Shooting airplanes

And I mean with a camera, of course. That is what I did yesterday, with my student and friend Ray, at Pearson International Airport’s runway 24R. Where the aircraft are seemingly about to land on your car:

Airplane about to land

Airplane about to land at YYZ

Yes, that is my car, and yes, I do trust aircraft and pilots. And yes, I have about 250 hours in Cessnas, all over the planet, so I understand how it’s done.

So let’s talk about taking airplane pictures. Do I have any tips? Of course I do.

First about preparation.

  1. Check the runways and check where you can shoot. Even without a scanner, if the wind is from the west, runway 27 might be in use; if it from the north, runway 36 is more likely. (the numbers times ten are the compass direction). Take sun into account as well – you do not want to shoot into the sun if you do not have to.
  2. If you can, bring a scanner, and set it to tower frequencies (like 118.70 MHz AM). That way you will know who is about to land. Listen for “Heavy” – those are the big aircraft.
  3. Park where it is allowed. Getting arrested or told to move helps no-one. Look for other enthusiasts.

About the lens.

  • If you use a lens with image stabilisation, you can use it if you are not moving the lens. If you are moving the lens, because the aircraft is close, turn it off (or use “mode 2/active VR” on expensive lenses).
  • It may be tempting to think “I need a long lens”. And maybe you do. You get nice pictures like this:
Turboprop Landing

Turboprop Landing

And like this:

Small jet landing

Small jet landing

But if in fact you are close to a runway, contrary to what you first think,  you probably will want a wide angle lens.

Wide is good:

  • it is forgiving with focus
  • it is forgiving with motion blur
  • it is forgiving with depth of field. All good.

And you may need a wide lens just to get it all in. You can get pictures like this, with dramatic perspective:

Air Canada Jazz landing over a phone box

Air Canada Jazz landing at YYZ

Now exposure and other camera settings.

  • Set the camera to continuous drive (you press, it keeps clicking away)
  • Set the camera to continuous focus (“AI Servo” or “AF-C”)
  • Preferably, use manual exposure mode.  I used manual, 1/500th second, f/8, and 200 ISO for most of today’s pictures. I measured this off the bottom off the first aircraft.
  • Use 1/800th second if you can to freeze motion. But when shooting turboprops, 1/400th or perhaps 1/320th is good to show some blur in the props.

The better your exposure in camera, the less work you have to do afterward.

Finally, composition.

Big aircraft are good.

Big aircraft

A large aircraft landing

Even better, add some foreground object, so show perspective and scale. Like here:

BA aircraft landing at YYZ over a phone box

BA aircraft landing at YYZ

Or here:

Air Canada landing at YYZ

Air Canada landing at YYZ

Or here:

Aircraft about to land, over Bell Phone Box

Aircraft about to land

That is my advice. And above all, keep in mind that this is supposed to be fun. Don’t sweat it is not all images are sharp. There’s another plane coming soon.

And if (like me) you go home with 600 pictures, you will have to cull 90% of them, and that hurts. But it’s got to be done!

9 thoughts on “Shooting airplanes

  1. Thanks Mike,
    I do have a wide angle lens on order. Can’t wait to get it ans start trying it out.

  2. One more comment: Don’t try to take creative pictures and post them to they, I am told, only want non-creative, boring shots.

    Personally, I think you need both. Straight “architectural” shots, and wide, dramatic shots. Why people would want to see 100 shots of the same airlines all shot in exactly the same manner is beyond me, but I suppose aircraft fanatics are not creative people.

    So if you want to go there, go boring: shoot from the side with a long lens, as the aircraft is landing or taking off. Your airlines shot will be exactly like everyone else’s.

    • Michael,
      your comment is not 100% true…I have been uploading to almost from the beginning (1999) and it was a lot easier back in the days to get stuff accepted. They still accept the creative stuff, although some could argue if that is creative or not, anyway just give it a go, a bit frustrating in the beginning, but sooner or later you’ll the hang of it….. there is no recent stuff online, due to very limited time these days.

  3. Hi Michael,

    It’s been a number of months now, but on Mon., Wed & Fri you could get the Airbus A380 from Dubai and the 747 KLM ‘Flying Dutchman’ 🙂 from Amsterdam within a few minutes of each other – between 3 and 4 pm or so. It’s a good opp if you like the bigger birds.

  4. Jorge – that is great advice. I saw the A380 land a few times; will find a good spot to photograph it from.

    BTW, You would not believe the personal hate mail I have received since the post above. I stand by it, of course: the site is very bureaucratic, and the “rules” on that aviation site are very silly (they regulate everything from layout to space on either side to .. whatever: read their rules and shudder). Geez: these haters have a bee up their bonnet, and if you disagree, the personal attacks are quite horrible. Obviously they are very sensitive about this issue! But rest assured I’ll go on shooting aircraft the way I like… hopefully including the A380 and some 747s. (these mainly landed on 23 yesterday, I guess that’s the longer runway).

  5. Oh and Jorge, while listening I noticed my tower frequencies were outdated: I am glad I had three radios, and while the scanners were too hard to reprogram on the spot, my amateur radio VHF/UHF transceiver is also a good, and easy to program, scanner, so I added the missing tower frequency to that.

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