Fly-ins and air shows are exciting. And fun to photograph. But they can wear you out from walking around as you take photos of all the airplanes on the ground and in the air. And it’s not just the walking that wears you out. It’s walking around with every lens and camera you own because you think you might need each one for that certain shot.
The first wheel turning in my head when I pencil in an air show on my calendar is what am I going to take for equipment. How much is too much? My goal is that while my car trunk might be full of gear, I only want to take two camera bodies and two lenses with me as I walk around. I don’t want to carry around too much weight in gear. And I don’t want to change lenses in whatmight be a windy and dusty environment that allows dust to contaminate my camera sensors.
While pretty standard to take a 24-70mm F2.8 and a 70-200mm F2.8 lens, I prefer to shoot more at the extremes if I’m feeling creative. I want to be different from every other photographer at the event. So as I started to think about equipment I would take to a small fly-in at Brodhead, Wisconsin, I decided on the Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG and the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS Sport lenses. And since there was the chance to shoot an air to air mission with another aircraft, I also brought along the Sigma 70-200 f2.8. The 70-200mm focal range is pretty much the gold standard for an air to air lens.
I was happy with my lens choices as I came barreling down the road to the airport. “Airplane!” Right in front of me on final for landing. The car was quickly off the road and the Sigma 150-600 and Canon 1DX yanked out of the trunk. The perfect lens choice to photograph aircraft preparing to land because of the wide zoom range.
As the first airplane settled in for a landing, I locked on and started shooting. AI servo focus on my Canon 1DX and 10 frames a second. My focus point is expanded slightly to give me better chance of focus with the moving aircraft. Here is a case where my priority in shooting is given to shutter speed. Air to ground photography of a propeller driven plane puts me in the 1/250 to 1/400 second for shutter speed. Anything faster will freeze the prop too much. Anything slower and I’ll get mostly blurry photos. The secret is to combine a good panning technique with the tracking focus of your camera/lens. One tip is if you are using a lens like my Sigma 150-600 is to use mode 2 of your lens stabilization. This works better for panning.
After the first plane nestles down on the runway, I skim through my shots on the back LCD. I’m not totally happy. Antique aircraft tend to run their propellers at a slower RPM than modern, high performance air show planes. The propeller isn’t frozen but there isn’t a lot of blur. Now it becomes a game of percentages. The slower the shutter speed, the fewer in focus photos (yes, even with tracking focus and image stabilization, it is not a perfect world). I believe for me, the human factor may be part of the problem. So my technique is to play the odds in both directions. I wait for the next aircraft to turn toward me and the grass landing strip. I lower the shutter speed to 1/160th of a second. My thinking is that while farther away, the relative movement to my position is less. As the aircraft moves closer, I zoom out and change my shutter speed to 1/400th of a second.
Plane after plane comes in for landing and I work each one with the 150-600mm Sports; changing zoom and shutter speed as the plane gets closer to me. As much fun as I find in shooting air show planes zooming up and around in their aerobatic routines, I also find something very peaceful about photographing an antique biplane landing on a small Midwest grass field, but after shooting a few airplanes landing, another idea pops into my mind. These slow moving antique aircraft could make great panning shots as they land. For me, this is a good way to show speed. To show the plane is sharp focus while the grass landing strip and background become an artistic blur.
Most of my panning shots are usually with mid-range zoom. But I’m falling in love with the 150-600 so I figure let’s see what it can do. The nice thing about a zoom lens is the ability to change your focal length depending on your location and/or the vision you have in your mind. I know how I want to frame the aircraft, but I am limited to how close to the runway I can go. The Sigma 150-600 just might work for this idea.
I start out in the 400mm range, capturing the plane as it settles down in the green grass. It’s OK, but I am not happy about buildings in the background. A little too distracting for me. As I follow through with my panning shots, I find I’m cutting the plane tail off. Simple fix. Just change the zoom to 300mm. That nailed what I was looking for.
