Complete Guide to Aviation Photography
Everyone has more free time now. Why not pick up a new hobby?
Whether you don’t even have a camera yet, or you have some experience photographing these machines, this guide will help you up your game.
I will break this guide down into three main sections: Preparation, Execution, and Post Processing.
I will be going over both beginner tips (for people who just started / are planning to start) and tips for people who have been at it for some time. You will be able to tell which is which because tips for more experienced people will be italics.
Disclaimer I: There is already a well-received aviation photography guide already on the forum, but it is three years old and long closed. While I don’t find it to be outdated or wrong, I have many things I want to add that I think people could benefit from even after reading that one. I hope you guys will bear with me on this one.
Disclaimer II: A lot of what I am going to refer to applies to all cameras and lenses, but sometimes individual settings will be located in different places on different cameras. A quick Google search will tell you where different settings are on your specific gear.
Disclaimer III: I am well aware that this is more than ten photos. Mods and minimods, I ask that I get a pass this time around as I think some information is best shown and explained through images. I can remove some if necessary.
This is the side of aviation photography many new photographers tend to ignore, because it’s not flashy like actually shooting the photos is. However, it is just as important.
This is the number one thing which separates those who progress beyond that “beginner” level quickly and those who are there for longer. I know this is technical jargon and probably boring. Read it anyways, it’s useful.
Aperture: Also commonly referred to as f-stop, this essentially measures how much depth is in focus, and inversely measures the amount of light being let in. A higher f-stop will result in more depth in focus, but less light. f/8 is recommended for aviation photography in almost all instance.
Shutter Speed: How long it takes for your camera to take an image. A faster shutter speed will result in less background blur, and less light being let in. It will also be easier to get a sharper image. There isn’t really a “best” shutter speed - it depends on what you’re doing. More on that later.
ISO: A measure of light sensitivity. A higher ISO will result in more light, but also more noise. It is generally advisable to keep it low, unless you absolutely need the light.
Focal length: A measure of zoom on lenses. A longer focal length will result in a more zoomed in image.
Continous Autofocus: A system which will actively track objects as they move. It is almost always advised to use continuous autofocus while doing aviation photography. More on that later.
There are two files types: RAW and JPEG.
RAW files preserve all of the camera data and thus provide more detailed images. They also allow for insane recoveries. They tend to be much more storage than JPEGs and also require specific editing software to edit (mobile editors do not work).
JPEG files compress photo data. They cannot be recovered if you mess up the original photo. They don’t take up much storage and can be edited by mobile editors.
I highly recommend shooting raw and getting a solid editing software like Lightroom or Darktable to edit them. You can change your file type in your camera’s menu. If you choose JPEG for whatever reason, make sure it’s JPEG fine.
Obviously, what gear you have depends on how much you’re willing to spend, but here are some tips to maximize your photo-quality-to-money ratio.
Don’t focus on the camera body too much. Any entry-level DSLR from the modern era will suffice. Some good examples include the Rebel series from the T5i up (200D, 250D, 700D, 1300D, 750D, 760D, 800D), the Nikon D3400, 3500, 5500, 5600 and the Sony a5xxx and a6xxx series.
For lenses, you generally want one wide lens and one telephoto. Most cameras come with a kit lens (18-55mm), which are not great but are absolutely sufficient because you will only be using it when your telephoto is too large, and thus you won’t be cropping much. Recommended telephotos include the Canon 55-250 IS STM, Canon 70-300 IS II USM, Nikon AF-P 70-300 f/4.5-6.3 VR, Sigma 100-400, Sigma 150-600, Tamron 100-400, and Tamron 150-600 G2. Telephotos like these will be sufficient for most airports. The 150-600s are best suited for airports where distances are long (YSSY, CYVR, KJFK). You can check spotterguide.net to find recommended focal lengths.
It is always advisable to buy a fast writing SD card, especially if you want to shoot RAW. Just look for a write speed over 95 mbps. It is also important to get a card with 64 or 128 GB.
Buy extra batteries. Off brand works too (I use two off brands along with my Nikon one). They’re cheaper and work almost as well (and can be charged with a portable bank).
