bodies have similar features, but vary in how they work internally. You'll need to educate yourself and make comparisons in order to make a decision that is best for you. 
Once your body choice has been made, you can proceed in picking out the lenses and accessories you want. If you saved any money on buying a slightly less expensive camera body, spend it here on the lenses. The quality of bodies from Nikon, Canon, Minolta and Pentax don't vary much, but lenses are all over the map. In general terms, buy name brand lenses by the body manufacturer to ensure you get the best quality glass and construction in the lens.
There is one caveat, however. Aftermarket lenses such as Tokina, Sigma and several others have been getting much better in their quality over the past several years. If you are considering one of these lenses, visit your local camera shop with your camera and shoot a roll of film through the lens you are considering. Seeing the results of that particular lens will guide you in making your decision. Spending more money on quality lenses will ensure your photographs come out crisp and distortion free.
Which lenses to choose? Air racing and airshows give you an opportunity to shoot photos anywhere from six inches away to over a mile away. The gear in your camera bag will either allow you to catch the action no matter where it is, or force you to miss it altogether. The list below will give a photographer maximum bang for the buck, and allow you to photograph anything up close or hundreds of feet away.
Gear Bag - The bag should fit your cameras, lenses, a flash unit, batteries, film and camera cleaning supplies with room left over for anything you might purchase during the day (T-shirts, souvenirs, etc.) You might also consider how big the bag is if you fly frequently; overhead storage bins in certain jetliners are limited. Expect to pay at least $75 for a quality gear bag, and up to $300 for larger professional models.
Camera Body - As described above.
24 - 120mm zoom lens - This lens will allow you to photograph anything from a cockpit or an engine detail to an aircraft on the ramp a hundred feet away. It's very versatile and completes the "up close" requirement. As with any zoom lens you buy, consider a "single action" or a "dual action" design. The single action allows zoom and focus to be controlled by one hand on the barrel of the lens. That portion twists for focus and slides fore and aft for zoom. This suits fast action photography very well when the subject is coming at you or away from you at high speed. Dual action lenses will not allow you to manually focus and zoom at the same time. Also consider how much you will use autofocus; if you think you will use it a lot, a dual action lens should be ok.
80 - 300mm zoom lens - If the other lens takes care of up close subjects, you'll also need something to "reach out" with and capture the action when it's out at the flight line. Also consider one that runs up to 400mm. 
Flash Unit / Speedlight - Most camera body manufacturers also produce a dedicated flash unit with TTL (Through The Lens) metering. This is a feature that you want - it makes all flash photography extremely simple and takes away checking charts or graphs and setting the flash level.

Obviously, a bigger budget will allow you to purchase better lenses. Buy the absolute best lenses you can afford. If you pay less for substandard lenses with their substandard optics, you will be terribly disappointed with your results.  This will lead you to be frustrated and to lose interest in photography very quickly. Professional photographers carry a wide assortment of lenses to capture any action at any distance. In addition to the above gear, you'll probably find an ultra wide-angle lens and a 500mm lens to reach out. Additional room in the camera bag should be stocked with sunscreen, a hat, spare batteries, cleaning supplies and an air band radio if you want to hear the chatter on the radio. 

You can also spend *way* more money if you want to on Vibration Reduction (VR) technology lenses. This is a high price option and can be worth it, but with enough practice, you can shoot "long lenses" without it, too! Make an assessment to see if you want to pay the extra expense for this option when you purchase your camera system.

The Site

When you arrive at the site you are going to shoot at, take a look around and pick out a location - or several - that you would like to shoot from. Take sunlight, location, action and timing into consideration. Changing location at the right time can make the difference between taking home "the money shot" or tossing the photo in the trash. If at all possible, secure press credentials from the organization running the event. Normally, only working press can get a pass, but even seasoned photographers had to start somewhere, right? If you have a need to publish, then convey this to the organizers with a well-written letter of introduction that explains your request and what will be done with the results.
In the case of Reno, changing location several times during the day makes a lot of sense. Although only press get to do it, shooting photos at the pylons is a good example. During the early morning and afternoon, the sun favors shooting at pylon 8, so most photographers head out there. As the day goes on and the sun shifts, most of them get on the bus to go to pylon 2 - a location that puts the sun at your back for certain angles on the course.

