We pilots tend to have a strong sense of ability, which can work against us when learning certain kinds of skills. Photography is one of those skills. Taking good photographs means not only knowing how to adjust the camera settings to get what you want, but it also means having a nuanced understanding of the subject matter, in this case, airplanes. So you’ve got a bit of a head start on that. Pro photographers will chuckle at saying that the subject matters because it’s so obvious. Different kinds of photographic subjects, everything from landscapes to portraits, have different characteristics and so require different techniques and equipment to shoot effectively. Summer beach scenes are incredibly high in contrast, which makes it hard to properly expose the scene. It’s no mistake that almost all cinematography is done early in the morning or in the late afternoon/early evening. That’s when the light is nice and the contrast is muted. Fashion photography has its own set of demands, as does landscape, portrait, automotive, sports and, well, you get the idea. Just because you’re good at one kind of photography doesn’t make you good at a new kind. It’s humbling, but it’s true.
In terms of its specific challenges, aviation photography is arguably the worst, and with so many different kinds of weird and conflicting considerations, it just seems unfair. Some of the issues can be dealt with, and we’ll get into those strategies, while others need to be worked around.
Know The Challenges
When taking pictures of airplanes, there are several common mistakes that are easy to make. It might be more accurate to say that they are really hard not to make. We see amateur photos all the time that are shining examples of what not to do. Sometimes these images contain multiple mistakes. Sometimes they would have been really good or even great photographs had it not been for one glaring error.
Here are some of those common mistakes and how to avoid them. Be forewarned, though. The reason taking great photos of planes is so hard is because most of these mistakes are built into the subject and the setting in which they’re usually shot. There are, in many instances, physical constraints that you can’t think, finesse or power your way through. You’ve got to understand them, respect them and work within your limitations and theirs.
1. You’re too far away.
Airplanes are small and the sky is big. With rare exceptions, no one wants to see a photo of the sky with a dot directly in the middle of it. There are a couple of obvious solutions for this. One, you should get closer, though that’s often easier said than done. You can use a telephoto lens, which we highly recommend, though doing so will make it harder to keep the camera steady and more difficult to find the plane in the viewfinder. Moreover, if the plane is really small in the sky, even a long lens won’t help much. If you’re shooting with your phone, well, there’s probably little you can do to solve this problem, so save your shooting finger for better chances. The other thing you can do is get closer to the planes, though, again, that can be hard to pull off. At Oshkosh, the gaggles of orange-vested pro photographers roaming the flight line where mere mortals are forbidden to go is evidence that if you want great stuff, you need to get close. But whatever you do, follow airport rules and don’t violate any off-limits areas. More than one eager photographer has found him or herself in the back of a squad car. In general, get closer, use longer lenses and very often, just hold off until the plane gets closer.
2. You stopped the prop.
This is by far the greatest challenge in aviation photography, and I’ll go into a little detail on this so you understand the nature of the issue. For starters, the reason you don’t want your image of a Corsair racing past to have a stopped prop frozen in a thin slice of time is that, to use the technical jargon, it just looks stupid.
The idea of a photograph is to capture the experience we have with our own eyes, and if you were to see a Corsair flying by with its prop stopped, well, you’d be understandably freaked out and instantly calculating its forced landing options. Instead, we want to see that big beautiful bird with its supernaturally long prop blurred out, at least to some great degree, so the viewer can see that the prop is turning as God and nature intended.
It’s not a binary problem, however. Completely stopped is bad, but how about “mostly” stopped? The question of how “stopped” is “too stopped” is at heart a philosophical one, but suffice it to say that you need at least a hint of the prop moving—the more, the better. The greatest shots of airplanes in flight show a full, buttery prop blur, an effect that is never achieved by mistake and is essentially impossible (or darned close to it) to achieve from the ground.
But how does one keep the prop from being frozen in time? By using a slow shutter speed. Sounds simple enough, right? How I wish that were true!
Without going into too much technical detail, the shutter speed is simply how fast the shutter opens and closes. A fast shutter speed is great for avoiding blur, which is one of its greatest advantages. But the airplanes we are mostly concerned with in Plane & Pilot have propellers for the most part, and that makes them hugely problematic. Here’s why.
In order to get a good prop blur (which, again, makes it look as though the prop is still doing its thing), you need to shoot with a slow shutter speed, which allows the shutter to be open long enough to “see” the prop moving through its arc. And if you’re thinking that a shot of an airplane with its prop blurred throughout its 360-degree travel must be taken at really slow shutter speeds, you’re right. Impossibly slow shutter speeds, too!
A couple of other things. As a pilot, you know that the prop doesn’t spin at one rate. The tips spin much, much, much faster than the roots, and the longer the prop, the more pronounced this effect is. So as you begin to slow the prop, you’ll begin to see a weird and wholly unnatural effect, sometimes referred to as the Go-Pro effect (after the popular action cam), in which the prop appears to be made of rubber. That, too, is unsettling.
So what do you do?
You can use a slower shutter speed by putting the camera in manual exposure mode or by selecting the shutter priority mode, often depicted as the “S” on the selector dial. This allows you to select the shutter speed. Remember, the slower the better, up to a point, and the camera will automatically pick what it calculates to be the proper aperture (which is how wide the lens is selected to open). If you select 1/100 of a second—and I promise that this technical part of the program will be over in a flash—on a bright day, the camera will choose a small aperture. That’s because the longer the shutter is open, the more light the lens gathers. To compensate for the long exposure, the camera picks a narrow opening.
Here’s the rub. When you slow down the shutter speed enough to capture a good prop arc, you’re also keeping the shutter open long enough to capture every little shake and shimmy that occurs while it’s open, which is why some photos look blurry. If you’re using a slow shutter speed, like 1/100 of a second, while hand-holding the camera, you need to be really steady not to get a blurry image. Few photographers are good or lucky enough to pull it off. A speed of 1/125 will get you some prop stopping in most instances, and 1/150 will begin to stop the prop noticeably, but in many instances acceptably. How slow is the shutter speed on the best air-to-air images? Around 1/60 of a second, which can only be reliably achieved with a gyroscopic stabilizer, which alone costs more than the entire camera outfits most of us use.
So, shutter speed is a dilemma. It is, in fact, the defining dilemma of aviation photography (for planes with propellers, at least).
So what’s the solution? Well, image stabilization, whether it’s in-camera or in-lens, is a start, but it only gets you a small degree of improvement. What you need to do is get good with making the camera as steady as possible. Keep the camera close to your body with your elbows pressed steadily into your core while gripping the camera lightly but firmly—yes, it seems contradictory but isn’t—and then, when you activate the shutter, do so very lightly. Practice with it and see how the results come out.
You can also use a tripod or, better yet, a monopod, or brace against a solid object. All of these make it harder to find the plane in the viewfinder and follow the action, though. Plus, it makes it practically impossible to pan while shooting.
If you’re using a mobile phone, there are a few gimmicks you can try. You can trick the camera into using a slower shutter speed by overlaying the lens with a neutral density filter. Today on some phones or with specialized apps, you can turn your phone into a manual exposure model, though this varies greatly from camera to camera and app to app, and the results are often less than ideal. Regardless, try them out. It might be fun.