Eyes On the Sky: Six Tips For Photographing An Air Show

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Aviation photographer Ricardo von Puttkammer watches the US Navy Blue Angels perform at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday, June 28, 2014. (Andrea Nay)

The 2014 Vectren Dayton Air Show has one more day left, and — weather permitting — you might find yourself there with your eyes on the sky and a cell phone in hand. I’ve covered the show for Tipp News Daily several times, and I’ve had a chance to photograph the Blue Angels three different years. Would you like a few tips for stopping time and snapping some fantastic memories?

The US Navy Blue Angels perform at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday, June 28, 2014. (Andrea Nay)
The US Navy Blue Angels perform at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday, June 28, 2014. (Andrea Nay)

1. Study

The best writers read voraciously. Similarly, the best way to improve your photos is to study images and get a feel for the styles which speak to you. Go to Flickr and type in “air show.” Browse the collections and take note of the most interesting photographs. Are you drawn to the portraits of pilots? Aerial acrobatics? Wide landscape shots of 100,000 people with their eyes on the skies? Macro shots of the tiniest details? Posed captures of families enjoying the displays? Now, go to Instagram and do the same thing. When you arrive on the grounds yourself, you’ll have a better idea of the shots you aspire to collect.

2. Bring Your Biggest Range

Did you know the Dayton Air Show permits cameras of virtually any size? Yes, unlike most concerts and sporting events, this is one incredibly camera friendly environment. Although your bag will be inspected at the entrance, you’ll be permitted to bring in lenses as large as you wish. Keep that phone in your pocket. Instead, come prepared with the ability to get close — or reach wide. This needn’t be expensive. The guy next to me might be carrying $15,000 in gear, but that doesn’t necessarily give him a tremendous advantage here. You’re shooting in broad daylight, so you can get by with a higher aperture (f-stop). This means your typical all-in-one camera with a speedy 12x optical zoom lens will work, and it will give you the ability to zoom up close and personal or step back and capture wide angle images showing the whole scene. I fall somewhere in the middle of that big spender and popular point-and-shoot, as I’m usually carrying two Pentax DSLR bodies along with a Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 I picked up on clearance from Amazon and my Pentax kit lens which gives me an 18mm wide angle option. These aren’t my best pieces of glass, but they’re the most useful for outdoor events.

The US Navy Blue Angels perform at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday, June 28, 2014. (Andrea Nay)
The US Navy Blue Angels perform at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday, June 28, 2014. (Andrea Nay)

3. Move Beyond Auto

If your camera allows you to adjust settings and select program options, go with what’s called AV (aperture priority). You’ll set the aperture, in this case to something like f/8.0. You’ll also set the ISO, and I choose 200 in the fierce sun and 400 when overcast. The camera will read the sky and decide what shutter speed is necessary to give you the best light. This is particularly useful on partly cloudy days with planes dancing all over the sky, as you won’t have to worry about whether you’re getting the right amount of light between shots. Other settings to know? Try auto white balance. Also, you’ll want to lock in on the plane and not the clouds behind it, so go with single spot focus and spot metering if you’re able to make those adjustments.

4. Listen to the Narrator, and Track One Plane

Let’s say you’re capturing the Blue Angels, and let’s say the narrator tells you the jets are approaching from different sides of the sky, then crossing over center. Do not point your camera at center and wait for them to arrive, or they’ll be back in Pensacola before you blink. Instead, look over to the right side of the horizon and look for one jet. Focus on it. Follow it with your camera, panning across the sky, continuing to keep the plane in focus. If you have a burst mode, hold that shutter down and hope you catch the crossover. If you don’t have a burst mode, click as fast as your camera and memory card will permit. Yes, you’ll probably take twenty shots of the same pass. Yes, you might only get one of the planes crossing one another. Nineteen duds is worth it, don’t you think? After all, they can just be deleted.

Lieutenant Commander John Hiltz greets a young fan after the US Navy Blue Angels perform at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday, June 28, 2014. (Andrea Nay)
Lieutenant Commander John Hiltz greets a young fan after the US Navy Blue Angels perform at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday, June 28, 2014. (Andrea Nay)

5. Don’t Leave

It happens all the time. The phenomenal aerial demonstration team lands, and the crowd leaves. I can hear my father now. “We need to leave early so we can beat the traffic.” Let me tell you a secret: you’ll miss the traffic if you stay put instead. Let everyone else wait in the long lines. What could you be doing instead? If you’re in Dayton, head for the white picket fence in front of where the Blue Angels are staged, and get in line for autographs. The pilots will often sign until the last person gets a friendly hello, signature, and selfie. Walk along the flight line and take note of how the crew preps the jets. Meander through the static displays and find innovative angles from which to photograph historic war planes, helicopters, and NASA displays. Chat up a volunteer and learn about their role in the event. Snap pictures while doing all of the above.

6. Give Your Photos A Makeover

When I learned to apply makeup in middle school, my Mom taught me a vital lesson: “The goal of makeup is to look like you aren’t wearing any.” The same is true for post-processing of digital photos. You are not shooting film with a Leica. The images are not automatically going to have a rich, buttery depth. Digital photos almost always need a little makeup, and this is your opportunity to sprinkle on your own personal style. Do you like washed out Instagram-style shots with very low contrast? Do you like bright, vibrant images with a big pop? Pull your pictures into Lightroom, Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, or, for free, PhotoScape. Adjust levels, crop, reduce noise, and sharpen just a tad. I still struggle with when to stop, and I’m well aware some of my pictures look like a four-year-old applied her mother’s lipstick instead of a pro with a careful touch. It’s always a battle, but experiment to find your own post-processing comfort zone.

The US Navy Blue Angels arrive at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio, on Thursday, June 26, 2014. (Andrea Nay)
The US Navy Blue Angels arrive at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio, on Thursday, June 26, 2014. (Andrea Nay)

Bonus: What’s In The Bag?

I’ve already told you what cameras I’m carrying, but what else is in my bag? Water. The Air Show permits unopened bottles of agua, so I always bring one. I also have a trash bag or two ready to cover my camera bag for extra protection should it rain. I carry business cards in case anyone wants to see the images I’m capturing. Extra batteries. Extra memory cards. A real notebook and pen in case my phone fails. Money. Photo ID and press pass. A power bar because I’m usually too busy snapping pictures to grab lunch. Oh, and lip gloss.

Let me know how you do! If you’re posting to Flickr, Instagram, or Twitter, tag your images #AirShowTips, as I always enjoy seeing everyone else’s shots from the day. Now, go forth and capture. Class dismissed.

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