Effectiveness in creative arts is so very dependent on what we have within ourselves. What we produce, is shaped by our mind’s eye. And, our mind’s eye is trained by the visions we expose it to. Whether as pianist, writer, photographer, or painter (to name a few), the flavor of our thinking changes based on our daily interactions.
Much of my own photography is tied to shooting products, motorcycles, homes (buildings), and the outdoors. Yet, I find, if that is all I do, the same things all the time, then I grow stale. Beautiful sunsets leave me feeling blah. Gorgeous flowers become no longer worthy of making a picture. That sort of thing.
To refresh my mind’s eye, I like to seek out new things to shoot. Traveling is a great way of doing that. Many of our best photographers have spent lifetimes traveling broadly. Not only has it increased the breadth of their portfolios, but, I believe, is key to their keeping their minds’ eyes freshly invigorated day in and day out.
This was one of my motivations in making sure I went to this year’s Thunder Over Michigan! This annual airshow always draws a crowd, not just of aircraft, but people too. Airshows are always vibrant. The contrasts in aircraft, fast or slow; the skies, blue, grey, or in-between; and people and booths wearing an array of colors.
If you cannot find something to shoot at an airshow—you’re not trying.
So this year, I had two primary goals in mind. The first, was to see a F4U (Vought) Corsair fly. As a youngster, I must have built at least a dozen models of my favorite plane. Yet I never got a chance to see one fly. I’ve seen them at museums. I’ve seen them at airshows. And they’ve always been static displays, down for maintenance, or simply a no-show. This year, a Corsair was scheduled to fly—I was going!
The second goal, was simply to use this as another experiment in photography. Airshows offer a wide range of different challenges that you do not see in many other, more sedate, types of photography. For one, they move fast. Not only do they cover a lot of ground, but the aircraft may themselves be moving: think propellers vs. jets. And, the difference in distances you deal with means no single lens can do it all. Lighting, well, there are some tricks, but you’re largely at God’s whimsy.
This year, it was my first airshow using a true wide-angle lens (10-20mm). And, what a difference it makes when shooting static aircraft on display. The smaller image might be a fairly typical shot…using a standard lens. Something like a standard 50mm.
In contrast, the second Skyraider shot was taken standing about 10’ from the plane. I noticed people had started flowing around me. There was no missing the fact some guy was there taking a picture.
In the last image of this set, I was shooting at 20mm focal length, standing about 6’ away. The wide angle lens let me capture a shot I’ve never been able to do before.
My single biggest take-away this year: Have a true (ultra) wide angle lens in your bag when shooting airshow static displays.
Lights, Bright, Blue, or Dull
Most of the airshows I have ever photographed tend to be consistent throughout the day. Mid-summer, weather may be stable, and you end up with pretty much the same lighting conditions throughout the show.
This year, we had very comfortable temperatures. Yet the lighting changed throughout the entire show. At one point I would find myself shooting a plane against a plain blue background. Then during the next demonstration, we would be in and out of shade…as were the planes themselves.
Fluffy white clouds against a blue sky can be very pretty. They’re great…if the sky is what you’re looking to take pictures of. Otherwise, they compete with the subject of interest: that’s such a pretty plane…ooh…look at that cloud isn’t it pretty?
It wasn’t until I started processing images back home that I realized just how great the sky ended up being. I was really tickled to see how rich the sky’s textures were, yet in most cases they served only to accentuate the aircraft themselves. Hardly a distraction (in my mind’s eye anyway<g>).
Props, Jets, & Shutters
The last item I thought worth mentioning involved shutter speeds. If you are like me, my first airshow pictures were full of vintage aircraft with frozen propellers mid-flight. After all, the objective was the highest shutter speed possible so you could freeze the motion and get a crisp image. Right?
Well, sort of. The biggest challenge is with propeller driven aircraft. You want the aircraft to be sharp, not the blades. Everyone knows the beannie on front of the plane should be spinning. When you see a shot of an aircraft with a frozen prop, it just doesn’t look quite right. You end up eyeballing the blades on the prop…because…heck, when does anyone ever get to see a prop mid-flight? It become a distraction.
The other challenge when shooting aircraft is to avoid the ‘dead plane’ look. The most exciting aviation shots are dynamic, caught with the aircraft doing something. Even if all it is is sitting there spinning it’s prop for you<g>.
In the the close-up from above, the shutter speed was 1/200th second. The blades are nicely blurred, yet with a hint of detail themselves. 1/200 was about as slow as I dared go. The shot was taken at 230mm and 1/200. I was at the lower limit of blurring the entire image, panning as the aircraft went by.
This next shot, (blue Skyraider) cropped to focus on the prop, was shot at 1/500th second. The blades are almost frozen. It is a matter of personal taste: I’d have preferred a bit more blade blurring.
A final thought on prop-driven aircraft: Larger props tend to spin slower than small ones. And, other than turbo-props, their speed changes depending on how fast they’re flying. I have almost frozen blades on larger props at 1/250. Yet for very small props, like the acrobatic bird above, I might not freeze it until reaching close to 1/1000th.
Even with no apparent moving parts, jets give you rare opportunities to make a dynamic shot. Here, this F-100F Super Sabre is caught with his afterburner lit. Most people I show this shot to quickly comment on the exhaust flame, whether they know the term ‘afterburner’ or not.
Here are just a few more shots for you: