Facebook Pixel Air Show Photography - A Guide for Beginners

Air Show Photography – A Guide for Beginners

The following tutorial on air show photography was written by a guest contributor.

Air Show Photography can be some of the most rewarding and challenging genres that any amateur photographer can undertake. The excitement of jets screaming past at 300 knots, the drone of an Allison engine, and the near hysteria of the crowds can all make for a great day of photography.


The Kit

As with any hobby, photography in general can get as expensive as you can afford and airshow photography certainly is no exception to this. Your camera and your lenses can range from Wal-mart specials, to bank breaking behemoths, but no matter what you chose to take, the number one rule is to know your camera.

My own air show kit consists of the following:

Pentax *ist DL. While no where near as popular as the Canon’s and Nikon’s DSLRs (and it does garner me quite a few looks down the nose) it is small and compact. The 6.1 megapixels it offers is more than enough to resolution for any application I can throw at it.

Pentax 18-55mm. A good wide lens is necessary especially for capturing that wingtip to wingtip shot of a B-17 or the cockpit of a CH-47. It also is worth it’s weight in gold for capturing those crowd vistas.
Sigma 70-300mm. While not the best lens out there, but it’s the longest I have. All of the images on this page were taken on the long end of that range. A decent lens such as this and a little careful planning (to be discussed later) can lead to some amazing shots.

Memory and batteries:
My Pentax take SD cards and I pack no less that four 1GB cards every time I walk out the door. Ideally I’ll take as many cards as my pockets can hold, but typically I’ll have at least six on me per day. If you shoot RAW like I do, pack as many as you have. My camera also takes two CR-V3 batteries or four ‘AA’ batteries. I’m personally a fan of NiMH rechargeable batteries and always have an extra set in my pocket.

Clothing, headgear, and various brick-a-brack:
Headgear. Do you like your melon to glow like a painful bright red cherry? I know I don’t. So it’s best to use that lump above your shoulders as a hat rack. Personally, I either sport a beat to death ball cap or an equally tattered boonie cap I have left over from the Army. Given a choice between the two, I’ll take the boonie every time thanks to it’s rap-around brim.

Cargo pants/shorts:
Until recently this was all I had to carry my camera gear around in. Thanks to the usually insane rules regarding what you can and can not take to an airshow here in the States, backpacks are not an option and the large pockets of cargo pants/shorts made carrying all the various bits of this and that a much easier affair.

Ziploc bags:
Since backpacks are a no-no at most shows in the States, everything I have has to be stuffed into a pocket, all my lens, cards, and batteries went into these versatile clear plastic bags. This makes going through metal detectors easier since all you have to do is to hand security a clear plastic bag to inspect. Gallon sized bags are best and really come in handy if it starts raining and you want to turn one into an ad-hoc rain shield for your camera.


Remember the glowing red cherry mentioned above? Well, the higher the SPF the better. And it doesn’t remember if the skies are overcast or not, put it on. Forget it once and you’ll never forget it again.

Planes are loud. Now admittedly I don’t use them because I love the sound of jets screaming by and I’m already “a wee bit deef” thanks to the Army, but a couple of sets of disposable foam ear plugs are a good idea for the more sensitive amongst us. (My kids are not allowed to go to a show without them.)

Folding chairs:
Some shows in the US will not allow you carry the case they come in, but a good folding chair can be a godsend. I have a couch style that I purchased at a show three years ago that serves as my primary base of operations at shows, as well as two single person chairs.

Sun Umbrella:
Again something that is forbidden at some shows, but strangely enough sold at them, I have two purchased as a couple of airshows over the years. One with the Blue Angels on it, the other with the Thunderbirds. These get clipped to the arms of my chairs/couch and makes picking out your spot a lot easier when away for a $7.00 polish sausage or a visit to the local port-a-stink.

This 100oz. backpack of liquid love is my best friend. While many shows have even made these verboten, a full bladder of high quality H2O strapped to your back saves you from not only being dehydrated, but it also saves you from paying $4.00 for some tepid bottled water. Fill it up the night before and throw it in the freezer and throughout the day you will be rewarded with crisp, cool water.

Comfortable shoes:
This should be a no brainer, but I’m including it for friends of mine that I’ve seen in stylish sandals at shows. Chances are you’ll be on your feet from the time the show start to the time it finishes, so save your feet some heartache and wear something comfortable. (I especially hate sandals because guess the one spot most everyone forgets to put sunscreen?)

Photo vest:
I recently acquired a photo vest that has yet to make it to an airshow, but this is already a winner. A good vest should be comfortable and breathable and at least a size larger than you think you need. Why? So when you wear a coat, it’ll still fits. And the bonus thing about vests, security doesn’t have an issue with it.

Back Up Gear
A back up point and shoot isn’t a bad idea if you have one. Of course this is more aimed at the DSLR folks, but you P&S types can benefit from this piece of advice too. The reason? For that buddy you brought with you. Bringing a friend, spouse, child, etc. is one of the best bits of kit you can bring with you and having a camera for them (if they don’t already have one) is good so they can shoot a different perspective than you. And your buddy serves another purpose besides taking still more pictures, they can also run interference for you. By surrounding yourself with friends you thus create a force field keeping the little ones who are yammering for a better view from stomping all over you or your kit (it will happen).

