Ask James – Airshow/Aircraft Photography

Hi James, I’m looking for a bit of advice….I’m going to an Air Show next week and I’ve never shot planes before – very few planes where I live, so no chance of practicing. Could you give me an idea of what shutter speed to use – trial and error is not an option ‘cos the planes will be gone!!Pat Jenkins

There two types of planes that you’ll see at an airshow: planes with jet engines and planes with piston/prop engines. With jet engines, you can choose virtually any shutter speed you can get sharp images with. If you’re ok with freezing the background, go as fast as possible to ensure you get the shot. Or you can slow things down and try to add some motion blur to the background while keeping the plane in focus.

When photographing an airplane with a propeller, things are much different. The most common rookie mistake when photographing a prop plane is using a really fast shutter speed and freezing the prop in place. The reason this is a mistake is because a frozen prop isn’t natural, and it gives a feeling that something isn’t right. It looks like the plane is frozen in the sky or the engine is dead.

What you want is a nice, blurred prop and a nice, sharp aircraft :-). Easier said than done. There’s no magical shutter speed for creating prop blur in your photos. It really just comes down to how fast the prop is spinning. In the photo above, I was able to use 1/250th of a second and still get prop blur. The reason why is because it was at the Red Bull Air Races and the pilot (Peter Besenyei) was pushing his Extra 300 to the limits, so the RPM’s were way up. Some prop planes will require around 1/80th to get a nice prop blur.

Air shows are a lot of fun to photograph, and very challenging. The good thing is that there are constantly planes in the air, so you get a full day to practice with different settings. I’d suggest bringing a wide variety of lenses, but a good super zoom will be your best friend. Something in the range of 100-400mm will be ideal. I’ve found 70-200mm to be somewhat insufficient in most cases.

To view some truly incredible aviation photos, visit the website of my friend Jessica Ambats, and prepare to have your mind blown. Don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉 Oh and spoiler alert: You won’t find any frozen props on moving planes there!

  • Pat Jenkins

    Thanks very much James. I’ll try my best, but not likely to emulate Jessica Ambats!!