Blog of photographer Brett Colvin.

Getting Props

Aviation photography is something I really enjoy, but don't get the opportunity to pursue with great regularity. It's always worthwhile to attend the annual open house at Hill Air Force Base, which is one of the few airshows in the country that take place at an active military installation.

After posting a few shots from the show, I've received a lot of correspondence asking about the imagery, and what to consider when preparing to photograph aircraft.

In this post I'll focus on what I view as the most difficult scenario in obtaining a 5-star shot, which is prop-driven aircraft in flight. The biggest rookie mistake in this area is the belief that you are shooting a single, fast-moving object.  In turn, this leads to selecting a fast shutter speed similar to what you might use for birds in flight - say 1/1600. In reality, there are TWO key elements in play: The rotating prop, and the moving airframe. Inexperienced photographers will invariably freeze the prop, resulting in an awkward photograph that makes the plane appear to be stalled in mid-air.

Implying motion via a blurred propeller without affecting the rest of the subject is where a dichotomy emerges. On the one hand you need a slow shutter speed to allow the prop to rotate during the exposure, but on the other you have an aircraft flying at hundreds of miles-per-hour. 

In order to achieve effective prop blur, which is vital to quality in-flight imagery, you need to expose for the prop. Variables like airspeed, number of propeller blades, and engine RPM vary significantly - but ultimately you will need to shoot between 1/15 and 1/125 to get the desired effect. Solid hand-holding and panning technique is critical if you shoot without support as I do, because at these speeds camera movement greatly affects the result. Tripods can help in this regard, but can also hinder range of motion or take up excessive space at a public event.

Regarding composition, you want an engaging wing position that showcases the aircraft along with a supportive yet non-distracting background. As a general rule, blue sky backgrounds are not very compelling. Ideally you want to choose a perspective that incorporates clouds or terrain to supplement the main subject of the photograph and complete the image.

So what's the recipe?

  • Blurred prop(s)
  • Frozen aircraft
  • Visually appealing wing position
  • A background that enhances and supports the subject
Survivor TF-51D Mustang "Diamondback"   1/60th, f/16, ISO 200

Survivor TF-51D Mustang "Diamondback" 

1/60th, f/16, ISO 200