Aviation photography tips - reheatimages

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General Dynamics RF-111C A8-126 at Australian Defence Force Air show 2009 in Townsville performing the famous "dump and burn" display.

General Dynamics RF-111C A8-126 at Australian Defence Force Air show 2009 in Townsville performing the famous "dump and burn" display.

Aviation photography tips


So, you want to start taking photos of planes, this article will give you a few ideas on what you need to get started.

Cameras and lenses

The obvious starting point is an appropriate camera and or lenses. Unless you are standing right beside the plane on the airport ramp, you'll probably need a digital SLR camera to ensure large, quality images. In most cases a smaller point and shoot won't have enough speed or range to take the photos you want.

You don't need to have the most expensive cameras, even the entry level digital SLR cameras will be more than adequate. The following list is a brief summary of the most commonly used ones.

  • Zoom: 28-300mm (Canon, Nikon), 70-200mm (Canon, Nikon, Sigma), 100-400mm (Canon), 50-500mm (Sigma), 80-400mm (Sigma and Nikon), 120-300mm (Sigma) and 150-500mm (Sigma);
  • Fixed prime lenses: 300mm, 400, 500mm, 600mm (Canon, Nikon); and
  • Wide angle lenses: 24-70mm (Canon, Nikon, Sigma), 14-24mm (Nikon) and most fisheye lenses.

For cabin photography, most fisheye and ultra-wide-angle lenses will be ideal due to their wide view angle.

Flightdeck photos during daylight are easily accomplished using a wide-angle lens, exposing for the light outside the windows of the plane and using a fill flash, perhaps with a diffuser to get the flight-deck itself bright enough.

For long distance photography, you can pair a teleconverter with suitable lenses to get more 'range'. This is typically limited to fast zooms like the 70-200mm F/2.8, or fixed focal length telephoto lenses like the 200mm F/2.0, 300mm and 400 F/2.8 or the 500 and 600mm F/4.0. Teleconverters reduce the maximum aperture you can use and they may also reduce the sharpness of your image. Auto focus performance might also be reduced with smaller aperture lenses, or the camera may not be able to autofocus at all in those cases. This usually - but not always - affects F/4.0 lenses with larger 1.7 and 2.0x teleconverters.

In practice, this means that in low light you may need to increase ISO sensitivity to maintain an acceptable shutter speed, while the reduced image quality means that you may have less scope to crop the image heavily. This is why fixed focal length (also known as prime), large aperture super-telephoto lenses generally work better with teleconverters.

Consult with your camera and lens manufacturers to determine compatible lens and teleconverter combinations.

In strong light and warm conditions, you might consider using a neutral density (ND) filter to reduce the shutter speed to something more reasonable around 1/100sec or so. This can sometimes make heat haze less obvious, however it won't completely eliminate the effect. You'd only use the ND filter in conditions where the slower shutter speed doesn't matter, such as photographing predictable subjects like airliners.

What modes should I use on the camera and or lens?

Etihad Airbus A340

Many cameras have automatic or semi-automated scene modes. These are probably better avoided in favour of the following common modes:

  • Aperture priority (or AV): This maintains the selected aperture by adjusting shutter speed and or ISO sensitivity;
  • Shutter priority (or TV): This maintains the selected shutter speed by adjusting aperture and or ISO sensitivity; and.
  • Vibration reduction or image stabiliser: Many lenses have a feature for vibration reduction. For normal stationary hand held images, you will use normal mode (Nikon) or Mode 2 on Canon. This is desirable for panning type images. Nikon has "active" mode for photos taken from unstable platforms such as helicopters or moving vehicles. Normally, you will turn off image stabiliser features when you are using a tripod, although some newer lenses have automatic tripod detection.

You'll also need to commonly look at ISO sensitivity, white balance and light metering.

