Hello IFC! After looking over some photos from these recent photo competitions here on IFC as well as spotters in general on Instagram or whatever platform, I’ve decided to team up with some of the most experienced spotters here on this forum (@Moritz, @Cameron_Stone, @HiFlyer, @Altaria55 ) to make a list of mistakes that new planespotters tend to do. This is by no means a callout thread and I hope you don’t take it that way.
Before anything else, a blanket statement. Shoot RAW and get Lightroom for PC ($10 a month, worth it). Shooting RAW makes sure your camera keeps all of the image detail, unlike a jpeg. You will also need a solid card (probably 64GB or more) to do so.
1. Shooting Backlit
If you are not shooting anything creative, backlit will ruin your shots. For those of you who don’t know, backlighting is when the plane is between you and the sun. This casts the side you’re shooting in shadow. Compared to a shot with good lighting, a backlit shot will have extremely low contrast and be extremely difficult to edit. This is because if you want the sky to look “normal”, you will have to make the plane incredibly dark. If you want the plane to look “normal”, the sky will be pure white with no detail.
To avoid this, you can use suncalc.org to figure out where the sun will be in relation to a runway and a spot at a certain time of day. The spot should be between the plane and the sun.
There’s not really a winning situation when you shoot backlit unless you put in an enormous amount of time and effort into recovering it. This is an edit I did a little while ago (image courtesy of jfkjetsofficial), three hours of editing and I had to do so many unconventional things to get it edited that I really just don’t want to think about it anymore.
All that said, if you want to shoot a backlit shot with a creative aspect to it, or what we call a silhouette, then you have to make sure you are editing it correctly. There must be no detail visible on the plane and the background should be golden hour, generally.
2. Not knowing the Exposure Triangle
The exposure triangle is a blanket terms photographers use to refer to the three primary settings controlling the exposure (or how “bright”) your image is: Aperture (sometimes referred to as f-stop), Shutter Speed, and ISO.
Note: you need to have your camera in manual to mess with all of these settings. For the love of all good in this world please do not shoot auto. If you are, I recommend getting off of it right now and starting to learn manual. It’s not that difficult and if you’re dedicated enough you will get it down within a few good sessions.
Aperture essentially controls the size of the opening your camera uses to let in light (larger number = less light), and by doing this it controls depth of field. Somewhere between f/8 and f/11 is almost always advisable for normal conditions, because the depth of field is large enough to get the whole aircraft in focus and most lenses are sharpest in this range (this may not apply to top-end lenses but if you have one of those why are you reading this?). I generally use f/8 and I’m certain that most spotters will echo those sentiments - it preserves sharpness while allowing you more light to work with.
Shutter speed is pretty straightforward - it’s the length of time your camera opens the shutter for when you take a picture. 1/500 or faster is a good baseline for normal shots (as to not induce blur). On sunny days you may be able to use 1/640, 1/800, or 1/1000. Generally:
- 1/60 (would not recommend lower for beginners): Panning shots, background completely blurred.
- 1/250-1/500: For lower light situations or when you want the engine fanblades to show motion (you NEED a noselit component to do so, though)
- 1/500-1/1000: Standard shots
- 1/1000 and faster: Shooting really quick things like fighters at an airshow.
ISO is an indicator of how sensitive your sensor is to light. A higher value is a higher sensitivity, which allows you to use a faster shutter speed, but it will also introduce more noise/grain into your image. Generally, ISO100 is a pretty good baseline, but if you need to you can absolutely raise it to at least ISO400 without a large penalty in detail on most modern entry-level DSLRs (T6, D3500, etc).
Every spotter has their own way of adjusting their settings as light levels fall. What’s important is that you understand what everyone does and make your own decisions about what to change as the light falls.
3. Bad/Ineffective Cropping
Your crop is one of the most powerful ways your photo can make a statement. It’s also one of the fastest ways you can ruin a nice shot. From top left, clockwise, the four horsemen of the bad crop: The Uncentered Crop, The Not Enough/No Crop, the Too Much Crop, and the Cut-Off-Without-A-Purpose Crop.
