HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH AND EDIT SHINY AIRCRAFT
Hello IFC! I’ve gotten some requests for tips on editing shine onto aircraft, so I decided to make a tutorial.
First, the most important sentence of this entire topic:
You cannot create shine.
Let me say that again:
You cannot create shine.
Shine cannot just be pulled out of a magician’s hat. In order to make a plane shiny, the shine must already be present. Now that you know that, let’s get into the tutorial.
There are many variables that affect shine, and I have ranked them from what I consider the most to least important.
Also, I am writing this assuming that you have access to raw files. If you’re shooting JPEGs, you can still get shine but it will be more difficult.
The number one, most important factor to getting a shiny shot is having the proper lighting. You could have everything else in your favor, the best angle, the shiniest aircraft in the shiniest color, and if the lighting is bad you won’t get any meaningful shine whatsoever (unless you’re shooting All Blacks). If you have good lighting, you can pretty much salvage some shine no matter the angle, aircraft, or color, with some exceptions.
The most important thing to remember is that the lighting cannot be too harsh. That means the best time to get shine will pretty much always be winter. In general, the closer you get to the equator, the more difficult it is to get shine because the sun will remain more intense for a longer period of time (that rule somewhat breaks down very close to the equator). If the lighting is too harsh, it will essentially wash out the shine in favor of a all-white palette. Below, the photo on the left is taken in summer, while the photo on the right is taken in late winter. You can see the one on the right has way more potential to be shiny.
In addition to softer lighting, you are also looking for a nose-lit component. This means that if you were to hop into the flight deck of that aircraft, the sun would be just to the left or the right of directly ahead. Suncalc.org can be used to determine this for any spot at any airport during any time of year.
Once you have confirmed that the lighting will not be too harsh and will have a nose-lit component, there’s one last obstacle: volume of light. To get maximum shine, it’s generally best to shoot about 2-3 hours before sunset. The sun will be low enough, but not too low. Golden hour doesn’t actually hurt shine (my golden hour photo of C-FNOG is still shiny), but as light level falls, shine becomes less prominent. In the last 30 minutes before sunset it’ll be tough to pull any shine at all.
Summary: Soft light, nose-lit, adequate amount of light.
This is pretty simple. A front-type angle will always deliver more shine than a pure side shot. I don’t know the exact physics behind it but I think it’s for two reasons. First, the belly of the aircraft, where the shine normally is, appears larger in the photo. Second, you are presenting a greater cross-sectional area proportional to the frame than in a side shot, which allows more light to bounce off.
Summary: Shoot with a front-type angle for best results.
Aircraft type plays a pretty key role in the amount of shine you’re going to get. For the most part, 787s and A350s are your safest bets when it comes to shine. In good light, almost every single one shines, no matter the livery. The A320 NEO and 737 MAX families also shine well. 777s don’t shine as much as the aforementioned aircraft, but their fanblades sometimes make up for it. A380s and 747s shine better than average, but not as good as those mentioned above. Any regional jet is not going to shine well. They generally have way too small of a front cross-section to garner any shine. Any propeller-driven aircraft is not likely to shine well either, unless it is a wide one like an AN-12 or AN-22. Boeing and Airbus aircraft not mentioned above all shine to some degree, but aren’t exceptionally notable.
Some airlines keep their planes cleaner than others. Air Canada, for example, does a pretty good job at this and thus their 787s and 777s shine more than most other airlines.
Summary: Newer, bigger, cleaner planes shine more than others.
Believe it or not, this does matter. When I say color, I mainly mean on the belly of the plane. Planes with darker bellies (black, gray, blue) tend to reflect more. The reflection of light on their bellies creates slightly more contrast and emphasizes the shine.
However, planes with lighter bellies (mainly white) will still shine. The main thing that sets the two apart is editing. Darker bellied planes make it easier to enhance the shine since you can often increase the presence/shadows selectively on the contrasting belly alone, whereas that cannot be done on lighter-colored aircraft as it results in an unnatural looking line across the aircraft (in a dark-bellied plane, the line is already drawn for you).
