|When people first start taking photos of either civilian aviation or military aviation one of the most common questions is…. “What settings should I use?”Even experienced photographers will change their preferred settings over time; usually because of a change of DSLR body or lens.The following is a guide to taking aviation pictures with the Canon EOS range of digital SLR (DSLR) cameras and lenses based on my experiences. I’ve used the Canon EOS 20D, 30D, 40D, 1D Mark II and 7D along with the Canon 75-300, 70-300 IS, 100-400 L IS, 300 f/4 L IS, 400 f/5.6 L and Sigma 300 f/2.8. This guide will be focused around these but the principles and theory can be applied to other makes and models.
There aren’t a magic set of settings that can be applied to all camera and in all conditions. You should start with a base set of settings and then adjust them as needed.
Focus should be set to Auto Focus (AF) and the mode set to AI Servo.
Normally a camera will focus until it achieves a lock on the subject. If the subject moves then it will become out of focus.
Of course, an aircraft rarely stays still so this would rapidly become a problem. Setting AF to AI Servo tells the camera to constantly keep looking for a focus lock. This will allow you to keep the subject in focus.
The centre focus point should be selected.
By only selecting the centre focus point you reduce the chance that the camera will find something to lock onto that isn’t the aircraft.
Evaluative exposure mode should be set and exposure compensation used to correct over or underexposure.
You can either go for the standard evaluative mode that will meter everything the camera can see or you could go for a weighted or averaged mode that will give priority to metering of the centre of the image.
I prefer to use evaluative mode and manually adjust the exposure as needed with exposure compensation. This gives you the most amount of control and avoids potential problems of shooting aircraft with both bright and dark paint jobs.
Av (Aperture) or Tv (Shutter) Mode?
Ideally Tv but you may need to use Av.
Fast Jet in the sky – 1/1000s
A simple question and the most commonly asked but the answer is a complicated one.
You are balancing a number of factors when taking a picture.
You will want to keep the lens at least one stop down of its maximum aperture up to about f/8, so for a f/4 lens you would ideally be between f/5.6 and f/8.
You will want to have an ISO that limits the noise in the image. Generally speaking this is ISO 400 or lower.
Finally, you will want a shutter speed that captures the image type you are looking for e.g. slow shutter speed for prop blur or high shutter speed to freeze a split second event like a fast jet pulling vapour.
These three factors are all interlinked. Adjust one and you affect the other two. To this end you have to prioritise one and be flexible with the other two. For aviation photography this means shutter speed as it controls the whole look of the photo.
Let’s say you want to capture a fast jet performing a display at an air show. You will want to have at least a 1/1000s shutter speed to produce a sharp picture and capture split seconds of the display. To get this speed you need to increase the ISO or lower the aperture size but you are constrained by your acceptable ISO range and the range of apertures your lens can handle.
For f/2.8 lenses this usually isn’t a problem as you have a large range of usable apertures allowing you to get high shutter speeds without having to use a high ISO setting. With this setup you can use Tv mode and set your desired shutter speed safe in the knowledge that your lens will be able to produce with size of aperture needed. This allows you to control the look of your photo without compromising the quality.
For f/5.6 lenses you may not be able to get 1/1000s without use of a high (unacceptably noisy) ISO setting. Shooting with Tv mode and 1/1000s set on a lower ISO will either cause the camera to underexpose the image or the camera will try to compensate and drop the shutter speed to a lower setting. Neither which are not desirable. With this setup many users simply swap to Av mode and accept whatever shutter speed they can achieve at an ISO setting they are willing to use.
Suggested Settings for Canon EOS DSLRs
Canon 20D / 30D /40D
Focus set to Auto Focus
Canon 1D Mark II
Focus set to Auto Focus
AI Servo mode
Types of Aviation Photography
Your settings will have to be adjusted for the weather conditions and the type of photography you are attempting.
I think aviation photography can be summed up into three main categories:
Air Base / Airport Photography:
Taking pictures at an air base or at an airport is the more predictable side of aviation photography. You get to choose the day you go on (giving you some control on the weather conditions), you will know which direction the planes will be coming from, you can choose where you shoot from (within reason and local laws!) and the speed of the aircraft will generally be slow.
Before you start taking pictures watch an aircraft on approach, landing and taking off. Get an idea where they touch down or rotate. Work out roughly what focal length you will need to fit the aircraft in the frame (this will give you one less thing to do when you start shooting). Figure out what shot you are going for.
Also look at the background. There are a lot of ugly looking aerials, dishes, lights and other structures at an airport and airbase that could ruin your shot. Try to pick a location where you don’t have these or adjust your location so you can shoot in-between them.
Try to pick up the aircraft early as you can in the viewfinder. Follow the aircraft and when it is filling about 10% of the viewfinder half press the shutter release. This will give the auto-focus system a good chance to acquire a good focus lock and to start to track the subject.
Follow the aircraft until you either have the shot you want or it has filled the frame. Shoot a few frames to give yourself a choice of which one to use.
You will want to use a lower that normal shutter speed to give some sense of speed or to blur the background if you have an ugly object to hide in the shot but keep in mind as you lower the shutter speed you increase the chance of introducing more shake into the picture.
The general rule is to try to keep the shutter speed one over the focal length i.e. for a 300mm lens you would want to have 1/300s to avoid shake. Of course some people’s hands are steadier than others so you may need more or less. Image stabilisation also helps but make sure you are in Mode 2 to allow panning.
You may also find that this doesn’t give you enough motion blur in your image and you will need to break the rule. A smooth panning motion will help but I would suggest you shoot more frames as your hit rate will decline.
Air Show Photography:
Air show photography is almost the complete opposite of shooting at an airport or air base. You don’t get to choose the day, your position is defined by the crowd line and unless you’ve seen the particular display before you will have little idea what to expect.
The one aspect you do have in your favour is the sky. It will be a lot easier to achieve high shutter speeds with your lens pointed skywards. You won’t have to worry about what is in the background either.
With this type of photography you have to be an opportunist. Track the aircraft as long as you can and wait for your chance of a good photo. Due to the unpredictable nature of the air display you will also want to increase your shutter speed more than you usually would e.g. increasing from 1/1000s to 1/1200s for a fast jet display.
You will want to use short bursts to give yourself a choice of shots but you will need to keep an eye on how many shots you have left in your buffer (this is usually displayed as a number visible through the eye piece). It takes time for the camera to write the buffer to the memory card and you might miss a good photo if you fill your buffer (if you decide to shoot in JPEG rather than RAW this will be less of an issue).
Military Operational Photography:
Military operational photography covers pictures of the armed forces involved in exercises and training missions. This is a large category and it won’t be possible to cover all aspects of it.
I have written an article about low level aviation to read more click here.
Focus Out To Infinity
To help prevent the lens from hunting for a focus lock you can manually set the focus of the lens to infinity (some lenses you may need to switch to manual focus to do this, remember to set it back to auto focus).
AI Servo is an important feature for an aviation photographer, allowing tracking of a fast or erratic object. An important concept to understand when using it is that the first photo taken with AI Servo set is optimised for speed. This means the camera will take the picture regardless of if it has the subject in focus. The second, and all further, pictures in a burst will be optimised for focus and will wait for focus to be achieved before taking the picture.
With this in mind you are best to shoot a minimum burst of two or three. Expect to discard the first photo so shoot a little earlier with the aim that the second photo in your burst being the picture you are trying to capture.