Toms Airshow Photography Tips

Version 3.0 September 2005

Allthough people say that I have outgrown the amateur stage and am a professional. I still see myself more as an advanced amateur. Then again, who cares as long as the shots come out good. I do however work every now and again as a freelance agent. Which is good.

The point I'm trying to make with this article is simple, you can not learn photography by buying an expensive camera! You simply need to get out there and take shots, this is the ONLY way to learn photography. Airshowphotography is esspecially hard. You have to take a lot of things into account. So consider this article as a rough guide. You might come up with better ideas or at least something that works for you.

A word on Cameras

First of all, get yourself a good camera, now I don't mean run to the stores and buy the most expensive stuff there is, it's just plain stupid, get some brochures and flyers and figure out what you need. Search the web.

You need info.

And I do mean YOU NEED INFO!

The first things you have to ask your self are,

  • What do I need it for?
  • Where am I going to use it?
  • Do I need more?
  • Is it easy to use?
  • Is it what I want?
If not, you'll be fiddling around with your equipment setting it up and before you know it...... you missed the shot you wanted. And we all know that the camera does not make the photographer, it helps but it's no garantee for making great photos. Now I must be honest, I have a couple of programmes on my camera, I didn't want them or cared for them, but they came with the thing, and they work pretty good, in fact it made some things a lot easier. I really like the Canon Eos SLR series, because even the entry models (the 5000, 3000, 300 and 500) can use all the lenses and it has several programmes built in (and it has a flash and red eye reduction). If you want to use a 28-300 mm APO pro zoom you can. Then again, why? They are really expensive, and if we are talking hobby here.... In my case it has gone beyond hobby. But if you have get an entry kit you can allways get more later.

So what is a "SLR" Camera you've heard so much about?
A SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, you see what you want to shoot through the lens (AKA TTL). The most important part of a SLR is that you can change the lens. Which means you can switch between wide-angle (28mm) to telephoto (200mm and higher). Which is basicly the best system you can have. You can add special lenses (ultra wide, fisheye or telephoto) to fit your needs. Something you just can't do with a simple compact camera. At this moment Canon, Pentax and Nikon could be your best choices. All three have enough lenses to choose from (and lenses made by third party) and the price is reasonable. Speedwise you want a camera that can to 1/1000 and more, but anything over 1/2000 is not used much.

What is a "Rangefinder"?
Rangefinders are cameras where you do not look through the lens. But they have interchangeable lenses. Famous names are, Leica, Voightlander, Contax, Zorki and FED. They tend to be smaller than SLR's. But they can be just as fast. They can be used, though not as easily, on airshows. Biggest problem of the rangefinder is not the camera, since the cameras are usually of high quality, but that you can't get rangefinder lenses bigger than 135mm.

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A word on Lenses

It is said that the lens makes or brakes your camera and this is true. The word on lenses is do research. So let's return to what this article is about.

Airshows that is.

If you want to photograph the static, basicly almost any camera will do. But since you will have to deal with other people walking round, a 28-80 standard zoom that usually comes with a camera will be a very good choice, you can zoom in and you can get rid off the other people, and get a much nicer picture. Besides that you don't have to walk back to front to get it all in the picture.
An even better choice is an Ultra wide angle lens like a 19-35mm lens which is PERFECT for the static. Even if you stand close you can get it all in your frame.

Then we have the flying display. This is one of the most difficult things to shoot. And you don't get far with a 28-80 lens. You will just have some clouds and a very very small aircraft in the middle. So this means getting a Telephoto lens. Telephoto lenses usually start with 80mm (also known as a short telephoto). 80mm is too small. You want at least a 75-300 which is the absolute minimum. I prefer the zoom lens over the fixed focal lens on airshows since you can just zoom in and get the shot you want. Fixed focal lenses (just one size) are better than zoomlenses... but a zoom lens offers you several lenses in one. I've used 75-300 zoom which worked fine for me but a 100-400 is even better. And at Airshows you need range.

Having said that you can allways add a teleconvertor. A teleconvertor cost less than a new lens. And big lenses cost big money. So I bought a 2 times teleconvertor which turned my 75-300 into a 150-600 lens. Which is great for the flying display.