This doesn’t apply only to bellies. Aircraft with full color on the fuselage (mainly talking about Air New Zealand’s All Blacks) tend to reflect incredibly well and also deliver reflections of the sky which can be really cool.
Summary: Darker-bellied planes reflect slightly more and are easier to edit.
This isn’t really something you can control nor is it something that matters a whole lot but I think it’s worth mentioning. If you photograph an aircraft flying over a scene with contrasting colors (mainly cars), it will reflect on the belly of the aircraft and create a cool design. Not every airport will offer this, but for the ones that do, it adds a special touch to the shine.
Summary: Objects on the ground can add to the shine.
Once you have a shot that has solid reflections in it, you’re ready to start editing. It is highly recommended to have a photo editor on PC for this. I personally use Photoshop. This makes it far easier to perform selective editing which is very important for maximum shine. If you don’t have access to a PC editor/selective editing, you can still have shine, you just have to be a little bit more careful with your presence sliders as to not introduce halos. Let’s edit the shot below. Note how it is a shot of a new aircraft with a dark belly in soft, nose-lit conditions, with objects on the ground creating different patterns. Perfect conditions for maximum shine.
You want to crop tight. If your camera doesn’t have the highest quality, you can still crop immediately outside the engines. It will be way easier to edit and the shine will take up more of the screen and be more prominent. Once you’ve decided on a crop, apply it and do all of the normal stuff like remove chromatic aberration and enable profile corrections. You can also increase/decrease the exposure if it’s pretty far off.
Make sure you’re certain on this crop. If you’re using Photoshop, loosen it slightly on all four sides - once you save, that crop will be locked in so you want to have some wiggle room. If you’re using Lightroom or some other brush tool, it will look very unnatural if you decide to make your crop looser later on, so pick something and commit to it.
I’m going to go with a crop like this because the engines are kind of far out at this angle and I really just want to accentuate the belly. When I put it into Photoshop, I’ll open it up a bit.
Reminder for all aviation photography: crop so that if someone asked you to provide reasoning for your crop, you could give a solid answer that’s not just “because I felt like it”. What are you trying to accent/show?
Summary: Use a tight crop for greater shine prominence.
Selective editing is incredibly important. In Photoshop, this is done by creating a layer isolating the aircraft from everything behind it. In Lightroom, it’s the brush tool with auto-mask (not as precise). I will go over the procedure using Photoshop, but the adjustments are the same as if you were using Lightroom/any other editor with a brush, the process is just slightly different.
The main reason this is helpful is because the presence sliders (texture, clarity, dehaze) as well as shadows are the best at enhancing shine, but they tend to cause halos. If they’re applied to the plane only and not the sky, there’s no place to cause halos on, allowing you to reap the benefits without drawbacks.
In Lightroom, use the brush tool with auto-mask, much more annoying to do in my opinion so I will only show Photoshop from here on out.
In Photoshop, there are two ways to do it. You can either use the Quick Selection tool alone or use a combination of the Pen tool and Quick Selection tool. I like using the Pen tool.
This part is a little tedious but worth it. All you need to do is outline the plane. The first time you try this might take you 30 minutes, but once you do it a few times the workflow develops and you can get it done in 10-15. You can ignore the gear if they’re up against sky, because Quick Selection locks onto those very easily.
After this, right click and hit “Make Selection”.
Now, use the Quick Selection tool to select the gear and buff out all of the small crevices. You don’t want to miss these, because even if your edit is immaculate, if you miss a small patch of sky it will ruin it. Some aircraft have small sections of exposed wire, especially around the gear. Just act like they don’t exist because they take way too long to work around and don’t affect the final image.
Sometimes, Quick Selection can be a little stubborn. It’s just something you need to work around. Generally, the best way to counter this is to give Quick Selection no choice but to lock on to where you want. For example, if it keeps locking onto an area you don’t want it to, mark that area as an area that should not be locked onto and proceed.
