Photographing Aircraft In Flight

The club has a couple of upcoming field trips to some regional air shows, so I thought I’d share some techniques on how to take better in-flight photographs. It comes down to selecting the right lens, an appropriate shutter speed, and learning to pan smoothly from the waist.

Lens-wise, you want a moderate-to-long telephoto or zoom lens. I own a 70-200mm lens and it’s adequate on a full-frame camera, but a 70-300mm or 100-400mm lens would be better. This is a situation where using crop-sensor cameras can work to your advantage. You get a 50% tighter crop (or more, depending on the camera), effectively turning a 70-300mm lens into a 105-450mm equivalent.

If you’re photographing jets, shutter speed doesn’t matter so much. There’s no propeller movement to consider so you can just select a fast shutter speed and concentrate on getting sharp pictures. But if you’re photographing propeller-driven aircraft (including helicopters and gyrocopters) then shutter speed makes a big difference in the feel of the image. You don’t want to freeze the propeller(s), it just doesn’t look right. So you need to select a shutter speed that leaves the propeller blurry. Compare the following three images (shot at 200mm and cropped in about 40%):


I changed my shutter speed in between passes to the values given in the lower left-hand corner. Notice how the first image, shot at 1/4000 of a second, makes the plane seem like it’s just sitting in mid-air. There’s no sense of speed or energy, even with the smoke trailing behind it. The middle shot (using 1/500th of a second) and especially the bottom shot (taken at 1/250th) give a much better sense of motion and speed.

In general, shutter speeds between 1/125th and 1/1000th of a second are what you want to use for propeller-driven aircraft. The exact setting depends on the aircraft and how fast its propeller rotates. You also have to remember that the aircraft is moving. So you need to pick a shutter fast enough to compensate for motion blur. In order to minimize motion blur you should also learn how to pan from the waist smoothly. Basically, you want to stand facing the flight line. If the aircraft is approaching from your left, you rotate your upper body (from the waist up) to the left while keeping your feet planted and frame the aircraft in your viewfinder. You rotate your upper body to the right as the aircraft moves from left to right and try to keep the aircraft in the same position in your viewfinder. You want to match your upper body’s rotational speed with the speed of the aircraft. If you set your camera’s motor drive to continuous exposure you’ll capture a sequence of images as the aircraft flies by. Squeeze the shutter smoothly so as to not jerk the camera during your first couple exposures.


In the above sequence of 10 images I used a shutter speed of 1/125. This is pretty slow for this aircraft, which was moving at about 300 MPH (only about 3 of the frames are sharp enough to use), but the propeller blur is fantastic. Here’s another shot from a different pass where I included a bit of the ocean. Notice how nicely the water and boats are blurred while the aircraft is sharp?


When you get your shutter speed right and your panning squared away this is what you can accomplish. Here are some other shots from that day, with shutter speed noted in the corner. Note that for these aircraft 1/1000th. of a second is too fast.


This entry was posted in How To, Tips, Tutorials.