Shooting - The Rules...

Metering is Everything. Know when to change your camera's metering mode. When the light source changes, the first thing you should consider is which metering mode would best serve this condition. 

Metering Results in Reference to Lighting

Matrix Metering with sun behind photographer Area Metering on engine Spot Metering with backlighting
Focus is Everything. For 95% of your photography, current autofocus systems work extremely well; even with 490 mph racers going by 200 feet away. Nikon and Canon autofocus systems are very fast and extremely tight. However, none of the AF systems are foolproof. Some photographers rely on it, and some shut if off and use manual focus for high speed aircraft photography. Again, trial and error plus experience will net some outstanding results.

Autofocus Results

Sharp autofocus Autofocus as it *can* be
Timing is Everything. Even a tenth of a second can be the difference between catching three racers together or only one of them. At Reno, timing is important to accurately show what an air race is... Most of the time, we can take shots that show a racer flying by a pylon, but there is no pylon in the photo. Location and timing play an important role in this case. Additionally, photographs of people fall under this rule. Facial expressions and eye blinking make for some interesting results. Combine this rule with the last one when taking photos of people.

Timing the Photograph

Great timing Not so great timing
Luck is Everything. Self explanatory to an extent, but you can make your own luck by being at the right place at the right time and being properly prepared. This means having the correct lens on the camera, having your speedlight charged and ready, or moving to a new position at a certain time to catch a specific event during the day.

Luck (Preparation)

Keep Your Finger Down. Take lots and lots and lots of photographs... You've probably spent a good chunk of change on your camera gear, so why skimp on film? That's the cheap part! Consider that most of the professional photographers at Reno shoot upwards of 30 to 60 rolls of film during the week. We only get this chance once a year, so we make it count. You should do the same. In addition to shooting lots of photos, consider shooting the best film you can afford. There will be a balance you arrive at; buy the most of the best film you can. Most photo shops will give a discount on a "brick" of film (20 rolls). Mail order and internet options also exist, and they can often beat any local price. Be careful, though; make sure your film is fresh and within its specified shooting date.
If you shoot a lot of film, your "ratio" will rise. Statistically speaking, if you shoot five rolls of film, you might pull down 25 really good photos. That is five out of 180 photos... So, if you shoot more film, you will have a higher number of good photographs when you are done. Additionally, as your experience increases, your ratio will rise and you will see more good photographs per roll of film.
Once you have shot all of your film, have it processed promptly at a good lab. Target, K-Mart and Walgreen drug Stores DO NOT cut it. Their fast-and-furious processing machines are rarely cleaned and might overuse their chemicals. This will result in degraded quality and a short life span of the slide or print. Spend the "extra" money in order to have properly processed film that won't become scratched or fade quickly.
When you get your film home, it will help you somehow catalog the photos so you can easily find them later. There are many ways to catalog your photographs, so experiment to see what works best for you. A long accepted method, at least in air racing, is to file the photo by which aircraft it is (possibly by name), race number or "N" number, then also write the registration number, N number, pilot, owner and the year/location the photo was taken. At some point, you will need all of this information, so it's easier to start off with it.
Whether you shoot print or slide film, you can buy a commercial grade storage cabinet or find something similar at Target or a hardware store. Keep your prints, slides and negatives in a cool, dry place out of sunlight. Handle slides and negatives very carefully, as the oil and dirt from your hands contains acid that will ruin the film over time. Properly kept, your photographs and slides should outlast you by far. Over time, many films will experience a color shift and some fading - this is to be expected. Overall, most professionals use Kodachrome 64 for "archival" photos since it has proven to be one of the most stable types of film on the market.

Keep Your Finger Down (Take a Lot of Photos)


The Digital Connection

Buying and shooting with a digital camera is an increasingly popular option for computer buffs, and also for die-hard photographers. There are some differences and limitations that you should be made aware of as you consider this option.

