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100 in 100: Air-to-air plane photography
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100 in 100: Air-to-air plane photography

100 Photographic Tips in 100 Days, Part III: Day 50


For more tips, go to the 100 in 100 Part III Homepage

This week I've talked about shooting from airliners and small planes and shooting at airshows and around airports. Today lets look at the ultimate, shooting air to air. This isn't an everyday opportunity but it can add some great shots to your portfolio. Check out the aviation magazines to see some great examples.

This involves formation flying, but not at close quarters. You need to be sure both pilots are experienced at it and trust one another. Your pilot will be directing the target plane and doing the maneuvering to get you in the position you want. The target plane will more or less be flying a straight path, with occasional turns as directed by your pilot to get good sun angles and backgrounds. Good communication is very important here, both between the two planes and between you and your pilot.

You might find an inexpensive model plane and experiment with pleasing sun angles. I like the sun to be at about the 10:00 or 2:00 position of the target plane so shadows from a top wing are slanting back.

As always, clean backgrounds are a huge plus. So is the softer light just after sunrise and before sunset. The air is usually calmer then, too.

Your side window should be able to open or be removable. Aircraft windows are a far cry from optical glass and will degrade your image noticeably. And keep the lens out of the slipstream. Talk about vibration…. When possible I take the lens shade off to minimize the target for the air to buffet. And as I mentioned earlier this week, don't let the camera or even your arm touch anything. There will be more vibration than you think, and at a frequency that image stabilization can't respond to.

In order to get a significant blur of the propeller you would need a shutter speed of around 1/125 to 1/250 sec. The image below was shot at about 1/1000 sec.

You don't want the planes at close quarters; you want a mid-range telephoto lens to avoid exaggerated perspective on the near wing. I generally use around 100mm with a full-frame camera. Use image stabilization.

I photographed this oldie but goodie with a Pentax 67 medium-format camera and Fuji Velvia 50 film.

If you can position yourself approximately in front of the target plane so you are shooting back at it, try to get the sun more or less in front of it and you might get a dramatic sun glint on the propeller

Diane Miller is a widely exhibited freelance photographer who lives north of San Francisco, in the Wine Country, and specializes in fine-art nature photography. Her work, which can be found on her web site,, has been published and exhibited throughout the Pacific Northwest. Many of her images are represented for stock by Monsoon Images and Photolibrary. She is also an accomplished pilot.

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