Airshow – Wow Time

Air show planes in flight images from photographer Mark Laurie of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

It’s been a long time since I hit an air show and I had forgotten how exciting they are, being at an air force base. This one was at the Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Nice place to be when we had snow back home. I thought this would be a great contrast to the earlier biplane story.

For gear to an Air Show, keep it pretty simple. Longest lens you’ve got, since they spend their time pretty far way. This is one of the places the half chip cameras get an edge. My friend Vic, who was shooting with me, had the half chip with a 200 to 400ml zoom. The chip nearly doubled his zoom reach, which had him shooting nearly triple the reach of my 70 to 200ml zoom.

A tripod or monopod is a real help to get sharp images. It also reduces the fatigue from holding your gear for so long. Lens hoods are a real flair saver. The planes constantly change their orientation to the sun. It is not a friendly environment for changing lenses, so bring a second camera if you want two perspectives.

Get there early. The shows usually start closer to midday (ours started at 11am), but they also open very early. You can still get some great light on the static display planes. It’s nice to get those before the crowds get thick, making it more challenging to get clear shots.

Remember textures. There are lots to photograph with macro and close up shots. Many have amazing artwork, plus lots and lots of rivets. There is more than planes there too; there are flags, support vehicles, along with restoration planes. These planes are pretty rough, they are there looking for donations to finish the refurb job.

Snag a program; these will give you details on the pilots, plane type and name. There is lots of information for your metadata records. If you post on Facebook it gives you hooks into their crowd as well.

One of the huge advantages of getting there early is securing your shooting spot. A popular show really fills up fast. Try to get as close to the runway fence as you can. Be mindful of what is opposite of you. Many times the planes do a slow ‘n’ low fly by in front the stands. If you have a junky background, these shots are useless.

Some Tech Considerations:

Air show planes in flight images from photographer Mark Laurie of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

The whole show is about speed; even the slow planes are going pretty fast. So you want to set things up for a fast shutter speed. You might need to set your ISO up to 200 or even 400, depending on the light.

The depth of field is not a big deal because you are shooting at a distance, so even a shallow depth of field won’t be too much. Since you will be shooting with a long lens, it’s important to note the lens size and set your shutter speed faster than that.

For example, if you have a 200ml lens, your shutter speed should exceed 200th of second to avoid camera shake. If you put you camera on a tripod, remember to turn off the lens stabilizer or it will work against you.

Have lots of memory chips. You will be taking lots of images but most are going to be throwaways.

Shoot in the highest file size possible – raw if you have that option. Because of the distance, you will be doing a lot of cropping in on many of your images.

The smaller, older planes will often fly in shapes, hearts, loops, etc. Be watchful of that so you can pull out and catch the full shape.

Wear good, solid shoes. You will be on your feet on hard surfaces for a long time. Drink lots of water and plan for food. Likely it’s going to be a sunny, warm day, so be prepared with suntan lotion, hats that won’t interfere with your camera handling, and bug spray if it’s that season.

Bring along a grey card of some type to get the colour locked in.

Clean your camera sensor before you come. Dust and specs really show up on a flat blue background. 


Play with impressionistic approaches. Slow the shutter down to blur the plains.

Always leave some space in front of the planes for the sense they are going some place. Lots of your crops will wind up being narrow to avoid losing your plane in the big blue, but still setup for the rule of thirds. Compose to have planes flying into the frame rather than out of the frame. 

Watch your shadows. On a nice clear sunny day, the shadows are pretty sharp, hiding plane detail. They will often tilt the angle of the plane towards the audience.

When two or more planes are flying, be careful of their grouping. They often do precision flying which creates an amazing image, but your angle may see them as overlapping so it’s a messy shot. As they fly past, the apparent closeness changes. They often do the same pass or routine a few times.


I had a great time taking these. If you are really serious about getting amazing shots, plan to be there both days for larger air shows. Usually they do the same show each day. The first day is the surprise day; the second is the planned day. You know what you missed and what to expect from the pilots.

I found the older planes much more photogenic. They had colour, and they flew slower so they could spend more time in front of the crowd. They had smoke trails that could make interesting shapes.

Air Shows have a great big energy, astounding noise, with lots of colour. It’s a world of its own. For a photographer it’s a pretty cool place to be!

Air show planes in flight images from photographer Mark Laurie of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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