Aviation Photography Basics (Pt. 1, settings)

Hello IFC,
I have noticed that there are many members of this community aspiring to be better aviation photographers. So, I have decided to give help to those members by creating a series of guides to better your skills.

Firstly, lets talk about some basic photography lessons.

If you want to get the highest quality photo, you MUST use a real camera, preferably a DSLR. I know that the newest phones do have decent cameras, but their zoom is terrible and the quality still is never going to be better than a Camera.

Now once you have a real camera, there should be a dial somewhere on the top of the camera that allows you to change the photography settings. You should twist that to the “Manual setting”.

Since you will now be shooting in “M” (Manual) mode, you will be required to set all the camera’s settings yourself. The camera won’t do anything automatically. The four settings you will absolutely HAVE to make are ISO, f-stop, shutter speed, and WB (White Balance).


So lets start with ISO. ISO is a setting which controls how sensitive the camera is to light. The higher the ISO setting, the “noisier” your photos will be. (** “Noise” is the term that equates to “grainy.”) You don’t want too much noise in your photos. So, you want to set your ISO at “200” for daytime pics on sunny days and at “400” for daytime pics on overcast days.

Shutter Speed

Next is shutter speed. Shutter speed is how fast the lens is opened and closed, to put it simply. So you need to set a fast shutter speed in order to catch the aircraft in an instant - in order to get a sharp, crisp image of it (unless you are doing pan shots or long exposures-but don’t worry, we can get to those later). The shutter must open and close very rapidly - faster than you can blink your eye.) BUT, the faster a shutter opens and closes, the less light gets in. (Faster shutter = less light).

Now you are facing a problem. You have set the ISO to a low setting so that there is almost no noise in your pics. But the low ISO setting has reduced the amount of light. And you have set the shutter to open and close ultra quickly so that the aircraft is caught in an instant which means it will be crisp and sharp. But the fast shutter speed has also reduced the amount of light. So unless you increase the amount of light getting in, you will have a black picture showing nothing.

Aperture (f-stop)

So lets move on to the aperture (aka f-stop). Aperture is how wide an opening in your lens is. The lower the f-stop setting, the more light that will get in thru the shutter. (Lower f-stop = more light)

My suggestion is to set your f-stop setting to either f8 or f9 on sunny days, and then a lower aperture (f5 or so) on overcast days.

White Balance

There is one final setting - White Balance. White balance will control the “temperature” of the photo. It will be labeled / identified by the two letters “WB.” If the day is Sunny, you set it to Sunny. If it is overcast, you set it to Cloudy. (If you are inside and the room has fluorescent lights, you set it to Fluorescent, etc).
OR - you can just set it to AWB . AWB means Auto White Balance. The camera decides what type of White Balance is needed for the situation. Personally, I do not like to use AWB very much, but some people think it is the best setting to use.

OK. Now you have set everything. The camera would do it automatically in AUTO – BUT – the camera doesn’t know you are trying to snap moving airplanes so the camera doesn’t know you need a fast shutter speed. It thinks you are taking a picture of someone or something that is standing still. So the camera says to itself - if the ISO is 800 and the shutter is 1/200th of a second and the f-stop is f14, the light will be enough to get an image on the card. The camera doesn’t know (or care) that the image will be blurry AND noisy. So manual is the way to go.

And there you have it! Next up will be the editing process. Let me know if this helped you!
PART 2 IS OUT: Aviation Photography Basics (Pt. 2, editing)


This is really interesting. Ill use this for reference when taking photos at airports!

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I will have more to post.

I like this. I want to take photography soon so I can spot airplanes. I will definitely refer back to this thread for help.


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Glad to help you! I hope you get some good shots! Also, I will be writing more info and guides later today hopefully.

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Thanks for making this! I think I’m going spotting this weekend with my first non iPhone (it’s an old superzoom but still better than my 6S). I’ve also heard of people shooting with Shutter Priority, is that viable? The only problem with that (and you mentioned it) is that with a fast shutter speed the camera likes to hike up the ISO to like 1600 and then you’ve got a lot of grain, is there any way to combat that? I would use manual but I’m still new to all this camera business and I’ll probably mess it up. Also I’m spotting in the evening hours, from like 5:30 to 7:30, would I need to adjust the ISO to like 600 or something as it darkens?

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You mention that in order to get good photos you should get a proper (preferably DSLR) camera, which is quite right. It is however also important to note that a good lens is crucial. Bad glass will give bad photos, regardless of how high tech and expensive the camera body is.


Good to have a spotting tutorial, a more user friendly tutorial. I think this should be moved to Spotting since it is affiliated with Spotting.

Here is the old one


Honest opinion. I think this is great but should included some known spotter spots that are generally good for any airport as well as some basic equipment for starters etc

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I usually in the evening bring the aperture to the lowest possible and try to keep the ISO at 800 or below. Hopefully that should give you enough room to speed the shutter speed up, and keep the noise down. The only thing is that sometimes you want a slowed shutter speed if you are trying for a pan shot.

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Nice! I personally use AWB unless I’m indoors (in which case the images always turn out orange).

As @N1RG said, here are some good starter cameras for beginners (note: APS-C DSLR, don’t know much about mirrorless)

Canon: The Canon Rebel line (North America) is pretty good.
Budget: T6 (1300D) + 75-300
Medium: T7i (800D)+ 55-250
$1000+: Canon 80D (Not a Rebel, but higher end) + 70-200 f4. You can also replace the 80D with a 7D Mark I.

As for Nikon, I don’t know know much about their cameras or lenses, however I’ve heard some good reviews about these cameras.

-D3XXX Line
-D5XXX Line

Those are my suggestions. I’d suggest going on Amazon and searching online for others.

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Slower shutter speed is good for prop blur as well.

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For sure. Unfortunately I have virtually no chances to try that here in Baltimore, we get no turboprop service.

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The FZ70 I have only goes between like F5.6-F8 or something like that, would 5.6 work? I’m planning on getting a Rebel soon.

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It should work, but it depends on how much light you are talking about…

That’s a good idea in the first place, however there are far too many different airports to give instructions for all, there are plenty of websites around for that anyway.

Generally you should have the sun behind you so the pictures don’t end up backlit but that’s all you can say about that part without making the post longer than the Bible.


Are you sure on this one? It sounds a bit counter-intuitive to reduce the amount of light entering the lens when there is less light. If there’s a particular reason to do that I would love to know why though :)

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Oops. Thanks for pointing that one out. My mistake.

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Higher aperature usually means a sharper image (as long as it isn’t too high that there’s diffraction)

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Yeah, I know that. The reason I was asking was that he first said you should use a higher number when it’s overcast (=when it’s darker). OP corrected that in the meantime since it did not only sound counter intuitive but actually was a kind of typo.

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