Consider a tripod if you plan to shoot long exposures at night. You can pretty much get any tripod, but if you have a heavier lens like a 100-400 or 150-600 you may want to invest in a better one which will handle the weight better.
This is incredibly important, and having good or bad light is the quickest way to either improve or ruin your photos.
You need to shoot so the sun is on the same side of the plane you are
An easy way to find out if you will have the proper lighting is to use suncalc.org and find the spot you plan to use, set the date, and then make sure you sun will be on the same side of the plane as you.
If I plan to spot here, you can see that the spot is only usable after the time shown, 2:54 pm local.
You may also consider the exact angle of the sun in order to get engine light, a quick way to improve the apparent quality of your photos. If you were to spot here, and the planes arrive along the red arrow:
The area in blue is when the sun is in an advantageous position for engine light, while the area in black is when the sun is not in an advantageous position for engine light. Note that if the sun is too high in the sky, it will create a “toplit” effect, and there will be no engine light.
On cloudy days, feel free to stand wherever you want, but try to find a spot where the ground is visible in the frame. This prevents as much plane as possible from being put up against a gray background.
You can purposefully make use of backlight in order to create an artistic effect. For this, you will want to expose for the sky so that the plane is very dark. Then, when editing, get rid of any remaining details on the aircraft and make the sky more vibrant.
This is something I was taught by some Toronto spotters very early into my spotting career. Before you go out to shoot, you need to remind yourself what kind of shots you specifically want. This makes it easier on you because in the moment shooting, you don’t need to decide. For example, if you want close ups, you know that you have to use a higher focal length as to not crop too much, If you want a specific angle, you are prepared to focus extra when that angle comes up and get that perfect image. If you are shooting a silhouette and you know the sun itself will be visible in the frame, you may choose to not zoom in on the plane as much in order to capture the entire scene. I know this probably sounds absurd to some of you, but you have a lot less time than you think when shooting an aircraft, so you’ll be happy you decided to prepare beforehand.
You can also incorporate different pieces of landscape / buildings using this. Here is the view from the 12th floor of the International Garage in Sydney. See if you can locate possible objects you could use to enhance your photos.
The two things that immediately jump out at me are the skyline on the left and the tower on the right (which is difficult to see in the image, but prominent in real life. It is a black dot on top of a white support near some red cranes). I know that aircraft departing may cross the tower on their way up, so I’m ready to lay on the shutter when they do. I also know that aircraft will be fairly high over the skyline, so I’m ready to turn my camera vertical and zoom all the way out when they pass by me in preparation for a skyline shot. Obviously, not every spot will have objects you can put in frame. However, even if you’re at a spot which offers only sky shots, think about the small things like whether you want full-aircraft or close up, or which angle you want (if you’re at a spot which allows walking).
So, you’ve planned your spotting location, you have your gear ready, and you know what kind of shots you want. Now, let’s take some great photos.
Most cameras come with five modes, Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual.
Auto, also known as A, in my opinion, should never be used when taking photos. You’re leaving the quality of the shot completely up to the camera, and it tends to mess up quite a bit. Often it will not choose f/8, choose an absurd shutter speed, or skyrocket the ISO. A friend once had a shot at a Atlas 747-400, only to have his camera shoot f/14, ISO3000, 1/3200. Ruined shot. Don’t be like him.
Program, also known as P, is just Auto with extra steps and a little more user input. Not recommended.
Aperture Priority, also known as AV, allows you to set an aperture and the camera determines the rest. Not as bad as auto, but it can still choose absurd combinations, so this is not recommended.
Shutter Priority, also known as TV or S, allows you to select a shutter speed and the camera figures out the rest. It can work, but there is a better option.
Manual, also known as M, allows you to take full control of the camera. It takes practice, but this is where you need to end up getting to in order to optimize your images. Highly recommended.
Before reading this section, make sure you understand the Learning Settings section above.
When you first begin aviation photography, you don’t need to worry about doing fancy things with your settings. Just focus on getting a sharp, focused, and well exposed image.
To start, your aperture should be set to f/8. For beginner purposes, there is no reason to take it off f/8 unless the light levels drop significantly.
Choose a shutter speed that is 1/500 or faster to start.