Pro tip: It’s way easier for the Quick Selection tool to lock on if the “running ants” are surrounding the sky, not the plane. Not sure why, but that’s what I’ve noticed.
Use Control (or Command) + Shift + I (as in India) to invert the selection if needed. Control (or Command) + J to create a new layer, should look like this (you can toggle layer visibility on the right). Now you’re ready to start editing.
Summary: Isolating the plane with selective editing allows you to go more wild on the editing.
In Photoshop, once you have the layer of the plane, you can hit “Filter” -> “Camera Raw” and go from there (in Lightroom just adjust the brush settings).
Shadows is normally the first slider I alter (that, and exposure). Oftentimes you can get a decent shine by just upping shadows to +50 or something like that. You don’t want to go too high, however, because it can make the whole thing look super unnatural, especially the gear (turns blue), engines (inside turns blue), cockpit windows (become light gray), and wings (just lacking contrast in general).
Remember, even if you’re going for shine you still need to maintain a normal level of contrast to get it to look good, which is where the next sliders come in. It will look a little unnatural at the stage - totally okay, as long as it’s not excessive.
Background Exposure +0.80, Aircraft Exposure +1.10, Shadows +45
Summary: Upping shadows some is a simple adjustment which starts to build in the shine.
In normal editing, I normally advise people to avoid these three sliders because all three can ruin your photo pretty fast. However, in selective editing you don’t have to worry as much (you won’t introduce halos), so you can use these to your advantage.
Dehaze tends to work best in medium amounts, especially on dark-bellied planes. It brings contrast and also enhances the shine. Texture is good for bringing out, well, texture, especially when coupled with soft light. Don’t go above 40 or 50 though, because then the plane starts to take on a weird, smooth texture. Clarity isn’t totally needed but it can be used in amounts < 15 to add a bit more contrast.
There’s a lot of experimenting to be done. In Photoshop, you might be making adjustments to the same layer 10, 15, maybe even 20 times. Also, use HSL sliders to tone down the blue a bit if it gets too crazy after dehaze. Once again, beware if you are not selectively editing to not use too much of any of these. The photo, after a few adjustments, is now looking like this:
Aircraft Dehaze +20, Texture +50, Clarity +5 (Net values over many adjustments)
Summary: Use presence sliders to add contrast back in and accentuate the shine.
At this point, there’s one thing, in my opinion, that you should 100% do every time. Upping shadows and using presence sliders often gives the gear and cockpit windows a funny look. It’s not so bad on either in this photo. However, I’ll still select the windows and create a new layer, and then turn down both the saturation and exposure/blacks. This will return the cockpit windows to its normal look.
The second thing is personal preference. I like to put a gradient over my shiny photos. I think it promotes the overall “artistic” vibe. However, it’s not for everyone and you could totally go without a gradient.
Third thing, you can increase the vibrance of airline logos and text if you want, you just need to select it and make it a new layer and go from there. Tedious, but sometimes (not always) worth it. I won’t be doing it on this photo because I don’t think it’s needed.
Last thing, make small adjustments as you see fit, because often if you get locked in an editing cycle you end up going overboard. Now is your chance to correct that.
Background Gradient 5 x 10% Soft Light, Vibrance +10, Aircraft Blacks -25
Summary: After doing large adjustments with sliders, smaller adjustments can be made to refine the photo.
Save, put it back into Lightroom, maybe finalize the crop, add some touches, and export. Here’s the final product:
Exposure +0.20, Contrast +10, Blacks -10, Sharpening 40 (Radius 0.5, Detail 25, Masking 21), Sharpen on Export (For Screen, Normal)
Editing for shine is something that takes a lot of practice. If you expect perfection the first time you will be sorely disappointed. There’s a bit of a learning curve to it, and because it takes quite a chunk of time many don’t ever fully unlock their potential for it. However, if you power through it, I guarantee you’ll appreciate the time you took to develop the skill when you see the results.