How to Shoot Aviation Photography
Aviation photography is exciting and challenging. With the right gear, knowledge, and skills, even new photographers can produce great work. Nothing is more exhilarating than soaring through the sky at 120 miles per hour, hanging out the window of an aircraft while holding onto your camera for dear life. Whether you’re tracking another airplane or seeking the perfect landscape shot, there are some things you should know first.
In this overview of aviation photography, I’ll discuss the right gear, settings, and tactics for success. I’ll share some of my favorite aviation images and look at the work of one of my favorite aviation shooters, Airbus A320 pilot and photographer Leonardo Correa Luna. In an interview at the end of this tutorial, he shares his secrets to successful aviation photography.
Aviation Photography Types
Aviation photographs fall into one of three categories:
- Ground-to-air photos of aircraft shot from the ground.
- Air-to-air photos of airplanes shot from another aircraft
- Air-to-ground photos of the landscape shot from an aircraft
Note: while drone photos/footage are technically air-to-ground as well, they’re beyond the scope of what we will discuss in this post.
We’ll go over each of these types after some important information on safety when photographing near, in, or around aircraft.
Aviation Photography Safety
Safety is very important when photographing from or around aircraft. This is true whether you are shooting air-to-air or from the ground. The pilot/captain has everyone’s safety in mind, so your pilot is unquestionably the boss. Pay careful attention to any directions given during the pre-flight safety briefing.
The pilot will want to know how much gear you are bringing and where you plan to stow it. This can impact weight and balance calculations and aircraft performance. Always make sure you maintain visual line-of-sight with the pilot when an aircraft is operating on the ground in or near you.
While in the aircraft, photographers must communicate clearly ahead of time to the pilot any desired operational moves, such as opening a window, requesting a bank for a better angle, or even abruptly shifting your weight. At an airshow, make sure to set up and shoot only from approved areas. Stay away from active aircraft areas such as runways and taxiways unless escorted.
When functioning within accepted operational limits, small aircraft are safe and flying in one is statistically far safer than driving a car. There is little reason to worry if you are following all of the rules and listening to your pilot carefully.
Ground-to-Air Aviation Photography
Ground-to-air is a very common type of aviation photography. It mostly includes (but is not limited to) air shows, expositions, and demonstrations. Examples are EAA’s AirVenture Osh Kosh, High Sierra Fly-In, and Blue Angels in San Francisco.
What to Know About Shutter Speed When Photographing Planes
Most aircraft move very fast, especially jets like the Blue Angels. Extremely fast shutter speeds upwards of 1/1000th of a second are usually needed. However, in smaller aircraft, you don’t want a shutter speed that is so fast that it “stops the prop”. You don’t want an image that makes the aircraft look like it’s merely suspended in air with no sense of motion – much like the wheels of a car in race photography. Most single engine pilots will scoff at an otherwise great image of an aircraft in flight if the propeller(s) or rotors appear frozen by too fast of a shutter speed.
A common shutter speed that strikes a balance of “fast enough to shoot handheld up to ~200mm focal length” and “slow enough to show propeller blur” is around 1/200th of a second. Start here, and if you like to use semi-automatic modes for ease of workflow, use Tv or Shutter Priority mode and Auto ISO and stick to 1/200th. Adjust as needed.
The speed of rotation of the propellers/rotors is a factor in this decision. I learned this when attempting to create compelling images of helicopters embarking from base camp out into the Chugach Mountains at Points North Heli Adventures in Alaska. 1/200th of a second wasn’t slow enough to show rotors in motion, so I had to use a 0.9 (3-stop) neutral density filter and lower the ISO as low as it would go to shoot at 1/90th of a second and the aperture I wanted without overexposing. At the time, I was shooting in the bright morning sunshine on snow in an area surrounded by snowy mountains.
Careful side-to-side panning must be used at these slower shutter speeds and lots of practice is needed to pan with the aircraft at the same rate it moves across your viewfinder. This keeps the plane in the same spot and freezes it against a blurred background. Turn off any Image Stabilization systems (whether in-camera or on your lens) while panning to save batteries. It’s likely that the system won’t keep up with your movement anyway and might even hinder clean pan shots.