Set your ISO to 100. If you have a camera which can do ISOs between 100 and 200, 125 and 160 are good options to give a little more light without sacrificing detail.
So, f/8, 1/500, ISO100. Once you have your initial settings, take a test shot of the sky, and check to see if it is too bright/dark. If it’s too bright, turn up the shutter speed to 1/640 or 1/800 and try again. if it’s too dark (as it may be on a cloudy day), you can either turn the shutter speed down to 1/400 or turn the ISO up to 200. Take plenty of test shots! Most cameras have a metering system (which appears like a ruler in the viewfinder) to show your exposure (well-exposed is in the middle), but you shouldn’t solely rely on that.
If you choose to spot at sunrise/sundown, your shutter speed may need to go slower than 1/400. That is totally fine, but just know that your proportion of sharp shots will decrease. At 1/320, you can still hit most shots from a front-type angle. At 1/200, this falls to maybe 50-75%. At 1/100, the front-angle is very difficult to pull off. For side on shots, anything up to 1/200 is not too difficult to hit consistently, but once you go into the 1/160 and slower range the failure rate tends to increase.
When you get more comfortable shooting, you can start incorporating different shutter speed tricks. The most popular example is propeller blur, where a slower shutter speed like 1/125 or 1/250 is purposefully selected to capture motion in propellers. To pull this off, you will have to set your ISO to as low as possible, whether it be 50 or 100, and then change your aperture to compensate. This can also be done with fan blades. The best aircraft to use this on are 787s, A350s, and 777s, as they tend to be the only ones with visible fan blades. If you are shooting a front-type angle, using a shutter speed around 1/320 or 1/400 will produce a smooth, buttery look in the fan blades as you can see below (1/400). Note that midday, it is not worth employing this tactic because 1. the light is not at an angle to shine into the engines and 2. you will sacrifice way too much sharpness to an increased aperture.
Another shutter speed trick is panning, which I will touch on in much more depth in a later section.
Many lenses come with a built in image stabilizer. Depending on your lens’ manufacturer, you may see this as IS, VR, OS, VC, or OSS. If your lens doesn’t have one of these, go ahead and skip down.
An image stabilizer can sometimes be your friend. It can also be your worst enemy.
Most starter lenses have only two settings for stabilization: on or off. In this case leaving it on most of the time will work fine.
The issue comes with some lenses that have three settings: 2 way, 1 way, and off. 2 way stabilization is shooting objects that don’t move. If you try to shoot a moving object with 2 way stabilizer, it will end up blurry. 1 way stabilization is for shooting objects that move horizontally. If you are going to use a stabilizer for aviation photography, this is the recommended mode. However, you may consider turning stabilizer off if you are using a fast shutter speed. On my Tamron 100-400, I choose to not use a stabilizer because I find that it works better. Experiment with it.
I think it also important to note that if you are shooting with a tripod, turn off your stabilizer.
Most cameras come with three types of autofocus: a single shot AF, a continuous AF, and an auto AF. The mode you want to use is continuous AF. This is called AF-C on Nikons, Al Servo on Canon, and Continuous Autofocus on Sony. This will allow your camera to constantly track a subject. If you use single shot, your focus point is likely to end up behind the plane. Auto AF can work, but once again you’re leaving it up to the camera, which is never a good choice.
Some cameras have AF-Area modes. This doesn’t apply to most beginner cameras, but in case anyone has a pro or enthusiast camera, I will touch on it. Inside AF-C, there are many different subtypes of autofocus. Generally, it is recommended to use 9 point dynamic AF. This decreases the chance your camera will focus on other things in the frame and will result in a higher hit rate on the aircraft.
Finally, half-hold down the shutter for the entire time you can take photos. This will allow your camera to track the aircraft continuously, which will improve your focus accuracy.
Always utilize this! Make sure your camera is set to some sort of continuous shooting mode. When you shoot in bursts instead of one at a time, it reduces shake. Every time you press the shutter, you run the risk of introducing blur into the photo. If you just hold your finger on the shutter for a little bit, you have less chance of introducing that blur. I think it’s also important to note that it’s not good practice to just absolutely sit on your shutter for an extended period of time, because 1. you’ll fill up the buffer of your camera and you won’t be able to shoot when you actually need to and 2. you’ll go through SD cards incredibly quickly.
