Airshows Are Starting Up – Dust Off the Skills!

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.

[ A-10 Warthog
captured by D4s / 200-400VR2[/caption]

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.

AH-1 Super Cobra
captured by D5 / 200-400VR2

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.

B-17G “Sentimental Journey”
captured by D5 / 200-400VR2

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!

FG-1D Corsair
captured by D5 / 200-400VR2

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.

captured by D5 / 200-400VR2

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!

Beech Model 18
captured by D5 / 200-400VR2

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.

P-51D “Precious Metal”
captured by D4s / 24-70

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.

PT-17 Stearman
captured by D5 / 200-400VR2

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!

captured by D5 / 200-400VR2

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.

AH-1 Huey
captured by D5 / 200-400VR2

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!

There is a Method to the Madness

Aero C-104 “Bücker” captured by Z 6II / Z24-70f2.8

There was a definite chill in the air as the three of us pushed the 1947 Aero C-104 “Bücker” out. I’d seen the plane for the first time the night before and from that had envisioned how’d I’d like to photograph it, the story to tell. The Bücker was the trainer of the Luftwaffe and later became one of the premiere aerobatic planes thrilling crowds world around. This particular Bücker was owned and flown by world famous pilot Mira Slovak. From the get go though, I knew this shoot would be a challenge. While I had been “hired” for the shoot I got the feeling I was going to be challenged by it.

When we pick up a camera, no matter where we are in our photographic journey, we do have some methodology to our photography. For me, this was not my first rodeo on a chilly morning on a bare ramp with an aircraft. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, how I was going to do it and how it would look when I was finished. I knew how the Picture Control and WB I’d set in the Z 6II would take what we’re seeing (down below) to tell the story I want to tell (above). But to the uninitiated, watching me run from this spot to that as the light changed ever so slightly and hearing the camera firing off when the plane isn’t moving, I must seem like a wackado! And yet, well, my results kinda speak for themselves.

It is these times you must have confidence in yourself even if your abilities are being questioned. This is even true if you know that you might not have all the answers, it is a whole new experience, you’re sweating bullets. You must believe in what you have done up to this point to bring you to this point. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong or right, doing you best ever, just the best for you at that moment. Though I was being questioned, I knew exactly what the camera was capturing and what the final photograph would look like. For those not familiar with my process, how could they ever “see” what I’m seeing or saying until the print is in their hands. You just need to have faith, there is a method in the madness!

How we saw the Bücker standing there

Background Move

P-39 Airacobra captured by Z 6II / Z70-200f2.8

It was simply, a brilliant morning! The folks at Central Texas Wing CAF were the perfect hosts for the Precision Camera shoot. First, they rolled out a T-6, and then after it took flight for us, this rare, flying P-39 Airacobra came out of the hangar. And while that was great, where it was parked on the ramp was, well, let’s just say less than desirable. The background was so nasty, I didn’t even shoot it though I so wanted to. I went off to other targets of opportunity.

Then the clouds started to roll in and the folks at CAF became more comfortable with the group of photographers who did a marvelous job being respectful and inquisitive. I asked Clint from CAF if they could tug the P-39 out further on the ramp explaining where it was parked was not conducive to great images. While the sun was out in its full glory, there were moments that if you were ready, a cloud would scrim the scene for a heartbeat.

I set up the Z 6II / Z70-200f2.8 with the monitor flipped out at ground level (which means I was bent over with my reading glasses on). The lens was set to f/2.8. The light was hard but wanted to make the best possible photo of the opportunity. The clouds filtered the light a few times and each time, I let the shutter fly. Hand holding while shooting looking at the LCD, I know to take more than normal just to CYA. While not a killer shot, I was pleased as I didn’t have a P-39 in the files. At least now I had a photo cause before I had nothing without the background move.

Dec 7th, “a date which will live in infamy”

A6M2 Zero being chased by P-40
What you might have seen Dec 7th, 1941 over Pearl

They were high school juniors and seniors when they heard on the radio the attack on Pearl Harbor. Without hesitation, they enlisted to serve their country. The “Greatest Generation” came together making the USA a life priority with many making the ultimate sacrifice. We owe all who served and paid the ultimate price for our freedoms, especially that day in Dec 1941. They shall never be forgotten!

Kate Torpedo Bomber
Kate Torpedo Bomber

Years back we wanted to understand that Sunday morning so we traveled to Pearl Harbor to fly the routes of that morning. This is the story of that flight. We’d been planning it for months, paperwork filed with official channels asking for permission, route and mission decided on, all was good to go! The time had come to put the flight in the air. It was a beautiful clear morning 15 March as we meet the team at the gate of the airport. The day before we’d all meet in Rob’s hangar and went over the flight we’d been planning for months. The maps were pulled out and spread on the table, historic photographs of the day laid about, the route was selected and timed with my shot list making sure we can accomplish all that we had planned. Our flight path wasn’t one we came up with but one that followed from the morning attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941.

