Common mistakes made in Aviation Photography

I like to shine a spotlight on some common mistakes I’ve made in the pass along with countless others who love photographing aircraft. Mistakes if left unchecked, can turn into bad habits and poor processes. There are four common errors I want to discuss that deals with aviation photography, but the same infractions can be seen in other genres of photography as well.

The first is pure black shadows. The undersides of wings, tailplanes and anywhere that falls into shadow. If your image were shot in early morning or late afternoon, most likely your shadows will be extremely dark. It’s those images shot mid-day with shadows that are as dark as night that I want to address. Here’s the thing, shadows are darker tones not pure black. Don’t believe me, go outside and take a look. So, why does this happen? One of two reasons. Either it’s a result of poor exposure or bad post processing. You the photographer, should understand how your camera exposes an image and know how to properly adjust your settings to get the correct exposure. If you use Lightroom, Photoshop, Elements or whatever… You should have a good understanding on how to correct and adjust exposure in your software. I can’t stress this enough, Google and YouTube are your know it all friends. Take advantage of them and learn from them.

The freezing of propellers on aircraft and rotors on helicopters is the next issue. When you freeze the rotors on a helicopter or the prop on a plane, you end up with a very silly looking image. As if they’re floating motionless about to fall out of the sky. It’s an easy mistake to make and can be challenging to overcome. It’s a result of having your shutter speed too fast. And it goes against that saying of having your shutter speed be at least your focal length. Meaning, if you’re shooting with a 400mm lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1/400th of a second. Even at 1/400th it’s just barely enough to blur a prop and will still freeze a main rotor. Here’s a technique that I’ve use with a fair degree of success. I’ll start shooting around 1/320th and after each pass of an aircraft, I’ll lower my shutter speed. Shoot and chimp to see if it’s sharp. If it is, I’ll either go slower or stay where I’m at. And if the image is blurry and out of focus, I’ll crank up the shutter. Getting rotor blur on helicopters is much more difficult. They spin much slower than props. Which means you’re going to need to lower the shutter speed even lower. I’m not going to try and make it sound easy. Because hand holding and shooting a large telephoto lens at slow shutter speeds is not. But with time and practice, you can and will find the shutter speed range you’re comfortable with.

Next, let’s discuss poor composition. Not talking about images of flying aircraft. Which is heavily influenced by what auto focus point you have selected. I’m talking about images of aircraft on the ground. Placing your subject dead center of the frame is not only boring, it’s less appealing then a well composed image. An overlooked aspect of composition is foreground and background. Having them cluttered or distracting can take attention away from your subject. I feel the biggest accomplice to poor composition is being in a hurry to “Get the shot” and not thinking about what’s visually interesting and how do you want to show it.

Therefore, I feel every photographer should nurture their creative eye as much as possible along with develop some type of shooting routine. To understand what makes an image “Pop”, how to draw your viewers eye deeper into your image and to connect with them. It’s always good to have somewhat of an idea of what you want to shoot before heading out to an event. Just knowing what it is your trying to capture is a start to having a routine. And it’s part of mine. Once I’ve an idea of what I’m trying to capture, I then try to find the edges of the frame that is catching my eye. I then compose my image, shoot and review. If I’m not pleased with the way it turned out, I then recompose, shoot and review until I’m satisfied. There will be situations where you will not have enough time to go through your routine. But if you have one and you practice it enough. When the time comes, you’ll be ready and be able to quickly go through the motions of your routine to capture the moment.

Good Composition

Finally, is poor sorting of images you’re showing. Showing 7-8 slightly different images of the same aircraft is a quick way to lose your viewers’ attention. If it’s your personal website, Facebook or Instagram. You should be able to find the best images of what it is that you want to share with your audience. Coming up with a sorting process will help you find the right images to show. Having some sort of process and the discipline to follow it is key. Here’s a link to my process that I’ve been using successfully for years, “The Pain of Sorting”. It may work well for you or it may not. You should find a sorting process that is right for you.

With a better understanding of exposure, a newfound confidence in panning, some experience with composition along with knowing how to find the images that best express what you want to show, your photography will continue to grow.

