3. You cut something off.
Airplanes are funny things, shaped so that they’re exactly the wrong form factor to fit on a vertical magazine cover, for instance. Over the years, certain conventions have arisen about what you can and can’t cut off in the frame. It is, for example, okay to cut the outside part of the wings off in a shot, but don’t ever cut off the spinner or the landing gear. Why? I don’t know. I can only say that it’s because the photo looks terrible if you do. For some reason, we as pilots need to see the gear. Why, I have no idea, but we do. Also, bear in mind that it’s not enough to make sure the gear or the spinner is in the frame…you need to give it a little margin. Why? Again, who knows. But it’s a known effect that crowding the margins makes the viewer feel a sense of unease. So don’t do it! It’s not only airplane photography that’s subject to these kinds of cropping aesthetics. If you’re taking a photo of a person and crop it so only the feet are missing, it’s just as weird.
4. Your scene is too busy.
Most of us get the chance to photograph cool planes when we see them at an airshow. It’s as true for me as it is for you. But it’s complicated because there are often crowds of people surrounding the planes you most want to shoot, and no one wants to see a shot of a plane with a dozen other people milling about in their khaki shorts and wide-brimmed hats, blocking the view and stealing focus, literally and otherwise. Luckily, there are a few solutions, none ideal, but all workable.
First, get out of bed! If you rise early and go photo hunting just after dawn, not only will you be rewarded with great light, but also the usual throngs of airshow goers will be nowhere to be seen.
You can also practice patience. Frame up the shot and wait for the scene to clear. Many of my shots of airplanes apparently sitting by themselves on the ramp were ones I snapped off in the half-second gaps between airshow goers wandering by in front of my lens.
Last, focus on a particularly interesting detail, perhaps the one that makes the plane so noteworthy, like the exhaust stacks of a Merlin V-12 on a P-51 or the rivet lines on a Spartan Executive. Logos, reflections, spinners, door hardware, interesting tail shapes are all among the endless detail possibilities if the crowds are too great to get a shot of the entire airplane.
5. You put it in the center of the frame.
A photograph is only partly about the subject. How the subject, in this case, an airplane, is placed in the frame matters. So does context.
Is the plane you’re shooting at an airshow, or is it zooming through a narrow Swiss valley? Think about it. A little context can sometimes make a good photograph great.
Think, too, about how you place the plane in the frame. You might have heard of the Rule of Thirds in photography, where good composition divides the frame into thirds and places elements of the shot in each third. The theory is vague and overly simplistic, in my opinion, and it doesn’t apply well to airplanes in general, but thinking about it will help in two ways. First, you’ll think twice about putting the plane dab in the middle of the frame, and, second, you’ll at least begin to think about including other elements. A shot of a Reno racer, let’s say a highly modified Sea Fury, in flight is interesting. The shot of the same plane rounding a pylon with a Mustang hot on its tail is an edge-of-your-seat story.
Also, avoid getting too much empty space into the shot, unless it somehow enhances the meaning, like a lone plane sitting at the departure end of a desolate desert dirt strip. Getting the desert and the runway in that shot transforms it.
6. Nothing is happening!
In the example above of the Reno racer rounding a pylon, the action is obvious. With others, it’s not quite as obvious. Some possibilities include framing multiple airplanes together, adding ground elements (mountains in the background, crowds looking up in awe or smoke trails). A special word about smoke: Photographers love it! And it’s no mistake that they do. Airshow performers use smoke for the express reason that it adds visual interest for the spectators on the ground far below. The performers know their planes are small and not particularly impressive from any distance, no matter how they carve shapes in the sky. Smoke adds elements of action, motion and time, all of which work together to make a still shot come to life.
7. You didn’t fix it.
Traditionalist photographers will tell you that you should do all the work before you click the shutter. They believe that adding effects, like filters or focus enhancements, is cheating. With all due respect, they’re both out of touch and wrong. A photograph is meant to be seen. Why else take it? So if you can enhance the viewers’ experience by fixing it later on your computer or your phone, why not do it? When it comes to digital photographs, the sky’s the limit to what you can do after you’ve already captured an image. Add any number of filters to make it pop, crop it to take out dead air or remove distracting elements. Or enhance the detail in the areas that are too dark or too light. You can do this with expensive desktop computer programs that cost as much as a thousand dollars or more, or you can do it with free apps on your phone. In today’s imaging world, the mistake you made when you took the shot might be unfixable. Or maybe not.
Taking photographs of airplanes is something many of us love to do. Luckily, you don’t need to have tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to do it, and you don’t need to be an expert in optics or digital sensors to take some great pics of some amazing airplanes. Just do a little planning. Take in the scene in front of you, compose it, expose it and frame it up before you snap. Then when you get home, take a look at what you’ve got and by all means make it better if you can. By putting a little thought and work into the process, you can take much more rewarding and satisfying airplane photos in no time. And that will make all of us airplane nuts happy.