The sun hadn’t graced the skies yet but there was a glow over Diamond Head outlining its very distinctive shape on the horizon. The first thing we had to do was get the screw out of the window of the photo platform I was going to shoot out of. The Cessna 172 is a very common photo platform for air to air work. The windows though normally only open a short way, too small an aperture to get the lens out to shoot. Because of the airspeed, you fly, you can safely and easily with the screw removed, let the window open fully (the airflow actually holds the window up for you) making shooting possible.


After that, there was the preflighting of the 172. I’m always comforted when I see the pilot have the POH in hand and running down the list as we get ready to go. Stab the wing tanks, plug-in headsets, seat belts fastened and with a yell out the window, “Clear!,” the prop turns and the engine kicks over. Then there is the warm-up and initial systems check. Then there is talking to the tower so you can taxi. Then there is taxing over to the run-up area and doing the last engine run-up for oil pressure. An hour has passed before at 07:15 its wheels up and in the air heading for our rendezvous.


Our subject plane, a gorgeous SNJ painted in the scheme of the USS Saratoga, is hangared at historic Barbers Point. As part of our briefing the day before we had arranged where we would meet once in the air. While you can plan everything well in advance and go through the preflight with flying colors there seems to be one thing that tends to come up way too often for me. And that’s radio problems most often from loose or dirty connections. And as you might guess, while working perfectly the day before, the first depress of the button and a scratchy, static voice rang through the headset. We flew north towards our hook up point southeast of Wheeler Field. It was an amazing feeling flying the path of that historic morning!


Right on queue, we find Bruce and his SNJ visually but radio communications are anything but clear. As long as we fly the brief, there should be no problems. We are a little early for our scheduled time over Wheeler Field. Wheeler Field is still active so clearance was obtained to do a couple of flyovers to photograph the SNJ with the Field in the background. We flew a little north and came down the shoot the same as the Japanese did that morning in 1941. In the background were the same rice fields and agriculture that were present on that day.

Flying down the valley of the first bomber attack
Flying down the valley of the first bomber attack

The radio came to life, a flight of Black Hawks was on their way into Wheeler. They were calling the tower. We heard no response and then the radio crackled to life clearing them. Rob waited for a second and called the tower. The sweetest came across the radio answering back. “Ah good, I know her,” Rob said to us and he answered back. The two of them talked pleasantries and then got down to clearing our filed flight plan. With everything cleared, we had the next ten minutes to buzz the field and get the shots. That’s when the challenge began.

Radio communications with the SNJ were challenging, the connection was sketchy at best. While we flew the brief, being able to talk on the radio to fine-tune the photograph is essential. We flew the strafing runs the Japanese flew that fateful morning down Wheeler Field. Bruce is a Pearl Harbor historian and had told us much of the facts leading up to that morning. The P-40s had been lined up in a perfect row to prevent saboteurs from attacking the aircraft (an attack by sea wasn’t believed possible by some of the brass). Needless to say, this made it really easy for the Japanese to cause a great amount of destruction with little effort.

One thing that is very hard to do in a briefing is to explain angles. The angle of the photographer, the subject and the background so they all line up in the viewfinder is hard to prevision. That’s why the radio was so important. Despite the brief, getting the SNJ in the perfect position just wasn’t happening. After a couple of passes the radio crackled, “Photo flight, airspace is now closed. Thanks for coming!” And with that, we headed south.

Flight over Wheeler Field
Flight over Wheeler Field

Bruce took us south on the same path the Japanese took to Pearl. The landscape below us now is nothing like what it was on that day. Oahu urban sprawl has grown up to Wheeler Field. We fly south checking the time. Bruce had managed to get flight clearance over Ford Island and the Pearl Harbor Memorial. A photo mission over these historic areas hadn’t been granted for quite some time because of some military installations in the area that the military didn’t want to be photographed. At the appointed time, Bruce starts calling the tower to get our clearance to start our run. “Sorry, we don’t have that paperwork, clearance denied.” The PAO hadn’t got the paperwork to the tower! Unlike Wheeler Field, we couldn’t just circle while we tried to clear up the problem. So off we went.

For the next ten to fifteen minutes, Bruce tried to run down the PAO. Finally, the PAO made the call to the tower and we were cleared for just two passes. That’s not what was originally arranged but the clock had been eaten up trying to reach the PAO. With months in the planning, it all came down to these two passes. The radio issues hadn’t cleared up and the same problems we had at Wheeler Field rose again. The goal was to get photos of the Memorial, Ford Island and other historic locations in the background of the SNJ. Lining up those items with just two passes and poor radio communications just wasn’t happening. After two passes without a word from the tower, we flew out of that pattern.