Recommended Lenses for Aviation Photography
In ground-to-air photography, the aircraft will likely be quite far from you. You may need a dedicated telephoto or super telephoto prime lens or a mega zoom. The pros and cons here are that primes have faster (wider) maximum apertures but zooms are more versatile. A fast super telephoto, like the Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II lens, is a great tool for “punching in” on an aircraft and making it the dominant part of the photo. Wider lenses show the aircraft in the context of its surroundings. If you need to capture both, you may need a wide-to-telephoto zoom. Below are some popular lens options to consider.
Prime Super Telephotos
Benefits: Fast apertures, super sharp, long reach. Caveat: Heavy, expensive, and you’re stuck with 1 focal length. Examples include:
- Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II Lens
- Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II Lens, a good alternative to the lens above that is a little more portable and affordable.
- Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens
- Nikon 300mm f/2.8G AF-S IF-ED VR II Lens
- Nikon 500mm f/4E FL ED VR Lens
- Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR Lens, a good alternative to the lens above that is a little more portable and affordable.
Zoom Super Telephotos
Benefits: Long reach with some zoom versatility. This is probably the most popular category for ground-to-air aviation photography. Examples include:
- Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS Lens
- Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II Lens
- Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS 1.4x Extender Lens
- Fuji XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens
- Nikon 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 AF-S FL ED VR Lens
- Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens
- Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens
- Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS Lens
Benefits: Ultimate versatility, portable, affordable. Caveat: May experience some sacrifice in sharpness and light sensitivity. Examples include:
- Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS Lens
- Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR Lens
- Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS Lens
- Canon RF 24-240mm f/4-6.3 IS STM Lens
- Nikon Z 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR Lens
The Goldilocks Lens: 70-200mm Zooms
By far the most popular lenses that bridge the gap between portability, affordability, and quality are the tried-and-true 70-200mms that are available in nearly every mount type. They tend to have faster maximum apertures (f/2.8) and offer some kind of in-lens stabilization. The zoom range is practical – not so long to be unwieldy but not so wide as to majorly sacrifice image quality for the sake of convenience.
Focus Settings for Ground-to-Air Aviation Photography
Fine-tuning the autofocus system of your camera helps improve the quality of your aviation images. Start by setting your focus mode to AI Servo (Canon) or AF-C (many other brands, including Nikon and Sony). With AI Servo/AF-C, a servo motor will trigger the autofocus when you are in burst drive mode and tracks the aircraft as it moves across your viewfinder.
There are other fine-grained focus settings that help. In the Canon 5D Mark IV, 7D Mark II, and 1D X Mark II, for example, there are six different pre-ordained autofocus modes, each with a specific value. Within each, you can adjust the object tracking sensitivity, acceleration/deceleration tracking, and autofocus point auto switching for complete control. “Case 2: Continue to track subjects, ignoring possible obstacles” in the Canon system is a useful preset mode for aviation subjects. If you don’t feel like diving into your user manual, hit the “info” button for more details about each preset focus mode.
For higher-end prosumer or pro-level photographers, a DSLR such as a Canon 1D X or a Nikon D4 will capture rapid-fire frames in high-speed or burst drive mode. If you use one of these bodies, make sure you have a high-speed card. For more on that, see Memory Card Basics: Choosing the Right Memory Card for Video and Time-Lapse. Though it covers time-lapse and video, it’s useful information for burst-shooting stills, too.
Anticipating where the plane will be in your shot is a key. Take a moment to envision the perfect frame – where is the airplane located in it? Where is the aircraft with respect to other elements in your composition? You have a choice here: either track the plane and shoot as you go or hold one position and wait for the plane enter the frame. There are benefits to both. With the former, you capture a lot of shots but with the latter, you have a better chance at getting a very exact composition you may have in mind. If you’re tracking, using AI Servo/AF-C is a good idea but if you’re waiting (and know exactly when and where a plane will come into frame) then you may be able to pre-focus your scene, then switch the lens to manual mode.
