How to Photograph Fighter Aircraft

Written by brian richards
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Photographing fighter aircraft aerial displays at air shows is a challenging and rewarding venture. With some skill and luck, a photographer can capture stunning images of fighter aircraft in flight. While the choice of gear is a primary concern for an air show photographer, the photographer must also employ proper technique if he hopes to snap quality images.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Telephoto lens

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  1. 1

    Choose gear appropriate for distant, fast-moving subjects. A long telephoto lens---ideally a prime lens---of at least 300mm is required. The lens should also be fast, with a maximum aperture of at least f/5.6. Overcast days call for an even faster lens: f/2.8 or better is recommended.

  2. 2

    Configure your camera's autofocus mode to continuous servo. This tells the camera to continually refocus while the shutter button is half depressed. Because the fighter aircraft will be moving quickly, it would take only an instant for a properly focused shot to become an unfocused one without continuous servo autofocus.

  3. 3

    Meter a fighter aircraft while it is on the ground to approximate your exposure settings. Aircraft in flight will likely be at many angles to you in the sky, so it is best to use shutter priority mode to allow your camera to select an aperture that properly exposes the fighter aircraft. If all your shots are coming out dark, try increasing your camera's ISO setting.

  4. 4

    Select a shutter speed that prevents motion blur on the fast-moving fighter aircraft, such as 1/1000th of a second, which should be enough to freeze fighter aircraft and eliminate camera shake. If you are panning or are photographing a propeller-driven plane, 1/500th of a second will allow for a slight motion blur on the background or aircraft's propeller to create a more pleasing shot.

  5. 5

    Compose your shots with the fighter aircraft moving toward you, or, in the case of a laterally moving aircraft, with empty frame in front of the plane. This will make your shots more dynamic and interesting.

  6. 6

    Pan with fighter aircraft to create richly detailed photographs. Continue panning for a few moments after releasing the shutter button, as an abrupt stop will likely blur the image. If you have never panned with a fast-moving subject before, practice before the air show by panning with cars.

Tips and warnings

  • Breaking conventional rules occasionally can sometimes yield great photographs. For instance, an underexposed shot of fighter aircraft could make for a beautiful silhouette that otherwise could not have been captured.
  • Leave the tripod at home. Photographers have been trained to use tripods with their long lenses due to their weight and vulnerability to camera shake. Since you will be using such a fast shutter speed to capture fast-moving fighter aircraft, the risk of camera shake is negligible. Also, a tripod will only make it more difficult to move around the air show and recompose your shots if the action moves.
  • You should only photograph fighter aircraft while at an air show approved for photography. In other instances, your photography may be prohibited by anti-terrorism laws.

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