The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens has developed a strong following at air shows. And for good reason- it’s sharp as a tack and has a great zoom range for photographing airplanes in action.
But what about the times when the creative bug bites you and there isn’t an air show happening in your area? For me, the answer is to go hang out at some of the small, local airports. And to realize not all interesting aviation photos have to be taken at an air show.
And…it also doesn’t mean you need to leave your Sigma 150-600 lens at home. It’s a great lens for capturing a different perspective on aviation. The narrow field of view and compression become artistic tools for your imagination. It’s also a great opportunity to give all of your Sigma lenses a workout…not to mention your imagination.
Just as you need approved access to an air show, you also need approved access to a small airport. It’s important to abide by TSA security requirements at all airports. You might call the airport manager and ask what options you might have as a photographer for access. You can stop at a flight school or FBO (Fixed Base Operator) and ask if they might allow you to take photographs in their area. You might have a friend that is a pilot that will allow you to visit his hangar. Keep in mind you need permission to enter airport property, so do not enter without it. People are usually not
allowed on taxiways or runways, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great photographs to be found around an airplane hangar.
My friend Jessica offered me a ride in a Piper Cub, so as she was making her pre-flight inspection I started seeing photos appear in my mind. Her sunglasses were reflecting the Piper Cub logo, so I quickly moved in with my Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM Lens to make her sunglasses the focal point of my photo.
As much as I love my 150-600 Sigma for airshows, and my Sigma 18-300 f/3.5-6.3 DC MACRO OS HSM Contemporary Lens as the perfect “one lens to carry”, I also love the 70-200 for the quality and versatility it gives me with people shots. I chose an f stop of 4 with this photo so I could isolate the one lens of the glasses and the Cub logo. Note that I decided to use f4 rather than f2.8 so I could have just a little bit more depth of field.
By the time Jessica was in the plane and ready to go flying, I saw another photo idea. I asked her to lean out of the cockpit a bit so I could capture just a part of her head. Again, with my 70-200 I chose f4 to give me a shallow depth of field.
Since cockpit space is limited in a Cub, I only took one lens…a Sigma 8-16 f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM Ultra-Wide Zoom Lens. When mounted on my Nikon D750, it becomes an effective 12-24mm zoom. Perfect for shooting inside a tight cockpit. I chose the D750 so I could make use of the tilting rear LCD monitor. That made framing the photo of Jessica flying a bit easier than trying the “hail Mary” shot by just holding the camera over my head and hoping for the best.
One interesting thing to note about my photo shoot with Jessica is that it was done at high noon, which is usually one of the poorer times to take outside photos. What made it work was using the tail of the Cub to help reflect light back into Jessica’s face fill it with light in the first photo. When Jessica was in the cockpit leaning out, she was shaded by the overhead wing, which kept her in shadow. By framing tight, I eliminated any harsh sunlight in the background and kept highlights from her face. Pretty much the same for the photo of Jessica flying- she is shaded by the overhead wing. Pulling the highlights of the sky down a bit in Photoshop evened out the exposure.
On to a different airport and late afternoon light gave me the chance to photograph a Stearman C3B for an aviation magazine story.
As the aircraft I was assigned to shoot was being readied for a flight, I took advantage of the time to photograph some details. I tried two different angles on the ground- one standing and one laying in the grass. Each has its merits and by photographing several angles, it allows an editor to decide on their favorite.
When I’m photographing aircraft details I find I like using a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM Lens so that it shows less of the background, which can be distracting. I also like to frame tighter on details so they have more of a graphic composition.
One of the really interesting details to photograph is the cockpit. Before even deciding on a lens choice, my first thought is to ask permission to photograph it. As much as you want a good photograph, you also don’t want to damage anything. To gain a shooting position, I asked for a ladder so I could not just get my camera inside, but have enough height to see what I was photographing. The next step is to make sure you aren’t wearing anything that is going to scratch the aircraft as you lean against it. With that all taken care of, then it’s deciding on lens choice. My Sigma 24-105 F4 DG OS HSM Art Lens worked perfect at 24mm for this photo. Because it was late afternoon light, I didn’t have to be concerned with hard sunlight hitting parts of the cockpit panel. I find it distracting when it does happen, and when possible, I’ll ask the pilot to have the plane moved
until the cockpit is at an angle to the sun where the panel is in all shade.
I decided I needed a little bit more depth of field to keep all of the instruments in focus, so picked f5.6. At ISO 800 is was shooting at 1/15 of a second. I had the camera resting on the top of the seat for stability, but spot checking my photos in camera, I was getting a little movement and the instruments weren’t sharp. So I decided to add light from a strobe to fill in the shadows and allow a faster shutter speed. Some cockpits have a lip that goes around the front of the panel to keep the sun from the instruments. Good idea for a pilot, but bad for a photographer. The position I had to hold the camera in put the strobe too high and I kept getting a big shadow on the panel. Solution- turn the camera upside down so the strobe is below the cockpit lip and can fully illuminate the inside.
It may be my background in photojournalism, but I’m seldom satisfied with just a photograph of an airplane. I like to see people and a story when I can. So the next photo idea came when the plane was pushed back into the hangar for some quick maintenance. Again, my 24-105 for a quick grab shot. I bumped the ISO up to 1600 and shot at f4 at 1/100 of a second. I love the mix of light from the hangar and the early evening light in the sky.
Once the plane was ready, we moved it back outside for a studio type shot using strobes. My set-up was three Nikon SB500 strobes mounted on small light stands- two illuminating the aircraft and one adding some backlight. I find there is a small window of time when the balance between ambient
light and light from the strobes comes together. This was a hand-held shot at 1/30 of a second at f5.6 at ISO 200 with my Sigma 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 DC MACRO OS HSM Contemporary Lens. The perfect shot to close a story on this beautiful antique aircraft.
As I mentioned, I love to photograph people with their aircraft more than just an aircraft by itself. Sometimes it works as an action shot like Jessica flying her Cub. And sometimes, it works better as a straight portrait shot on the ground. Back at my home airport of Oshkosh, I had a chance to photograph Emily from the cockpit of her plane before a flight. I chose my Sigma 24-105 F4 DG OS HSM Art Lens because I wanted to capture some of the aircraft interior to set the scene.
Shade from the overhead wing providing soft light on her face and pulling the highlight in the background down a bit provided a good lighting balance.
My little trip to three small airports in the area provided me with some great opportunities to combine a variety of my Sigma lenses with my imagination, and, get some great photographs.