 

Until next time,

Steven

A Study in Color

Years ago, for my birthday I got myself at the time was Canon’s new 7D. And was itching to play with it. My plan was simple. Set up a subject, take a shot and change the background. All the while, getting familiar with functions of my new camera. I went out and bought two small bouquets of flowers along with five sheets of different color of art paper for backgrounds. Looking back, this exercise taught me more than the functions of my new 7D. It showed me how colors effect the mood of an image. Along with the importance of composition and spacing.

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The exercise is easy to set up. Here’s a list of needed things.

  • A camera with a shutter release and a tripod. You can use the timer if you do not have a shutter release.
  • A table for your subject. Along with a vase or something to hold your flowers up right.
  • Colored paper. Any non glossy color paper will do. I used Canson Colorline art paper because it’s inexpensive and large enough to use as a background. You can find it at most arts & crafts stores. Also, tape to hold up them in place while shooting. If you want to have a black background, I suggest using a piece of felt cloth.
  • Flowers. I just picked up whatever was in season at the local grocery store. Get whatever catches your eye. But be sure to pick out the healthy-looking flowers you can afford. As you don’t want to have to heal damage petals and leaves in Photoshop.

Me being a natural light shooter. I set up my exercise inline with a window to the outside. Not next to it yet far enough to softly light my subjects. Set up your selected colorful little beauty closer to your camera then the background. Now, take a few test shots to narrow down your depth of field to just your subject. For now, don’t worry about composing the shot. With your depth of field just covering your subject, this will make your background read as solid color.

With your scene set up, it’s time for the fun to begin! Carefully compose your image and take the shot. Be sure not to disturb your scene, change out your background and re-shoot. Repeat and rinse until you have gone through your backgrounds. You will see what works well and what doesn’t. Along with how a simple color swap can alter the mood of an image. Explore some different yet interesting compositions. Don’t hold back. Switch it up, play around and have fun. This can easily be a lock-down project for photographers who want to keep their skills sharp and honed.

Stay safe and busy,

Steven

The Pain of Sorting

If you have spent any time photographing airshows, you know just how rapidly you can shoot a 1000 images. After I shoot a two-day event, I can easily have over 8000 images. It can be a bit overwhelming trying to sort through thousands of photos. After years of shooting, sorting, and uploading images, I have come up with a system of sorting image that helps me find the images I want to show and share. They are no right or wrong way to sort your images. This is just what I have learned that works well for me. It may or may not work for you. With that being said, this is how I sort my images I want to share.

To start, it would good have an idea of what you are trying to show? Are you just documenting the event? Showing a series of events. Are you trying a photographic technique like panning? Maybe your following a certain act or performer. Me, I want to show the overall feeling of the TICO show for my blog. I try to limit myself to 50 images per event. Images with vibrant clarity and unique to me. Before I even start my sorting process, I make a duplicate set of images I’m going to be working with. I never play/sort/edit… with the original’s files. In my system, I look at every image I shot during that event. Yes, every last one of them. The truth is, you do not know what you got until to see it. It’s exciting went you stumble upon something unexpected. You also have to understand that this process happens over a couple days and not in one sitting. Personally, I could not imagine taking images and not looking at them. What would the point of capturing images and not looking at them?

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Basically, my system is viewing all my images from a show or an event and in a series of rounds, I delete the crap and get to a set number of images that show what I’m trying to tell. I used Window image viewer to view and delete unwanted photos. I find the copied folder(s) and open the first image and start sorting. Hitting the next image button if it’s a keeper or delete it if it’s junk.

window image viewer

The first round of images I delete are the painfully obvious out of focus photos. Along with images that my subject is blocked by something. Hats, heads, antenna, speaker, airshow smoke, other aircraft…Gone. Along with images that parts of the subject is cut off. Missing noses, tails, wings, horizontal stabilizer. The struggle is Real.

Rules can be broken. It could make for something interesting images.

For the TICO show, I shot a tad over 7,900 images over 3 days on 2 bodies. (7DMKII and 70D) After the first round, I’m down to about 3500 images. For the next round of deletions, images that don’t fill the frame as I liked. I enjoy showing aircraft as large as possible with little to no negative space around it. So, all the images I feel are too small must go. You have to find the images that has the spacing that you like.

