Air Show Photography

By Kevin A. Pepper Back to


An air show has this emotional effect. Maybe it takes you back to our childhood aviation fantasies, or maybe it’s the raw speed. Whatever the reason, it’s an excellent day out with friends, family and your camera.

As with any photographic genre, there can be real expense. Your gear can range from discount specials to the ones that breaks the bank. You know the kind, the long lenses that leave others with lens envy. No matter what gear you own, remember, it’s not always the gear that takes the great photo, it’s the space between your two ears that will make quality photos. The following is a list of gear that I took to the air show this year:

Camera and Gear:
• Olympus E-30 DSLR
• Black Rapid shoulder strap, Manfrotto tripod.

• Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 for those flyby’s at low level and crowd photos.
• 2x teleconverter to stretch out the focal length to capture high flying aerials.
• Olympus 11-22mm f/2.8-3.5 wide angle for some ground photos offering a different perspective of planes and people.

Memory and Batteries:
• At any given time in my camera bag I will have three spare fully charged batteries to make sure I have enough for a day of shooting.
• For memory, I like to use as fast a memory card as possible as I shot in burst mode. I took two 16 GB memory cards and went through 24 GB in total. Just remember the really big acts happen towards the end of the show. Nothing is more irritating than an excellent day of shooting only to discover you only have 14 shots left on your last memory card to shoot the grand finale you have been waiting all day to see.

Practice Makes Perfect

Red Bull. Lens: 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5, Focal length: 200mm, Shutter speed: 1/1250, Aperture: f/8.0, ISO: 320, RAW image edited in Photoshop and Topaz DeNoise.

Practice shooting fast moving subjects, before you get to the air show. Then use the first part of the day of an air show for more practice time to get down the timing you will need to capture the more desirable planes later on in the show.

I could write technical jargon on this topic for a few pages. But for the sake of time and saving trees, allow me to keep it simple. A general rule is “Put your camera on shutter priority and do not shoot at a speed slower than twice the length of the longest part of the lens you are using.” In other words, if you are using a 100-400mm lens, shoot no lower than 1/800. There is a notable exception to this generalization for anything with a propeller. Propeller driven aircraft are a challenge. If you shoot them at a high shutter speed the image you capture will have a propeller frozen in flight. A much better alternative is to lower the shutter speed and capture the ever elusive “propeller blur.”

Prop blur occurs when the shutter speed is adequately slow enough to capture at least some of the arc of the tip of the propeller. This can be achieved if you shoot anywhere from 1/125 to 1/180, but the results are hit and miss, which leads me to this, shoot in continuous mode.

You might think to put the camera on shutter priority and shoot at 1/1000th of a second in the hopes that this will help to eliminate blurriness caused by hand shake. For the average photographer this will work just fine. However, all other things being equal in shutter priority, increasing the shutter speed simultaneously adjusts your aperture, resulting in blurriness because of decreased depth of field. So increasing the shutter speed isn’t a perfect solution.

Corsair. Lens: 50-200 f/2.8-3.5, Focal length: 169mm, Shutter speed: 1/80, Aperture: f/16, ISO: 320, RAW image edited in Photoshop and Topaz DeNoise.

I like to pan with flying images at a fairly high shutter speed. I set my camera on manual mode, set the aperture to a mid range, f/5.6 to f/11, depending on brightness, and set my shutter speeds up around 1/800 depending on how bright the day is. It’s just one of those things you will have to determine on the day of the air show. I adjust for the light and fine tune with my ISO and EV to get the right exposure.

When it comes to shots of the crowds or photos of stationary aircraft, I’ll jump over to aperture priority mode. With most air shows occurring in reasonably good weather, worrying about the amount of light while shooting a lower aperture generally isn’t a problem. Shoot whatever you feel comfortable with. I generally choose an aperture of f/9.0 to f/11 to get the optimum image quality out of my lens.

Choose Your Location Wisely

Get to the show early to scope out the best possible location that gives you room to pan with the planes as they fly by. How do you find that best spot? The best spot is the center of the show where all the photographers with the big lenses will be standing. Don’t let them intimidate you.

CF-18 Flyby. Lens: 50-200 f/2.8-3.5, Focal length: 200mm, Shutter speed: 1/1250, Aperture: f/8.0, ISO: 400, RAW image edited in Photoshop and Topaz DeNoise.

Nuzzle up and remember my first piece of advice. The composition of the photos is greatly influenced by what’s between your ears, not the big gun the guy or gal standing beside you has. Besides, airplanes do come quite close. Shooting with 500mm or 600mm lens will be frustrating when trying to capture a plane 50 feet away. This is the reason I bring the 50-200mm lens with the 2x teleconverter. Sure, they will get closer shots of planes in flight, but for those of you that cannot afford the big lens, a 50-200 or 100-400 will suit your needs just fine.

Final Thoughts

Be prepared for some poorly timed shots, blurry shots or someone’s head in the way. But shoot to your hearts content if you are using a digital format and do not delete anything until you have had a chance to look at the images on the computer. You never know what you will miss happening in the air while you’re deleting those shots at the show.

CF18. Lens: 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5, Focal length: 182mm, Shutter speed: 1/1000, Aperture: f/6.3, ISO: 320, RAW image edited in Photoshop and Topaz DeNoise.

An air show can be a lot of fun. Don’t get so engrossed in shooting that you forget to have a good time with your family. It’s good to have some great shots for your portfolio, but living the excitement with your child who may have childhood aviator fantasies of their own is more important.

Editor’s Note: There are air shows year-round all over the world, especially in fair-weather locations. Use a web search to find ones near you. Professional photographers, Kevin Pepper, Hal Schmitt and Scott Slocum and are teaming up to offer a “one of a kind” aviation workshop you will not find anywhere else. For more information on the workshops, visit workshops/2013-workshops/cavanaugh-workshop-1.

Resources: Camera & Lens:; Shoulder Strap: blackrapid. com; Tripod:; Software:, Topaz DeNoise:; Waterloo Wellington Air Show:

About the Author

Kevin A. Pepper
Kevin, a Canadian Sigma PRO photographer, took his first photograph at the age of 13 after watching his dad produce photos with his Olympus OM SLR. A landscape and nature photographer by heart, his images have been used by National Geographic website, TVO and Sun Media and Olympus. A regular contributor to PHOTONews Canada and a contributor to The Canadian Nature Photographer. Kevin lives in Cambridge, Ontario. He offers workshops for photographers looking to refine their own photographic skills and operates the Photographers Lounge, a company dedicated to introducing amateurs to today’s top photographers. Learn more at