I have to pause and say here that there are always exceptions to these rules, because I know people are going to come after me for it. For example, it’s okay to have an uncentered crop if you’re trying to show something else in the frame like a skyline. It’s okay to have a cut-off crop as long as there’s a purpose to it (this generally just means don’t slice and engine or a gear in half). If you’re trying to show a close up, you can crop very heavily to do so as long as your camera can handle it. Cropping should make the plane take up the vast majority of the frame in at least one dimension, and the plane should be approximately centered. This is something that takes time to develop an eye for and at the beginning you may struggle with this. For front angle shots, clipping both wings outside the engines is also a popular and effective crop strategy.
4. Unlevel Horizon
To put it in the nicest way possible, a photo with a super unlevel horizon looks…passable at best. I’m not talking about microfractions of a degree here, I’m talking about integer values of degrees. In this example, the original was about 4 degrees off.
Rotation is difficult and I still have a decently difficult time getting it down. Autorotation works less than half the time. What I normally do is find a vertical object in the frame, and then rotate that to straight up and down. You can check this by zooming in 1:1 and moving your view around so it that object lines up with the side of the frame (which is vertical). If it lines up, you’re good. A lot of photos with a ton of ground in the background will have many different objects tilted at different angles. Normally, I just pick the ones closest to the plane to do it. Not only are they most representative of where you are but they also have the least heat haze which makes lining it up easier. However, if the difference between them is small, you can put it halfway between and it will look good.
5. Using the wrong AF/VR Mode
I learned this lesson the hard way. I own a Tamron 100-400. It’s a very solid lens that has one major weakness: its autofocus performance at the long end. It’s not bad, but I would classify it as passable at best. Certainly not as good as my Nikon 70-300 was at hitting at 300 (although the Tamron still seems sharper at the long end even when it doesn’t fully hit). I used to run my camera on AF-C-51 mode, but now I run it on AF-C-9. Breaking that down:
AF-C stands for autofocus continuous (it’s called Al Servo on Canons). This means that the camera will continuously track a subject and doesn’t need to stop and refocus when the subject moves. This is the mode you should be in 100% of the time for moving aircraft. No exceptions.
The 9 has to do with how many autofocus points the camera actively uses. My D7500 has 51 autofocus points across the center of the frame. You might think that restricting it to 9 points is detrimental, but the reality is you can always keep a plane within that zone since it moves in a predictably fashion. It makes it so that the camera has no choice but to focus on the plane, because it can’t distracted with things like the sky or the tree in the back. Before I made the swap, my 100-400 was probably adequately hitting 50% of the time beyond 300mm. Now that I’ve swapped, it hits around 80% of the time which is good enough for me.
How to change these settings on every camera is different. Some older models don’t have an option to choose an AF Type past selecting Al Servo. In this case, just selecting Al Servo will work. Cameras generally switch AF modes by pressing the AF button or by going into the menu. A quick Google search should give you your desired results. I would highly recommend 9 point AF if your camera has an option for that. 3D and Group AF work as well but those are mostly on higher end models.
This section about VR (everyone calls it something different: Canon’s IS, Nikon’s VR, Sigma’s OS, and Tamron’s VC) is not applicable to everyone. If your lens doesn’t have VR, or only has 1 VR mode, you don’t need to read anything under this paragraph because it won’t apply to you. Quick tip with VR: Don’t use it while on a tripod, especially when doing a long exposure.
For lenses with two VR modes normally Mode 1 is for stills and Mode 2 is for pans (the names for the modes are different across companies). You mostly want to be in the panning mode (which one this is may require a bit of research). It’s Mode 2 on my 100-400 and I think it’s “Normal” mode on the Nikon AF-S 70-300 VR but don’t quote me on the second, I don’t own one. Using the wrong VR mode is essentially fighting your lens. The lens will try to make everything still, but you need to pan to follow the plane. You don’t win that fight. The result is blur 99% of the time. Made this mistake for the first few planes the first time I spotted with this lens.