By their nature, digital cameras are slightly different animals. They interpret, process and capture light differently than a film camera will. Once understood, these differences can be easily managed and you will pull down some remarkable photos. On the plus side, you get some instant gratification and a steeper learning curve. You can immediately see your results and make any necessary changes to improve the photos. You can also benefit from reduced film and printing costs; you only print the photos you want. Burning your images onto a CD ROM will ensure long-term storage and portability. 

Digital Camera Differences and Drawbacks

Most digital cameras have a slight delay from the time you push the shutter release to when the CCD captures the images. This can be maddening if you don't understand that it is going to happen. Once you get over this, you can anticipate and compensate. Timing your shutter release becomes much more critical.
White balance is another term you will have to become familiar with, as it defines how the camera interprets the type of light on the subject. For most conditions, Auto or Sunlight will be sufficient. There can also be custom modes that allow the user to make changes to suit a particular condition.
Battery Life is downright miserable in some digital cameras. When the power goes out, you're done shooting, so prepare yourself with one - if not two - spare charged battery packs. Mid and lower end digital cameras absolutely EAT batteries, especially disposable types. If the camera has a rechargable pack, count on a little more available power. On high end professional cameras like the Nikon D1x, the battery pack tends to last for quite a while. Whatever camera you choose, ensure maximum battery life by turning the camera off when not shooting.
Viewfinders differ wildly - what you see isn't necessarily what you get. If you are going to photograph fast moving race planes, the type and quality of the viewfinder becomes very important. Imagine trying to pick out a little airplane a mile away on a tiny viewfinder with limited pixels, or with an optical viewfinder that does not show the entire frame. Choose a camera such as Canon's Pro 90IS - the view finder is an LCD screen that shows just what the camera will capture and incorporates the lenses' optical zoom.
Zoom is another item you want to consider very carefully. First off, don't pay any attention to the term "Digital Zoom." It's useless for creating quality photographs in the digital world. "Optical zoom" is what you want, and current cameras can get 10X and beyond. What this means is the zoom function works just like a regular camera, and does not depend on digital interpretation. In the case of the Canon Pro 90IS, the zoom range of the lens is somewhere around 50mm - 300mm.
Megapixels and Storage. The most important measurement of how "good" a digital camera is comes down to how many pixels of data it captures to make a photograph. The upper limit right now is around 6 megapixels, and you will pay for it, too. Consider anything around 3 megapixels good for printing 8x10 prints, and 2.4 for internet work or smaller prints. Whichever camera you buy, also buy the largest storage card or microdrive you can. If you shoot purely digital, the price of these storage devices will quickly offer a money advantage over film. Also consider long-term storage when you download the camera to your computer; burn the files to a CD and make a copy for later use.
Cost - Some digital cameras don't cost a whole lot of money. However, you will also have to buy some sort of storage device (a compact flash card or a microdrive), a photo printer, paper and ink. (This assume you already own a computer fast enough to allow you to view, manipulate and print graphics at home.) Initial cost will be a bit higher for most people, but a year or two of consistent photography will even out the total costs.
Zen and the Art of Photography

"But you haven't really told me anything about actually taking the photos!," you say. Photography is so much more than pointing and shooting... It's also a lot more than what is listed in this very basic article. Time, experience, trial and error, good equipment and good opportunities make all the difference between results and trash. You'll know when you get to that place in your own photography... It sounds silly, but there is a sort of "Zen" state of mind... You're seeing the action from the viewfinder, making a few adjustments, snapping off the shots, panning with the racer, and at the same time, not even thinking about it. Photography is a solitary activity where people can create images for themselves. You can manipulate the camera to get an entirely different perspective of something that nobody has done before. When you satisfy your own creative needs, and then other people also appreciate the image, you will derive a deep satisfaction from your photography and in knowing you've communicated something very personal to other people.