  • ISO sensitivity: Adjust the ISO sensitivity higher to make it more sensitive to light and increase your shutter speed, or allow the use of a smaller aperture. Increased ISO settings may add noise to the image. Lower ISO settings will make the camera less sensitive to light and will give you slower shutter speeds which are desirable in strong light when a panning technique is used when capturing the photo. You might also use auto ISO sensitivity control if you are taking photos in conditions with unpredictable light. In auto ISO sensitivity modes, you specify the minimum and maximum ISO sensitivity, and a minimum shutter speed the camera will allow before it increases the ISO sensitivity to maintain the minimum shutter speed.
  • White balance: This controls the white balance of the camera, primarily keeping neutral colours like white or grey free of red or blue colour casts. A blue colour cast would be corrected by a colour temperature with a number greater than 5250K, while a red colour cast would be corrected by a lower value, less than 5250K. Generally, manual white balance settings give the most predictable results for multiple images being taken at the same time. If you are using RAW format for the saved images, you can change the white-balance when importing the images. For reference you would use 5250K white balance in standard, sunny daylight sunny conditions.
  • RAW or JPEG: You'lll also think about using either JPEG or RAW formats for your saved images. JPEG images typically have smaller file sizes, but offer less scope for post processing. Generally, RAW images are more desirable for this reason, although they have much larger file size which can slow down the camera. You will normally need specialised filters or software to open RAW images, though operating systems like Apple's Mac OS X are often able to read the RAW file formats used by the major camera manufacturers without needing additional software.

Taking the picture

When taking the picture, you'll normally have the camera on continuous autofocus mode, and you'll normally set the matrix metering (light metering) to a centre-weighted average mode. Center weighted average metering will give preference to the area in the centre of the image, while matrix metering will attempt to find appropriate metering of light across the whole image. Normally, center weighted average gives more predictable results.

Some high-end camera autofocus systems allow you to customise how they react to other objects passing between you and the subject. If your camera does allow this, you might find it useful to adjust this so that the camera will ignore signs, light posts and other obstacles passing briefly through the frame.

You can use the histogram display on the camera to help you judge exposure. If the image seems under-exposed, you can use exposure compensation in steps to correct this. Before adjusting this, consider the light in the image. Did the metering evaluate something very bright in the image like the external lights on the plane? At night, you might try setting aperture and shutter speeds manually for more predictable results.

The rest is simply practice and your eye for capturing creative and interesting images. You'll still need to apply some light sharpening to the resulting images in Photoshop, but if the original image is very good, any edits you do in Photoshop should be very minimal.

Photo editing workflow

Many people have various processes of importing their images from the camera and processing them. This workflow is something that many people fine tune to their own needs. My preference is to keep this process as simple as possible - with the minimum amount of steps. I use Adobe's Camera Raw 6.0 from Photoshop CS5, so these steps will apply to CS5.

  1. Open the raw images with Photoshop Camera Raw. Use CTRL+O (Windows) or ⌘+O (Mac OS) and select the images.
  2. As a first step, I go through the images and mark for deletion any images I don't want from the batch. If you've locked any images within the camera, you'll want to unlock them before you do any of the processing. Locked images cannot be deleted by Camera Raw. Once you've marked images for deletion, click Done and the unwanted images will be removed.
  3. Now open the remaining images and start applying common edits like white-balance and lens corrections. You can use the 'select all' button to select all images and apply these common edits across all images immediately.
  4. If you have dust spots in your image (from a dirty sensor in your camera), you can increase the black slider to make them more visible. Zooming to 100% size and scrolling around the image will make dust spots more apparent. Use the 'spot removal tool' (the shortcut is B) in the 'heal' mode to get rid of the unwanted dust spots. This is another edit that can be quickly applied across all images using the select all feature. But if you do apply this across all images, be sure to browse through them after applying the edit and delete any patches where the dust removal isn't needed on individual images.
  5. Now do any cropping, straightening, noise reduction, sharpening and other such adjustments on each image.
  6. At the bottom of the Camera Raw window, you'll see the colour space. Click on this and choose sRGB, and also set the output sharpening for web. The amount of sharpening will depend on your images. You can also see the option 'Open in Photoshop as smart objects'. Turn this on. If you need to do any particular editing within the main Photoshop application, this little option will make sure that filters you apply are non-destructive. Click OK.
  7. Now click Select All, and then Save Image to export the images. You can export them as JPEG images for distribution, or you can save them as Adobe's Digital Negative (DNG) format for archive purposes. You can also embed the RAW image within the DNG.

There isn't much more to my workflow than that. I try to avoid doing specific editing on images within the main Photoshop application, mainly to save time more than anything else.

There are countless other workflows that can be found across the internet on major sites and some forums. You might go through many of them before finding the one that suits you best.

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