Also, in this round if there are a few clouds in the sky (not completely overcast but a few here and there) like on Friday and Saturday, those images stayed. But the images with a clear blue background, delete. Aircraft live and play in the sky. For me, it’s pretty boring seeing an aircraft perfectly centered in a clear blue sky.

No clouds

And with!

I love showing clouds, but my new thing is blurring them. It’s difficult to do but it shows a sense of motion along with making your subjects really stand out and pop. Some photographers use image stabilization while panning, I get better results without and don’t use it. This works well for me. You have to use what works well with You.

Another type of image I delete in this round are uninteresting belly shots, images where the wing of the aircraft is covering the canopy along with going away shots. Images where you are looking at the ass end of an aircraft with nothing interesting to see. Like the flames of an afterburner, some dangling vertices or a puff vapor. In general, I feel  most belly shots are boring image. And I don’t want to lose my readers attention with dull images. The proposes of sorting this way is to find the most visual pleasing image possible.

Now, I am down to about 250 images. In this round, it’s time to get rid of the multiples or duplicate images that looks the same but shot on different days. For instants, Sunday’s weather crapped out and very few Sunday images made the cut. Here are two similar  shots, the first one is from Friday’s show and the second is from Sunday’s show. I feel Friday images are much better than Sundays. After this round, my image count should be in the 100 to 120ish range.

Final round. Now, the hard part starts. Weeding it down to 50. This is where it is important to know what your trying to show. To pick the correct images for you. What helps me, is to ask myself a series of questions and being brutally honest with myself.

What makes this image better than the others? Does this image express what it is I’m trying to show? Which has the better uses line, color, composition, symmetry? Which image has the better or cleaner background? Is there something else taking away attention from the subject? Which image has the better exposure?

After this round, it’s post process time. The less time I spend in Lightroom and or Photoshop, the sooner I can upload and post. Now I’m down to 50. This number is not set in stone. Events like AirVenture at Oshkosh are too grand to cover with just 50 images. Again, therefore I feel it is so important to know what it is you are trying to show. My sorting process is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a system. A system that help me weed through the crap and discover my gems. I hope my process can help you with your madness of sorting.

To see my final selection of images, look here https://anadventureinawesome.com/2017/05/27/better-late-than-never/

Until next post,

Steven

Using up my Bag of Tricks

Show 6, post 1: Northern Illinois Airshow

On September 9th, I drove over to Waukegan for the Northern Illinois airshow. The home show for Warbird Heritage foundation. I meet up with my good friend and fellow photographer, Rob Wetterholt. It was a great little show with a nice line up of performers along with a well laid out static display. I set out to try again to capture a sense of motion while shooting jets. The weather forecast called for partly cloudy skies in the morning and clearing skies as the day went on. By the time things started flying, the sky was clear and blue. I was a little disappointed about not getting the opportunity to try to do some cloud blurring but it’s Mother Nature, what are you going to do? For this show, I rented the Canon 5DSR again and my old friend, the 400mm F/5.6L. Canon’s 400mm F/5.6L is a hidden gem of a lenses. I bought the 100-400mm MKI and the 400 5.6 at the same time. After shooting both lenses, I was turned off by the softness of the 100-400 and sold it. I shoot the 400 5.6 for years and absolutely fell in love with its clarity and sharpness. Before I sold it and got my 500mm F/4.5, I got comfortable shooting it slow. Like 1/80th for takeoff/landing and 1/160th for flying and getting good constant results. The 400 5.6 is not a low light lenses and does not has image stabilization. But what it is, an amazing light weight sunny day lenses that is easy to shoot handheld. In ideal shooting condition, it’s a joy to shoot. I had my 500mm for about 2 years now and still growing into it. But after returning to the 400 5.6, I’m strongly considering getting it again. I had no problem with shooting it slow again.

Which leads me into the title of this post, Using up my Bag of Tricks”. After shooting for some time, I have gathered a few techniques that I like to use to help capture images that I see. These are not anything that I myself have come up with but things I use to try to make my images stand out from others. While shooting at the Northern Illinois Airshow, I got the chance to use all my bag of tricks. Which does not happen too often. This post I’m going to share with you my small but slowly growing bag of tricks.

