My Crash-Course to the Basics of Aviation through the Lens
Words and Photographs from Nicholas Pascarella
As you may have read in my bio, I was very much into combat aviation when I was young. I even somehow convinced my parents to hang air-to-air shots of F-16s and F-15s on the stairs heading up to the kids’ bedrooms growing up. To this day, there are still posters of airplanes scattered around the basement and garage of that house. But gradually, in the late 90s, aviation took a back seat to music, sports and school, and simmered on the backburner until 2016 when my band split up. My investment in the group was all-consuming, but after the natural heavy disappointment, I spidered out like lightning in the resulting free time. One of the things I picked back up was the camera.
I attended WWII Weekend in 2016 as my first airshow in 20+ years. I brought my camera because I knew there would be some sweet vintage airplanes, but that's about where my thought process ended. I was not new to photography; I worked for the yearbook in high school and dabbled with lightning photography during college, but really, my camera was just along to casually document my adventures because I enjoyed reliving them after the fact. I had also just discovered a plethora of incredible aviation photographers on Instagram and was excited about getting a few shots myself.
I had an old Canon T1i crop sensor with two typical kit lenses; the 18-55mm and the 70-300mm, and I figured I was good to go. Single Shot mode, ISO 100, Stabilization Mode enabled, Large JPG images selected, one 8GB card, perfect.
Except it wasn’t. Those of you in-the-know are probably confused or laughing under your breath. I will pick apart why this is funny in a minute. I assumed (wrongly) that I was ahead of the game, being comfortable working in Manual mode, controlling ISO, shutter speed, exposure and aperture independently. While this can work to your advantage, you must know how each of these settings (independently, then co-dependently) applies to your subject at hand in accordance with how you want the shot to look. This first and second (NY, 2016) airshows I attended, my photography was confusingly (for me) far below the bar I had set for myself in other genres of photography.
Trying to keep up with an airplane at 300mph with any lens is challenging. 600mph, even more so. Accelerating (takeoff) or decelerating (landing) has its own challenges as well, but ‘One Shot’ mode, one frame at a time, has two significant drawbacks. First being that the amount of time the plane is in front of you, you can only fire off a few shots, having to work the shutter over and over to re-focus, and Second, One Shot mode (or AF-S for you Nikon users) focuses, locks, and stays focused on that point until you either release or mash the shutter. For distant subjects, this may be ok, but for a plane that is coming at you covering hundreds of feet every second, your subject will be well out of focus by the time you pull the trigger.
It took me until my 3rd airshow to figure out what AI Servo mode was. AI Servo (or AF-C for Nikon) continuously tracks your subject as it moves (so long as you keep the plane near your selected AF points) which is very helpful when your subjects are moving at 500mph in a curving arc in front of you, their distance to you constantly changing. When combined with ‘burst’ mode, depending on your camera’s frames-per-second rate, you’ll likely have a bucket-full of shots from a single pass. By the time I hit my 3rd airshow, I had improved my equipment to a Canon 5D Mark II, the frame rate being around 3 frames per second (fps). By the end of the 2017 season, I was using a Canon 7Dii with a lightning fast frame rate of nearly 10fps.
I noticed when I tried to edit my photos from those first shows, the photos wouldn’t blow up to huge sizes with good clarity, especially after a little editing/cropping. This was the result of my shooting in JPG mode. From then on, I shot in RAW mode, as this is the most information you can cram into a single image, thus making your image the full size, not to mention making editing much easier (and beautiful). The only drawback being the size of the files, which increases dramatically. Therefore suddenly rendering my 8GB card horrifically undersized.
At least I was correct with the ISO, shooting at 100 most of the time, as it gives the images the most clarity/color without the grain...but for fast jets under dark skies, sometimes it’s necessary to bump it up to 400 or higher to keep the shutter speeds fast enough to catch the action. For prop planes, unless I’m shooting as night falls, I leave my ISO stuck on 100.
