Blue Angels

Air Show Photography, What I’ve Learned

This post is about some of the things I’ve learned about photography at air shows.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended quite a few over the past 10 years, and I’ve done 2 so far this year with one more to go next month.

Arrive Early
I can’t stress this point enough.  Air Shows can get very crowded, but I hold to this old adage, “the early bird gets the worm”.  This simple phrase contains powerful wisdom, not just for air shows, but for many things in life!  Regarding air shows, be there when the gates open.  You’ll have less people to deal with if you want clean photos of the planes on the ground.  And you can stake out your spot early.  I usually find a place somewhere along the front of the fence line, either where the planes take off or land.  It seems that the majority of the crowd arrives very close to when the show starts, and will pile up behind you.  While most of the action is in the air, over head, I still prefer to have an unobstructed view of the runway.

Photo Access
To get the best access available as a non-working professional photographer, check to see if the air show you want to attend offers a photographer’s access/pass.  This year, 2 of the 3 shows I have attended offer this option, the LA County Air Show (Photo Tour Pass) and the Chino Planes of Fame Air Show (Sunrise Photo Pass). They do cost more, but in addition to allowing a limited number of air show enthusiasts sunrise access to all of the planes, they also include things like preferred parking and lunch.  The other benefit is that you will be in the company of other like-minded air show photographers!  I noticed how courteous the group at the LA County Air Show was and appreciated it.  They understood and respected each other’s space as we all worked our way around the planes trying to nail that keeper shot!

Be Prepared – Weather
I’ve attended air shows when it was cold and wanting to rain, and also when it was close to 120 degrees on the tarmac.  Watch the weather reports and prepare accordingly!  Feeling miserable while trying to catch the action at an air show is a recipe for lousy pictures.  If you know it’s going to be hot, don’t forget your sunscreen.  A wide brimmed hat offers better protection from the sun than a baseball cap.  And one final thing, wear comfortable shoes!  This should go without saying but I’ve seen everything from high heels to thin designer sandals.  There can be a lot of walking and standing at an air show, and having happy feet can be the difference between getting those perfect shots to wanting to just go home and soak your feet.

Be Prepared – Gear
While this really boils down to personal preference, I think a little planning ahead can help lighten your load.  Unless you’re going to go straight to your spot and sit there for the entire air show, you may want to narrow your gear down to the essentials.  What exactly are the essentials?  Good question!  It depends on what you are interested in.  Is your main focus the static displays on the ground?  If so, you may want a wide angle lens.  Do you want to get shots of the planes in the air when they fly by?  A good telephoto lens would be in order.  The gear I bring will fit into 1 bag (Lowepro Slingshot 202 AW). I’m able to put my Canon 60D, Tamron 70-700 and 200-500mm lens inside.  There’s also room for my Olympus E-M5, 7.5mm fisheye, 17mm, and 45-200mm lenses.  Finally, I bring a small tripod for my E-M5 (for the early morning, low light photos).  In addition, I have 2 batteries for the 60D, and 3 for the E-M5.  Each camera has a 32gb SD card, and I bring along several 16gb cards as back up.  One last thing regarding gear – don’t forget a light weight folding chair!

Be Patient
Unless a special area has been set aside for you, the general public will be everywhere.  It seems that some people have no sense of personal space, and will try everything to squeeze in and around you, including trying to go under you.  Some are polite, others are oblivious and don’t understand why you may be getting angry with them.  And unfortunately I’ve seen some photographers get pretty rude too.  Believe it or not, I personally try not to get upset.  If it’s a kid that just wants a better view of a pilot walking by or a plane taking off, I’ll usually let them in for a few minutes.  This also goes for an elderly person that is having trouble seeing the action from the back of the crowd, but only if there’s enough room!  My 200-500mm lens with it’s large lens hood has bonked more than one person standing too close when I’m following the planes in the air.  I’ve also found it best to work together with a couple other photographers to stake out our spots, and watch each others gear when someone needs to step away.  It sure beats lugging all of your gear with you to the porta-potty!

The Pictures
What should you take pictures of?  Depends on what you are interested in.  I’m not trying to be vague, but there is a lot going on at an air show and the photography options are varied.  Obviously there are the planes, both on the ground and in the air.  There are also the pilots and ground crews working on the planes.  There’s action on the ramp with planes getting ready to take off and on the other end where they land.  And don’t forget the crowds!  Sometimes you can get some interesting shots by including the crowd.  Look for angles and scenes not typically photographed, like the MC of the event and all of his equipment.  I got lucky once and got some great shots of a model dressed in a WWII outfit standing near one of the planes! There are literally thousands of photos of air shows with planes in the air.  Try to make yours stand out by being a little different.

The Results
In the end, you want results, pictures you are proud of and want to share!  With some preparation your odds will increase and hopefully you’ll come home with memory cards full of keepers!  Here are some examples from my last event, the LA County Air Show.

Blue Angels, Pilots
Blue Angels Pilots, Canon 60D , Tamron 200-500mm lens.


Air Show Performers Getting Ready
Air Show Performer getting ready, Canon 60D, Tamron 200-500mm lens.
Fly Wing & Blue Angels
Flying Wing passing in front of the Blue Angels, Canon 60D with 200-500mm lens.
Blue Angels, Flying in Formation
Blue Angels flying in formation, Canon 60D with Tamron 200-500mm lens.


P-38 Lightning, Sunrise
P-38 Lightning, Sunrise Olympus E-M5 with Panasonic 45-200mm lens.
Blue Angels
Blue Angels heading out, Olympus E-M5 with 45-200mm lens.

That’s it for this post!  If you liked it or want to see more photos, you can follow me on Facebook.  Just click the link on my page!

Until next time – Happy Shooting!