Shooting prop planes at airshows

January 14, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

I find shooting prop planes at airshows more difficult than photographing fast fighter jets. The whole fighter jet flies at the same speed. It does not have any parts going faster than any other parts. That is not true for prop-driven planes. Those props move faster, a lot faster, than the plane itself. If you have ever seen an image of a prop plane taken with a fast shutter speed you will know that it does not look right. A plane in the sky with props that do not show movement messes with our brains. It should not be flying. That plane should be falling. Those props need to move.

          That means that the photographer needs to choose a shutter speed slow enough to allow the props to show movement. Those props need to be slightly blurred. With slow flying craft this works well. But what do we do with Mustang P51's or other prop planes that fly quite fast? The slower shutter speed beautifully blurs the props but may not be fast enough to freeze the plane. Choosing a faster shutter speed to freeze the plane may also freeze the props (or at least not show enough motion blur). There is no set formula that you can use to determine the optimal shutter speed to freeze the plane AND to blur the props. This depends on the speed of the plane, the engine speed and the length of the props. The longer the props the faster the outer edges move. You will just have to experiment using trial and error to get to the right shutter speed for each plane.

Not only are the planes moving. The camera and lens are also moving to track the moving plane. Movement of a long lens and a slower shutter speed do NOT go well together. Camera and lens shake or movement will render the planes out of focus. So even though I prefer to have the camera and or lens image stabilization system turned off when photographing fighter jets, I will turn this system on when dealing with prop-driven planes to help smooth out camera and lens shake. You might wonder why I don't leave the stabilization system on for fighter jets. Well, I use such a high shutter speed shooting those super fast beasts that it makes no difference. That is something you can't do with prop planes as it will freeze the props.

When shooting multiple planes in the same frame it is better to use a smaller aperture to enable both planes to be in focus. Some people prefer to see a bit of space between the planes to separate them. To them it look cleaner, and they are right. However, when planes fly very close to each other, nothing shows the drama of being that close together more than having one plane overlap the other. Yes, the planes look more confusing, but confusion is what we want to show. We want to viewer to start feeling uncomfortable for the planes' sake. We want the viewer to wonder how close the planes are to each other. We don't want the viewer to think that the planes are safe. It all depends on what you are trying to show, which feelings we want to evoke.

          Have you starting to look up when your nearest airshow will take place? Next week we talk about photographing fighter jets.


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