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Airshow Photography

The Power and the Glory

The airshow season is upon us and it is time to dust off the telephoto lens, clear the memory cards and practise that rusty panning technique.  Excitement, power, movement, action, fast jets with afterburners roaring, graceful Spitfires, their Merlin engines purring, it is all there waiting to be captured on pixels.

Airshows are one of the most popular events held during the summer months, the season running from May to October.  There are hundreds of different events within reach across the UK and in Europe to cater for all tastes from vast military might to humble fly-ins.  Most events will also have ground action and stalls, food, funfairs, enough to keep all family members busy and interested.

What to shoot

In the air

The biggest draw of the airshow is seeing aircraft in action where they belong – in the air.  This is where a good telephoto zoom lens is essential with a reach of at least 300mm, although 400mm or more is best.  Zoom lenses give maximum flexibility allowing you to pull back to capture a large formation or zoom in for a frame filling shot of a single aircraft.  Where you stand at the display can also make a dramatic difference to how close you are to the aircraft and also the type of image you can get.  The centre of the display line will be the focal point for many manoeuvres, especially for formation teams such as the Red Arrows.  However, for single aircraft displays this is often the point where they are furthest away from the crowd and generally flying straight and level, which can limit the drama in your images.  Standing at one end of the display line however can change this, especially at smaller shows where the crowd line is not as long.  Aircraft will be positioning for their flybys, perhaps curving round from one end of the display line for a run along the crowd.  They will often be closer at this point and also banking or turning making for a more interesting topside or underside view of the aircraft.  Standing at one end also gives good opportunities to capture the aircraft as they are taking off or landing.  The aircraft will be necessarily flying slower and therefore be easier to track, and have undercarriage and flaps hanging down making for a different view.

Take offs and landings give a different view of the aircraft and are easier to track as the planes will be moving more slowly

Sometimes it is too close! – this frame filling shot was taken on a 400mm zoom lens at one of the smaller shows, Rougham 2004

With afterburner roaring and vortices of condensing air streaming from the wing roots this Belgian Air Force F-16 makes for a dramatic subject

Smoke trails criss-cross through the sky as this F-16 Fighting Falcon manoeuvres above the crowd


The best technique for capturing aerial action is called ‘panning’ which is basically following the aircraft in the viewfinder with your finger ready on the shutter.  When you see the picture you want you squeeze the shutter gently and continue to follow the movement of the plane as you take the shot.  Setting the camera on continuous autofocus will ensure you get a good proportion of your images sharp, although a Tornado F.3 flashing past at 400 mph will challenge even the cleverest camera!  For aerial shots shutter speed is the most important setting and it is best to set your camera to shutter priority.  For helicopters and aircraft with propellers you need to set a speed fast enough to prevent blurring but not so fast as to ‘freeze’ the motion of the turning propellers making the plane look as though it is just sitting in the sky. As a guide use 1/180th for aircraft going up to 1/250th if it is a faster machine, and for helicopters I find 1/125th gives the best amount of movement to the rotor blades although this can also lead to more blurred images and 1/180th is probably safest until you are happy with your technique.  For anything without a moving propeller or rotor then the fastest shutter speed is the best, for example you will need at least 1/350th to capture a fast moving Harrier.  As with all rules these can be broken.  With practise the panning technique can be used down to 1/15th or 1/30th of a second, which will keep the aircraft sharp but leave the background as a big blur giving a tremendous impression of the speed of the machine.

A shutter speed of 1/30th of a second has nicely blurred the background as this Sea Hurricane comes into land at a Shuttleworth Sunset display in 2004

A shutter speed of 1/125th of a second has kept the rotor blades on this Belgain Army Helicopter nicely blurred at the Koksijde Airshow 2006

Formation teams

Formation teams come in all shapes and sizes and, as most use smoke generators and some dramatic sky filling manoeuvres, can make for great images.  Crowd centre is a good place to stand here, particularly if you want to capture one of the most thrilling manoeuvres, the opposition pass.  This is where two aircraft fly towards each other and pass in front of the crowd, seemingly inches from each other.  With a combined closing speed of up to 800 mph great timing is essential to capture the two machines in the same piece of sky.  If you see them both in your viewfinder it is already too late!  The technique I have found to work the best is to follow the aircraft coming from the right (I am right handed) using the panning technique while keeping both eyes open.  With your right eye keeping the aircraft in the centre of the viewfinder the other is seeing the sky outside of the camera and can see when the other aircraft approaches from the left.  You will then be ready to press the shutter as soon as you see them crossing with your left eye.

