Aviation Photography on a Budget
(Photo - Nikon D7000 / 18 to 200 mm / f3.5 to 5.6 @ 200 mm
1/250th Sec / f11 / ISO 100)
Aviation Photography on a Budget
As for wildlife photography, in aviation photography, the long telephoto lens is King. But, even with normal kit, not the thousands of pounds worth of high quality 600 mm telephotos, you can get pretty reasonable results.
Here are some pointers for starting out in the world of aviation photography.
1 - You are going to need a camera with a viewfinder!
Using a 'point & shoot' camera and trying to follow the action, focus & shoot using the screen on the back of a point & shoot camera isn't going to work. Such a camera will be absolutely fine taking pictures of the aircraft when they are stationary on the ground, but when they are in the air, it will all get too difficult for the 'point & shoot' brigade.
So you will need a camera with a viewfinder. It can be either an optical viewfinder or an Electronic Viewfinder but a viewfinder makes taking photographs of aircraft in flight so much easier.
2 - You are going to need a lens of at least 300 mm (in terms of 35 mm).
Longer is better and typically the minimum 35 mm equivalent lens is 300 mm. So, if you are using a Nikon APS-C sensor camera, a 18 to 200 mm zoom gives you the 35 mm equivalent of 27 mm to 300 mm - so that is already good enough to start your aviation photography career.
Certainly DON'T go out a buy a specific lens for your aviation shooting until you have tried your current kit at a few air shows. You may well find that, with a bit of practise, your current kit does just fine.
(And before you buy a new lens (either new or second-hand), always borrow one for a test to see how it feels. That long zoom might look great on paper but after a few hours it might weigh a ton!)
I used a Fuji Bridge Camera for many years - with a lens in 35 mm terms of 28 mm to 300 mm. And then I moved onto using a APS-C senor Nikon with a 18 to 200 mm lens (equivalent on a APS-C body to 27 to 300 mm).
Only after many years did I find my aviation photography - for me - sweet spot with:
- a Nikon APS-C body with a 300 mm lens (equiv to 450 mm in 35 mm) (for single aircraft in flight)
- a Nikon full-frame body with a 70 to 200 mm lens for the wider shots (for 2 aircraft flying as a pair or larger formations)
3 - ISO - Keep it Low
Ideally, for air shows, you want a nice, low, ISO and I try to keep it at 100 or 200 ISO. That lets me crop the image if I need to - and in aviation photography there will be a lot of cropping - so setting your ISO at 100 or 200 ISO will really help.
4 - Aperture - Keep it Simple - Let the camera choose
You will want to let the camera choose your aperture, as you will be controlling the shutter speed. So set your camera to Shutter Priority.
5 - Shutter Speed for Jets
Depending on the aircraft you are shooting (jets, props or helicopters), you will want to use different shutter speeds. For jet aircraft it is really easy. You want a shutter speed as high as you dare (but obviously one that still allows the camera to correctly expose the shot!). Typically I shoot jets at anything from 1/1000th to 1/4000th of a second because I know it will help my pictures be sharp. If it is a really bright day I might go even higher. So, for jets, choosing a shutter speed is really easy, it will be 1/1000th of a second or higher. Just try using 1/1000th, 1/2000th, 1/4000th and higher to see if you can see any difference in your shots.
6 - Shutter Speed for Propeller Aircraft & Helicopters
So the right shutter speed for jets is easy. But you have to think a bit more with propeller-driven aircraft & helicopters.
In the air - 1/250th to 1/500th
A shutter speed of 1/250th to 1/500th gives some prop / rotor blade blur but also gives you a good chance of getting a sharp photo of the aircraft in flight. Obviously at 1/250th there will be more prop / rotor blade blur, but you will also have more chance of a blurred shot due to aircraft movement. I am very happy with using 1/500th for prop aircraft & helicopters in the air. You will need to decide which shutter speed you like using the most - 1/500th, 1/250th or even 1/125th - but you will need a very steady hand to use 1/125th with a long lens and keep the whole shot sharp - hence my preference for 1/500th (or at a push, 1/250th).
(Photo - PBY Catalina - Nikon D7200 / 300 mm f4 (35 mm equiv 450 mm)
1/250th Sec / f5.6 / ISO 100)
On the ground - 1/50th to 1/100th
For prop-driven aircraft with the prop turning on the ground - either stationary or taxiing - you can try using 1/50th to 1/100th - just take lots! That way, at least some will have the aircraft fuselage nice and sharp.
(Photo - Memphis Belle - Nikon D750 / 70 to 200 mm / f2.8 @ 130 mm
1/50th Sec / f18 / ISO 100)
7 - Practise! Practise! Practise!
Go to a few shows with your current kit and see how you get on. Don't be too critical, there will be lots of blurred shots at first - but, over time, we all get better.
And certainly don't spend a fortune on new gear until you have tried your current kit, you might be surprised how well you can do with it.
And finally, your first ten air shows will be your worst!
Happy Aviation Photography!
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