Aviation Photography 101 - RC Groups
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Nov 19, 2012, 08:13 PM
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Aviation Photography 101

PLEASE NOTE, I'm hoping this will be a general discussion with input from members shooting other brands of camera than I shoot (Canon) since I can only answer Canon specific questions. It is however aimed at DSLR users simply because they are a better tool for the job. P & S cameras can do some of this but their shutter lag makes it more difficult to capture fact moving targets at slower shutter speeds. The opening information is my own & it's based on how I shoot R/C but that doesn't mean it's the best or only way to do it. If you shoot R/C & have some advice to share please join in.

Hello: my name is Larry & photography is one of my hobbies, and for the last 5 seasons Iíve been shooting many of the local fun flyís & sharing my photos with the clubs. I see a lot of others with DSLRís & various lenses & Iím always happy to help them get good results but rarely get asked for my advice. Maybe they assume I wonít help but just like in any hobby Iím all about talking about how I do things. With that in mind Iíd like to start a discussion thread devoted to shooting planes in flight, both R/Cís & full size, because the goal is the same & so (generally speaking) are the methods. Proper aviation photography requires that a plane (or heli) in flight look like itís flying, under power, so that means the prop or rotor blades need to look like they are turning. Using high shutter speeds will freeze the prop or rotor blades, and make it look like someoneís flying dead stick. That doesnít look too bad until itís a multi engine plane with all the props stopped but nicely captured because the high shutter speed also froze the plane right where it was in the sky. You get a nice crisp shot of the plane or heli but it doesnít actually look like itís flying.

For those of you who donít think it matters how you get the shot as long as the plane or heli is in focus my advice is to take a look at what the publishers print. Check the magazines you have, & see whether the covers show ďdead stickĒ planes up in the sky, or in the articles in the magazine. If youíre the editor which shot would you buy? One with prop blur or one flying dead stick? You can get great dead stick style photos by hanging the plane from a tree branch with mono filament line, & using a tripod. It will look just as ďin flightĒ as the one actually flying but shot with too high a shutter speed. To me & most aviation photographers who contribute to the photography forums I belong to submitting photos of planes flying dead stick (most of them shoot full scale but there are a few of us who specialize in R/C) will get you heavily criticized. If you do think it makes sense to have the plane look like itís under power but donít know how to get that kind of photo read on, because thatís the purpose of this thread.

Firstly youíll need to know how to shoot your camera in the ďShutter SpeedĒ mode, which allows you to pick a shutter speed thatís slower than the engine turns the prop (or rotor blade). Many P & S cameras can do this but in general my advice is aimed at DSLR users for a number of reasons & Iíll get into many of them. Iíll also point out that the better the camera & lens combo the easier it will be to get good results, but that doesnít mean started cameras canít do the job once you start practicing. Practice is the key, just like it was when learning how to fly, drive etc. Learning how to set the camera isnít that hard but will require a bit of time reading the manual because although I (and hopefully many others) can point you in the right direction we canít know exactly how to adjust every model of every brand of camera.

Recommended Shutter Speeds to try, and I suggest you start with the fastest & as you get better slow it down.

Helicopters, use 1/250 -1/320 and you may get away with 1/400

Prop planes 1/400-1/800, and on some high revving glow engines you can get by at 1/1000 but only while taking off or on full power fly byís
Jets, EDF of Turbine let you shoot nice fast shutter speeds, so I always use 1/1000 or higher. The only time I use a lower speed is when trying to get background blur, but that also requires the jet to be flown low enough to have a background other than the sky & clouds.

Youíll need to combine those shutter speeds with a panning action, which follows the planes flight path, and shoot as if flies by, either single shots or bursts, but follow the plane well past the last press of the shutter button. Smooth panning is the key when combined with the right shutter speed. One piece of good advice I read on a panning thread a while ago recommended trying to keep your AF point (they usually light up when the shutter button is in the half press mode) on a spot on the plane as it goes by. The more accurately you can do that the sharper the image will be.
Also youíll need to set the AF system to track moving subjects, and Canon calls that mode AI SERVO, and according to Wikipedia Nikon & Pentax call it ďCONTINUOUS FOCUSĒ mode. This is very important, because the cameras computer calculates the changing position of the subject all the time you track it with the shutter button half pressed, or on some cameras you can assign the AF tracking to a different button, which some prefer.
One other variable that you might want to look up about your cameras AF system is whether or not you can set it to IGNORE a sudden appearance of something that comes between your camera & subject for a moment or 2. Sample situations where you donít want the AF to select the new object are another plane momentarily crosses through the path or say the plane is doing a low pass & youíre shooting from well back of the flight line. You want the AF to track the plane & ignore the pilots as it flies across the flight area. Handy trick when trying to get a pilot in the frame for scale purposes.

