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Shooting Planes

30th November 2010

Aviation Photography
learn from my many years of practice

Over the years, I’ve shot many planes – with a camera. In fact, I’ve been interested in aviation for a long time. I began taking pictures of all things aviation at a young age and recall the excitement of visiting the airport to pick up relatives. I would race to the rooftop viewing area to catch a glimpse of the planes like these:

Here’s America’s first jet airliner, the Boeing 707 Astrojet.

Taken in 1963 at Idewild Airport in New York. The airport is now known as John F Kennedy.

Let’s skip forward 30 years to the mid-1990s when our company has already become involved with flight simulation. I find myself immersed in the emerging new world of digital photography and am now ready to marry two of my long time interests: photography and aviation. With digital, the equipment and processing techniques are radically different from conventional film photography. But the basics of photography haven’t changed much. Therefore I’m in a position to benefit from my prior photographic know-how.

The remainder of this article are a collection of tips that I hope you can use.

TIP: you don’t have to buy an expensive digital camera to take quality aviation photos. Below, I’ve listed the camera used for each photo. But you’ll see from the wide range of equipment I’ve used, that the camera’s maximum resolution isn’t all that important unless you are going to make large, printed enlargements. You’ll see that for web pages, resolutions that starting at 1.4 MP and increasing to 10+ MP are all quite satisfactory.

The vast array of digital cameras make taking aviation photos very forgiving …. and very inexpensive – verging on free. And with instant development that’s faster than a Polaroid, the built-in color LCD gives you immediate feedback so you can try again when you need to reshoot. You can hardly miss using a digital camera with silicon film and a computer as your darkroom.

The first digital camera that I used was a single lens reflex (SLR) called the Olympus C-1400L. With a resolution of 1.4 MP and 3x zoom lens, it produced very acceptable images. To take the photo of the Beech B200 below, I was standing behind a chain link fence. You can clearly see the vignetting of the image (shadow) at the upper left corner due to the fence. TIP: avoid fences Click the thumbnail below of the Beech B200 to see an enlargement. You’ll see that the photo is quite sharp and has a lot of detail. So you can see that 1.4 MP is quite adequate for photos that are destined for web pages.

Olympus C-1400L

Beech B200 at Lake Tahoe (KTVL) taken with C-1400L in 1998.
1280 X 1024 pixels (1.4MP)
A few years later, I graduated to the Olympus C-2000 with 2.1 MP resolution, also with a 3X zoom lens. The picture of Lake Mead was taken on approach into Las Vegas. TIP: sit by the window From my window seat, I was able to capture the rugged shoreline of the Colorado River / Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. The resolution here is fine enough to capture the boats skimming across the water. Minimize the glare by keeping the lens close to the window surface. If the sunshine is falling on your window, you may not be able to take quality shots since the glare may be excessive. When you’re ready to take a picture out of the windows, sometimes the direction of sunshine is a matter of luck.

Olympus C-2000
Lake Mead shortly before landing
in Las Vegas (KLAS) taken with C-2000 in 2000.

1600 x 1200 (2MP)

Aircraft normally make left-hand traffic – left hand turns on the approach to landing. So before the flight from Paris to Nice, I requested a window on the left side of the plane. This would allow me to see the approach to the airport over the blue Mediteranean. Had I been sitting on the right-hand side, I would be looking at a lot of sky as the pilot made left-hand turns! TIP: choose a window seat on the left side of the aircraft

Olympus C-2000
Flying downwind leg for landing in
Nice Cote D’Azur (LFMN) taken with C-2000 in 2000.

1600 x 1200 (2MP)

Many photos of aircraft are taken through the window of an airport terminal. While this is often the most practical way to get your snapshots, shooting through the glass introduces an extra layer which can degrade the final image. TIP: when possible, get out from behind the glass Many airports have rooftop viewing areas which not only are glass free but get you closer to the the action. On the roof, you may have views of the tarmac that are totally inaccessible from the terminal below.