6. Not focusing on the weather
I used to think that weather was unimportant for spotting. Oh, it’s cloudy, whatever, I’ll just use a slower shutter speed/higher ISO. I’ve heard many a new spotter echo this sentiment. Overcast skies make editing 10x harder, kill the contrast, lead to softer images (usually), and make you use higher ISOs/slower shutter speeds. Check out this shot I took from JFK last year that is blurry so I won’t share it elsewhere but exemplifies the difference weather makes. Imagine if that light was on the Evelop as well.
In addition, the presence of sun can set you up for the one thing that makes your photos better than your skill/gear level would suggest: engine light. This is when the sun shines into the engines and lights up the fanblades. Not all airports are conducive to engine light. You can use suncalc.org to figure this out. Here’s Toronto’s Runway 05/23 at around 5 pm sometime in March.
As you can see, a plane approaching Runway 23 will have the sun shining directly into it’s engines, while a plane approaching Runway 05 will have sun shining on its tail.
Bottom line: Sun makes almost everything better. The only reason one might want it to be overcast is that you can use any spot since you can’t be backlit.
7. Shooting from too far
This sort of goes hand in hand with cropping. Shooting from too far generally refers to shooting too far for the weather conditions. This does not apply (for the most part) to contrail shots or shots where you are trying to exhibit the plane against some bigger attribute (clouds, skyline) because you won’t be cropping those too much.
If you just take a quick glance this image is pretty cool, but if you closer it has technical failures everywhere.
That’s because this image was taken from about 1.3 miles away. For a plane this small and at this front sort of angle, this is slightly too far for my 100-400 and way too far for the heat haze.
I see a ton of new spotters (mostly with 18-55 kit lenses) try to shoot something that would require a telephoto, and just present the aircraft small in frame (or crop to more than 1:1). Knowing the recommended focal length for different spots is imperative when you decide where to spot. www.spotterguide.net is still my go-to site. Obviously it doesn’t have every airport, or every spot at an airport, but it has most major spots at most major airports. It also gives you sample images and recommended focal lengths for each spot which I have found to be fairly accurate.
8. Bad use of editing software
This is a very touchy subject in the world of spotting and I’m sure I’m going to have people telling me that “that’s just their style” or something of that sort.
Overeditors or people who “fake” their images tend to get called out for editing poorly, but in this section I’m not going into that. In my opinion, overeditors know exactly what they’re doing and they edit for a certain type of effect. They’re not “editing poorly” just because maybe they did a dark mode edit, or an edit where they wanted to bring out the shininess of an aircraft. To overedit well requires a good understanding of editing principles.
So yes, overediting can be a style. Poor editing/poor overediting, however, is not a style.
From top left clockwise, the four below are the most common bad editing habits I tend to see: Dark, too much clarity (halos), oversaturation, no shadows.
Dark: Probably the most common thing, this can be easily fixed by just raising your exposure in an editing software.
Clarity: Using too much clarity/dehaze/messing with highlights too much can cause halos, which are areas around the aircraft that are a very different shade than the sky (you can see it well around the gear in my example). To avoid this, I would not recommend using anything over +20 clarity or dehaze, and adjust whites instead of highlights.
Oversaturation: Modern cameras are pretty good at capturing color. There’s not normally any need for color correction (and if there is normally using the White Balance: Daylight option will balance it out). If you really want some color to pop out, I recommend using the individual color saturation sliders, but please exhibit constraint as using these too much hurt just as much as the vibrance/saturation slider.
No shadows: I know you want that engine light, but your image should have proper shadows. Getting rid of all shadows makes your image look totally fake, introduces noise to the previously dark areas, can create halos (sometimes), and makes the cockpit windows look totally wonky.
9. Focusing too much on gear
I’m sure some of you will be like "this guy’s always giving paragraphs of advice on here about what lenses/cameras to get/not to get, what’s he doing saying not to focus on gear too much?