Other Considerations.

Background blur used to show speed. Itís not done by using ďfastĒ lenses such as an f2.8 aperture designed to have a shallow depth of field BECAUSE that fast lens will require a very high shutter speed. Itís done by using a slow shutter speed combined with a near perfect panning action.

Image Stabilized lenses. Unless the lens has a panning mode (mode 2 in the case of Canon) turn it OFF. Single mode IS or OS / VR / VC etc will give you trouble when used to pan. It shouldnít make any difference to cameras where itís internal to the body from what Iíve read but I really havenít spent any time researching it.

Zooms lenses are far more useful than a prime for these photos, and I personally use what are considered super zooms, but mine are pro grade & designed for sports photography ($$$).

ISO & other things affecting the exposures. I try to find an ISO that will let the camera use an aperture just a bit smaller than wide open when looking at the background across the flight line, and still avoid getting smaller than f11 or f16 against the open sky. This is primarily to avoid tiny dust spots on the lens or sensor from showing up on the image. Really small f stops produce them as tiny dots that are out of focus.

Exposure Compensation. Youíll need to know how to use this feature on the fly quickly. It is the quickest way to override what the camera chooses to shoot at with your choice in shutter speeds. Depending on weather (dull overcast sky vs nice bright blue sky, or shooting towards the sun instead of having it at your back, can really screw up your results. You need to expose for the plane & not the sky, and quite often Iíll have to add a full 2 stops of exposure compensation under adverse conditions. Check the LCD regularly to see if the plane is blown out, a silhouette, or has decent colour. Blown out requires - EC, silhouette requires + EC, nice colour means youíre close enough to finish with a bit of software work later.

Keep in mind that I shoot Canon and have used their terms for certain things, so if you canít find that exact terminology in your manual ask about it & Iím sure youíll get an answer from members using your brand of camera.
A skill is developed through constant practice with a passion to improve, not bought.

Ottawa area R/C event albums are here http://picasaweb.google.com/tcprcphotos
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Nov 26, 2012, 03:23 PM
Chasin' that Neon Rainbow
Grantham Kid's Avatar
There is a photography section in this forum. You will get a response in there.
Nov 27, 2012, 10:03 PM
Registered User
I don't think it belongs there more than here. This is the section where users display their photos, whether of their own aircraft or those flown by others at their club fields or fun fly's etc.
Nov 28, 2012, 02:33 AM
AMA 884978/KK6NKY
hillbille's Avatar
Originally Posted by Grantham Kid
There is a photography section in this forum. You will get a response in there.
And I also disagree! This thread is about taking photographs OF other AIRCRAFT in flight. It is not about taking photographs FROM aircraft in flight.

Two distinctly different photographic areas and philosophy's.

Thanks cicopo for posting this here. It is a thread I have thought of starting myself many times but I didn't have the experience or the knowledge to do so.

Hillbille (same name on many forums - like P.O.T.N. for example! LOL!!)
Nov 28, 2012, 12:49 PM
Registered User
When I saw the author name I thought I knew it from somewhere. I'd say "small world" but like a lot of R/C'ers many have other hobbies.
Nov 28, 2012, 04:45 PM
AMA 884978/KK6NKY
hillbille's Avatar
Also I think one of the "Other Considerations" should be: A good and willing pilot flying the aircraft to be photographed. Someone that is at least cognizant of the photographers needs as it pertains to the aircraft.

Cameras do not recognize the difference between an aircraft flying at 40 mph or one going 140 mph, the photographer will but the camera doesn't really care. The 40 mph aircraft will be much EASIER for the photographer to capture than the same aircraft going 140 mph. Same applies as to the ASPECT of the aircraft. Closer is better. Most "subjects" I have shot were well appreciated by the pilots later. Especially those images that show the aircraft in flight, with gear deployed on passes as well as take off and landing sequences. The "BEST" of those type are done when the pilot is fully aware of the camera and is comfortable with the aircraft enough to make low slow passes. The trick for the pilot is to NOT get out of his comfort zone of flight or attempt something with the aircraft that he is unfamiliar with. Normal flying in a regular pattern will work best for most photographers. If the pilot wants (is accustomed to) flying WAY out in the flying area and is not a "smooth" pilot but makes maneuvers that are "jerky" or sudden in nature then the resulting photographs will not normally be very good. The pilot of the aircraft being photographed can make good photo op's or can absolutely refuse to present the model in a good position.