Pentax Optio SV

Shot from the rooftop viewing area at

Amsterdam Schiphol (EHAM) taken with
Pentax Optio SV in 2003. 2592 x 1944 (5MP)

Many of the most impressive aviation photos are of planes that are either taking off or landing. TIP: take shots of takeoffs and landings For takeoffs, wait until the nose wheel is lifting off the runway. For landings, wait until the main wheels are just making contact with the runway. With a little practice you’ll hit it just right.

Canon Digital Rebel

Shot from the Sunset Blvd viewing area at
McCarran International (KLAS) taken with

Canon Digital Rebel in 2005. 3072 x 2048 (6MP)

One common complaint is that photos taken with digital cameras often lack contrast. TIP: boost contrast with software This problem is often solved after-the-fact after you’ve transferred your images to the computer. Many photo editing programs offer the “auto levels” feature which enhances the contrast, adjusts the white balance and make the overall photo snappier and more pleasing.

Olympus 720SW

Kalamazoo (KAZO) taken with Olympus 720SW in 2006. 2304 x 3072 (7MP)
Same shot enhanced with Photoshop Elements (auto levels) to make it more “snappy”

When shooting with lower cost digital cameras, there is often a delay between the time you take the first shot and the camera is ready for the next. If the delay is lengthy, you may miss an important photo. More capable cameras are able to capture multiple shots rapidly. TIP: be patient and don’t hurry the shot Very often, you’ll get the best shot by waiting patiently until the plane passes at the closest point to the camera. Below, you can see that by waiting for only a short time I was able to capture the right hand shot with much more detail.

Canon 20D

Shot a few seconds apart at Grand Rapids (KGRR) taken with Canon 20D in 2005. 3504 x 2366 (8MP)
For action shots, you’ll need to use a high shutter speed. TIP: use a shutter speed high enough to stop the action A shutter speed of 1/300 or shorter is usually able to stop the action. Most digital SLR cameras have a sports mode which can be used to photograph flying aircraft. With other digital cameras you can set the shutter speed manually. The fast-moving A-10 below was shot using the sports mode.

Canon 20D

A-10 landing at Nellis AFB (KLSV) taken with Canon 20D in 2006. 3504 x 2366 (8MP)
Get the lighting right. For maximum detail, you’ll want to make sure that the sunlight is shining over your shoulder as you shoot. TIP: keep the sun shining over your shoulder Backlighting (light coming from behind the subject) makes for great silhouettes and shots of the sun, but it usually hides or obscures the detail. For best results, keep the light behind the camera.

Canon 5D

DC-9 departing Grand Rapids (KGRR) taken with Canon 5D. 4368 x 2912 (12MP)
Now is a good time to take the camera out of its case and head on down to the airport. I’ve found the best way to gain proficiency is to take shot after shot after shot. Afterwards, review the captured images to see your results and adjust your techniques accordingly. After all, digital film is free.

For other examples, visit our Photo Gallery that has hundreds of other aviation related photos.

To view another fantastic site with very impressive photos taken by talented photographer Ralph Duenas and other members, visit Jet Wash Images

Quick Definitions

MP – megapixel (million of pixels) – measurement of camera resolution (e.g. 3504 pixels x 2366 pixels = 8,290,464 pixels = 8 megapixels)

SLR – single lens reflex – a type of camera that allows you to view the subject directly through the lens

LCD – liquid crystal display – a small viewing screen that displays the subject, the captured image (or both)

Author: Arnie Lee Unless otherwise noted, photos are from the author’s personal collection.

Good Photos Can Come Cheap

28th November 2010

I’ve been interested in photography since I was a very young kid; so much so that I wanted to study photography at college. However, I somehow became distracted and ended up studying something completely different. Yet for these past 50 years, photography has remained a professional interest.

I’ve also been involved with computers for my entire working life. In the early 70’s, there was no such thing as a personal computer. When PCs started to appear about 1976, I yearned for a way to marry the computer with photography. But the movement to digital imagery was slower than even molasses. Of course we know that this has all changed in the past ten years or so and now digital is the standard – having all but replaced conventional film photography.

