With the coming of spring and the prospect of at least some limited uptick in airshows compared to last year, it’s time to dust off those lenses and take some pictures of airplanes. None of us are new to this. If you’re a pilot or just an airplane nut, then you have almost certainly taken photographs of airplanes, probably lots of them. And it’s also likely that many of your efforts have been less than fully satisfying. No shame. Airplanes are really hard to photograph. There are, in fact, a number of built-in challenges when it comes to photographing aircraft, often making it easier to make mistakes than not. Here at Plane & Pilot, we see endless examples of what not to do. Some of these shots-gone-wrong contain multiple, glaring examples of how easy it is to ruin a perfectly good opportunity.
There’s hope, however. If you know how to look out for the mistakes lurking in the weeds and if you understand how to look for the possibilities, you’ll soon be able to turn even a humdrum scene into a compelling image.
This article isn’t about the gear you’ll need to take airplane shots, but we need to discuss it if the rest of the conversation is going to make any sense.
With that disclaimer, know that in order to capture great images, you’ll need cameras and lenses that are up to the task. Good news alert: Just about everyone is carrying around a high-quality camera in their pocket or purse. That’s right—it’s your phone. If you have a late-model mobile phone from Samsung, Apple, Google or several others, you’ve got a camera that can capture some great aviation shots, at least certain kinds of shots.
It’s not even the latest model, but I use my iPhone all the time to shoot airplanes, and there are several kinds of images for which it’s a great tool. It’s nothing short of remarkable for taking photographs of the earth below as I fly, and it’s spectacular for shooting the instrument panel (as well as various airplane details, everything from spinner to empennage both outside and inside the plane). I haven’t taken a photo of a panel with a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) for ages. My iPhone is easier to use and generates better results for my purposes.
Then again, the iPhone is useless for taking photographs of airplanes at any distance. These phones lack the optics for such uses, and they likely always will. And because it’s hard to control shutter speed and aperture on a phone’s camera, you can’t tailor the settings to the subject as you can with a good DSLR camera. So, use your phone to take certain kinds of airplane pics, including panel pics, detail shots and snapshots galore, but don’t expect it to do the impossible.
Doing the impossible (or seemingly impossible) should be left to what the pros use when they head out to the flight line…that is, a good replaceable-lens camera. Granted, in their bags the pros have four camera bodies and seven lenses, plus countless filters and adapters and other accessories, but in theory, what they use to get their shots is what we all have access to—a DSLR or a mirrorless, smaller-format camera. They aren’t expensive, either. You can get a good used 35-mm DSLR with a kit lens on eBay for less than $500, less than most of us paid for our phones. And when it comes to digital cameras, even models a few generations back can take spectacular shots.
There are a handful of important considerations when choosing a camera, but the bigger issue is choosing lenses. I strongly suggest using zoom lenses, so you can zoom in or out to make the subject (airplanes mostly) the right size to fit in the frame as you imagine it. Very long telephoto lenses are great if you’re a pro and are looking to capture images of aircraft flying by, but long lenses are expensive and hard to use without blurring the shot or missing it altogether.
In my experience, for general-purpose airplane photography, there’s seldom need for anything longer than about 200 mm. Even then, I’d suggest a zoom lens of around 80-200 mm, which is often part of a camera kit package, along with a shorter wide/normal-range lens. The longer lens will fill most of your long-lens needs, like capturing images of planes arriving at the runway threshold, so long as you’re relatively close.
That said, I seldom even pull my longer lens out of my bag, instead making use of my 18-135 zoom lens for just about all of my photography. And this includes air-to-air work, which I’ve been doing for more than 25 years.
A word of caution here: Air-to-air photography, which involves shooting an airplane (the subject plane) from another airplane (known as the camera plane, photo platform or camera ship) is a very specialized and high-risk form of work that I’m expressly not discussing here. Shooting air-to-air in a way that effectively mitigates the risk requires a coordinated team effort among skilled crew members, including experienced pilots and photographers. Don’t attempt it without specialized training from a professional experienced in air-to-air work. Also, I won’t specifically discuss taking photos while you’re flying. Most pilots do it. Pick your moments and be careful. A good rule of thumb: If you feel at all uneasy about what you’re planning to do, don’t do it.
That all said, if you want to experiment with shooting with long lenses, 400 mm and up, an airshow is a great place to do it. I recommend borrowing or renting a lens for the event to avoid acquiring an expensive piece of equipment you might not use much. As I mentioned, they’re hard to shoot with, especially while hand-holding the camera. Getting good shots with such lenses takes a lot of practice and an experienced, steady hand. Even then, you need to be pretty close to the action, but again, never, ever violate the flight line or attempt to shoot anywhere within the runway environment.