Flight over the Arizona Memorial
Flight over the Arizona Memorial

After leaving Ford Island, the flight split with us heading back to Honolulu and the SNJ back to Barbers Point. After landing and buttoning up the 172, we hopped into the van and drove over to Barbers Point where Bruce was waiting for us. We spent the rest of the day with Bruce having the most amazing, historic ground tour of December 7, 1941. With Bruce’s military clearance, we were able to tour Wheeler Field and see the OC where the card game was going during the attack in which Taylor & Welch left, got into their P-40s (parked at the remote strip) and got in the air to bring down some attackers. We saw the secret, underground plane assembly plant, and runway. It’s a tour that if you’re into history is absolutely amazing!

We even went back to Pearl, visiting both sides of the channel. Late in the afternoon found us at the hangars on Ford Island. There and at the seaplane port just down the ramp, we could see the remnants of the bombs and bullets of that morning. We were at that infamous place where all the B&W photos of the PBYs and Ducks burning was taken, the pot marks still in the cement. We then went up to where the Arizona and other battleships were moored, next to the officers’ quarters and got out and stood where the explosion did so much destruction. Very powerful!

At the end of the day, we ended up back at Barbers Point. Barbers Point construction was well underway on Dec 7th but not active. While a bomb did fall nearby, many think it was not intentional. In the last waning light of the day, we wheeled out the SNJ on the deactivated base for our last couple of portraits for the day. Our flight occurred from 07:15-08:11, not too much different than that morning. Despite not going 100% as planned, it was an incredible flight and an amazing day. It’s our history to honor, remember and pass on so it is never forgotten!


Too Cold to Fly … ?

4e Stearman Speedmail
captured by D5 / 70-200f4

“Do you do any air-to-air in the winter?” Ted emailed me this great question. The quick answer is yes, but as you might imagine, there is more to the answer than just, yes. On this particular evening shoot (the sun was below the horizon for our altitude when this photo was taken), it was -1 as I hung out of the 185 and that doesn’t include the wind chill. While that sounds really cold, keep in mind one of the weird things about me, I tend not to get cold.

The pilots, that can be a totally different story. Addison in the Speedmail, while he has the “heater” on in the cockpit, he is exposed out in the slipstream. He has on the classic airmail suit of past with modern materials so he was “warm” for the flight but we were only airborne for a little over 30 minutes. The pilot of the photo platform, Ryan, had the cabin heater going at full blast and was comfortable. So the comfort of all was fine but that is only part of the cold equation.

Ice and planes don’t mix! Icing on the wings disrupts airflow which has brought down many an aircraft. And before you even get in the air, the oil in the engine needs to warm up and if you’re not in a heated hangar, that can be a challenge and really mess up your timetable if not planned into the photo mission. And you as the photographer must have faith and trust in your pilots that they know all of this because safety is still #1 in a shoot. So the answer is yes, with a whole bunch that comes along with it.

The Fall Aviation Challenge

Cessna 206
captured by D3x / 200-400

The best way I know of saying in a photograph that it’s fall, that magical time of year, are colorful trees. When it comes to saying it’s fall flying season then is, fall color in the background. It sounds so simple. Well let me tell you, it’s not! There are many photographs in aviation I have at the top of my list to get, this is #1!

This photograph was taken back in the day in Maine when we were after Moose photos, not aircraft. We just happened to come around a bend in the road and saw this 206 taxing with great color. I made a couple of clicks and that was it. Ever since I’ve chased more but ….

FG-1D Corsair
captured by D4s / 80-400VR

With this in mind, I headed to Maine a decade back to what I thought would be a slam dunk. Though the back story is lengthy, bottom line I was with great friends and aircraft in Maine in fall, what could go wrong? The fall color was late this year. We spent an evening around looking for a big patch of fall color to put behind the fleet. No joy. argh!

Wacp GXE
captured by D750 / 24-70

Four years ago, had an amazing air-to-air and static shoot all lined up in Michigan. It included fall color, old red barns with fall color, and some great aircraft! We were all set to even create a classic old painting of a Stearman crop duster hopping over a classic barn just like in the painting. Days before we arrived as you can see, all the fall color was blown to pieces by a fierce wind-ice storm that lasts for days. Argh.

Then last year, I though I had it nailed. Over a half dozen classic, gorgeous, vintage aircraft were lined up for four days, four day of air-to-air photography over the Minnesota forest in fall. Remote stripe, great plane and pilots, four days, what an adventure. Two weeks prior to the shoot, a tornado came through and damaged the hangar with the aircraft. While the aircraft were safe, the hangar was so twisted that none of the doors could open, no aircraft could get out. Argh!

Then this year, well we all know whats going on this year. I’m up in Maine looking for opportunity cause the color is gorgeous. But that’s just how it goes with some ideas as this one continues to be the the fall aviation challenge!

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