Winter Care For Your Camera

27th November 2010

The cold weather of winter is now upon us here in the upper midwest, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of opportunities for wonderful photographs. What it does mean, however, is that you’ll need to take extra care of your camera when you’re out in the cold. This is true for both digital SLRs and point-and-shoots.

Snow scenes require special care for your camera

You can help your camera stay warm as possible by keeping it under your coat. This will not only help it keep warm but will also protect it from the elements. The same is true for an external flash unit if you’re using one.

Another precaution against the cold is to bring spare batteries with you when you go outside. The batteries in your camera are likely to lose power faster at lower temperatures even if you’re not using the camera. Therefore, carry at least one extra set of batteries in your coat pocket where your body heat will keep them warm. Then, if your camera or flash batteries begin to fail, you can insert warm fresh batteries.

Condensation may be a problem you’ll have when you come inside from the winter cold. You’ve probably seen condensation on a glass of icy lemonade on a hot summer day. Your camera, especially the lens, is affected the same way when you bring it inside from the cold. The moisture from the warm air inside condenses on the cold surfaces of not only the lens, which can become completely covered, but also on the camera.

You can prevent condensation by wrapping the camera in a plastic bag or newspaper until it slowly reaches room temperature. The moisture will settle on the outside of the newspaper or bag and not on the camera. An even better idea is to place the bag on the camera while you’re still outside before you bring the camera inside.

Don’t use the camera if you notice that condensation has occurred. Instead, remove batteries and memory card and leave the compartments open until everything dries out. Don’t use the camera or take it back out in the cold until the condensation has disappeared.

So by dressing appropriately and properly caring for your camera, you’ll be taking great photographs in the cold of winter.

Dress appropriately and enjoy the fun of winter photography

Written by Scott Slaughter

The Finish Line

26th November 2010

I’m an avid fan of swimming, biking and running in sanctioned racing events. I enjoy the training, the friendships, and the excitement of anticipation before the race. But, my most enjoyable moment comes at the finish line!

This is where the action ends. The finish line is where you’ve proven you’ve accomplished something of note. Many of the races we participate in are photographed by professionals that are always stationed at the finish line to catch you crossing it.

Of all the race photos that are available of you that are taken during the race, the finish line photo remains, as it should be, the most important and most popular photo for you.

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Don’t Forget To Reset

25th November 2010

Have you ever started shooting pictures only to discover that you’re using the wrong settings – settings that are left-over from your previous session?

When you’ve finished a shooting situation that required changing a camera setting, make certain to reset your camera back to the previous or default setting before your next photo opportunity.

For example, you might have switched the lens from autofocus (A) to manual focus (M) when you were doing some close up photography. When the photo shoot was finished, however, you forgot to switch the lens back to the autofocus (A) setting you usually use.

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Are you in the habit of holding your camera horizontally? Although it’s fine to shoot horizontally (called the landscape orientation) in many situations, keep in mind that holding your camera differently can dramatically change the impact of the photo. Have you, for example, turned your camera 90-degrees so you’re shooting vertically (called the portrait orientation)?

Look at these two photographs of the same sunrise scene. The photo on the left is horizontal (landscape) and shows plenty of the lake near the edges but not as much of the sunrise. The photo on the right is vertical and emphasizes the sunrise and the rays of the sun on the water much better.

Sunrise scene in horizontal (landscape)

Same sunrise scene but vertical (portrait)

Although it can be a little awkward at first to hold the camera vertically, you may be amazed at the difference it can make to the photo. This is especially true if you’re taking a photo of one person. It’s almost a crime not to shoot vertically in these situations because otherwise you’re wasting so much of the photo area at the edges.

The Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

The same lighthouse but vertical

Even when you are shooting landscapes, you will find that, sometimes, the picture will look more dynamic when you hold your camera vertically.

The Mackinac Bridge horizontal

The same scene but vertical

Whether to shoot vertical or horizontal is all about experimenting which is easy to do with your digital camera. So the next time you’re holding your camera horizontally and take a photo, turn the camera 90 degrees and take the same photo again vertically. Then decide which one you like better.

