Aviation Photography (Pt.II)
by Scott Dunham (iPhotography Student)
“One way to take good photos, is to take a lot of photos.”
You may recognise Scott in the iPhotography gallery for his incredible detail high-octane fighter jets. Normally these aviation moments are observed from afar. But Scott’s camera skills give us a scary, but mind-blowing, close up on these ‘Top Guns’ – sorry there may be many Tom Cruise references coming up!
Scott has kindly brought his knowledge and experience of aviation photos to iPhotography. Enjoy this guide to shooting and editing at high speed.
Before I bought my first DSLR in 2008, unless an aircraft was moving very slowly, I almost never got it on a horizontal plane. That’s where the aircraft is moving fastest relative to your position.
Keep Your Jet in Focus
While panning you might lose your subject or drop it partially out of frame. This is usually dependent on the size and speed of the aircraft (and your lens), but it may be affected by the manoeuvre their performing too.
The camera’s focus will vary from 1 frame to the next. More so when you are shooting aircraft moving at 300-600 mph. It’s best to shoot in a frame burst mode. Make sure you’re using a RAW format too!
I see it all the time, and it usually isn’t evident when reviewing photos on the camera screen. Generally, in a burst of 10 photos, I’ll end up with…
- 1 that is blurred
- 2 where the focus isn’t very sharp
- 5-6 that are very good
- and 1-2 that are great!
Top (Gun) Tips – I’d recommend getting yourself a camera body and/or lens with stabilisation features if you want to try out aviation (or any high speed) photography or your hit rate could be much worse.
Canon adds stabilization to many of their lenses, but not the camera body on its DSLRs. The light may change only slightly from 1 frame to the next, but it can change a great deal from 1 end of the flight path to the other, particularly when the runway/flight path is east to west.
Shutter Speed Settings
When you review any aviation or high-speed photos it is imperative to use some type of magnification on your screen.
Some photos are obviously blurred. The double glare on the pilot’s helmet (image below) may have been a clue without magnification. But I wouldn’t discard what may be a good photo on that basis, without closely reviewing first.
Typically jets make high speed passes, often at 500-600+ mph, and, in this instance, should have had my shutter speed at 1/1,600 or faster, instead of 1/1,250.
The closer you are to an aircraft – as measured by its size in the camera frame – and also the aircraft speed (relative to your position – which is fastest between 10 & 2 o’clock on a horizontal plane) the faster your shutter speed needs to be to produce a sharp capture.
Dealing with Sunlight
In addition to the issues of focus, you may find clouds cover part of the flight path, making shots intermittent. Even worse you may have to battle with sunlight reflection. This increases when bouncing off the metallic shell of the jet thus changing the exposure – all happening at 500mph!
I sometimes find that sunlight reflects off the transparent cockpit roof too. It creates overexposing hot spots or sometimes starbursts (when using a small aperture).
While it is usually preferable to have the sun behind you as a photographer, when I have in that situation, I have discarded a higher percentage of photos. That’s because with aviation photography you can end up with overexposed hot spots from the strong light.
Finally, the angle of the jet changes your photo as well as the lighting, especially when shooting multiple aircraft. For example, the wing may block the view of the cockpit or tail. The details in nose art changes with the angle too.
Flare & Glare Issues
These images are perfect examples of where the Sun causes light flares and reflective glares. Ironically, the Sun is in (what should be) a relatively favourable position behind me and to my left. Yet I have both a sunburst reflection on the cockpit and a very severe glare on the fuselage.
This is an extreme example of a sunburst reflection and many smaller ones can be fixed with the heal tool or dodge & burn. Even though this F-35 is a dull grey-brown colour, but you can distinctly see the glare, so it doesn’t only occur to glossy exteriors.
Another focus issue illustrated here is that the jet exhaust can blur the focus on portions of the aircraft. In this capture, the left rear horizontal stabilizer and wing are blurred. Heat haze near the ground will also affect the focus on aircraft taking off on a hot day.
Top (Gun) Tips – I don’t use the highlight alert on my camera when photographing air shows, because it happens so often it becomes a distraction.
Jet Exhaust Haze
Jet exhaust isn’t always a bad thing. Most of the time it is barely perceivable in aviation photography, unless there are clouds, terrain or portions of aircraft to make it more visible. This is what you get with over 40,000 pounds of thrust!
For those that remember the original “Top Gun” the crash investigation determined that Maverick flew through Iceman’s jet wash and it caused one of his engines to flame out. It put his aircraft into a flat spin that he was unable to recover from.
This should help illustrate what jet wash is, it could probably turn a steak into a charcoal briquette in a fraction of a second!
“How Many Pictures Do You Take?”
At most aviation shows I take between 2,500-5,000+ photos each day.
For a major performance (such as the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, Red Arrows or a top-line jet demo) I often take 600-1,000 photos in 15-25 minutes.
When it comes to editing, I prefer to do my first review using Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP). It came free with my Canon DSLR.
How I Catalogue My Aviation Photography
Firstly, I do a quick gamma adjustment on an underexposed or overexposed raw photo (I only shoot RAW, so this won’t work on a JPG) before previewing it.
Note: Photo I’m editing is in the bottom right corner. I’ll also make an adjustment to centre bar on the histogram.
In Quick Check Mode, I swiftly jump between fit to screen, 50% and 100% view.
I do this check over the sharpness in different areas of the jet.