I personally have had people fly in a straight line for about 2 seconds and then jerk the plane up into a square loop of about 1 second intervals several times while also flying out at about 200 feet - all at full throttle of course - and later asking me if I "Got some good ones". LOL!!

Enough already as this is really a thread about cameras and settings. I just thought one of the other considerations from MY perspective is certainly having an "AWARE" pilot at the controls.

Nov 28, 2012, 05:30 PM
Registered User
Your hints & tips are welcome & DO belong here. It's one area of what helps get that perfect photo. Because I see a lot of the same pilots at many of the events I've suggested ways to do that & some co operate to the best of their skill set. Some however are leery & I sure don't push it. The events are usually Fun Fly's & are run at a relaxed pace, and many will make low & slow passes, while others make low high speed passes & I do my best to capture them. Either way I usually take enough photos of every plane that flies to get a few good ones. This is what I ask for when a pilot asks what I like to shoot, banked enough to see both wings, but not much more than that.

This is about right (to me).

Nov 28, 2012, 06:57 PM
AMA 884978/KK6NKY
hillbille's Avatar
That's a really good photo and I'd be happy with one like it anytime.

Nov 28, 2012, 08:28 PM
Registered User
If you like that you'll really like this one


Same event 5 seasons & a lot of practice later. I've used a direct link to the album so you can use the left / right arrows for more, or choose the slide show etc. All of my R/C albums plus a few recent full scale events are in the link at the bottom of my original post.

Dec 01, 2012, 02:31 AM
AMA 884978/KK6NKY
hillbille's Avatar
I have a small invention that allows me to do 720p HD video from a Sony Bloggie mounted on top of the DSLR via the hot shoe. It runs all the time while I am shooting stills. The thing does a fairly good job and as long as I keep the view finder on the plane then the plane is centered in the video frame too. Of course there are multiple drawbacks to that system. Weight, no "zoom" for the video and the audio can NOT be turned off on the Bloggie - so I get every single "click" of the shutter loud and clear!! LOL!!

BUT. It does serve a purpose and especially when a pilot is doing a initial maiden flight of an aircraft I get BOTH stills and continuous video.

It's just ONE of the things that I have tried and worked on for helping me "shoot" models. A few other have not or did not work out quite like I thought but hey - gotta try!! LOL!!

Dec 02, 2012, 10:01 PM
Registered User
I've seen several people with a GoPro's either mounted on their hot shoe or the tripod collar of a long telephoto lens but since they have such a wide angle lens I haven't really thought they were going to see much in the final video. I shot video (very seriously) when VHS hit the market but returned to still photography due to it's (video's) limitations. Since then digital & HD has come a long way but I still find that a photo gets more attention long term.
Dec 03, 2012, 09:09 AM
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baronbernie's Avatar
One thing that many photographers can not do without no matter what type of camera you are using is a good tripod. There also is the unipod that many sports photographers use. For a good sharp picture that limits shake (but not so blur when the trpod is swing free) a 3 leg tripod is the way to go. Hyper focal distance or having your focus set at a spacfic spot/distance can be a great help.
Dec 03, 2012, 09:39 AM
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hillbille's Avatar
I have not tried a tripod for sport shooting of RC (and I seriously doubt it would work well) but I have tried several monopods none of which I was happy using. It limits movements of the camera and really is a hindrance most of the time. My rig is heavy due to the video added and I did come up with a home made semi monopod but it is more of a "rest" for the camera between shots than anything else.

Dec 04, 2012, 02:30 PM
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baronbernie's Avatar
With an ASA rating of 100 or less and a telephoto lens it would be silly not to use a tripod. And yes a mono pod is used more or less for holding the camera up and for panning.
Dec 04, 2012, 02:52 PM
Registered User
I think a tripod might work reasonably well when it's a photographer & a pilot working together, because they can talk & work at placing the plane where the photographer wants it. I however don't think a tripod will be good at events where there are 3 or 4 aircraft in different areas of the circuit. When I first started doing events I did bring & use my monopod (I have a few & 2 are carbon fiber) but I felt that it limited my panning so I abandoned using it, but I do see others using them. There is one man who uses one in an unusual way & claims he does much better his way than by standing it on the ground. He locks it against his body with his arm while still using that hand on the camera lens. Because I shoot with 2 or sometimes 3 cameras I have a rig that lets me hang one camera on each side rather than from my neck & I just hand hold whichever one I'm shooting, but they do get heavy around 3:00 PM plus my wrists are starting to hurt too.

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