There are many airshows paying tribute to our heroes who fought for our freedoms, the last this year are coming up! I want to give you some thoughts, tricks, and tips so you can make the most of your airshow shooting. Now of course, buying a copy of Takeoff would be a great start! Realizing most learn best from watching rather than reading, you can head to my Kelby Class on Airshow Photography for more in-depth explanations. I want to talk about putting movement into your stills right now so just because you see planes here, these techniques apply to ALL moving subjects! Start with the understanding that shooting unrestricted is essential! The less you carry, the more mobile you are, the more mobile and limber you are, the sharper the photos and better composed they will be. My main gear for an airshow is the D6 / 180-400VR for ground to air and Z 6II / Z24-70f2.8 for statics. With that in mind, here are some tips that you can apply to any action photography and airshows.
Put yourself in relationship to the action in a position where it performs around you. At airshows, aircraft often make a “photo” pass which is often done in what’s called a “banana pass.” If you can picture a banana with your being inside the curve of the banana, that’s basically a banana pass. When you’re on the INSIDE of that curve, the aircraft or athlete or motorcycle will be MOVING into your frame which gives a feeling of not only speed but also intimacy. Keep in mind that being on the inside of the curve, the subject will be going faster in relation to your position so your panning has to be spot on.
Taking your shutter speed down below your comfort zone is key! Shooting in Shutter Priority permits you to use a slow shutter speed consistently blurring moving parts communicating speed. In some cases, the shutter speed is arbitrary based on how you feel. In some cases, it could be a very specific shutter speed to blur props of aircraft or blades on a helicopter, in this case, 1/20 to blur the blades of this Cobra. Keep in mind that your panning blurs the background and the degree of that blur is a function of how fast you’re panning vs. your shutter speed. Now if your background is all blue, bald sky, there is not a slow enough shutter speed to show motion. You need something in the background to scream movement.
When you’ve got the light, forget everything else! Ya, there are lots of rules, ideas, suggestions and sexy action that can grab your attention but when you’ve got light, ditch them all for that light. I love this example of just that because many tend to not photograph the bellies of aircraft. This top shot is of a B-17G taken at Sioux Falls Airshow is a banana pass in gorgeous light. The angle of the light makes all the rivets pop and creates a shadow that just makes it seem like it’s going faster. You can’t go wrong with great light!
Go for the ass! Any subject that is going away from you in the frame sets the mind to thinking movement. While this seems obvious, ass shots in themselves can be tricky. There is the matter of proper social protocol (not my specialty) along with attractiveness. There are a couple of aspects of subject positioning that goes along with this. Lower and centered in the frame is the place to start and then based on other elements in the frame can be moved about accordingly. When shooting the ass of an aircraft, the blurred prop is required to speak to movement. The slower the shutter speed, the more blurred the prop and the more blurred the prop, you change the position of the aircraft in the frame.
This one is real simple. When you have a great background, think of smaller subject size in a slightly awkward placement in the frame. Yeap, that’s all it takes for the mind to see the placement and move the subject through the frame against that background. I like simple!
Let the path set the movement. A track, street, sidewalk or trail of smoke communicates movement when you place the subject on that path. This again is another real simple one to employ but to take it to the next level, put the subject on the path again in a slightly awkward place.
Low angle with a wide angle is a great way of communicating motion! Here is a classic example considering the only thing moving in the frame are the props. The rule of thumb is to leave enough room in the frame in front of the subject for the mind to give the subject motion. You can enhance this mental path by getting down low with a wide angle. This technique is great when in reality, you’re crammed up in a crowd and can’t get physically where you want to. In the case of aviation, think of slow shutter speed and not keeping the horizon plum. Here, it’s slanted up hill and the sun is included (lens closed down all the way for a sunburst) to finish the feel.
Follow your subject in the viewfinder for its entire path! You just never know what surprises you might find in the viewfinder that if your eye is not up against it, you’ll miss. In this case, these Stearman finished a loop right overhead so a normal view of an aircraft from the ground, looking at the top of the aircraft, was all you see in the viewfinder. A unique perspective to any common subject begins the journey of having a unique photograph!
Cramming action into a vertical creates lots of mental movement in a still! The tension of the subject looks like it’s going to run into the side of the frame can work with the rest of the elements are in sync. Other elements? Ya, light, blur, color, placement in the frame vertically, all those elements that together bring movement to the subject. Keep in mind that as soon as you turn the camera to vertical, your panning gets more difficult and composition more challenging. At the same time, the rewards for success goes up as well.
Never ignore the common! This Huey is no warbird or screaming jet yet I would be really bummed if it weren’t in my files. When you can make the uncommon out of the common, your photograph always wins! In this case, since it’s an airplane and it’s up in the sky, the mind knows it’s flying and that in itself says motion. Use proper handholding and panning, look for the light and think motion with a big dash of fun and you will be successful! have a great weekend shooting!