Next, I assign a 1-5 star (or reject) rating on all my shots – I also add a checkmark rating. One rating is for how much I like the shot, the other for the quality of the focus.
When reviewing, I look at the clarity of the letters or numbers, antennae, wheels, pilot’s helmet and other small features that protrude from the aircraft. It’s important not to overlook where those hot spots are occurring too.
When I move out of Quick Check Mode, I turn on the star rating filter and it quickly bins all the rejected shots.
Then I can do a quick second pass, using my focus quality rating, to decide which similar photos I can further discard. I like to use the rename feature to help search for this group of images in the future.
Finally, I move the successful photos a folder that will be archived. Every year those 4 simple steps, saves me tens of thousands of thumbnails being stored for aviation photos that have been deleted.
Exposure Tips for Aviation Photography
One of the biggest challenges with aviation photography is that you don’t get to select the weather and the sky conditions.
Whether I’m shooting at MCAS Miramar (a few miles from the Pacific Ocean) to the RIAT at Fairford, I have encountered skies that were either solid blue, sometimes (very) hazy, or overcast that made the sky look white or grey.
In my experience, great skies, with good clouds, are very rare (maybe it’s the areas and shows I attend!) This is why it’s important to consider when and how to exposure (and sometimes replace) the skies of your aviation photographs.
Be Aware of Your Camera Settings
On a particular morning at Miramar, it was very overcast. There was a low ceiling of cloud and the sky looked grey.
This prompted another learning experience for me; as I shoot my aviation photos using Shutter Speed Priority (S/Tv mode) for the obvious reasons, because of the challenging light conditions, I also had to choose Auto ISO.
Unfortunately, my camera thought I was shooting at the equivalent of a neutral grey card and was taking most photos at ISO 100! I would have selected ISO 400 or perhaps higher had the weather been optimal.
The lack of light resulted in the camera reducing the shutter speed and increasing the aperture to balance the exposure triangle.
I failed to notice for a while, but I was fortunate that it didn’t adversely affect too many photos. Since I shoot RAW, it’s much easier to make exposure, white balance and tonal corrections in editing.
Sky Replacement Tips
With white or grey skies, you’re rarely going to get an attractive photo, but that can be fixed – and I’ll show you how I do it.
I made some minor exposure adjustments to the aircraft shown and I am relatively satisfied with the result, but the sky is dreary and downgrades the overall look.
Step 1: Choose a New Sky
Background or sky replacements to aviation photography can be done in many programs, most require adding a new layer and masking that layer in or out.
Luminar 4, which I use, has a specific sky replacement adjustment that is extremely easy to use. You can also upload your own skies and clouds. I’m going to use one of my sky photos that I think produces a very dramatic look.
I start by making a colour mask, but on this photo, a luminosity mask would also work. Select the sky colour, adjust the colour range and levels, and then some brushwork may be required.
Step 2: Add a Mask and Save as PNG
Shown is a screenshot of the completed mask.
This mask can also be copied, inverted and applied in the Develop Module and saved as a PNG file. In essence, it produces an aircraft with a transparent background that can be added to other photos. PNG files with transparent backgrounds can open up a whole world of possibilities.
Step 3: Tweak the Colours
Below is the final result.
There are some jagged edges but that may be the result of contrast. Sometimes the blue in the original sky will cast a blue tint on the aircraft that doesn’t work with your new sky. This can be fixed by copying and inverting the mask and applying it to a Colour Adjustment Filter.
Reduce the saturation and brightness of the blue and aqua channels as needed. I have crossed the line from photographer to artist at this point. But I’ve taken a boring photo and made it far more attractive, and that’s one of the reasons why I take photos!
Step 4: Use a Clear Adjustment
After exporting the file, my final step is to run it through the AI Clear Adjustment in Topaz Studio.
Using the adjustment, those jagged edges have now disappeared. I probably use this adjustment on 95% of my photos. It does an exceptional job of reducing noise and bumps the clarity up a notch.
Sometimes I have to mask out portions that get a little crispy, but it has salvaged some grainy photos that otherwise were not worth saving.
This adjustment belongs in the Photo Editing Hall of Fame!
Be More Creative
In an effort to be more imaginative, I made a transparent background PNG file of the MV-22 Osprey. I then added it to another Osprey with the same sky.
I resized the plane and changed the angle – and I’m pleased with the result. I hadn’t done this previously, but I might add another aircraft, to employ the rule of odd numbers, and see what I get.
Ultimately, the more you shoot the more chances you have…
I hope this has to demonstrate the adage that in order to take good pictures, you need to take a lot of pictures.
I’ve had sequences where 16 or more photos were rejects and only 1 a success. If I had only taken 6 or 8 shots, I might have had to discard them all.
But I’m not perfect either, sometimes I don’t end up with a single shot in a sequence that is worth saving, it happens. Sunlight, smoke, glare, haze, focus and incorrect settings all can ruin your shot – aviation photography is awash with hazards!
iPhotography Tutors Say…
“Thank you so much to Scott for his exhilarating documentation of aviation photography! If Scott has inspired you to try out some high-speed photographs then let us know and share your photos in the iPhotography gallery.”
“Roger that…Over and out!”
What Others Are Reading
iPhotography Course not only teaches you all the standard technical expertise, settings, skills, and special effects with your camera – but we also show you how to use these skills to develop your own individual style as a photographer.