Tripods, bad idea. Monopods, slightly better, but still a bad idea*. Either only gets in the way and makes things more difficult. A much better idea if you can afford one (it’s on my wish list, along with a Bigma) is a Bushhawk. I’ve seen these at shows before and panning with them is amazing.

Wet Weather Gear
Weather for airshows generally needs to be good, but sometimes it isn’t. Make sure you bring any wet weather gear you have. Especially for your camera. A cheap rain coat or small umbrella can go a long way, and all those Ziploc bags you’re hauling around really come in handy when the wet stuff starts falling. I bring mine regardless of the weather report because, gasp, weather forecasters have been know to get it wrong from time to time and there is only so much room for people underneath the wing of a Viper.

Be Prepared
The best air show is a free air show… and there ain’t no such thing as a free airshow. Oh sure, some have free admission, but $15 parking. Some have free parking, but $7 polish sausages and $4 bottles of water. Some just charge you tooth and nail from the get go. Bring plenty of cash, not just plastic. Many vendors at shows these days have the ability to accept plastic, but more can’t than can. So make sure you have plenty of the green stuff (or whatever the color of your currency may be) for all the little things at the show. And be sure to save some of that cash for that souvenir t-shirt, poster, or patch.


The Tips

I could speak forever on this topic alone, but in order to keep things easy we’ll keep it simple. Generally speaking, do not shoot at a speed slower than twice the length of the longest part of the lens you are using. In other words, if you are using a 70-300mm lens, shoot no lower than 1/600. There is a notable exception to this generalization, anything with a propeller. Propeller driven aircraft are a challenge in that if you shoot them at a high shutter speed the image you capture will be unnatural looking in that the propeller will be frozen in flight. A much better alternative is to shoot at a slower shutter speed and capture the ever elusive “prop blur.” Prop blur occurs when the shutter speed is adequately slow enough to capture at least some of the arc of the tip of the propeller. I usually shoot anywhere from 1/125 to 1/180, but the results are hit and miss, which leads me to this, shoot in continuous mode. Chance are greatly increased for getting that perfect shot if you hit the button and multiple frame are shot, but don’t forget to follow through.

Now when it comes to static displays or shots of the crowds, I’ll jump over to Av mode. Given that airshows occur in reasonably good weather, worrying about the amount of light while shooting a lower aperture generally isn’t a problem. Shoot whatever you feel comfortable with.

Location, location, location
Get to the show early to scope out the best possible location to shoot with. You’ll recognize the best location one of two ways. One, it’s where all the folks with the really expensive camera toys are at, and two, it’s show center. Show center is where you’ll usually find the announcer’s cart and it is where all the action is choreographed to occur. Get as close to show center as you can and get and as far forward as you can. If you get there early enough you’ll be rewarded by being right on the fence thus preventing the snotty little kids to follow from getting in front of you and ruining your shot. Once you get that prime location, set up your chairs and umbrellas and settle back until the show starts.


Plan Your Day
Air shows acts are generally arranged in such a way that the really big acts happen towards the end of the show. Plan accordingly. Nothing is more irritating than an excellent day of shooting only to discover you only have 3 shots left on your last memory card to shoot the Thunderbirds. There’s two ways to avoid this. One, if it’s your first show and you shoot RAW normally I recommend you try shooting in JPEG or it’s equivalent. You lose some of the ability to easily fix some of your mistakes, but it’ll increase the amount of shots you can take fourfold (at least on my camera it does). And two, shoot only the acts that interest you. This will be difficult to do, especially if it’s your first show, but once you get a show or two under your belt, you’ll have a better feel for what interests you and what doesn’t. (Jet trucks don’t do it for me, nor does Tora! Tora! Tora!)

Be prepared for disappointment. Missed timing, blurry shots, etc. Since you’re shooting digital, shooting yourself happy isn’t usually an issue, but don’t go through the process of deleting all those less than perfect shots until after you go home. You never know what you will miss happening in the air while you’re deleting those bad shots.

Remember Static Displays
Remember the static displays, they’re easy to forget in all the excitement of the day. If I’m able to go to a show over multiple days, provided there is no change in the acts, I’ll try to spend one shooting the flight displays and then another shooting the static aircraft and crowds. It’s difficult to shoot both in a single day, so if you can break it up, more the better.


Shooting Helos
Shoot helos the same way you would propeller driven aircraft. The blades on a helo turn at a much slower rate comparatively speaking due to their size than a propeller, but getting rotor blur really makes the shot.

Airshows are great. Airshows are fun. Don’t get so engrossed in shooting that you forget to have a good time. Even after dozens of airshows over the years and seeing thousands of aircraft in flight, I still get goose bumps every time a Mustang screams past. I still well up inside when ever the sun glints off the wingtips of the Blue Angels. But I no longer jump during the sneaks.



There are a lot pf resources out there about air show photography, and don’t be afraid to use them. Flickr alone is rife with dozens of groups on the topic, but besides those, here are some of my favorite resources:


So whether it’s your first show, or your twentieth, go out there and have fun!

If you’ve got some air show tips to share feel free to do so in comments below – and or over at our forums where we have a thread for you to share some of your images from air shows also.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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