Some basic thoughts and techniques are listed below for your consideration:
Pan and Zoom - You'll be doing a lot of both if you shoot airplanes. Make sure you fill the screen with the aircraft but avoid chopping off a wing or the tail. It might even be better if you zoom out some and leave some empty space around the aircraft. You can always come back later and crop the image. In terms of panning, or moving the camera with an object, the tighter you have the aircraft the more perfect you will have to be in selecting a shutter speed and keeping the camera. Not only will your shutter speed have to be fast enough to get a crisp photo, but you'll also have to avoid camera shake.
Shutter Speed - A rule of thumb is to pick an appropriate shutter speed based on the focal length of the lens you are using. If you are shooting a 300mm lens, then you want to limit your shutter speed to nothing slower than 1/150th of a second. That is one-half of the focal length of the lens. But if you are shooting something moving fast, you're going to have to be one steady person to get a shot with that slow of a shutter speed. Generally speaking, the lower limit for shooting a fast moving aircraft is around 1/250th of a second. Newer cameras have more shutter speed choices, so you can use anything around 1/250th through 1/325th and 1/500th of a second. Remember, you want to convey action and speed with your images, and these shutter speeds allow you the opportunity to get a crisp image of the airplane while the spinning propeller remains blurred. Make your own decisions, though... If you want blurred propellers (a more accepted practice) then use the slower shutter speeds. If you want to make "stop-action" photos, you can run the shutter speed up above 1/1000th of a second to stop the propeller.
Framing the Subject - Generally, get the entire subject within the frame. Sounds simple, but after you try it for a day and see how many good shots you pull down, you'll see where it takes some practice. As mentioned above, maybe keep the zoom a bit loose to ensure you get the entire aircraft, or a group of aircraft. This can be cropped by a photo lab, or easily taken care of on the computer. You can also zoom and frame to another extreme, which is a concept I have been developing with my own style. You can get pretty close to capture a photo that shows only a portion of the aircraft, but is a totally different perspective than every other photo out there.
Reloading Film - The Reno Air Races go on all day, so you will be burning through a lot of film. While you are shooting, part of the display within the camera's viewfinder shows either how many photos you have taken, or you can set it up to show how many are remaining. Use this feature to anticipate reloading the film so you don't miss the pack as they come around again. There is nothing more aggravating that missing the two front aircraft coming by in a heated battle and clicking off you last two frames. Keep new film in one pocket of your vest or bag, and spent film on another location. This will help your work flow when you are shooting.
Daily cleaning - Every morning before you leave for the site, or when you get home from it in the evening, carefully clean your lenses and gear to prevent dust scratching your film or preventing proper operation of your gear. Sounds simple, but this is the time you will catch something wrong - not one minute before you'll need it to take a photo.
Shoot Multiple Frames - Instead of taking just one shot of an aircraft flying by, rip off several frames to ensure you get the picture, and to provide some insurance. If one photo gets ruined by a scratch or gets lost, you will have a few others to cover yourself. 


Level the Camera - This is a particular problem (or can be) at Reno, or any other site where the terrain slopes. As you frame the subject, survey the entire picture to see if your subject and the terrain are "level" within the frame. If not, your photo will appear off kilter and be of little use.
Go Forth and Shoot Photographs!
Photographing air racing (or any type of aircraft) presents us with opportunities to creatively show the drama and action of flight. Equipping yourself with camera gear that will allow you to take great photos will put you ahead of the average Joe with an instamatic. Even if you are that average Joe, using some simple techniques will allow you to bring back better photos that will deepen your personal interest in photography. Whatever the case is, following some simple ideas, increasing your experience by taking lots of photos, and trying to shoot photos that nobody has taken yet will allow you to stand out from the rest of the crowd.
Camera Shake

Fill Flash (left) and no fill (right)
Not enough in the photo
Frame the Subject
Crop in to save the photo
Too far away (or not enough zoom)
Show the Art, Action and Adrenaline!
The background is too busy
The shutter speed is too slow
Avoid objects that take away from the subject

Story and Photos Copyright 2002 by Scott Germain - All Rights Reserved.

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