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The U.S. Navy Blue Angels perform at Seafair 2015 in Seattle

Many of you in Seattle are probably headed to check out the Blue Angels at Seafair today. I took some photos of yesterday’s performance and wanted to share a few tips on how to capture some great shots if you’re watching the Seafair Airshow today.

Picking a location is key, obviously. Planes at airshows will fly pretty low to the ground, and you need to position yourself so that you have a clear line of sight, ideally a bit elevated with a clear horizontal view so that you can track them across the sky. I scouted some street locations using Google Maps Street View beforehand, but ultimately chose the I-90 highrise bridge deck on Mercer Island, which is right near the center of the action.

On a bright sunny day, it helps if you position yourself with the sun at your back and the planes in front of you, otherwise the side of the airplanes facing you will be poorly lit. The Seafair airshow is at midday, so not optimal lighting with the sun directly overhead. You can improve your pictures by boosting the shadows in your photo editor.

Boost shadows in post production to bring out detail on the underside of planes.
Boost shadows in post production to bring out detail on the underside of planes.

Backdrops are also key. Unless you get photos of the jets that fill the entire frame of your photo, it helps to have something interesting in the background, like the city, mountains, etc.

Blue Angel roars past downtown Seattle
Blue Angel roars past downtown Seattle

Bring your longest lens. I was right in the center of the action, but it still helped that I had a super telephoto lens. I shot yesterday with the Nikon D750, using the AF-S NIkkor 500mm f/4 FL ED VR. Most people, including myself, can’t afford one of these huge lenses, but renting one at your local camera shop is worth the spend. When the action got really close, 500mm was too tight, but in most cases I was happy to have the extra reach. If you don’t want to lug the super telephoto, smaller zooms can work too. Airshow photos definitely start to get more interesting at 300mm and above.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels perform at Seafair 2015 in Seattle

Ditch the tripod. Working with a huge telephoto lens can be exhausting, but the action moves too fast and in too many directions. You need to handhold the lens and follow the planes across the sky. Use continuous burst mode and take lots of photos. You’ll have to sift through your photos when you’re done, but it gives you a much better chance of having something in frame. I took almost 1,000 photos yesterday, immediately deleted half of them and then ended up with 50 or so that I really liked.

Vapor trails from the Blue Angels

Pay attention to your shutter speed. If you are photographing fast-moving jets, you’ll need at least 1/1000 or 1/2000 of a second to freeze the action and get crisp photos. Propeller planes are a different story, you want a much slower shutter speed, probably 1/320 second or slower to show motion in the propellers. Faster shutter speeds freeze the propeller and make the plan look frozen.

1/320s shutter speed shows the propeller motion of the C-130 ‘Fat Albert’

Metering is also important when you are shooting against a bright sky. Given how lighting changes quickly as you pan the camera across the sky, you will need varying exposures. Check your histograms after a few shots to make sure that the sky or clouds are not “blown out.” You’re better off having a slightly underexposed image that you can tweak in your photo editor.

Take the largest image size that your camera allows and crop the finished photos. Unless you are printing enormous photos, you don’t need a photo that is 4,000 or 6,000 pixels wide. If you aren’t close enough or your lens doesn’t zoom enough, use the extra pixels to crop the photos to have the planes fill more of the frame.

Airshow photos look better if you can fill your frame with the airplane.

Here are a few galleries of photos that I took yesterday.

Blue Angels

F-22 Raptor

Breitling Jet Team

C-130 ‘Fat Albert’

Marine Harrier

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