Photographing an Airshow

Airshows are good fun. For photographers, they present photographic opportunities.


Blue Angels. 250mm @ 1/400 sec, f/5.6.

Read on for some tips on how I captured airshow photos.

I shot these photos of the Jacksonville Beach, FL Sea & Sky Airshow on October 25, 2015. The unique thing about this format is that the airshow takes place over the beach. In years past, this airshow included amphibious craft landings and static displays right on the beach.

Sea & Sky airshow's beach setting.

Sea & Sky airshow’s beach setting.

I used my Nikon D600 with the Nikkor AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G zoom lens, mostly zoomed out to its 300mm focal length setting. Even then, I generously cropped another 1/2 to 1/3 of the original size in order to frame the photos displayed in this post. Hence, the resulting “softness” of these photos (and lack of perfect panning skills by yours truly). I had Hoya circular polarizing lens to try to control the occasional reflection, although the weather was mostly overcast. In hindsight, I could have left this filter off.

Exposures were in shutter priority (mode dial set to “S”), so I can capture jet aircraft with fast shutter speeds to minimize motion blur, using 1/400 second or faster. I set the ISO high enough (200 to 800) to allow the aperture to capture enough depth of field. f/5.6 is my lens’ maximum aperture at 300mm focal length. This aperture is good for a single aircraft or a tight formation of Blue Angels. Close the aperture down to f/16 to get more depth of field for dispersed aircraft or a large aircraft flying close (e.g., closeup of the Blue Angel’s C130 support aircraft).

Fast Pass. F-16 in a high G turn.

Fast Pass. F-16 in a high G turn. 300mm @ 1/500 sec, f/6.3, iso 200.

Propeller aircraft presents more of a challenge for me, as I want to capture motion blur of the spinning propeller to portray its motion. For a high-performance acrobatic aircraft with high revving engines, 1/400 second exposure yields a decent blur as in the example below.

300mm @ 1/400 sec, f/9, iso 200.

At twice that speed (1/800 second), the spinning propeller looks static. Or near static as below.


300mm @ 1/800 sec, f/6.3, iso 800.

For World War II fighter aircraft, I had to slow the shutter even more, down to about 1/125 second. At this slow speed, I had to pan and follow the aircraft motion more precisely, in order to avoid motion blur.


Mustang and Corsair. 300mm @ 1/125 sec, f/18, iso 800.


Corsair. 300mm @ 1/125 sec, f/18, iso 800.

Geico Skytypers

Geico Skytypers. 300mm @ 1/200 sec, f/14, iso 400.

When pilots bank their aircraft towards the audience on the beach, the resulting shots look as if they were taken in flight along side the aircraft.

With the aircraft in slight bank towards the audience on the beach, this shot looks as if it was shot in-flight along side the aircraft.

300mm @ 1/160 sec, f/13, iso 400.

The star of this show are the Blue Angels. And the approach of their support C-130 aircraft signals their impending arrival.

Low altitude steep turn. 122mm @ 1/400 sec, f/8, iso 400.

Low altitude steep turn. 122mm @ 1/400 sec, f/8, iso 400. Note, the shutter speed was too fast and “stopped” these propeller blades.


300mm @ 1/125 sec, f/16, iso 400.

Ta da! The excitement grows!

Top floor salute

Top floor salute. 300mm @ 1/400 sec, f/5.6, iso 400.

Diamond formation

Diamond formation. 300mm @ 1/400 sec, f/6.3, iso 400.

Reverse angle. Or is that "reverse Angel"?

Reverse angle. Or is that “reverse Angel”? 300mm @ 1/400 sec, f/8, iso 400.


300mm @ 1/400 sec, f/5.6, iso 400.

Barrel roll break. 300mm @ 1/400 sec, f/5.6, iso 400.


Opposing solos. 300mm @ 1/400 sec, f/5.6, iso 400.

For the opposing solo duels, I pick one aircraft to follow with panning motion. This aircraft will be sharp. I keep my other eye open so I can see the opposing solo closing in and time when I need to release the shutter to capture the dueling action. The opposing solo aircraft will be blurred to capture the high speed motion. Remember to keep releasing the shutter to capture the result of their near miss. Lots of tension.

Low speed pass using thrust at high pitch angle to stay aloft. 300mm @ 1/400 sec, f/5.6, iso 400.

300mm @ 1/400 sec, f/6.3, iso 400.

Final pass. 250mm @ 1/400 sec, f/5.6, iso 400.

The Blue Angels are always my favorite!

[(Ô] HtL.

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