Is gear important? Of course it is. Is super expensive gear going to get you better shots than entry-level gear? Yeah, probably. Is gear the determining factor in how good your shots are?
I know guys with setups below $500 producing stunning images regularly. I also know guys with $2500 setups who can barely get their cameras to focus half the time.
Skill in photography over camera gear. There’s people in this very community who are producing fantastic images with setups under $500. With a proper understanding of how to shoot and edit, you can accomplish (for our non-pro standards) anything that you need to in the world of spotting. There are very few situations that spotters like us will encounter that will require more than a baseline camera, an appropriate lens, and skill.
Whenever I tell people to not focus too much on gear, they always seem to think I mean that all gear is created equal and that you can buy whatever gear and get equal results. This is also not true. You don’t need to drop $3000 on a camera or lens at the start, but you need to have an understanding of what to look for in a camera or lens and tailor your setup to your budget.
When you start, any old camera will do (I’m sure your parents have one) and you will be able to get passable images out of those.
When you want to buy new gear, here’s some things to watch out for (price will not be included in either but that would be #1 on both). This will not be about used gear because I don’t believe in buying used but you can if you want. Same things mostly apply.
3 Attributes to look for in Cameras:
Autofocus system: Usually more points is better, and more cross type is better. This doesn’t really apply to mirrorless cameras as they have orders of magnitude more AF points than DSLRs but may not always be “better”.
Image processor: The newer ones tend to produce better images and be better in low light.
Buffer Size: When you shoot RAW, cheaper cameras tend to “choke up” quicker, which means they can’t take another shot until there’s room in the buffer. Sometimes you need to take a long sequence.
Other less important but still significant attributes include megapixels (cropping capability, basically), burst rate (good for airshows but anything above 5-6fps is not needed for normal spotting), and weight.
3 Attributes to look for in Lenses:
Autofocus system: Any decent lens can produce decently sharp images along its entire range, as long as it’s autofocus can hit properly. As I said before, this is one area I’ve struggled with with my 100-400, and I really wish it would’ve had better AF at the long end.
Sharpness: I think this is pretty self explanatory.
Weight: It’s a balance here. The sharper, more expensive lenses tend to be heavier but that also makes them harder to handhold and less stable, also tiring if you’re doing a long session without a tripod.
Other attributes include image stabilization and fringing. You should also consider your home airport and the focal lengths that are normally used there.
I’m not going to be making recommendations of cameras and lenses to lean towards or avoid in this thread. You can ask me about that separately if you want. Bottom line is, you need to research your different gear options and see what would work best for you, your budget, and your airport, but you don’t need to go crazy and drop massive amounts of cash on the best gear out there.
10. Other random notes
Regarding watermarks: It’s not good practice to put a huge hulking watermark anywhere in your photo. I used to do this and I admit now that it looks pretty strange. At the level we all are at, no one is going to be trying to steal our images. You don’t really need one but if it makes you feel more professional please use a small, reserved one.
Regarding JetPhotos, Airliners, and A-P: Do not attempt these sites until you have a good understanding of what they’re looking for. Look on their sites to see what kind of images they’re looking for. Most of them have “upload guides” as well. Here are the hyperlinks for JetPhotos, Airliners, and A-P. Don’t openly complain about them rejecting your photo “but it was good enough”. While I have had some (in my opinion) bogus rejections, an appeal usually solves those (BE POLITE), and even if it doesn’t, 90% of their rejections (at least) are warranted in my opinion. They can be slightly inconsistent between photos and screeners though, so keep that in mind.
Here is an older but still relevant guide I made on editing for JetPhotos.
The number one way to improve? Practice. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new crops and new angles. Get feedback from your fellow spotters. We’re not out to get you. Remember that even the most experienced spotters were once in your shoes.
Did this help you? It took a decent chunk of time to write so I hope it did. Be honest though!
- Kind Of
If you have further questions don’t hesitate to shoot me a PM.