I am probably on a list after using that title, but I hope not!  Part of my photography goals this year is to be far more planned with my trips and less opportunistic.  Let me confess, this is the first time I’ve tried to photograph planes, so don’t take this as being the best way to get the shots I have, but I thought I’d share my process in taking the shots.

As always, start with the finished product so people know what they’re in for – here are two photos I took from my evening out – I’ll go through how I went about planning, shooting and processing them.

Jetstar flight leaving Chc international airport

An Air New Zealand flight coming in to land at Chc International Airport

 

 

1) Picking the Conditions

It had been raining for about 3 days prior to this shot and so there hadn’t been much of a chance to take any photos. Then, around 3pm, there started to be some breaks in the weather.  I saw the weather report and it looked like some fine weather was on the way – I’ll do a post on it later, but you can predict a fiery sunset with a a little meteorological knowledge, and things were looking good for tonight, so, time to fire up TPE.

 

2) Picking the Location

I LOVE The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE). It’s been a great tool to help me pick out my locations when shooting for both day and night shots.  I wanted to get a shot of a plane landing with the colours from the sunset behind it.  Looking at our local airport (Christchurch International Airport) I look for a good position to set up.  I knew that the bigger planes tend to land from the North East (and take off to the South West) so this looked like a good position for the sunset and landing planes.

TPE showing the sunset position and time

TPE showing the sunset position and time

 

As you can see on TPE it shows you where the sunrises, sets and the approximate time – after using it a few times be prepared for it to be a few mins out (I nearly missed a moonrise because it was about 5 mins early) but otherwise it’s pretty accurate.

 

3) Setting Up

I arrived about an hour ahead of sunset knowing that I’ll need some practice with my zoom lens (not something I am used to shooting with, so needed some practice!).  It’s also good to set up and adjust your location once you get there.  Sometimes there’s stuff in the foreground that ruins a shot or a position just doesn’t feel right, so I drove up and down to find a good place.  For this shoot I was going with a Sony A7ii with my new Tamron 150-600mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD lens. I also had my heaviest tripod to keep my massive lens as steady as possible – in this case it was my Veblon Sherpa 200r tripod with a panorama head.  I loosened the head and practiced with the continuous autofocus on a few objects (including a few cars driving passed – sorry if you thought I was a speed camera!). Now, it was time to see what planes were coming in to take some photos of.

Waiting for a plane and hoping the colours don't die away too soon!

Waiting for a plane and hoping the colours don’t die away too soon!

 

4) Waiting for Planes

If you live near a relatively busy airport then you can probably just wait for a plane to come and hope one lands close to sunset to get some nice colours in the background.  I’m not so lucky.  Christchurch International Airport doesn’t have a huge amount of traffic coming in and out, so I had to be a bit more planned.  I checked their arrivals and departure information from my phone but also balanced this with real-time information from FlightAware.com, which shows where planes are, their altitude, their direction etc.  Around the time of sunset there were two planes I wanted to keep an eye on.  Jetstar flight JQ174 (and A320 leaving the airport, therefore flying away from me into the colour) and Air New Zealand flight NZ553, coming in to land soon after.

FlightAware details of the AirNZ flight coming in to land

FlightAware details of the AirNZ flight coming in to land

FlightAware Map showing the position of the planes I'm tracking

FlightAware Map showing the position of the planes I’m tracking

 

 

5) Getting the shot

I had a chance to practice with other planes before sunset and realised I lacked a lot of skill shooting objects in motion, but I got better over the 30 mins or so I had.  I set my shutter to high speed and had the camera to Shutter Priority to avoid exposure issues as the planes passed in front of a changing sky.  Had I gone full manual I would have struggled to get a well exposed shot as the plane moved from a light to dark background, which is typical of a sunset.

As I saw JQ174 powering up on the runway I set my zoom to the full 600mm and made sure the Autofocus followed it all the way down the runway and start to climb.  As the clouds started to bring in some colour I started to fire my shutter – now, if you’re a good photographer you’ll be able to follow a moving target whilst a shutter is firing, but that’s what you need to do.  With my practice shots I got it very wrong at times, so I needed to be more accurate.  For example, this shot of a smaller AirNZ plane coming in to land could have been really cool, especially with the rainbow effect in the background, but I just wasn’t tracking well enough – but, I know what I did wrong and I’ll make it better next time!

Missing the frame

Missing the frame

 

JQ174 was off into the sky and I think I got a good shot of it in frame. Time to see if I can get a shot of NZ553.  The light was fading quickly and I was hoping I’d be able to get a shot before I lose all colour, completely.  It wasn’t as fiery as I hoped, but I used a similar process and followed the plane in to land whilst shooting 3-4 shots at a time on continuous high speed.  As the plane was landing far closer to me than planes that were taking off I also zoomed in and out, accordingly, to get a good shot.  The final image I used was at 300mm.

 

6) Processing

Below are my shots straight off the camera with all dust on my sensor which I obviously hadn’t cleaned off properly (poor form, I know!). My shot of JQ174 taking off had some great lighting and I didn’t need to do too much to bring out the colours and make the image punch.  When on the larger screen I can see the warm air distortion from the jets, so I really wanted to bring that out in the final pic.  As suspected, the colour in the sky had almost all gone from my shot of NZ553 as it came in to land.  Disappointing, but still enough there for me to work with, I think.

JQ174 straight off the camera

JQ174 straight off the camera

NZ553 straight off the camera

NZ553 straight off the camera

And below are the shots from Lightroom to show what adjustments I did.  No manual painting of the sky or anything, but needed to do some spot removal and cropping on JQ174 to get the framing I liked.  Less was needed for my shot of NZ553, but more lighting adjustments were needed to get the sort of colours I was hoping for.  Some may see this as being faking a photo whilst others see it as a necessary part of digital photography. Let’s leave this argument for another blog post, eh?!

The Lightroom processing I used for JQ174

The Lightroom processing I used for JQ174

NZ553 Lightroom processing

NZ553 Lightroom processing

 

7) Final Thoughts

So, for my first foray into shooting moving targets near an airfield I think I’ve learnt a lot and gained a lot from the experience.  There is TONS more for me to learn, but hopefully this little tutorial will help others wanting to give it a go.  I can’t stress enough how glad I am to be planning my shoots more, rather than thinking ‘hmmm, let me see what happens’ but that doesn’t mean a great shot can’t be opportunistic, too.  I’d love to hear what you think of this post and feel free to offer your own ideas/links and even suggestions for future posts!  Feel free to share and make sure you take a look at my other photos 🙂

4 thoughts on “Shooting Planes

  1. WOW!!! That was so great and informative. I live in CHCH too and I have tried to get the planes too but with little success. I like your detail in this and I think I will certainly be downloading the TPE app. Obviously the key IS planning. I’m very much a “hit and miss shooter”. I don’t really plan much, just go out and shoot what I see. But will be trying a more planned approach with certain photos from now on. Thanks heaps for sharing.

  2. Hi Ekant – delighted to hear that you love TPE :), but I was concerned to read your comments about accuracy. I’m confident that the app is lot more accurate than suggested. If you’re seeing differences in timing in the field between what you observe and what the app states for rise/set times, it’s typically either because you’re observing from a point elevated above the local horizon (in which case sun/moon will appear to rise early), or the horizon is obstructed (e.g. by trees/buildings/mountains/haze, in which case sun/moon will appear to rise late). You can correct for both situations using functions within the app.

    Accuracy should be to the nearest minute, assuming a clear view to the horizon on flat terrain.

    If you have any examples where you think the app was inaccurate, please let me know and I’ll happily investigate. Thanks!

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