Is There a “Best” Light for Airshows?
Airshows fly their demonstrations at the best time for the masses, not particularly for photography. Since they are there in part to make money to keep flying, that only makes sense. But we want to take photos so we need to work with what is provided us. And when it comes to the light, that typically means, highnoon blaring sun light. Highnoon light has a really bad rep and for good reason, it’s a very hard light source. Just so we’re all on the page, the basic definition of hard light is there is a dark shadow, a bright highlight and almost no light shades in between. It is also known as contrasty light, HDR light or as I commonly call it, nasty light. No matter what you call it, we need to work with it if we want to come back with the photos we love.
Since we are “stuck” with the highnoon scenario, how do we get the best light from it? You might notice there is one element in common with all these highnoon photos. Clouds … clouds can make all the difference in the world and for so many reasons. The biggie being, diffusing the highnoon light. When you have that hard sun light streaming through clouds, the clouds became a giant diffuser wrapping the light around the aircraft. It lowers the range of light by softening the highlights and pumping light into the shadows. Clouds also bring a life to our stills of moving aircraft especially jets which have no props to add to the illusion of flight. But we often don’t have clouds, what then?
When dealing with clear skies at highnoon the best light comes from direction of the light striking the subject. We can’t change the quantity or quality of the light but we can work its direction. Most airshows will have the aircraft fly a pretty predictable course. You want to look at that course and look for when the aircraft have light that is coming over their back and partially on the side. You can do this by simply flying your hand on the same course and look at the light striking it. This is not front lighting, side lighting or back lighting but a combo of side and back lighting. This light pattern as you can see brings shape and texture to the aircraft and by doing that, brings life to them. It also brings out unique characteristics that make that plane unique.
Now, you might have to physically move to make use of this pattern of light. You might have to move even more to work this lighting pattern and the best background that is available to you. Using the basic airshow gear (my preference being D4 / 200-400), you need to take these two elements, light direction and background, into consideration with your gear for the best position. You will see many get to the rope line real early to stake out their position to never leave it all day. If you were to watch Jake and I shoot a show, we are constantly moving to work the light direction and background for each aircraft. I’m planting these thoughts with you now because like so many things photography, you want to practice them prior to actual application. Think about this in combination with these ideas for shooting action and you’ll be ready to make the most of what the airshow has to offer you!