But as it may cost less than a new lens adding a teleconvertor to your kit comes at a price since the teleconvertor is nothing more than a lens which acts like a magnifier for your telephoto lens. This means that all the little faults or drawback in your orginal lens are also magnified. You are also going to lose 1 or 2 stops on your lens. When it was a 4.5 300mm it now becomes a 6.3 600mm. Fortunatly your camera (about all SLR's are TTL's) solves the stop problem for you. But it's also possible that you get less contrast in your photos or other problems like added softness. If your lens was soft at 5.6 at its highest range, well it's only going to get worse. You can also get the problem that above 400 mm the autofocus gets confused. I was smart enough to do some research first and I bought a more expensive version from Tamron (the 7MC) which has a lens specially adjusted for the EOS series. This made the problems less but I lost Autofocus above 400mm..the lens couldn't focus no more or it just took forever. Fortunatly all Canon lenses can be set to manual so I just turned of the autofocus and focussed by hand. Problem solved. It just ment more work, you had to prefocus the lens at a point you knew the plane would land or set the lens on infinity for high level flight, more work... But it saved me a LOT on a new lens.

But there is another problem with big lenses. Stability... You have to hold them steady and there has to be enough light to take a shot. Less light means to lower the speed on your camera which can cause out of focus shots due to Camerashake. To solve this you could use a tripod...... But have you ever tried setting up a TRIPOD at an airshow? Don't..... there are just to many people. Or you could load up with faster film, thats what I do. On the flying display I use 400 iso film, just to maintain enough speed in my Eos. Offcourse this also comes at a price. The faster the film the more grainier it becomes. Allthough 400 iso is a safe bet. Lately 800 iso has been getting very good.... so it is a valid option allthough it is more pricey than 400....

And then there is the weatherfactor. On hot days you can see the air twirling, this also becomes a problem for your big lenses. Focussing manually gets harder, autofocus sometimes gets confused (not often though, because most autofocus system use contrast differences). But you might end up with blurry shots.... Weather can add great things to airshows, big fluffy clouds, sunshine but it can also destroy your airshow with a big shower of rain...

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Now what about Second hand cameras?

Why not! First of all it saves you money. Why spend thousands of euros, dollars, pounds or euros on top of the line cameras?

Do these high end cameras take better pictures then low end or second hand SLR's?

Offcourse not.....

Sometimes it is more fun to find good second hand equipment than to buy brand new stuff. Why? Well it just is... And I'll give you an example. I own a Zenit camera. Because of it's M42 mount it's completly obsolete. It was owned by my father and he gave it to me. It had just one lens a 58mm. Now back in the 70's when this camera came out (and I was just out of diapers) this camera was top of the line, boasting a 1/500 of a second and a 58 mm lens at apeture 2. WOW ! This was good. But new mounts came (bajonet) which were better. You could change a lens faster than with P-wire. So P-wire went the way of the dinosaur...

Or did it ?

Sometimes I like go to second hand stuff at the camerastores. And I found an old 135 mm vivitar lens for only 40 dollars (90 guilders) with P-wire. Now this lens was probably 15 years old but in good shape and it works perfectly with my Zenit. I even found a 28 mm objective for only 25 guilders (about 10 dollar! Pre Euro time) a bit tattered but in good shape. Now the 135 probably cost (15 years ago) 300 guilders and the 28 about 200 guilders. Allright it's old but the 135 has an apeture of 2.8 and the 28 also. And they both work. But one of my best finds was a nice 6.3/400mm. Which was only 50 guilders and turned out to be one heck of a tele lens.

Do they take worse pictures than my brand new 19-35 or 75-300 lenses?

No.... they don't, in fact some of my best shots were made with my second hand gear, some of my second hand lenses outperform my canon lenses.

So my Zenit does not have Autofocus or programs. Well if I can remember correctly photographers around the world have gotten along just fine for decades (more than a century!) without autofocus and programs.

