Photographing fighter jets

January 21, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Images of prop-driven planes should have moving props. Moving props convey the idea of action and life. Fighter jets do not have props. What then gives them the excitement they deserve, what can show their action and life? A picture of a fighter jets just hanging in mid air is boring. This is not what fighter jets are all about. It is not what they are created to do. It is not what we expect when we look at them. We have to breathe life, action, and movement into fighter jet images. So how do we do that?

  • Catch them turning sharply of climbing steeply.

  • Capture the afterburner, that will get the viewer excited.

  • Show heat mirages.

  • Photograph their con-trails

  • Snap clouds forming on their wings or cloud lines from their wingtips.

We have to get something different, something exciting. Here are a few examples:

It takes patience. Follow every plane. Shoot at a very fast shutter speed and at a high frame rate. I shoot in bursts when I anticipate the right moments. The settings are simple:

  1. I use no image stabilization at these shutter speeds.

  2. Use manual with auto ISO. I shoot between 1/2500 and 1/4000th of a second. The lens is set wide open, perhaps stopped down just one stop or two thirds of a stop. The camera chooses the ISO to balance the exposure.

  3. Most cameras tend to underexpose the plane because of the brighter sky in the background. I use exposure comp to fix this. You can also set your exposure to measure off of your focus point to solve this problem. However, it is a small problem. Once my exposure comp is set, it usually stays the same for the whole shoot as most of these jets are the same or similar in brightness.

  4. Focus is set on subject tracking. Most modern cameras may have a setting to track planes specifically. These settings typically work well.

These planes move fast. Do not be discouraged with the difficulty of tracking them in the viewfinder. You will get better with practice. You do not need every single shot to be perfect. You will probably shoot a few thousand images on the day. If just one or two percent of those image turn out well we can call it a success. Even if every image is well exposed, perfectly framed, and sharp as a scalpel, you are surely not going to use all of them. We cull them and only pick the best of the best.


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