Assess your surroundings carefully and choose a shooting location with strong background options based on the aircraft’s flight path. If you can, scout the location a few days in advance. When shooting the Blue Angels in San Francisco, for example, look for a shooting location around the city that will allow you to place iconic landmarks in the background, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, from the western end of Aquatic Park towards Fort Mason, or even from a boat on the Bay. As with any air show, knowing where “show center”, or the point around which the airplanes plan their maneuvers, is helpful.
Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground Aviation Photography
If you are lucky enough to either own an aircraft or be invited in one with your camera gear, you are in for a very special treat. Whether shooting another airplane or shooting scenic landscape images from an aircraft, you’ll need to use some different tactics than those used to shoot from the ground.
Communication with the pilot is absolutely critical in the loud, cramped environment of an aircraft. Most passenger aircraft pilots will have an extra headset, but it pays to come prepared with your own just in case. You won’t have the ability to recompose your shot in an airplane without working with the pilot to reposition the entire aircraft.
Dealing with Windows When Shooting from Planes
Aircraft windows can be a detriment to image quality when shooting from inside. Some planes, like the Carbon Cub and Kit Fox, have fold-up windows. Some helicopters, such as the A-Star AS-350, have sliding portholes in the passenger side that allow photographers to slide back part of the plexiglass. In many common passenger planes, such as the Cessna 172 or 180 Skywagon, the window and door are one and the same and the only option is to ask the pilot prior to flight if he or she is okay with removing the door in compliance with current FAA regulations. If you must shoot through a window, try to place your lens as close to it as possible to minimize reflections and glare.
Context is important in air-to-air and air-to-ground photography. Lens choice (focal length, which dictates field of view) is a crucial part of this decision. Wider-angle lenses will capture more of the scene and background around the aircraft you’re photographing, while a narrower (or longer) focal length can show the plane dominating the frame. Choosing something too wide may show too much of the plane you are in. Choosing something too long may cut off parts of the plane you are capturing. Mid-range zooms might be your safest choice. Below are some popular lens options to consider.
Mid-Range Telephoto Zooms
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To get particularly artistic and beautiful imagery, here is a tactic to try: drag (slow down) your shutter as much as you can (you may need an ND filter, depending on your aperture setting and environmental brightness) and try to use a slower-speed pan that tracks the aircraft you’re following. The goal is to make the background as streaky as possible while keeping the aircraft sharp (sans any propellors). This is much easier said than done and will take some practice but it’s an excellent technique for expressing speed and motion.
Advice from a Photographer and Pilot: An Interview with Leonardo Correa Luna
An inspiring photographer who often uses this technique is Leonardo Correa Luna Correa Luna. Below is a quick interview from 2018 with Luna, who is also a commercial airline pilot in China, where he provides valuable advice for successful aviation photography.
Grant: Tell us a little about yourself – where are you originally from?
Leo: I am from Uruguay in South America. I currently live in Kunming, China where I fly the Airbus A320 for a local carrier, Lucky Airlines. I’ve flown for them for the past 2 years, and with Shenzen Airlines for 7 years before that. I also own and keep a 1952 Cessna 170B in Livermore, California for my holidays.
Grant: Are you a full-time photographer, or a full-time pilot, or a combination of both?
Leo: I am a full-time airline pilot who enjoys aviation photography in my free time. I prefer to choose what I want to shoot and keep the fun side and not have it turn into a second job, so I would consider myself a “professional” from the point of view that I am a pilot, and photography is not what I do for a living. Luckily my work as an airline pilot pays the bills so I can focus on the fun when I shoot.
Grant: How long have you been flying airplanes?
Leo: I am 43 and started flying airlines when I was 23, so I’ve spent the last 20 years burning Jet A1!
Grant: What about being a pilot helps you create such amazing photographs of airplanes?
Leo: Being a pilot helps me to connect better with the pilots of the planes I am shooting. They also feel more comfortable that I know what an airplane can and cannot do, and that I understand all the safety aspects involved in formation flying and weather conditions. I can also do a good briefing talking “pilot language”. Also, many times I use my own airplane as a “camera ship” in that it is flown by another pilot, which allows me to shoot photos from it without having to fly it. Since it’s my airplane, I also I know its performance very well, so that is a plus.