None of these are the socalled "APO" lenses. APO should read great quality but very very expensive. But they work fine and I'm happy with it and when it comes down to it that is all that. matters. Are you happy with your equipment? Or better put are you happy with your current system? P-wire is old, major drawback is that you can't change your lenses fast enough. But nowadays (because it isn't used anymore) it's cheap. It's very cheap. The quality is reasonable to good. So if you have an old camera rusting away on a shelf somewhere, take it out, look round for cheap, cheap, cheap equipment and give your old camera a new lease on life.

But I digress. Secondhand can also mean that you can afford that super lens for your new camera. Sometimes camerashops have some great deals and since more and more people are going digital you can find some real bargains.
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Films, now don't say, we know. Because the choice of film is important. I mainly use Fuij an Kodak and all are 200 iso, because it's a good allround film. 100 iso is fine for the static (excellent even, that is if the weather holds out) But otherwise stick with 200 or test it out. 400 asa is getting much cheaper so.. again test... You'll be suprised with the results......
800 iso has as advantage that it's a fast film (makes your camera faster) but as a disadvantage that it can be grainy (in dutch filmkorrel) the faster the film the grainier it will be. Sometimes this is used as a special effect. But lately 800 iso has become much better, allthough it is still pricey. 100 asa is a slower film but has as advantage that is has a fine grain, ideal for blowups (posters, if you will).

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A good cameracase! You have no idea how important this is, you want to take all your stuff with you and take some souvernirs with you, well I want to, and you want to do this in comfort. So I did the following, I got this backpack with a small chair in it You hang it on your back just like a regular backpack, then you take it off, unfold it and the frame becomes a small chair, which is ideal. In it is my cameracase, easily stowed away. Now this works fine for me but if anyone has a better idea I would really like to hear it.

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Tripods and Airshows.... If there is a controversy than we have it here. Personally I never use a tripod... I'm a "shoot from the hip" kind of guy. Then there is the "monopod" a one legged "tripod" which can be very usefull with a 400mm or higher lens. I've also seen the "mini" tripod, small and very cute. But is it usefull it's about 20 cm tall. Now what kind of tripod is that? Well it has a number of suprising advantages that made me buy one.
  • The Chest Pod Stick it on your chest and get a stable platform (nice for low shutter speeds)
  • Low Angles, if you're looking for that low low shot of an airplane on the static ....
  • Wall brace, don't laugh it works perfectly, with big telephoto lenses
  • Compact, small enough to take with you in case you might need it
Normal tripods are often a nuisance at Airshows unless you have achieved the "perfect" spot, on top of a roof somewhere. You have to bring them with you and half of the time you don't use them because you're walking on the static. I never use them on an airshow.

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Digital Cameras

Now here we have the "perfect" solution. No more films. No more development cost. As I outlined in my Digital Photography article it has it's pro's and cons. But what does it mean for an Airshow?

It's great for the static as long as you have 2 megapixels or higher. But what about the flying display? Well.... 90 percent of all digital cameras are totally useless for that. First of all you have to have a FAST digital camera and a telephoto lens and face it 300 mm is the absolute minimum lens for this. And that is something the most digital cameras don't have. Most digicams have a 35 to 105 mm lens (translated to 35 mm terms) which is fine for the static. But for the flying display you need to buy, a digital SLR, face it it is the only way. There are some digicams that go up to 400mm or 500mm but lets be honest, you need the versatility of a DSLR. Plus that a lot of DSLR's come with a little thing known as Focal Length Multiplier. In short, the sensor of the DSLR (the thingy that makes the photos) is smaller than 35mm film. This can be 1.5, 1.6, 1.7 or in some older DSLR's even 1.8. But it turns a 300mm into a 4x0mm lens.

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What do I use?

What do I take with me to an airshow, camerawise that is. I use a Canon Eos 300D with two lenses and two batterypacks. The standard 18-55 for the static (turns into a 28-80mm thanks to the Canon 300D's 1.6 FLM). A 75-300 mm Canon EF II (the cheap version not the USM or the IS). This lens can be fitted with a Tamron 2* Teleconvertor giving it a range of 150-600 mm (so 270-800... highly unstable). But I'm replacing it with a Tamron 200-400mm LD/IF lens giving it a 320-640mm range, more speed and hopefully better pictures. I use one camerabag to store all my epuipment and one backpack with a small folding chair, lunch and enough room for sourvernirs. I usually carry along a hat if it's very sunny.

