Preparing to photograph an airshow

January 07, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

To get the best airshow images takes a bit of thinking and planning. Airshows do not happen every month at most locations. Many of them only happen once a year. So we only have one chance per year. Let's make the most of that chance by preparing well. By preparing I am not referring to gear or settings, rather to the things we need to ponder on before we even touch the camera. At most airshows there are also static displays. While very nice images can be had there, that is not our focus today. We are here for action images of flying aircraft. That static display is also going to help us with our flying images, as we will see in a bit. Here are the steps I suggest you follow to prepare for a successful airshow shoot:

  1. Go online and learn all you can learn from the airshow's website. Pay attention to any maps they may display. Typically, they sell VIP seats right on center stage. For the extra money you usually get shade from erected canopies. These seats are preferred by many as most of the action is going to take place adjacent to the VIP seating. When airplanes storm in from both sides of the runway they are going to do their tricks or pass close by each other right in front of the VIP seating area. Now I suggest that you do not sit there. For the most part the planes performing will only offer a side view of the plane from that position. I don't know about you, but I want to see the glow of the afterburners. I want to photography the heat mirage coming out of the plane. You don't get to see these from a side view. For now, just pay attention to where center stage is.

  2. Use your favorite weather information source to find out in which direction the wind is blowing into. This is important as most performers will spew smoke into the air. This is part of airshows. Even fighter jets, like the Blue Angels, will blow smoke. We do not want to take up position with the wind blowing into our direction. Before long, there is a lot of smoke in the air. If the wind is blowing my way, that means that the smoke is going to be coming my way. The last thing you want is smoke between you and the performing planes. Ideally, we want to sit where the smoke is blowing away from us. That smoke needs to be behind the craft.

  3. As a rule of thumb, I have found that the best position is about three quarters to the end of the standing area (as measured from the ViP seating position and the end of the general audience area). Use the wind direction to determine which side of the VIP seating area is going to be best. If the wind is blowing in the same direction as the runway is going, I want to be seated at the end where the wind is coming from, not where the wind is going to. There are two reasons for this. First, remember the smoke argument from point number two. Second, airplanes like to come in against the wind as it gives them more lift. So I want to position myself where they leave the runway, not where they enter the runway. When they approach the runway they are not typically doing anything other than coming in, in a strait-ish line. They fly over the runway and do their tricks or fly bye's in front of our VIPs and then leave the display area right about where I am seated. That is where I want to photograph them from! I want to catch them turning away from me to expose their afterburners and the heat mirages. I want side on views. I want them climbing. Due to safety concerns, they will typically make their turns away from the audience, which, once again, is what I want. I want to shoot them from behind or from behind-ish at a side angle.

  4. Arrive early. The recent airshow in Lincoln, Nebraska had about 200,000 visitors. There were long lines waiting to get in when the gates opened. We have to be close to the front of the line to get the spot we need to shoot from. Here is where that static display comes in. The gates open well before the flying starts. During this time most people will visit the static display. Just skip that for now. Make a bee line and go park yourself where you planned it, while everyone else is distracted by the static display. You need to be right at the fence or line as close as you can get. The reason has nothing to do with focal length or anything photographic, but not to have people in front of you. They will limit your visibility and ruin your images.

  5. Make sure that you can hear the announcer well. They can be very helpful, warning you which plane is coming next and from which direction.

  6. Take care of yourself. It is easy to get sun burnt and dehydrated. Put sun screen lotion on. Wear is wide hat. Drink a lot of fluids. It also helps to have a friend with you as drinking a lot may make you run a lot. You don't want someone else to take your spot and getting into those small porta potties with all your gear is not fun. A friend can hold the fort and watch your gear in your absence.

  7. Airshows last for hours. If you are not comfortable you will not stay long. The best part of the show is typically at the end of the day. You don't want to miss what you came for. I bring a small and light camping chair with me. I use a gimbal head on a tripod so that I don't have to hold heavy equipment all day. You know that things get heavier the longer you hold them, physics is awfully strange, isn't it?

  8. Now that I have said everything that was said, let me undo all of it. Sometimes, the best vantage point for getting great photographs is not at the airshow itself. Sometimes that place is in a nearby field, or from a building's roof, or from a parking structure. Do your homework. When the Blue Angels come they usually come a few days before the airshow. They practice. They want to see the lay of the land. Use this time to scout for the best alternate locations. You will see them practice and that alerts you to their flight paths. Is there a better place out there to photograph them from?

Enjoy photographing your next airshow. Next week, I will talk about actually photographing the airshow.


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