Technically speaking, the act of “panning” is just following the aircraft. However, us aviation photographers use it to describe a type of shooting where the background is purposefully motion blurred by choosing a slower shutter speed. Generally there are two types of panning: the subtle pan and the extreme pan.
The subtle pan is when a shutter speed like 1/250 or 1/320 is chosen at a spot where ground is visible in the shot. At this speed, the background will become very slightly blurred. When executed properly, this will make the aircraft seem to “pop” out. This is an easy tactic to implement especially at times of sunrise and sundown, because you will likely be shooting at those shutter speeds anyways. Note: This is actually 1/500, but it still works because the background is fairly close (~600 feet) to the aircraft.
The extreme pan is when a very slow shutter speed such as 1/40, 1/60, or 1/100 is chosen, to completely isolate an aircraft from the background. This is generally best done with a tripod, but handheld is totally possible. One tip to maximize your success rate is to pick a specific point on an aircraft and try to follow that. An aircraft is a large target, so if you just point your camera “at it” and follow it, you are introducing a large amount of variability and thus blur. However, if you focus on one point (I like to aim for an engine, or an exit window on T-Tails), the variability goes down significantly and you can have a higher hit rate. Also, lay on the shutter when doing extreme panning, because success rates can be as low as 5%, especially if it’s windy, you’re shooting over a long distance, or you have a heavy setup, so you just want to maximize how many shots you get. If shooting handheld, exhale as you lay on the shutter. This reduces shake that results from breathing in.
Shot at 1/60 w/ tripod.
Because spotting during the day is overrated. Just kidding.
Night spotting (more specifically night panning) requires a solid understanding of settings, familiarity with a tripod, and a good idea of how to use editing softwares. A good camera body helps as well. I would say do not attempt to night pan unless you have a camera at least as good as a D7500 (no Rebels, D3xxx/D5xxx).
When night panning, your aperture needs to be as wide as it can go. Sharpness and depth of field really don’t matter as much, you just need to get as much light as you can. Choose a shutter speed between 1/20 and 1/40 (1/60 is fine too if you’re quite far away from the aircraft). Then, set your ISO so that you are underexposed one or two stops (generally will be around 3200-6400). After that, it’s all about being as steady as you can.
If you have a tripod, you’re ready to tackle a long exposure.
Personally, this is my favorite kind of shot, especially if the photographer can get those sought-after starbursts.
For long exposures, turn off your image stabilizer, set your ISO to something low (100, 200 max), and your aperture to whatever setting gets the best starburst on your particular lens. You can test that by simply going out at night and shooting some streetlights. For most lenses, this will be somewhere between f/11 and f/16. Then, set your shutter speed to whatever it takes to even the exposure out.
Then, set a 3-second self delay timer on the camera, press the shutter as lightly as possibly, and then step back. If it’s windy, consider holding your camera strap and do not move until you hear the shutter click closed.
f/13, 15 second exposure
If you’re shooting an aircraft starting up, you likely have time to check your exposure and adjust as needed. If you’re shooting at a place where aircraft will only stop briefly (for example, a hold short line), take a practice shot before it gets there to check your exposure as it’s likely you will only have one shot at it.
Also known as editing. This is where you clean up and enhance your images. Everyone develops a different style, but these are just some general pointers that should be adhered to no matter what style you develop.
As for what editing software you should use, get an Adobe subscription and use Lightroom and/or Photoshop. If you don’t want to pay that much, you can also use Darktable or something of the sort. These will allow you to edit RAW files. If you don’t want either, some mobile editors include Snapseed and Adobe Lightroom Mobile.
Note: Screenshots I use in this section will be from Adobe Lightroom Classic, because that is what I use.
Note II: I will not be going over selective editing, as it’s too complex of a topic to include in here, and there are so many different ways to do it.
Let’s edit this photo.