Written by Scott Slaughter

One way to overcome boredom

17th November 2010

Flying can be boring, especially if I’m on a long flight. I mean, after reading the in-flight magazine isn’t there another 3 hours left to kill until I reach my destination? Sure I can take a nap, but it’s just a short cat nap – I’m frequently awakened by the pockets of turbulence along the way.

Here’s one way that I’ve managed to stay occupied during a long flight. Since my early school days, I’ve been interested in geography. I’ve combined this interest with another one – photography. When the clouds aren’t obscuring the earth, I often take pictures of the amazing scenes below.

When flying over cities, it’s usually easy to pick out familiar landmarks – skyscrapers, bridges, stadiums, rivers. But as the plane leaves these familiar environs, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what’s down there.

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On my latest cross country drive to deliver my Mom’s car to Phoenix, I broke the 2000 mile journey into two parts. Here’s why.

For years I’ve been reading and hearing about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It’s known as one of the best places in the USA to watch birds, especially those who have migrated there from the northern latitudes for the winter. Since the route from Grand Rapids to Phoenix passes close by, I decided to detour slightly.

Part one of the journey was 2-1/2 days traveling from Grand Rapids to Socorro, NM and visiting Bosque. Although I was in the NWR for only 16 hours or so, I totally enjoyed the wildlife and outdoor. You can see some of the photos from short stay at Bosque here.

Part two of the journey was the remaining 380 mile ride between Socorro and Phoenix. As I was planning for the drive a few days before the trip, I noticed a place on the map with a funny name “VLA”. When I googled it, I found it to be an acronym for Very Large Array. It’s a set of huge radio telescopes 50 miles west of Socorro on US Route 60, the preferred highway to Phoenix. It sounded interesting, so I decided that this would be another stop after Bosque del Apache.

On Friday morning I was on the road by seven and heading west on US 60. An hour later, I saw an amazing group of what appeared to be white dishes sitting on the high desert.

The VLA is operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory

The array consists of 27 antennas mounted on tracks to enable repositioning.

You may recognize these antennas if you’ve seen the 1997 movie “Contact” starring Jodie Foster about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. I don’t know if the NRAO found any, but they were definitely pointing the dishes away from Washington, DC. I’m not sure what that means. 🙂

At the visitor’s center I followed the self-guided walking tour of the VLA.
The 1/2 mile walk afforded me time to take a few snapshots of the impressive machinery that gazes the universe.

I watched as the 27 antennas rotated together similar to a synchronized dance.

Below is a short video of the antennas.

Each dish is 81 feet in diameter

Jack is another VLA visitor


After spending two hours at the VLA, it’s time to go. The road takes me over some easy mountain grades. Shortly after reaching the New Mexico-Arizona state line I spot several large black birds making circles overhead. I stop the car, retrieve my camera and begin shooting when I notice a dozen much larger birds flying much higher.

Seeing their white heads, there’s no mistaking that these are bald eagles! Although they are above a field a few hundred yards away, I have such a wonderful feeling watching these majestic creatures soar the skies.

Heading west again it’s more high plains and scrub. At Show Low, US 60 turns south and descends into the Salt River Canyon, another gorgeous part of Arizona.

small drop off along the Salt River

scenic view at the top of the canyon

one of many mesas typical of the area

colorful surroundings in the canyon
The next town is Globe about 90 miles from my final destination. An hour and a half later I’m approaching Phoenix. It’s still early enough in the afternoon so I’ve avoided the heavy commuter traffic.

Mom’s house is slightly east of Phoenix. I pull into her driveway about 4pm completing the 2000 mile drive. I’m relieved to be out of the car. Mom’s there to greet me – she arrived earlier in the day via a flight from Grand Rapids. With the delivery of her car, she now has wheels for her winter stay.

grapefruit growing in Mom’s yard

To make the travel more interesting, I’ve been able to break up this long cross-country drive into a series of short “photo trips”. I hope that you enjoyed some of these sights as much as I enjoyed visiting them.

I’ll be writing about a few of my next photo trips soon. I’m off the the southwest again in two days.

