Photo Tips

Frank J. Hanish, EAA Chapter 25

Originally published June 1997

Review for your pre-Oshkosh preparations

(The following article is reprinted by permission from the July 1995 issue of ON FINAL, the monthly newsletter of EAA Chapter #25 - Minneapolis, Minnesota USA. Check out their web site at

If you're like me, it's that time of year when we'd best again familiarize ourselves with our camera. Through the past fifteen years since I've attended my first Oshkosh convention, I've shot a lot of film. Yet, I still am not a very good photographer! Mostly, I shoot several rolls of film and acquire a precious few pictures worth showing anyone. Actually I've got about 500+ slides of aircraft, and in this amount there only a couple dozen that I really think are top shelf. So, what are the basic guidelines? The following is a collection of hints that I've recently read in getting reacquainted with my camera.

Photo equipment for your static aircraft shooting session should include the following items:

  1. a 35 mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera; 50 mm (std) lens and/or short zoom, lens hood to prevent glare from sunlight
  2. adequate filters
  3. electronic flash unit (check for fresh batteries)
  4. an adequate supply of film
  5. miscellaneous items to include - a sturdy tripod; a short stepladder, a water bucket (no joke, it's for wetting down the pavement).
Most of your shots can be taken with a standard 50 mm lens...and your attempts at sharp, critical focusing are usually more consistently successful with the use of a standard lens. A short zoom lens such as a 35-70 mm or 28-85 mm can come in handy, since it allows more creativity and "framing" convenience. Be very careful of using wide-angle lenses for wider-angle zoom settings, since they will often introduce an unwanted linear distortion.

A UV filter will screen out ultraviolet rays, resulting in sharper, brighter hues when shooting color. A polarizer filter works to reduce or eliminate glare from reflected light, and is usually essential in outdoor photography. A polarizer can reduce the "white sheet" glare of a windshield to invisible glass. The blinding glare of a chromed or shiny metal surface may be eliminated or "adjusted" by rotating the filter to achieve the desired effect. A permanently-mounted, screw on type UV filter has the secondary benefit of protecting your sensitive lens surface coating from scratches. The filter itself becomes the only surface that requires periodic cleaning.

It may at first seem odd, but you can use an electronic flash on virtually every photograph you take of a static aircraft...even those shot in full fact, especially those shot in full sunlight. Sunlight produces unwanted, harsh shadows along the vertical surfaces and shaded sides of an aircraft, as well as on the pavement beneath and adjacent to it, very often ruining an otherwise excellent shot. A flash unit for close-in shots will help to illuminate the subject evenly and "soften" remaining shadows, while having little or no effect on the background exposure, since the background is much further away and less affected by the flash. For most shots there is no need to compensate for the flash's additional light. For color photos, you might try adjusting exposure downward 1/3 f-stop or so, just to play it safe. Flash illumination employed in broad daylight is commonly referred to a "fill flash", meaning that it is used to add or "fill" in additional light where otherwise shadows would result from existing (sun)light. Most sunlit shots will be markedly improved by using "fill"; few will ever be adversely affected.

Another good idea is to "bracket" your exposures, meaning to shoot additional shots of the same scene at say 1/3 aperture stop above and 1/3 aperture stop below "normal", thus helping to assure that one shot will be perfectly exposed. This is particularly critical when shooting color slides, whereby even a tiny bit of overexposure can start to bleach out the color, nothing can beat perfectly-exposed color, especially color slides. Bracketing exposures is not critical with B & W (or color negative) film, since desired adjustments can easily be made in the print processing.

On actually shooting your aircraft subject - take a variety of shots. Different aircraft often show best at different angles and different camera heights. Study your subject through the lens and decide what are the best angles. It helps to know your camera but most SLR cameras reveals a slightly narrower view than that actually exposed on the film. Generally small general aviation aircraft look their best from a 3/4 frontal or trailing position, and optimum camera height will vary from one aircraft to another. If possible (say you're shooting your own aircraft), find good locations. A popular trick is to hose down the pavement underneath the aircraft, the resultant reflections often make for an exciting, eye-catching shot. Additionally, try to make sure that the background isn't too busy. A mishmash of trees, bushes, airport signs, other aircraft, or people behind your subject aircraft will usually result in your aircraft getting lost in the confusion. A solid wall, a pond, a grassy field, or even an empty ramp beats a busy background nearly every time. Avoid harsh shadows; late afternoon shots (especially) are often ruined by long shadows of the aircraft's wings, of the nearby buildings or trees, or worst - the photographer himself. In most cases, you should "fill the frame" with the subject aircraft, not peripheral scenery.

If your shutter speed must be slower than 1/125 of a second, use a tripod or find some way to steady your camera. The best guarantee of a sharply focused photograph is a sturdy tripod. Generally, avoid aperture settings lower than f-5.6, since depth of field (e.g., continuous sharpness from the nose of the aircraft to the tail) is critical in shots enlarged beyond wallet size, thus magnifying the effects of faulty focus. For instance in a 3/4 front view, if you focus at about the cockpit using a large aperture opening, the nose and the empennage blurs. How do you deal with this? First try to use a smaller aperture - f-8 to f-16 where possible, and then focus on the point nearest the camera. The rule is that the larger the f-stop the smaller the lenses opening and the deeper the focal field of view.

What films to use? The most common advice for outdoor color work is to employ 64 ASA Kodachrome (slide) film. For four main reasons; the cost is lower, you're able to preview the slides first before printing individual shots (most of us, really only get 10 or 12 good shots from a 36 exposure roll), you have a good reading as to whether the printing process was poorly accomplished, and you need color slides for the color separations necessary in any professional color publishing work.

As I've previously admitted, my pictures are far from being of professional quality. I only use my camera very sporadically throughout the year and this shows in the final results. Some of my common screwups include: an incorrect ASA setting for the film loaded, not using the correct film speed for the conditions, not always having a tripod handy (e.g., left it in the car), forgetting to check the camera's batteries, and due to my particular camera - not switching off the automatic functions when I need to use one of my manual-only lenses, etc. After this brief review, I'm hoping that you too will experience improved photographic results at this year's Oshkosh convention. Good luck to all of you!

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Contents of The Leading Edge and these web pages are the viewpoints of the authors. No claim is made and no liability is assumed, expressed or implied as to the technical accuracy or safety of the material presented. The viewpoints expressed are not necessarily those of Chapter 1000 or the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Revised -- 20 December 1997