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Conclusion, what do you need?

Offcourse I'm not taking any responsebility for this....
Because of one simple thing, you are not me. I take photos in my own way, you will do this your way. Offcourse this is GOOD. No two people can be exactly alike.
You need...

A minimum configuration,
A SLR camera or rangefinder.
Lenses, 28-80 mm or 35-80 mm for the static 70-200 mm or 75-300 mm for the flying display.

Best configuration,
A SLR or DSLR camera capable of taking 3 frames a second or higher. Lenses, ranging from 19 (or 17) mm to 600 mm.

Costs, if you want the best of the best, be prepared to pay thousands of dollars or pounds or euro's. Were talking EOS 5 and Nikon here. APO lenses. Yes the lenses that cost more than 1000 euros a piece. Bodies that, without the lens, cost 1800 euros or more.
But why? You can have loads of fun using entry level or used equipment. Example, I've bought a nice camera set a rangefinder with lenses. Ranging from 35 mm to 135 mm. It just barely complies with my minimum configuration. But it cost me only 275 guilders thats about 110 dollars ! With that set I could do the entire static and get some nice shots of planes landing and taking of. It has speeds from 1/25 to 1/500. It's old but so what ! It works and it's fun ! And that is all that matters. It is even with all the lenses (three) a smaller set than my Canon EOS. So it is time for you to start searching the web, reading folders, compare those prices, and figure out what YOU need. I know what I need, so now it's time for YOU to figure it all out. I can't and I won't do it for you. Besides that it would take all the fun out of it, right?

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Toms Checklist

Since I do get some questions about tips, here is my checklist, it all sounds so simple, but believe me it is easy to forget.
  • allways get your camera kit ready a few days or week in advance so you can check your batteries, lenses and filters and what to take and what not.

  • passport, identity papers, travel papers.

  • Don't take too much stuff, you have to carry it and that fantastic lens you only use for two or three shots will double or triple itself in weight when walking :-)

  • Spare batteries (can't stretch that one enough with digicams)

  • backup films and cards (cf, xd whatever you use) ALLWAYS take extra film along, if you think 8 is enough get 10.

  • filmpen (to clean your lens)

  • one good wide angle or ultrawide angle for the static.

  • one good telephoto for the flying display

  • ALLWAYS take along earprotection and a hat or cap (you can allways spot regulars along the photographers on airshows, they all have earprotection :-)

  • allways have local currency (Euros might cut it but Dollars certainly won't)

  • DO NOT MESS WITH THE LOCAL POLICE OR MP's, they are allready overworked with all the terrorist threaths and don't want you to add to it, basicly they'll act very fast on any suspicious action and ask questions afterwards.

  • Allways check the weather and regardless of the weather report take along a lightweight plastic raincoat or poncho, also take along some plastic bags, you can cut them up to protect your camera or camerabag.

  • No matter what, GET TO THE FLIGHTLINE, you need a good spot!

  • NEVER drink the water, allways get bottled water.

  • get some of those "wetties" small wetted tissues, so you can wipe your hands after eating icecream or other food, to keep dirty fingerprints of your equipment. Also handy after visiting bathroom.

  • if you want a souvenir get it early, no lines, okay so the price might be a little higher but you do not have to wait for it AND you won't miss a good shot.

  • if possible travel by bus (organized travel company) buses get special treatment on airshows, cars do not.

  • Keep an eye on the time! Some companies are known to leave people stranded because they arrived too late for the trip home.

  • if you have a mobile phone take it with you in case you loose your buddies. It's hard searching through 100.000 plus people....(believe me I've tried :(

  • Respect other photographers, don't walk through their shots, they don't like it and neither do you :-)

  • Watch out for those "special offers" the kind of take ride along airfield....get good shots ect, there's allways a line and it allways take longer than you think.

  • and finally watch out for pickpockets.

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Copyright Tom A.H. Piel

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