Mighty Mouse – Shooting Air Shows

Mighty Mouse

Might Mouse by I Nancy, on Flickr. Rob Harrison the Tumbling Bear in the ZLIN 50 LX

Every summer the Camarillo Airport hosts the Wings Over Camarillo event with classic planes and aerial stunt planes. This was really my first airshow event so it was learn as you go. The trick is to make you planes look like they are flying and not just “hanging by a string” frozen in mid-air. You do this by capturing some movement in the propellers. Too fast a shutter speed and the propellers are frozen, too slow and they disappear. Unfortunately you also have to balance this against camera shake and it is VERY hard to follow these stunt planes in the sky while on a tripod.

I found this technique to work the best

  1. Use Shutter-Priority shooting (TV) and adjust for the prop-speed of the aircraft. Usually around 1/320 or 1/400
  2. Set the camera to the AF mode which follows the subject (AI Servo on the Canon)
  3. Adjust the ISO so that I was stopped down in a range of f/8 – f/16 to maximize sharpness
  4. Set all AF points ON
  5. Adjust the telephoto to the long focusing mode.
    Most telephoto lenses have two focusing modes – one mode through their full range the other just the longer part of the range. By using the mode with just the longer part of the range, they have less distance to travel while hunting for the focus.
  6. Keep the IS stabilization ON
  7. Keep the aircraft in the middle of the screen and plan to crop later

I was shooting a Canon 300mm f/4 L IS with a 1.4 extender on my full frame Canon 5DmkII. Keeping the IS stabilization ON seemed counter intuitive, but it really worked. It allowed me to shoot sharp images at 1/320 and 1/400 even at a 420mm focal length. I even managed this sharp image taken at 1/50th of the The Red Bull Helicopter, piloted by the world’s only aerobatics helicopter pilot, Chuck Aaron. Yes, the helicopter is flying upside-down. (Yes, I added the vignette.)

Whirl by I Nancy, on Flickr. Chuck Aaron in the Red Bull

3 thoughts on “Mighty Mouse – Shooting Air Shows

  1. mark September 6, 2010 / 3:56 pm

    That helicopter capture is awesome.

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