Thursday, January 5, 2012

Time to Shift Gears (or Propellers)!

This post will deal with another aspect of photography, fast moving objects.  I love photography, and I also have a great interest in World War II aircraft, also known as Warbirds.  Other than landscapes, this is my next favorite thing to do with my camera!

Every year the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino California has a fantastic air show featuring many different types of Warbirds.  And with few exceptions, they put them in the air.  There's nothing quite like it, seeing these fantastic relics in pristine condition and right in front you.

It's not easy getting good clear shots of these planes as they fly by.  I've been working on this for many years now, and even though I've shot literally thousands of photos, I usually only get a handful of keepers.  In fact, I did something I don't usually do, and that is to buy equipment trying to up my odds.  The first time I shot an air show, I was using the original digital Rebel, the Canon 300D.  I really liked this camera, but it was slow.  Slow meaning frames per second (fps), which can be important when tracking and panning the fast moving planes.  I would get the front of a plane, sometimes another piece of it, and every once in awhile, I'd get lucky and get the whole thing.  When the Rebel XT came out (Canon 350D), I bought one.  At 3.5 fps it was much better than my trusty old 300D.  Next came my Canon 40D, and at 6.5 fps, it was a great improvement.

There are some other considerations.  One of the biggest is shutter speed.  This would be a lot easier if I kept a fast shutter speed and just froze the action.  Unfortunately, this doesn't give you "professional" results.  When you freeze a prop, it looks like a dead stick.  With a slower shutter speed, you get a blurring effect on the prop which gives the plane a sense of motion.  The only time the prop should be still is when the plane is parked on the ground.  It takes some practice to pan the plane as it passes by, and squeeze the shutter while still tracking the plane, keeping your image sharp with the prop blurred.
Some of the other things to set in the camera are auto focus to AI Servo, High Speed Shutter, and the lowest ISO you can get away with.  AI Servo allows the camera to keep a moving subject in focus and the High Speed Shutter setting allows the camera to continuously fire until the cache is full and it just can't stuff any more images into memory.  It also helps to have a fast memory card.  I typically shoot with a shutter speed of 1/200th or less.

After I take a few shots, I review the images and see if I'm getting the results I'm looking for.  With all of the action, I also bring plenty of memory (16 Gig for the last air show).  I've been trying to slow down and be more picky but still ended up bringing home over 2000 images.  It's hard not to get caught up in the action and blast away.

The shots below were made using my Canon 40D, with a 200-500 Tamron Lens while at the Chino Planes of Fame air show.

P-51 Mustang

P-38 Lightning

B-25 Mitchell

Just a couple more comments on the subject.  When you are shooting jets (like the Blue Angels), forget the slow shutter speed.  It's ok to kick up the shutter speed and ISO.  Freezing the action with jets is ok!  You'll still need to pan, squeeze the shutter and continue to swing through.  The Blue Angels fly F-18's and they are colorful, and fast (not to mention loud).  For the shots below, I used my Canon 40D, with a 70-200 F4 L lens.  I was in El Centro (California) that day and working almost across the street from the El Centro Naval Air Station, the winter home of the Blue Angels.  And as luck would have it, the Blue Angels were practicing their routine almost directly overhead, and twice that day.  It was like having my own private air show!

One way to practice is to go out and take pictures of birds in flight.  They may be smaller than a plane, but they are flying, and can be fast.  It can help you practice your panning technique.

That's it for this post.  Thanks for reading and leave a question or comment if you'd like!

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