2017 Air Tattoo

At the end of February, the Royal New Zealand Air Force celebrated their 80th year of service by hosting a two day air show at the Ohakea Air Base. With aircraft from several nations (including the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore, France) joining in, the event promised to be a great chance to see some new aircraft. Despite a rather fickle summer so far, the weekend was held under mostly clear blue skies with the hot summer sun beaming down.

While most people have less than fond memories of the air show held there 5 years ago, for me I had a great time. Thanks to a bunch of pro photographers who gave me some hints and tips along the way I came away with images which I was very happy with and I learn't a lot.

But as with all people who are passionate about their craft, these kind of events are a great chance to see how much you have learn't and improved. This time with a longer lens (the Tamron 150-600mm) more experience and a longer airshow (2 days rather than 1), my hopes were high.

Well three days of airshow photography turns out to be as much a physical endurance test as it is a technical challenge. There is so much to learn and despite what people say when you ask them how to photograph planes, its not just a case of knowing a few simple settings. They are a great place to start yes, but knowing where to stand, having an idea of the routines and how the weather is affecting the routines are all important parts of the process. On the saturday Kelly and I based ourselves as close as we could to show centre and had a great view. The crowd was the biggest on Saturday and there were a few people who got a bit close but overall it was pretty good. Sunday was quiter and gave us more freedom to move which was great. We think most people chose Saturday because if Saturday was rained out then they would still be able to go to the Sunday show. But in the end the weather for photography was better on the Sunday in my opinion.

So what did I learn or confirm from the experience that I can pass on to you. As one person put it, what you have been freely give, freely give.

ISO 200 - 400 gives the best results in my opinion, it gives some headroom to allow for over exposure and also allows for higher shutter speeds needed to photograph jets at high speed.

For propeller driven aircraft shutter priority is the best mode to be in. In terms of the shutter speeds we used we found that helicopters look better under 1/160th of a second (under 1/100 is even better). Slower radial engines or points in the show where a propeller driven aircraft has slowed due to throttling or at the peaks of climbs look best at 1/200 or 1/250th of a second. For more modern engines and planes during periods of higher speeds 1/320th to 1/2/50th of a second is great.

WIth jets the higher the shutterspeed goes the better, but more importantly you want a decent aperture (f8 worked best for me) so aperture priority is king. But apart from some nice shots that can be got on certain passes, the best shots tend to come as the plane swoops down or pulls up at the end of the pass. 

One thing I hadn't thought much about was how the dryness or moistness of the atmosphere affects the display for the jets. If the air has more moisture in it then the condensation over the wings is more pronounced.The best misting over the wings will happen when the pilot is forcing the plane pretty hard to go in a different direction then it naturally wants to go, this includes climbs at the end of passes, tight turns and rapid changes in direction. Of course none of these happen in level flight where it is easy to track, so track the pass but wait until the planes pulls up or turns and the misting will come if the conditions are right.  We got much better angles to see the mist from away from the centreline of the show. 

Good spots to hang out on: 

The sun at your back is always a good start. If you think of a clock face surrounding you as you look towards the area where the planes are displaying (and consider this 12 o'clock) then I found the best position for the sun to be at was either 7:30-8 o'clock or 4-4:30.

The centre line of the show, planes flying over the crowd fly over this point so breaks looks best and planes fly their lowest

The point at which planes commonly climb at the end of passes.

* Taxiways that planes will use to get from the parking area out on to the runway and back.

* Watch out for items in front of the crowd which may hinder your view, like speakers, bright patches of colour or messy backgrounds.

Go easy on yourself and learn as much as you can. Talk to other keen photographers and swap notes. It's amazing what you can pick up and learn from others that can save you time. Most of all enjoy the show.