AutoMatters+: AirShow San Diego — Thrills & Photo Tips


AutoMatters+: AirShow San Diego — Thrills & Photo Tips

Celebrating its 20th year, AirShow San Diego — formerly known as “Wings Over Gillespie” — is San Diego’s largest civilian-run airshow. Themed “The Ultimate Victory,” this year’s show commemorated the 70th anniversary (1945-2015) of America’s triumph in World War II.

In beautiful weather on Fathers’ Day weekend, the sky above Gillespie Field was filled with the sights and sounds of rare, vintage WWII historical aircraft. They flew individually and in formations, thrilling spectators young and old. A simulated battle included massive explosions on the ground, to simulate bombs being dropped on their targets.

Also in the air were paratroop jumpers, radio-controlled scale model aircraft, and a glider.

On the ground were additional planes; a simulated military encampment, complete with vintage military vehicles, tents, and troops in vintage uniforms; educational displays; a free kids’ zone; classic cars; live music; and autograph signings. There were more than 60 vendors, offering a variety of foods and beverages, souvenirs, memorabilia and more.

Many people took the opportunity to borrow demonstrator lenses from the Tamron reps who, with representation from San Diego’s Nelson Photo camera store in Little Italy, were there with the Tamron Tailgate Tour van.

I borrowed a Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD extreme wide angle, fast zoom lens. It enabled me to get very close to planes on the ground, and yet still be able to include entire planes in my shots. Having such a lens is especially important at crowded events.

Here are some tips that I have learned over the years for shooting air shows.

Since aircraft fly quickly, the tendency may be to shoot them while using a high shutter speed, to make sure that they are nice and sharp. There is a problem with doing that, however, when shooting propeller-driven aircraft. Using a high shutter speed will freeze the propellers, just as if the aircraft were parked on the ground. The same thing will happen if a high shutter speed is used to shoot helicopters. The blades will be frozen in place.

Your photos will look more natural if you slightly blur the propellers, since that blur will suggest motion. Fortunately, that is easy to accomplish with cameras that allow you to adjust the shutter speed.

After setting your camera to its shutter priority mode, set an appropriate shutter speed. This is where things can get a little bit tricky.

While you do want to blur the propellers a little, you do not want to shoot at such a slow shutter speed that the rest of the plane becomes blurry because of being out of focus. The way that I blur the spinning propeller while keeping the rest of the plane in sharp focus is, in part, through experimentation.

First I make an educated guess at a shutter speed and use that to shoot a plane. Then I look at the photo in my camera’s monitor and see whether the propeller is a little blurry. If it is, I may set the shutter speed a little higher and try again, and so forth, to find the highest shutter speed that still produces a slightly blurry photo of the propeller.

By progressively increasing the shutter speed in this way, I will not only achieve the desired blur effect on the propeller, but also increase the likelihood of the rest of the plane being in focus. On my day at AirShow San Diego, that shutter speed was often about 1/400th of a second for me.

Remember though, that the rotational speed of propellers will vary: for example, while a plane is taxiing on the ground versus making a high-speed pass in the air, or among different planes. Do not assume that the ideal shutter speed for one plane will be optimal for every plane that you shoot. Keep checking the propellers in your shots for blur.

Something else to watch out for are underexposed (dark) airplanes in flight. Depending upon the lenses that you use and how close the planes are to you, you may get a lot of bright sky in your shots. The camera will try to lower the brightness level of this predominantly bright shot, perhaps making the sky and the plane too dark. Use your camera’s exposure compensation function to restore the brightness of these shots.

Finally, set your camera’s focus mode to continuous, so that it tracks your subject plane as it moves across the sky.

That’s all for now. Please write to with your comments and suggestions.

Copyright © 2015 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters+ #390