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Shooting slow to get a sense of motion and speed

This is the hardest of my tricks and I’m still trying to master it. It is my favorite way to isolate a subject. With the background blurred out and the subject tack sharp, the result is an image that shows a great sense of speed and motion. Here’s the thing about panning, it is the same if you’re panning an aircraft in flight, a person riding a bike or a race car on the track. Panning is panning, subject does not matter. What does matter is finding a stance and motion that YOU are comfortable with while panning. It is not the same for everybody, what works well for me may not work for you. This may sound dumb but holding your gear properly is a big factor too. While shooting, you HAVE to be stable and smooth while panning. Shooting a telephoto lenses handheld and at a low shutter speed is not easy but with practice, you can master it. Two important things I want to mention. First, whatever lenses you are using, keep your fingers away from the manual focusing ring while shooting. It does not matter if your using auto focus or any other type of focusing, if you turn the manual focusing ring while shooting, it will override any other focusing type resulting in soft and or out of focus images. And second, use a single auto focus point along with continuous tracking and shooting while panning. Do not use all auto focus points along with continuous tracking and shooting while panning. You’re going to confuse the shit out of your camera and will result in soft and out of focus images.

With the 400 5.6, I shot takeoffs/landings from 1/80th to 1/100th. Shoot flying subject slow depended on the background to show a sense of motion. During the show, the sky was clear blue and was no reason to shoot slow. But one the Hoppers, flying L-39s did do a very low flat pass that on the bottom of the frame has some blurred tree tops. It is not the sharpest image but you get the idea.

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I went down to 1/30th (5DSR/400 5.6) on the Skyraider “Bad News” to get a full ark of the propeller as it taxies back to the hot ramp.

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Shooting Low

Or I like to call it, “Doing the Alligator”. Laying on the ground with the camera at ground level, shooting up at your subject. The main problem I have with doing this technique is have a clean and unclutter background. Which at most airshows and aviation events is hard to come by. I have seen this type of shot done with wide angle lenses but I like using something with a bit more reach. Along with, I like to drop the horizon as low as I can and show very little of the ground. Giving the subject a proud stance and a strong presence in the frame. It’s fun to do on a grass field too, shooting through the weeds. You can also use this technique to shoot under airshow fences like this shot from Plames of Fame. Just be careful and mindful of your surroundings. People can and will walk on top of you and your gear.

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Shooting High

Getting up and shooting down on your subjects is something I would like to do more often. There are many ways to do so. Many shows and events have portable stairs alongside aircraft so you can take a peek inside the cockpit, it’s a great location to shoot surrounding aircraft from up high. Another way to photograph aircraft from a higher location is to use a monopod, live view mode and self-timer. I add this technique to my bag of tricks last year at the Planes of Fame show. With my Canon 70D and 70-200mm, I extended all the sections on my monopod, switch to live viewing so I can see what the camera is looking at on the view screen, angled the tile screen down so when I raise the monopod up I can see what I’m trying to shoot. With the camera auto focus drive switched to self-timer 10 secs and in aperture priority @ F/4 to have a high enough shutter speed to not worry about camera shake when the camera is up in the air. Depress the shutter button to start the timer, holding the bottom of the monopod, quickly raise the camera up where I want to shoot. Looking up at the view screen tiled down, compose the shot, hold everything steady and wait for the timer to end. Lower the camera and check the results. It takes some time getting used to but well worth the effort.

Tiling the frame

This is by far the simplest trick in my bag and probably the most controversial. I have found that other either love it or hate it. I love it. I feel it adds visual interest to the subject and maybe some attitude as well. You can also combine this technique with others for even more visual interest.

Trick no# 4?

My newest trick I added to my bag I really don’t know what to call it. It’s showing an aircraft in a series of images. Each image can stand alone but place side by side, you can visualize the whole aircraft. I unconsciously started doing it at the Selfridge show. Just another way for me look at things differently and to see new images. This is something I’m going play with, nurture and make more my own.

Along with the elements of design and my mind’s eye, I feel confident I can capture images unique to me.

To view larger images, click on thumbnails

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Until next post,

Steven