When I import a photo to edit, the first thing I do is scroll to the bottom and check off Remove Chromatic Aberration and Enable Profile Corrections. I see a lot of people leaving aberration in their photos, and if they’re prominent it’s a surefire way to ruin a photo. Profile correction gets rid of any lens distortion, and also rids the vignette (the dark edges of a photo). Note that if you shoot JPEG, editing software will not recognize your lens, so you need to manually input it.
This is the histogram for the photo. A histogram measures how bright or dark a photo is. The more gray stuff there is to the right, the more bright pixels there are, and the more gray stuff there is to the left, the more dark pixels there are.
Judging from this, I can tell there are a lot of dark pixels (the trees in the background), but I can also see two small spikes off to the right, likely the aircraft. As long as there is some sort of spike on the right side, you should be good. Note that if it’s too bright, the triangle in the top right will light up. I will not be touching the exposure of this photo.
Rotate before cropping. You can hit “auto”, but chances are it won’t get it exactly right. To level, zoom in on the image and find something vertical in the background. I am using the pole near the tail. Just experiment with numbers until the vertical object is parallel with the side of the frame, as shown below.
Cropping takes time to develop an eye for, but to get it centered at first, just split the top and bottom halves of the frame, and ask yourself if the approximate amount of plane in each is equal.
Having proper contrast prevents an image from looking dull. Looking at what I have right now, I can see that it is a bit flat and low contrast. To increase contrast, I can use two main sliders: the contrast one and the blacks one. Increasing the contrast slider will brighten the lights and darken the darks. Decreasing blacks slider will darken the darks, but leave the lights be for the most part. Since my exposure is good and I don’t want to alter the lights, I will use the blacks slider.
At this point, the photo is looking pretty good, so now it’s time to apply sharpening. Generally, if you’re just going to post the photo to IFC or Instagram, 75 sharpening should be enough. In addition, I like to use 0.5 radius as well as apply 20-30 masking, which will stop the sky from becoming noisy (you can check how much masking you’re applying by hitting “alt” while dragging the slider).
If your photo is shot using a higher ISO or is grainy, you should apply noise reduction. However, be careful to try not to go over 40 as it will start to make your image look smudgy.
Editing halos are a photographer’s worst nightmare. They tend to sprout up around the gear of aircraft and other areas of high contrast. Note that there can be both light halos and dark halos.
Usually, the culprit is one of three things: Excessive use of the clarity and/or dehaze sliders, negative highlights, and misuse of the shadows slider.
The first tends to be the most common and also the easiest to fix. Do not use these sliders if you do not need to, there are other sliders (like contrast or blacks) that can achieve a similar effect. If you absolutely need to use them, try not to go over 20 or 30.
The second is less frequent but still tends to happen. The fix is also easy: turn your highlights back to 0 and use the whites or exposure sliders.
The third one is popular among those going for a ton of engine light. It creates a white glow around the aircraft. This one is more difficult to fix, especially if you really want that engine light. However, it can be done by using a radial filter, shown below.
By placing a radial filter over the engine, you can get that nice engine light without washing the rest of the image.
Once you get your basics down, you can begin experimenting with different styles and crops. This can include, but is not limited to, close-ups, selective editing, gradients, or even photoshops (which I don’t condone but some people do). If none of those make you want to change styles, that’s totally fine! What’s important is that you do a little bit of experimentation to see what you like best.
Aviation photography is an art, and like any art it takes a lot of time and practice to really develop. Don’t get discouraged if you feel like your photos are no good. I can say this from experience: the best way to improve your photos is to shift mindsets and look back on your photos and ask yourself the following: What’s great about this photo? What could have been better? This allows you to see the progress you’ve made as well as make improvements in the future.
Here’s a quick summary of what I think are the five most important points to take from this topic, because I know it’s a lot to digest.
Learn your settings and know how to apply them to your advantage.
Shoot with proper lighting.
Know what type of shots you want, and incorporate existing objects into your photos.
Develop a solid grasp on the fundamentals of natural editing.
Experiment with different types of shots and edits to find what you like best.
Essentially 5000 words later, here we are. If you have any additional questions, don’t be afraid to drop a question as a reply. Chances are that if you have that question, someone else does as well. If you have something that you really just don’t want to share with the community, don’t hesitate to shoot me a PM.