An example of capturing an opposition pass of two Stearman biplanes at the Lydd 2007airshow

Red Arrows break opposite crowd centre captured at Dunsfold 2007

Red Arrows smoke on as they come down the outside of a loop at Dunsfold 2007


With film you always had to compensate for shooting a small, dark object against a large bright sky by using exposure compensation to overexpose the camera’s reading by varying degrees of half-stop increments depending on the weather conditions.  Anything up to 2 stops overexposure could be the norm on dull days.  However, with digital it is best to shoot on the camera’s reading and use the histogram or highlights display to fine tune your exposure compensation as you may still need to overexpose by at least half a stop on a dull grey day.  However, with digitals tendency to easily loose highlights, particularly in the sky, you may find half a stop over is as much as you ever go and in bright conditions with a highly coloured aircraft against a blue sky you may even need to underexpose to prevent loosing detail.

On the ground

Shooting the action, both moving and static, on the ground can give far more opportunities to exercise your individual creativity.  If you go to a large show and just look around you during the flying display you will see hundreds, if not thousands of big lenses all pointing at the same aircraft in the same piece of sky taking essentially the same picture.

Static Aircraft

Most shows will have some form of static display of aircraft on the ground where you can get close to the aircraft.  Here look for different angles or interesting combinations of different machines.  Use a telephoto and go in close looking for abstracts and details or go wide and use a large aperture to focus on one part of the aircraft while throwing everything else out of focus.  Fly-ins are best for this sort of image as you can usually get a lot closer the aircraft than you can at larger shows where the aircraft are behind barriers.  Try different viewpoints as well, for example get down low to emphasise the form of the aircraft against a dramatic sky.

34 years separate the first flights of these two classic airliners, the Boeing 747 and Douglas DC-3 - a good example of putting two aircraft together to get a nice aircraft combination taken at Dunsfold 2007

A telephoto lens has picked out this nice detail of the cockpit area of B-17 Bomber Sally-B at Duxford 2007

Using a wide aperture has concentrated the eye on the turret guns of this Lancaster bomber while throwing the background out of focus taken at Lydd 2007

Look for unusual images, particularly at museums, and don’t be afraid to speak to people! – I took this interior shot of a Hawker Hurricane fighter under restoration at the Brooklands 2007 centenary show after chatting to the restorers who were there to speak to the public about their work.

Moving aircraft

When you get to the show look to see where the aircraft are that will be flying later in the day and put aside some time to go back to that spot.  Prior to each flight ground crew will be readying the aircraft, adding fuel, removing cockpit covers, polishing plexiglass.  As the time for the display approaches the pilot will carry out a pre-flight walk-around checking all the major components of the airframe for any visible problems.  The pilot will then be climbing in, strapping him or herself to the aircraft and then it is time to start engines, usually accompanied by a big cloud of smoke if it is a piston-powered machine.  Then the aircraft is taxiing out to the display line, and if it is a big warbird, the propeller will be turning, the pilot weaving the machine from side to side with his or her head stuck out of the cockpit to see over the long nose. 

This gives plenty of opportunity to add a human element to your images and, with so much concentration on the aircraft, it is sometimes easy to forget that nothing would be moving or flying without the people involved, be they military or civilian.

Peter Teichmann taxiing his P-51 Mustang at Shoreham 2006.  A telephoto lens has got nice and close to concentrate on the dominant parts of the image – the whirling propeller, the nose art on the aircraft and the pilot.

Using a telephoto lens here has created a strong composition of turning propeller and pilots in the cockpit taken at Lydd 2007

Many shows now use re-enactors to bring the aircraft to life. Call over to them and get them to pose for you.  You could also convert your image to black and white to give it a more period feel as below

Try and add a human element such as this RAF pilot strapping into his Hawk Jet prior to displaying at Lydd 2006

© Andrew Critchell 2009