Whether you're catching a flight or not, there's many perspectives you can capture of planes - here's 5 top tips on photographing them
Planes are exciting to photograph. From single seat fighter aircraft to mighty bombers and from the common Airbus A330 to the exquisite 787 Dreamliner, military and commercial passenger aircraft – both heritage and currently in service – have excited photographers for generations. We may be told to fly less, but that doesn’t mean we have to be any less enthused about aviation and capturing them in ever more creative ways with our cameras. Here are some of our top tips to get you started …
1 Hang around airports
It may seem obvious, but you’re unlikely to get anything other than distant shots of aeroplanes unless you get yourself near an airport. If you’ve got an airport close to your home – whether it’s a major hub or just a local airport – you should scope-out good places outside the perimeter fence where you can safely stop and take photos. Obviously you’re going to want a clear view of planes coming into land and/or taking-off, but don’t ignore the taxi-ing planes and support vehicles.
When travelling through an airport yourself you can get unexpected chances to photograph planes. Though many airport terminals prioritise shopping and restaurants, some do have large windows and even outdoor observatory areas that look out on the gates and runways. Good examples of airports that allow clear views for plane photographers from within the terminals include Dallas, Helsinki, Honolulu, San Francisco, Sydney and Tokyo (Narita and Haneda). If there’s an outdoor smoking area go check it out – you might just get a clear shot you hadn’t expected.
Author tip: Google Maps is your friend. Having identified airfields and airports close to you, use Google Maps with the satellite layer engaged to see the orientation of runways and to identify locations where you could park a vehicle. Two of the most famous places to take photos of planes include In-N-Out Burger near Los Angeles International Airport and around the perimeter fence of Heathrow International Airport near London. A great resource for planespotting at specific airports is spotterguide.net.
2 Techniques, equipment and settings
You can take your first steps into plane photography using a smartphone, bridge camera or compact camera, but for the best results you’re going to need a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a reasonably long lens. How close you are to the planes will determine what lens you should use, though it’s likely to be between 70mm and 300mm (a 24-105mm lens is a great choice for starters). You’re not going to need a tripod. To begin with you can rely on auto modes to get a feel for things, but try aperture priority (selecting f/8 to keep everything sharp and allowing your camera to calculate the shutter speed) and shutter priority (selecting 1/25 to 1/125 secs.). Spot metering helps properly expose images of planes against the sky, though the position of the Sun will have an effect. Experimentation is half the fun!
Author tip: For close-ups of planes both modern and vintage there are no better occasions than airshows. There are dozens to choose from, with some of the most popular among aviation enthusiasts including the Pacific Airshow in California, U.S. and also on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, U.K and Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo in Florida, U.S.
3 Find unusual compositions
There are dozens of different kinds of plane photography you should try – from dramatic-looking takeoffs and landings to close-ups and flybys – but try to find unusual compositions including planes. For example, if you want to photograph a plane flying across the Moon then you need to wait until full Moon night – or the few evenings before – and wait somewhere patiently that has a clear view to the east around dusk. Good places for taking photos of planes dramatically coming into land just above a glorious beach include Tuban Beach near Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, Indonesia, Nai Yang Beach and Mai Khao Beach near Phuket International Airport, Thailand, and Maho Beach close to Princess Juliana International Airport, Saint Martin in the Caribbean.
Author tip: The ‘golden hour’ after sunrise and before sunset is a magical time to take photos. Look for colourful skies in the background, long shadows around aircraft, reflections in their metallic bodywork and silhouettes.
4 Photography through plane windows
Frequent flyers take flying for granted and many sit in aisle seats for convenience, but do that and you miss a wonderful opportunity to take incredible photos of cities, deserts, mountains, clouds … and your own plane’s wings!
Any self-respecting plane photographer (or any kind of photographer) always sits in the window seat, preferably forward of a wing, and always travels with camera gear. Don’t go crazy; the person next to you is not going to appreciate you setting-up a tripod and using a telephoto lens. Have your camera ready at take-off, wearing a lens that can reach about 100mm, a lens hood (to reduce reflections without increasing vibrations) but no filters. Use a lens cloth to wipe-down the window if it’s grubby. Even if it’s clean, keep your lens away from the glass/Plexiglas layer, using manual focus to prevent your camera getting confused. Gadgets like Ultimate Lens Hood will prevent reflections, but it could also increase vibrations.
Author tip: It’s the view just after taking off and coming into land – particularly when the plane banks in your favour – that a window seat is most useful for. What kind of view you’ll get depends on the closeness of the airport to a city and whether the flight path goes over the city they serve. Airports you should get a window seat for include Hong Kong, Las Vegas, Newark (for Manhattan), Sydney and Vancouver. Do bear in mind that flight attendants may ask you to lower the shade on your window during a night landing while your fellow passengers might not appreciate the glare on their tablet/phone/seat-back screen.
5 Go to an aviation museum
A valuable source of vintage planes is aviation museums. These range from professional outfits stuffed with famous planes to small hangers that tend to be staffed with volunteers who will often gladly give you a one-on-one tour and tell you endless anecdotes about each plane. A tiny sample of what’s on offer to you include the The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, U.S. (Concorde, the first jet Air Force One and a B-17F Flying Fortress) and the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, U.S. (the Wright brothers' “Wright Flyer”, Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” and NASA’s Apollo 11 Command Module “Columbia”) to Solent Sky in Southampton, U.K. (Spitfires and the largest flying boat in the world) and the Royal Flying Doctor Service museum in Alice Springs, Australia.
Author tip: You don’t always have to go to a museum to see old planes. One of the most famous wrecked planes is a U.S. Navy DC-3 airplane that crashed onto a remote black sand beach called Sólheimasandur in southern Iceland in 1973. It’s become a fixture in many Northern Lights-themed photographic tours of Iceland. There are plenty of other plane wrecks around the world to go find and photograph.