Grant: Your air-to-air photos are incredible in that they are not only technically perfect but also that they are composed thoughtfully and tell a story of an airplane in a beautiful landscape. What do you think are the main ingredients necessary to make a good aviation photo, in terms of composition, action, and technical camera settings?
Leo: The main ingredients are landscape, light, and good pilots that can fly formation and understand what I want. For camera settings, I use a slow shutter of around 1/60th of a second to get the full 360 degrees of the propeller arc. I try to avoid modern elements in the background, especially with vintage planes. For me, a photo must have a certain sense of story. I don’t like to mix things that don’t make sense – like a modern plane with a vintage one in the same photo – unless there is some kind of connection.
Still, smooth air helps, and is another reason to shoot at sunrise. You want pilots who can keep the airplane steady and who try to avoid the airflow in the cockpit, as I am usually shooting with the door off. I think the main trick in air-to-air photography is good pilots.
Grant: What lenses do you primarily use when shooting air-to-air photos?
Leo: The 24-70mm is the only one I need if the subject flies good formation. If it’s a pilot that cannot stay close, I change to a 70-200mm, but that makes my life more difficult.
Grant: Wow that’s a lot of glass to wield in a small cockpit!
Leo: It’s more because it is heavier and longer, so it’s more difficult to keep it steady at slow shutter speeds.
Grant: I find that Shutter Priority mode (Tv) is useful when trying to achieve that “blurred propeller look” that you have in many of your images. Do you use S-mode?
Leo: Yes, I use Shutter Priority mode. I use a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second if there is no turbulence. Some airplanes will look nice at higher speeds, like a P51 which has a propeller with 4 blades. So you can use higher speeds and the 4 blades being slightly blurred looks cool, too.
Grant: So in any type of aviation photography, would you say that it really pays to do your homework and know some of the technical details of the airplanes you are shooting?
Leo: Yes, I always read about the airplanes before a shoot. Owners and pilots are very proud of their planes and they like when you show them that you know about their planes! Also, you need to match the performance of the camera ship – my Cessna 170 is not always fast enough!
Grant: Do you previsualize your frames or do you just “wing it” and see what comes?
Leo: I visualize the shot, search for landscapes in Google Maps, talk with the pilots for pointers of nice areas to shoot around their airports, and try to shoot during sunrise or sunset.
Grant: Ok great. Let’s switch gears for a second and talk about ground-to-air photography. How would you approach shooting airplanes from the ground – for example, at an airshow? What gear would you need and settings would you use?
Leo: I’m not a big fan of that but sometimes I do it. I have a 600mm for that and always try to find a place where there are no other photographers to try to catch a different angle. The 600mm is heavy and I don’t like tripods or monopods. So usually I will shoot at no less than 1/125th of a second.
Grant: What advice would you have for the aspiring aviation photographer?
Leo: I would advise them to prepare properly, start by learning about the airplane he/she is going to shoot, and then, for air-to-air photography, try to fly with pilots who know how to fly formation and let them be in control of the flight. Be safe, always use a harness and a safety line if shooting without a door. Then, have fun and shoot a lot!
Grant: What is your dream location/trip/airplane to shoot? Do you have something fun coming up that readers can look forward to looking for on your website or Facebook page?
Leo: My recent photoshoot with a Waco over San Francisco Bay was pretty close to a dream photo shoot. Also, the two Howard 500s flying at sunset over the clouds in February! I waited a week for good weather and it is always difficult to get all the right people in place at the right time. So to nail both was pretty satisfying!
It will be difficult to top those as dream photo shoots, from the photographer’s perspective. I would like to do more stuff related to bush flying. It’s different and there are many amazing pilots who enjoy working with a photographer, which opens the opportunity to create something different. So I am looking forward to doing more of that. I get a big smile like a little kid when everything comes together and I know the photos are going to be great.
Grant: Thanks, Leo! Hope to see you at the High Sierra Fly-In in Nevada.
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