Last Friday Mom flew from Grand Rapids to Phoenix as many other snowbirds do for the winter. I volunteered to deliver her car to Phoenix so that she’d have wheels for her six month stay. To make my drive more productive, I turned the 2000 mile journey from Grand Rapids into a mini photo trip.

Just as many retirees make the trek to warmer climates in the late fall, so do many northern birds. One of their gathering spots is the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. I leave Grand Rapids on Tuesday at noon (ahead of Mom) and set the destination in my GPS for Socorro, New Mexico – about 90 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Eight hour later as I’m passing through St Louis, I’m attracted to the night time lights of the Gateway Arch. I exit the interstate and head towards the Mississippi River where I find a place to park my car adjacent to the river front. Here’s what I see:

Four Seasons casino and resort

the Gateway Arch

After 30 minutes I’m in the car and back on the interstate. My next stop is a rest area in Oklahoma near the Texas state line at 3am. I grab a few hours sleep in the car until I awake from the cold. Drive on. Approaching Amarillo, I spot an unfamiliar aircraft circling the airport. Then I recognize it as a V-22 Osprey doing touch and go maneuvers. I pull off at the next exit and grab my camera with a long lens.

V-22 Osprey doing touch and go’s

what a beautiful looking aircraft

On the road again, it’s a pleasant drive on a warm, sunny day across the high plains and farm lands of New Mexico. For the next few hours I pass by towns with great names: Tucamcari, Cuervo, Santa Rosa, Moriarity, Albuquerque.

The final leg is south on Interstate 25 to Socorro about 1500 miles and 28 hours from Grand Rapids. I check into the Howard Johnson motel, drop off my suitcase and hop back into the car for the short 30 miles trip to Bosque del Apache. My goal is to be able to see the sunset at Bosque.

Nat’l Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center

sandhill cranes feeding in the marsh

coming in for a night landing

alone again

The next morning I’m up at 5am to arrive at Bosque again to experience the solitude of dawn.

dawn arriving at the north pond

early morning flight

From here on, I’ll skip the text and show you some of the snapshots

small flock of snow geese

northern pintail enjoying the pond

juvenile northern harrier scanning for food

sandhill crane touching down

high flying adult northern harrier

gorgeous warm and sunny day at the NWR

spectacular flyout by thousands of snow geese

this harrier scared an awful lot of snow geese



Here’s a short video of the flyout


duckling enjoying a swim

sandhill crane moving in late afternoon
Although I had only 16 hours to explore Bosque, I thoroughly enjoyed this amazing outdoor environment. I dispensed with the typical hiking clothing and footwear; although unpaved, the park roads, hiking trails and boardwalks are well cared for.

While there, I shared the refuge with several hundred other nature lovers – some with binoculars or scopes and others will ample photo equipment. I’ve already seen some of their photos on Flickr. Go to and search for the Bosque del Apache group.

warm and sunny day at the NWR

While my stay at Bosque ended on Thursday evening, I awoke on Friday to complete the drive to Phoenix. I had a much shorter 350 mile drive ahead of me and again I turned it into another mini-photo trip. More about the Socorro to Phoenix leg in my next episode.

Holidays are often a time for family get-togethers and Thanksgiving is just three weeks away. We have a rather large, extended family and for us Thanksgiving has always been an important one.

With family members arriving from homes in diverse cities, coordinating this festive dinner is a major task. Thankfully in recent years, we’ve handed the title of event coordinator over to one of our kids – the next generation. This helps to relieve lots of stress and pressure on my wife Kris, who is usually the host for the turkey dinner with all the fixin’s, a wide variety of beverages and lots of calorie-laden deserts.

Here’s a photo tip. I suggest that before sitting down for dinner, you set aside a few minutes for holiday portraits. With Christmas close behind, Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to snap photos to use for Christmas cards or gifts.

A camera, a small flash and a comfortable chair tucked into a small corner of a room can serve as your holiday studio. Have a hair brush and a mirror at hand. Keep the background simple and move in close.

You still have time to get your Christmas cards ready. And by all means enjoy the turkey.


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