Some Ground-To-Air Photography Basics. Before That First Airshow.

May 07, 2014  •  1 Comment


Opening PassOpening PassLcdr Mark "Crunchy" Burgess brings the Warrior Aviation L-39, "Vandy 1" past the crowd for the first time during his demonstration.

Warrior Aviation
Aero L-39C Albatros
N55107 / VX-9 (cn 433136) "Vandy-1"
Pilot, Lcdr Mark "Crunchy" Burgess

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So you want to try your hand at ground-to-air photography, but you’re not quite sure about what you’ll need and the settings to use. Well, you’ve stumbled upon the right place because I’m here to help. I’ll tell you how to set up your camera and give you some settings to use to get acceptable photos of flying airplanes. I’ll keep it simple and not too technical for the beginners.  By the way, what I tell you here, will also work in many other situations such as sports, motorsports, and wildlife photography.

  You’ve got a DSLR camera, right?  Despite what smartphone manufacturers tell you, that iPhone isn’t going to cut it here. A point-and-shoot camera is a recipe for frustration. Ask me how I know. You really need a DSLR for this.

  Do you have a lens with enough reach?  A 200mm lens is going to be the minimum.  300mm will be better.  400mm is pretty sweet. 500mm is going to be really nice, but I hope you’ve done some weightlifting before you try photographing aircraft with it. You don’t have to own a long lens either. You can rent a lens for the weekend from your local camera store or on-line.

  You are going to want a lot of memory card capacity. A whole lot of memory card capacity! You’ll be taking a lot of photos, and it’s a real bummer to run out of memory before the flying has ended. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way. Make sure your camera battery is fully charged before going to the airshow. While we are on batteries, a fully charged spare battery is good insurance.  It might really spoil your day to exhaust your battery before the last plane has landed.  Lastly, sunscreen applied and re-applied per the instructions. You’ve been warned! I can now absolve myself of any responsibility if you get burned.

  Now go grab your camera and your camera’s manual. Here’s where the real fun begins. Oh, you don’t know where your camera’s manual is?  I can help some with that little issue too. Open a separate browser window. Search for your camera manufacturer’s website.  Somewhere on that website is a downloadable version of your camera’s instruction manual. We’ll still be here when you get back with that manual.

   I’m a Canon shooter and will use Canon nomenclature in this article. Nikon users will need a translator. Not really.  No worries though if you use Nikon as both manufacturers’ cameras will have the same basic features. They just like to call them different things to keep us all confused. 

  First things first, you need to decide whether you are going to shoot in jpeg or RAW.  If you don’t know what RAW is, own a RAW converter, or how to use a RAW converter, then jpeg is your choice. If you know what RAW is, the reasons to use it, and how to use a RAW converter, then you may want to choose RAW. For those who can’t decide, you can set your camera to produce both, but you’ll be using a lot of valuable memory card capacity by doing so. Go to your camera’s menu and make your selection.

  Let’s stay in the menu for a bit. Your camera’s menu probably has the option of shooting without a memory card.  Make sure that is turned off.  Still in the camera’s menu, Auto White Balance should be fine.  For color space, unless you are intimately familiar with color management, choose sRGB. Enable Highlight Alert. You’re in the menu, so go ahead and make sure the date and time are correct.

  Let’s get out of the menu for a bit and deal with the buttons on the outside of the camera body. For exposure mode choose center weighted or your camera’s nearest equivalent. For autofocus choose AI Servo or your camera’s equivalent. AI Servo is designed to continuously focus on moving subjects.  For drive mode choose High Speed Burst. To achieve the highest speed burst possible for you camera, you may need to go back into you camera’s menu and enable it. For ISO, start with 100. We may need to change ISO later, but for now it’s a good starting point.

  There is normally an Exposure Level Indicator within the small LCD panel that is duplicated in the viewfinder. Make sure that the exposure indicator is centered, no exposure compensation. A word of warning about using exposure compensation, which we will be using eventually: If you add or subtract exposure (Move the indicator to the right or left of the centered position) and take a picture, the exposure comp will not automatically go back to the centered position. If you want the exposure for your next photo to be 0 (centered in the indicator), you’ll have to manually center it. This is something you need to be watching when you look through the viewfinder!

  These next few tips may take a little bit of digging through your manual or perhaps a search on the internet, since each camera model may be a little different.  If you are a Canon user, this site is a great resource to use, to research on how to set up your specific camera; Canon Digital Photography Forums - Powered by vBulletin .

 You want to enable Manual AF Point SelectionThis will allow you to choose which auto-focus point you want the camera to use. We don’t want to use all of the focus points nor allow the camera to choose which focus points to use. If you allow the camera to choose your focus points, it may select something in the background, such as a cloud, instead of the plane you are trying to photograph. By using Manual AF Point Selection, we are forcing the camera to focus on what we want to be in focus. So, which focus point should you use? Use the center focus point. It’s your camera’s most sensitive focus point.  

  This next tip is optional, but I recommend doing it. You want to enable Back Button Focus. Typically, your camera is set up to focus when the shutter button is depressed half way. With back button focus, you press either the AF-ON button or the * button with your right thumb to activate the auto-focus. You depress the shutter button only when you are ready to release the shutter. This setting is usually found in the custom functions section of your camera’s menu and may require a bit of searching in order to figure out how to enable it. 

  Finally, set your camera to what Canon calls Tv mode, also known as shutter priority mode. This is typically selected with the large knob with the little pictures and letters on it.  In Tv mode, you use a dial on your camera to select the shutter speed you want the camera to use. The camera will automatically select the aperture for you. The chosen shutter speed will be displayed in the small LCD panel and repeated on the far, bottom left side of the viewfinder. The aperture that the camera has selected will be displayed to the right of the shutter speed in both the small LCD panel and view finder.  “So, what shutter speed should I be using?” you ask. For jets, use a shutter speed of 1/800-1/1000. For propeller- driven aircraft, shutter speeds of 1/320 and slower are required to get prop-blur. We’ll discuss achieving prop-blur in another article. I’ll simply say here that it will require you to master a skill called panning.

  Ok, the camera is all set up, and you’re ready for the airshow! No,not quite! Before going to the airshow, you need to go out and practice getting used to your camera’s new settings, especially if you took my advice and are using back button focus. Also, you may notice that when the shutter speed is set high, say around 1/1000, the aperture the camera has chosen is flashing in the view finder, and the photos are underexposed (look dark) when that happens.  When you choose a high shutter speed, and the aperture number is flashing, it means that your ISO is set too low. Remember back near the start of the article when I said set the ISO to 100?  I also said that we might need to change that later. This is the situation that will require you to change ISO. Depress the ISO button and dial up 200. Is the aperture still flashing in the viewfinder? If it isn’t, your exposure should be good; shoot away. If it is still flashing, then you’ll need a higher ISO. Depress the ISO button and dial up 400. Continue upping the ISO until the aperture stops flashing in the view finder. It is always preferable from an image-quality standpoint to shoot at the lowest possible ISO. If it gets brighter or you are using a slower shutter speed, go ahead and lower the ISO as low as it will go without your aperture flashing in the view finder.

   When you have mastered the above and feel comfortable, and most of your photos are sharp and well exposed, consider yourself about ready for the airshow. There are still a few things we need to cover, especially panning, which we will do in a future article. Until then, go practice.




1.Pat Gerbus(non-registered)
Many thanks for this write-up. It's clear, concise and most of all, very practical. I picked up some useful pointers here. I just wish I had read it BEFORE I shot the Warbirds at the Beach show!
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