The reason for this will become clear in a minute. For propeller planes, a big goal of many aviation photographers is to get ‘propeller blur’ or ‘prop art’ with the penultimate shot resulting in a ‘full disc’ where the propeller is a big fat circle, the individual blades blending into one another, with the plane being in focus. In order to get this effect, the shutter must be slowed down well below what the ‘recommended’ shutter speed is for long distance lenses. But with the shutter open longer, more light is let in. To counter this, setting the ISO on 100 (and closing the aperture down...I’ll get to that) means the image sensor is less sensitive to light than at higher ISO settings, allowing slower shutter speeds. Typically, the rule is ‘double your focal length’, so a shot at 400mm *should* be 1/800. The reason for this is that at such long focal lengths, there is typically so much camera shake that it is suggested you crank up the shutter speed to counter said shake.
It could not be more opposite in many situations for aviation photographers. To capture the motion blur of speed, the shutter speed must be much lower than recommended. On jet takeoffs, below 1/250 starts showing significant speed. For prop planes, even slower. To achieve the ‘full propeller disc’ for most prop planes, the shutter speed needs to be around 1/60, and for some, even slower. This is one of the more challenging aspects of shooting flying machines, as this is an incredibly slow shutter speed to try and track a vintage fighter plane with a long focal length.
The results of such slow shutter speeds sometimes only give you a small portion of the plane in focus, and many times, there is nothing in focus. But if you panned well with the plane, you’ll likely stick a few images tack sharp with the background thrown well out of focus with the speed of the plane. These images are the showstoppers.
The aperture is directly related to the shutter speed; the slower the shutter speed, the more closed down the aperture is. For static photography like stationary airplanes or people, depth of field can really help a subject stand out. For ultimate depth of field (sharp focus on subject, blurry background), you must open up the aperture all the way. For scenic photography, sometimes it helps to close it down a bit to decrease the depth of field, bringing more of the scene into focus. But in order to get the shutter speed as slow is necessary to show speed panning with planes, the aperture (in daylight) typically must be closed down a good bit in order to get an even exposure because of the slow shutter speed letting in more light.
Be sure to pay attention to your light meter, which looks like a leveling device with a marker sliding up and down or right to left (overexposed/underexposed). Many photographers like to ‘overexpose’ the image a little bit, letting in more light than is necessary for the photo, allowing for more editing techniques. I’m a darker guy, so I’ll occasionally underexpose a bit, but it’s all in what you want out of your image.
One of the greatest bits of wisdom I received wasn’t about settings at all. Once I understood what panning was and was comfortable with a certain shutter speed, I’d drop it again. Struggling slightly with my panning, I reached out to an incredible photographer about his technique. “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast,” he said. Like a quick-draw marksman, the smoother the motion, the faster one can safely be on target. So it is with shooting planes. Don’t rush the shot. “Let the game (or plane) come to you” as coaches tell new quarterbacks. “Take what the defense gives you” is another helpful tidbit, but that’s another article in itself.
I wrote this because I would’ve appreciated reading as much when I was trying (and failing) to shoot quality photos of my favorite airplanes. Everywhere I looked, no one had a comprehensive starter’s guide to shooting airplanes. I was constantly asking my favorite photographers what their shutter speed was when trying to get a grip on how to take similar shots. I started getting good at looking at prop blur and correctly guessing the shutter speed. I’ve debated amongst other top-notch photographers what the ‘basement’ is for slow-shutter shots, and as soon as we make any sort of declaration, a few of us are already pushing those limits and going beyond them. Many of my helicopter shots are at 1/15, going for a full rotor disc, Ryan Tykosh and Ryan Kelly have takeoff shots at 1/10 that are astounding. Mark Fingar has a shot of a P-40 being towed at 8/10 (nearly a full second) that looks like it’s going light speed. James Woodard even has a shot of an Albatross on taxi right in front of him (which is hard enough to pan with because of the rate at which the aspect changes) at ⅕, truly an incredible accomplishment.
Please don’t look at this as a ‘this is how it needs to be done’ kind of way, but rather a formative guide to those who know next to nothing, as I did, trying to get started with aviation photography. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading and I hope you gained a little insight from my free associative splatter. Just remember, next time you’re shooting: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
Words and Photographs from Nicholas Pascarella