What I found to be an asset on the Sigma 150-600mm was the lens lock button. I’ve seen similar buttons on, say, the Canon 75-300, but it generally locks the lens in the fully retracted position. This Sigma allows you to lock the lens at whatever focal length you pick. I thought this was extremely useful so as not to allow my hand and movement during panning to accidentally move the zoom ring and cause an out-of-focus image.
Checking these images on the computer later that night, I was blown away by how sharp the aircraft were in some of the images. No, not all images are going to be in focus. All aviation photography to me seems to be a game of percentages because of their speed and movement. Unless you are really talented, you aren’t going to get every panning shot in focus. But the ones you do will really impress. And I was really impressed with this lens in this situation.
After giving the 150-600 a workout, it was time to think about what I could shoot with the 24-35mm lens. About that time, a biplane taxied by giving rides in the front cockpit. That brought to mind a shot I wanted to do of a close-up of a pilot flying. A few minutes talking to pilot Ted Davis of Biplane Rides of America and I was all set. After rumbling down the grass strip, we hit the smoothness of early evening air and were off. A little adjusting in the large seat of the New Standard biplane and I was facing Ted’s smiling face. My first plan was to shoot when Ted was headed into the sun and at an angle so both the windshield strut and the camera weren’t causing shadows on his face. But as we did circles over the patchwork of Wisconsin farm fields.
I saw how the light played off Ted’s face. Even backlit, I shot frame after frame thinking there was a good shot there. Sometimes you just shoot and find little gems when you edit. And I did. I love the shot of Ted looking out of the cockpit, his face side lit and the background focus dropping off from the Sigma 24-35.
I did have one regret. As we were barnstorming the countryside, Ted hammed it up for the camera and did a little flying with his arms. I shot what I could by my mind was telling me I should have brought a second camera with the Sigma 12-24mm that was sitting in the car trunk. Then again, maybe I didn’t need both of his hands in the frame to convey how great Ted feels to be flying. The sun was setting as I headed home happy with how the two Sigma lenses performed and the type of shots they allowed me to capture.
The next morning held a new challenge in the form of air to air photography. This time the tried and true Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 DG OS took center stage. Backup was the 150-600. Really, you ask? I mentioned before wanting to shoot the extremes. It can set you apart from the rest. At an earlier fly-in this year I did fantastic photographs with the Sigma 120-300 f2.8 DG OS HSM lens. So this was going to be a test to see if the 150-600mm could handle an air to air.
The subject was Rob Bach’s Bentzen Sport, a homebuilt aircraft from 1961. As with shooting most airplanes, I was using a Canon 1DX, using AI servo focus and back button focus. As we flew in formation over the countryside, Rob moved the small plane to every location I asked him to so I could get varying angles. And every now and then, I pulled out the 150-600 to see what I could get. Shutter speed was at 1/80th of a second, so I wasn’t expecting a huge amount in focus when I zoomed past 300mm. Much like shooting aircraft landing, the slower the shutter speed, the more the propeller blurs. For most aviation photographers, the goal is to have a full circle of prop blur. Depending on the RPMs the aircraft’s engine is turning, a shutter speed of 1/60th to 1/80th will do that.
Checking the images later on the computer, those that were in focus were amazing. It seemed 300mm seemed to work the best for me. And that extra 100mm of focal length gives me that little bit of edge over someone else.
Packing up to head home, I ran into one of the pilots that has flown me for many air to air missions. Slightly scraggly-faced from camping and not shaving, he was heading home to Colorado. Grabbing the 1DX with the 70-200 I shot a few quick portraits of him. My initial thought had been to use the 24-35 for an environmental type portrait, but there was too much in the background to distract. So the 70-200 was a good choice to narrow my field of view. The only problem with the Sigma 70-200 is that it was too sharp for the image I had in my mind, but the addition of a lot of clarity in Photoshop, and a quick conversion to black and white, and I had the photo I wanted of Walt.
Actually, I had all of the photos I wanted from the Brodhead fly-in. Between the Sigma 150-600, the Sigma 24-35, and the Sigma 70-200mm, I covered all bases. They were easy to carry around. They let me see the vision I had in my mind. They delivered.