Aviation Photography – Panning Technique for Action Shots

I have been taking photographs of aircraft for more than 50 years, during which time the quality of cameras lenses and film / digital processing has changed radically.

Aviation Photography – Panning Technique for Action Shots

My early photographs were taken with cheap, often second-hand, cameras, initially on 120 black and white roll film. There was not an interchangeable lens in sight, let alone auto-exposure, auto-focus and auto everything else. I gradually switched to 35mm film and eventually to the cheaper end of the single lens reflex range.

As I became able to afford better equipment, I purchased an Olympus OM-2 and later an OM-4Ti camera and associated Zuiko lenses. I spent many years taking black and white photographs and developing and printing the photographs myself in a darkroom set up in my smallest bedroom.

As colour negative film improved in terms of colour density and affordability of processing, I switched to that, relieving me of hours of dabbling with chemicals at home.

With the advent of digital, and the availability of some royalties from my first book series, British Built Aircraft, I upgraded to my current set up a Canon EOS7D with an EF 100-400mm 1:4.5-5.6 L IS Canon zoom lens for action photography.

Aviation Photography –

This is great for aviation shots and a good example is this picture of Patrick Caruth landing his aerobatic Pitts S-1T at Henstridge airfield in January 2017.

In this instance, I have set the equivalent film speed to ISO 320 and left the camera to sort out aperture and shutter speed, whilst I concentrated on manual zoom, panning and composition.

Now, one might say that there is nothing wrong with this photograph. However, with a shutter speed of 1/800th sec, the action is completely frozen – albeit with the benefit of a completely sharp image and not too much pressure on my competence in panning the camera.

During last year, I was having a conversation with some of my friends who have a particular interest in photography. They suggested that we collectively had a look at taking action shots to emphasise motion, which struck a chord with my interest in aviation photography.

Now there are certain aircraft that are hard to resist photographing – the four Tiger Moths of Tiger Moth Training that are based at the local airfield being one example. If, however, I just take my normal shots, I simply get a series of very similar photographs, which seems a bit of a waste.

I decided that the proposed exercise of taking a series of shots to emphasise the aircraft’s motion, which would inevitably have a higher than normal failure rate, was best practised on subjects like this, for which I have already accumulated plenty of coverage.

What does one do? Well, you need to ensure that the camera uses a slow shutter speed. My present technique is to go to Aperture Priority and select a small aperture (typically f18-22). I then also select a low effective film speed – ISO100 is the slowest available on the Canon.

I then have a quick look at the scene to check what shutter speed the camera will actually use. (I have to admit that I am taking advantage of auto-exposure and auto-focus). Having checked the likely shutter speed, I adjust the aperture as necessary to achieve a speed of typically 1/30th to 1/50th of a second.

I then pan the subject aircraft as smoothly and carefully as I can, whilst continuing manual zoom and checking the composition, and take a number of shots as the aircraft passes by.

One trick is not to zoom right in as it is easy to inadvertently cut off the tail of the aircraft; when panning fast, the natural tendency is to follow the nose of the aircraft, which can cause this problem. Using slightly less zoom and cropping the image afterwards reduces the risk of this.

My technique is getting better, but I currently expect a failure rate of 60 – 75%, mainly due to panning problems.

A gallery of my better photographs, mainly taken at my local airfield of Henstridge in Somerset, is presented below. As well as providing an immediate sense of action, the blurring of the background is beneficial in reducing the distracting impact of any background structures that intrude into the photos.

Aviation Photography – Tiger Moth
Tiger Moth take-off run – shortly before lift off.
ISO 200, f/20, 1/50s, 220mm
Aviation Photography – Guimbal Cabri G2
Guimbal Cabri G2 in use for primary helicopter training at Old Sarum.
ISO 125, f/18, 1/30s, 260mm
Aviation Photography – Yak 50 ‘33’
Yakovlevs aerobatic team Yak 50 ‘33’ climbing away.
ISO 160, f/22, 1/50s, 115mm
Aviation Photography – Piper PA-32R Saratoga II HP N957T
Piper PA-32R Saratoga II HP N957T just after take-off at Henstridge.
ISO 100, f/22, 1/50s, 200mm
Aviation Photography – Groppo Trail
Brian Main’s Groppo Trail accelerates for take-off.
ISO 100, f/18, 1/40s, 120mm
Aviation Photography – Socata TB10 Tobago G-MRTN
Socata TB10 Tobago G-MRTN passing the hangars.
ISO 100, f/20, 1/20s, 190mm

‘All images in this article are Copyright RonSmith’.

by Ron Smith
Ron Smith is a professional aeronautical engineer, private pilot, aviation author and amateur aviation photographer. He has been photographing aircraft for more than fifty years and has 11 published books, including Classic Light Aircraft from Schiffer Publishing in the USA. www.ronandjimsmith.com

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