Airshow photography

When photographing formations of aircraft I try to anticipate images where I can use the smoke trail to add depth to a photograph.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 204mm, efov 552mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-320
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 204mm, efov 552mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-320

Or accentuate the formation…

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 220mm, efov 592mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-220
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 220mm, efov 592mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-220
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 92mm, efov 249mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-160
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 92mm, efov 249mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-160

And, if possible I love to use smoke trails to create a large, sweeping feeling of movement in an image…

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 192mm, efov 517mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-160
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 192mm, efov 517mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-160

At other times smoke trails can add a feeling of height and grandeur…

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 126mm, efov 341mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-160
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 126mm, efov 341mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-160

Something that many photographers try to capture are ‘fly past’ maneuvers where two or more aircraft appear to fly directly at one another, then at the last second do quick side rolls to avoid hitting each other. A photographer’s timing when taking this type of image is critical as not only do they need to anticipate when the planes will begin their rolls, they also need to have a firm understanding and command of their gear in terms of their AF-C frame rate and the size of their camera’s buffer.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-160
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-160

Luckily I was shooting with one of my Nikon 1 V2’s which makes capturing this type of image fairly simple and easy to do.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-160
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-160

All that needs to be done is to set the camera for AF-C, 15fps, with subject tracking. Then choose one of the two aircraft that are approaching each other and pan along with it, keeping AF-C locked on the subject aircraft. Then, as soon as you see one wing start to roll begin your AF-C burst and hold it until the two planes pass each other. My Nikon 1 V2 can shoot over a 2-second burst at 15fps which can yield as many as 40 images. I tried this three times during the air show and had no difficulty getting usable images each time. Here’s a couple more from another burst…

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/4000, ISO-160
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/4000, ISO-160
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/4000, ISO-160
Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/4000, ISO-160

Overall, I was very pleased with how my Nikon 1 gear performed when capturing airshow images. Focusing was fast and accurate and being able to shoot long-duration AF-C bursts at 15fps made it much easier to get usable images in situations where timing was critical.

My intent is to keep this photography blog advertising free. If you enjoyed this article and/or my website and would like to make a modest $10 donation through PayPal to support my work it would be most appreciated. You can use the Donate button below. Larger donations can be made to tom@tomstirr.com through PayPal.

You can also support my efforts when you purchase anything from B&H by using the Thomas Stirr affiliate link. Even the smallest purchases will help support this web site.

As a reminder to our Canadian readers, you can get a special 5% discount when ordering Tamron or Rokinon lenses and other products directly from the Amplis Store by using promotion code AMPLIS52018TS.

Article and all images Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication of any kind, or adaptation is allowed without written consent.

15 thoughts on “Airshow photography”

  1. Hi Thomas
    Brilliant site!
    I came across it while looking online for the Nikon 1 V3.
    I have owned this camera for just over a year now and love it. It was bought as mainly a “holiday” camera but I keep enjoying using it. My main type of photography is aviation where I use my D2x and 70-200 f2.8.
    I have started taking aviation photographs with my V3 and the 30-110 lens which has good results when it is bright but can vary when the light is poor. I have tried various settings and have found the best for me to have the ISO set to auto the metering at centre-weighted and the focus at single-point.
    I go between Program and Shutter priority depending what aircraft I am shooting. I have dabbled with Manual and have had fine results but found the camera can have just as good results as me!
    I love the photographs in this article but if I was going to be super picky I would say to maybe lower the shutter speed on aircraft/helicopters with props to give a sense of movement. I always set my camera to shutter priority and 1/160 when shooting props.
    I’m not sure how to add a photograph but I have added one below taken with my wee V1.

    Keep up the great articles

    David

    1. Hi David,
      I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the web site – and thanks for the positive comment! In terms of using slower shutter speeds to achieve prop blur I would likely have to use a variable neutral density filter to get a proper exposure. I’ll likely experiment with this a little at the next air show as I’ll need to set up two cameras so I don’t mess with my normal settings on one camera.
      Tom

  2. Fifi (the only flying B-29 in the world!) was reasonably close to my home so my wife indulged me and we went to see the little bitty air show. Fifi didn’t fly, but we did see the B-25, P-51, fake-Zero, and assorted other aircraft take off and land. I was using A-mode at f/8 with the kit-telephoto zoom and I’m pretty sure my shutter speed wasn’t high enough even if my ISO was low.

    Lesson learned! Your photos are lovely and I’m jealous of the apparent FL you can get with this combo! I want to rent it for the next airshow I attend. Which is in two weeks! Too bad I can’t trust the current weather report ):

    Anyway, thanks Tom! Different type of birds for these photos.

  3. Excellent results with the great V2/CX 70-300 combo! How do you get rid of the momentary lag if the camera goes in sleep mode. Mine takes too long to wake up, and I miss shots at times because of that. Do you have any suggestions as to settings to compensate? I wish there was a way to turn the review screen off until I want to use it by using the review button. Would appreciate any tips.

    1. Hi Vern,
      Thanks for the positive comment – much appreciated! To keep my V2’s from going into sleep mode I usually just lightly half-depress the shutter to activate the AF until I hear the ‘beep’ that indicates the camera has acquired focus. I do this about every minute or so. When doing this it also helps to be pointing the lens at something that is at about the same distance as the subjects I’m going to photograph so the camera is pre-focussed and ready for action. I use this approach when photographing birds in flight as well. The auto image review can be turned off on the V2 by going into the menu under the “>” tab.
      Tom

  4. Hi Tom,

    Beautiful pictures as usual. I was also there on Monday and had a chance to shoot some pictures. Here’s few of them. Need your input to make them better. These are taken with D750. 70-200 VRII, and 2X tele convertor and heavily croppedDSC_0563.JPG
    DSC_0519.JPG
    DSC_0532.JPG
    DSC_0511.JPG
    DSC_0550.JPG

  5. Nice images, as always. I am glad to see that I am not the only one who feels that the aspect ratio of the final picture does not need to be the same as the camera. Cut out the garbage, and let the ratio be damned!

    1. Hi William,

      I typically like to shoot and keep the full frame of the image I capture…but I agree with you that there are times that cropping a bit helps an image. Glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for the positive comment!

      Tom

  6. A man after my own heart – I love all things that fly and have been flying RC airplanes, reviewing them including in-flight photos and video, something that gets both of my hobbies a shot!

    I need to make it to the RedBull Airshow here in a couple of weeks at the Texas Motor Speedway!

    Thanks Tom – awesome shots!
    Mike

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *