Airport Photography - How to Photograph Aircraft at an Airport
Aircraft are one of my favourite subjects to photograph. There's something about the nature of mechanical flight and the feat of airborne engineering that I love. So it's no surprise that I spend a fair amount of free time at the airport with a camera, photographing aviation activity. Many people are surprised that you can still take photographs around the perimeter of the airport - but if you abide by some simple rules, airport photography is a great way to build up an aviation-based portfolio.
Before you head out: Planning for Airport Aviation Photography
In photography, preparation goes a long way. There are several things to take into account before setting off for an airport photographic session. Seeking out ideal locations to photograph from as well as establishing security and safety parameters are important, and determining aircraft types, movements and weather will guide the execution of a shoot overall.
Scouting a location
For most plane spotters, the majority of aircraft photography at an airport will be conducted outside the perimeter fence. Some airports like Sydney International have a dedicated spotting area, which is worth sussing out in preparation. Facebook groups and forums dedicated to plane spotting within a given area are great resources, often with plenty of info for ideal shooting locations.
Aircraft pilots prefer to take off and land into the wind, so depending on the wind direction, aircraft will take off and land at different ends of a runway. Check FlightRadar24 or ADS-B Exchange (see below) to see what aircraft movements are occurring in which direction. Alternatively, tune to the ATIS on a VHF radio (also see below) which will announce which runway is active. As an example, a runway that runs from due east to due west would be called Runway 09/27, as the east is at 90 degrees on a compass and the west is at 270 degrees on a compass. Knowing these formalities will help figure out the best place to catch aircraft movements. In addition, If there are several runways in the same direction, each will be designated with an R or L for right or left. Some airports also have a C or centre runway designation.
Some runways are closer than others to the perimeter fenceline, and some directions are more accessible to the photographer than others. Depending on the airport layout, a departure route may be easier to photograph than landings or approaches and vice-versa. In addition, different aircraft may land on different runways depending on the weather and airport facilities - lighter aircraft can operate on shorter runways at mixed airports so several runways in various directions can be active at one time.
Lastly, if you are unfamiliar with an airport, or you want to photograph a specific aircraft, it's a good idea to check what type of aircraft operates at the location. While some airports handle both large and smaller aircraft types, others are dedicated to one or the other. For example, Bankstown Airport in Sydney is dedicated to light aircraft, while Sydney International handles aircraft from Saab 340s (a twin-engine turboprop regional airliner) to the mighty 747 and A380. Consider what type of aircraft you are interested in photographing and watch for trends on FlightRadar24 or ADS-B Exchange.
Security and Saftey
Abiding by security measures around airports is paramount and incursions can result in hefty fines or jail time. Generally, if you comply with signage, security and law enforcement personnel and common sense then photographing at most airports is fine.
In Australia, maintaining a distance of 3 meters from any airport fencing is the law, but keeping a generous distance anywhere is good practice. Never use flash photography or laser pointers etc, always carry some form of personal identification, abide by any instructions from security or police, don't leave trash behind and don't tamper with airport equipment.
In some countries, defence airport sites are a no-go in terms of photography. If this is the case, look for aviation photography opportunities elsewhere. If the defence area is based within the civilian airport complex, there may be rules and regulations determining what you can and can't photograph on the site. To verify airport protocol, seek information from relevant plane spotting groups on Facebook or online. Sometimes you can also access rules and regulations for the site with a Google search.
Before setting off, it's a good idea to check the weather. Weather dictates the majority of aircraft movements as well as required camera settings. In dense fog, it is unlikely that plane activity will occur until visibility improves, so heading out later in the morning can save some waiting around. In bright, sunny conditions, the general rule is to photograph a subject with the sun at your back, so planning with sun position calculators can be helpful too.
Generally speaking, larger aircraft will fly in rain and cloud, but accommodations in terms of exposure will need to be met. A slower shutter speed, a wider aperture and/or a boosted ISO may be required for achieving an adequate photograph. In wet conditions, I always pack 2 ponchos, one for myself and one for the camera to keep it dry.
Packing and Tracking - Planespotting Equipment
While its common to encounter aviation photography enthusiasts with cameras equipped with lengthy lenses, photographing with non-telephoto lenses can work fine depending on the location. My set-up includes a Canon 5D MK IV body with a Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM and a Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. I use the 100-400mm lens if I want to capture distant aircraft, switching to the EF24-105mm when aircraft are closer or if I want to incorporate more visual context with the wide angle. Zoom lenses are useful in airport aviation photography because of their versatility. In some cases, I'll also bring a spare camera body so that both lenses are active at any time and I can switch back and forth with greater ease. I'll also bring a spare couple of camera batteries and memory cards just in case.
Other Gear for Airport Aviation Photography
Two additional items are ideal for planespotting. The first is a phone equipped with the FlightRadar24 app. Free with optional upgrades, this helpful little app tracks many aircraft in real-time and is great for identifying and anticipating the movements of aircraft at a given location. Another option for aviation tracking is ADS-B Exchange which often lists military aircraft not seen in FlightRadar24 and boasts the largest cooperative of unfiltered flight data in the world.
The second piece of equipment that many spotters use for tracking and anticipating flight movements is a hand-held VHF airband scanner. These scanners can be tuned to broadcast the communications between pilots, ground crew and air traffic control. While translating aviation jargon can be more difficult than using FlightRadar24 or ADS-B Exchange, listening to a radio tuned to the tower frequency can provide an interesting insight into what aircraft are active in the area. If you aren't familiar with aviation jargon quite yet, keep an ear out for these or similar phrases:
"(Aircraft) line up runway __
An instruction given by an air traffic controller to a pilot directing them to the runway they will take off from. (see above for runway numbering). The aircraft will taxi to this point and then seek clearance for take-off.
"(Aircraft) Cleared for take-off "
Air traffic control gives this phrase when a pilot is given clearance to take off on the specified runway.
"(Aircraft) Approach runway __"
Air traffic control letting a pilot know which runway to use to land.
"(Aircraft) Continue Approach runway __"
Air Traffic control directing a pilot to continue their approach towards the airport.
"(Aircraft) Cleared to land"
Approval from air traffic control to a pilot to land an aircraft on the specified runway.
Depending on the airport, a VHF radio receiver can also tune into the Automatic Terminal Information Service, or ATIS, a continuous broadcast of recorded aeronautical information in busier terminal areas. Among other data, this service will specify wind direction, wind speed and active runways. Frequencies for different airports are readily available via a Google search. Alternatively, some live traffic streams are also available on liveatc.net. VHF radio receivers are available at electronics shops or online. The Uniden Bearcat BC125AT is a popular VHF receiver model, as is the Uniden Bearcat SR30C.
Photographing Aircraft at an Airport- Camera Settings and Techniques
There are many different ways to photograph aircraft operating at an airport. I prefer to photograph aircraft on approach because they are more level, whereas aircraft on take-off are angled to gain altitude. Depending on the vantage point, taxiing aircraft can make for great subjects too. In many cases, when an aircraft is obscured by a fenceline, it can be ok to set up an A-frame ladder several meters away from the fence to stand on for a suitable perspective. However, it's a good idea to have someone else with you to assist with steadying the ladder.
Aircraft are a dynamic subject, so certain camera settings are more applicable for airport-based movements. For example, certain autofocus, metering and shooting modes are more suitable for active aviation than settings applied to static subjects.
Known as AF-C for Nikon users and AI Servo AF for Canon users, autofocus tracking is a function designed to capture sharp photos of moving subjects. While the standard autofocus mode is appropriate for still subjects, AF-C or AI Servo will deliver sharper renderings of moving subjects more consistently - which is ideal for aircraft tracking across the sky or taxiing past.
In aviation photography, the most common metering modes are Matrix or Evaluative Metering, Spot Metering and Center-weighted metering modes. Centre-weighted metering is the predominant mode for aviation photography. Calculating the reflected light coming from the centre of the frame. in this mode, aircraft centred within the frame will be prioritized in terms of metering analysis, rendering a well-exposed image.
Spot Metering can also be useful when the background environment is overly dark or light. Spot Metering meters a much smaller area of the frame than Center-weighted metering, but can sometimes deliver more exacting results. However, because many aircraft have white livery, Spot Metering can result in underexposure. To combat this, exposure compensation from around the +1/3 mark may be required depending on other camera settings and the environment. However, avoid overexposure - it's easier to lighten shadows in an image with post-processing rather than trying to salvage overexposed highlights.
Shooting Mode Selection
From photographing taxiing aircraft to tracking take-offs and landings, aviation photography at airports can demand rapid adjustments in an exposure. Shooting in Shutter Priority is ideal because it grants the user the freedom to make adjustments to the shutter speed while the aperture is set automatically for a balanced exposure. This way, shutter speed can be adjusted depending on the aircraft speed and type, as well as accommodating ambient lighting conditions.
Shutter speed selection varies with a constantly changing environment. For commercial jet aircraft, aim to freeze the subject with a rapid shutter speed. For propeller aircraft shutter speed requirements are a little different (see below), so a good starting point is around the 1/125 mark depending on conditions.
High-Speed and Low-Speed Continuous Shooting
Cameras offer several shooting mode selections, simply because it is hard to capture a perfect rendering of a moving subject in a single exposure. High-speed continuous shooting mode (also known as burst mode) is ideal for aviation photography around an active airport because a photographer can depress the shutter button and automatically activate a rapid succession of exposures until the camera buffer fills up or the photographer releases the shutter button again. Alternatively, setting the camera to low-speed continuous can be better suited to slower-moving aircraft and won't max out the buffer as quickly as high-speed continuous mode.
When photographing aircraft at an airport, the lighting conditions are a constantly changing variable. To deal with white balance while out shooting by the airport, I set Auto White Balance (AWB), monitoring results by consulting the playback. In these conditions, shooting in RAW mode rather than JPEG is critical because it allows for the recovery of more detail in the instance of an incorrect white balance rendering through post-processing.
Don't Stop the Prop
In photographing aircraft, there aren't many hard and fast rules. However, one convention is to blur the prop on propeller aircraft. Using a quick shutter speed that freezes the propeller can make the aircraft look too static. Instead, when photographing propeller-driven aircraft, shoot at an exposure of 1/250s or below. That way there is more prop blur which encourages a more energetic reading from the viewer.
Helicopter rotors are a little different in terms of the prop blur rule because rotors spin slower than an aeroplane propeller does. Often, photographing helicopters with a shutter speed as low as 1/60s is necessary, though this may require a steady hand or a tripod/monopod while shooting in bright daylight conditions. In this scenario, an ND filter can also be useful for reducing the chances of overexposure.
Like most photographic subjects, aviation photography benefits from solid compositional and elemental tenants. Experimenting with the rule of thirds, negative space, colour, contrast, horizon lines and perspective can all contribute significantly to the success of any airport photography undertaking. Photograph aircraft from a relatively close position as well as from a distance. Experiment with both zoomed and wide-angle compositions. Aim to photograph traffic at different angles and locations around the airport. Images of flying aircraft with a good amount of sky or negative space emphasise the fundamentals of flight. However, incorporating some of the surrounding landscape for context can also draw juxtapositions between the land and sky.
When editing airport aviation photography, keep a close eye out for dust spots. At apertures up to f/8, bright light strikes the sensor at varying angles and the shallow depth of field causes the dust speck to be revealed. Because the sky is a plain and bright light source, dust spots can manifest more readily. This means that many photographs will need a quick sweep with the Spot Healing Brush Tool in Photoshop etc before making additional adjustments.
Taking notes on the aircraft you photograph is a great way to build up some knowledge of aircraft types, which helps to anticipate ideal camera settings. In addition, many people viewing aviation photography like to know what aircraft they are looking at, so keeping a record can be handy in that way too. Taking a screenshot of aircraft on FlightRadar24 or ADS-B Exchange or running a search on visible aircraft registrations is a simple way to keep track of aircraft makes, models and trends in activity.
Sharing photographs on relevant online groups can help strike up conversations with fellow photographers and enthusiasts. This can open the door for constructive criticism and insights into other information relevant to airport aviation photography. Reddit and Facebook are useful for meeting and chatting with fellow spotters, organizing meetups and exchanging knowledge.
IRIS28 receives an affiliate fee from certain online retailers (like Amazon) when readers click over to their website via the links provided on our site. This policy helps support the operation of our blog and allows us to keep access to our content free to the public. In any case, we always remain objective, impartial and unbiased in circumstances where affiliate links are included. Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.