Air to Air Photography – 10 Tips for Best Results

Air to air photography poses a unique set of challenges for every photographer. Here is a general overview of the challenges, and our top tips for best results.

Introduction

While scrolling through Instagram feeds, Facebook or a flying magazine, have you ever come across stunning and jaw-dropping air-to-air pictures of jets? Well, in this article, we will talk about air-to-air photography and some questions related to air-to-air photography.

Air-to-air photography happens in a dynamic, ever-changing, and fast-paced environment where even the slightest mistake by one of the elements can result in the loss of human life and millions of dollars worth of machinery.

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What is Air to Air Photography?

As the name implies, air-to-air photography is the skill of photographing aircraft or airborne objects while in flight using another aircraft that provides a stable platform for the photographer.

Air-to-air photography offers the photographer a great deal of flexibility as they can position the subject aircraft in particular positions and angles under a variety of lighting conditions to get the most desirable shot.

Military air-to-air photography is particularly demanding as both aircraft are traveling at high speed, near Mach 1, and under the influence of gravitational forces and maintaining formation at the same time.

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How do people take photos of planes in the air?

Before the photography flight, a thorough briefing is conducted where all the stakeholders are made aware of the risks of air-to-air photography and the actions to be taken if something goes wrong. The photographer and pilot of the subject plane constantly communicate with one another.

The photographer tells the pilot to climb, descend or bank, or a combination of maneuvers to get the perfect shot.

air to air photography
The photographer and pilot of the subject plane constantly communicate with one another.

Can pilots take pictures while flying?

Most civil aviation authorities do not prohibit pilots from taking selfies or pictures during flight. However, most airlines do restrict their pilots from taking pictures below 10,000 feet or during the critical phases of flight.

The main reason for restricting pilots from taking any pictures below 10,000 feet is due to the sterile flight deck rule, which states that below 10,000 feet pilots should avoid conversation or activities that are not related to the safety of the flight.

An exception to this rule is if the crew member is seated on the jump seat then they may take pictures/videos. However, all crew members must ensure that the safety of the flight is not compromised at any time.

Do pilots need to be formation rated to fly air to air photography flights?

Air-to-air photography takes place in a dangerous environment where two or more aircraft are flying in extremely close proximity to one another and the margins for error are razor-thin. So, in order to conduct air-to-air photography missions, it is preferred that pilots are formation rated.

There have been many accidents during air-to-air photo shoots the most notable of which occurred on 8th June, 1966 during an air-to-air photography session for General Electric, a company that manufactures jet engines. The formation consisted of 5 aircraft of which two were lost and two crew members died, with a third crew member sustaining serious injuries during the ejection sequence.

 For more information on this accident, you can click this link: https://theaviationgeekclub.com/valkyrie-down-the-unsolved-mysteries-behind-xb-70-av2-crash/

Air to Air photography, formation flying
The margins for error are razor-thin with formation flying

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words”

Elliott Erwitt

What are some tips for best results with Air to Air photography?

Here are some top tips to get the best results with air-to-air photography:

1. The best weather conditions for an air-to-air photography session are fairly cloudy skies. Clouds help balance the natural light and provide an interesting backdrop for the pictures.

2. A stable platform will really help with the overall quality and crispness of the pictures.

3. If possible, use lenses that offer vibration reduction to counter the vibration caused by the airframe or use a tripod.

4. A good rule of thumb is to use double the focal length of the lens for your shutter speed.

5. Landings and take-offs create the most dramatic pictures.

6. Aim for crisp pictures that are not blurry and yet give the viewer a sense of motion.

7. Choose the right lens, preferably ones that cover multiple focal lengths. There’s little time to be fumbling about trying to find the right lens, as the perfect shot might present itself out of nowhere.

8. Choosing the right camera for the job is very important. Usually, air-to-air photographers consider two main parameters; resolution and high ISO performance.

9. Shoot pictures in portrait as well as landscape modes, as there is more choice if you want to print some of your pictures.

10. It is always good practice to check your batteries and cards before an air-to-air photo shoot.

For more tips, please click the links below:

https://photography.tutsplus.com/tutorials/aerial-photography-tips-for-your-first-flying-experience–photo-5071

https://www.digitalcameraworld.com/tutorials/aerial-photography-tips-take-your-shots-to-new-heights

air to air photography
Most airlines do restrict their pilots from taking pictures below 10,000 feet or during the critical phases of flight, for safety reasons.
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“Take more photos than you think you need. The aeroplane costs a lot to operate, and you may not get another opportunity. Film is cheaper than AvGas, but so is digital memory.”

Mike Jorgo – Proaviationtips/aerialphotography

FAQs about Air to Air photography:

What is the best lens for aerial photography?

For aerial photography, a high-quality zoom lens that falls in the range of 20mm to 200mm is more than sufficient, especially for shots that include formation flight. The zoom capability saves the photographer a lot of time by not having to change lenses when switching between different views.

For more information, please click the link below:

https://www.photographytips.com/page.cfm/49

Is taking pictures of planes illegal?

Generally, it is not illegal to photograph commercial aircraft at the airport or during any phase of flight. However, some airport operators might prohibit taking pictures of airplanes on the ground due to security concerns.

Most airports facilitate plane spotters by allowing them to take pictures and share them on social media.

Can you take pictures of military aircraft?

Yes, taking pictures of military aircraft is perfectly acceptable as long as there is no risk of interference with the operation of the aircraft, no security measures are violated, and no secret technology is photographed.

Normally, photographing a military aircraft in flight is not a problem, however, photographing a military aircraft on the flight line at an active base might be perceived as an act of espionage. Some countries only allow pictures to be taken during air shows or on specific days where the public is allowed to interact with the armed forces.

It is always prudent to ask for permission before taking pictures of military aircraft and be aware of one’s surroundings. Also, it is wise to not take pictures of a military aircraft’s cockpit, instrumentation, engines, or air intakes as they may contain highly classified technology.                             

air to air photography
Taking pictures of military aircraft is perfectly acceptable as long as there is no risk of interference with the operation of the aircraft, no security measures are violated, and no secret technology is photographed.

Can you use a phone for air to air photography?

Phones can be used for air-to-air photography such as the Nokia N8. Personally, I use my Samsung S21 for taking pictures while flying and the results are excellent.

Conclusion

In the end, it can be rightfully said that a picture is worth a thousand words. A picture of a fighter jet doing a maximum performance take-off can encapsulate so many things such as the adrenaline rush, the howl of jet engines, the energy of the jet, and the mastery of the pilot over the jet.

With social media users increasing day by day, air-to-air photography has gone from strength to strength as photographers from all over the world showcase their talent for the world to see. It’s also a great side hustle idea for pilots looking to earn a bit of extra money.

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ken johnson

Ken

Ken is a passionate aviator, a professional pilot and flight instructor. He has over 17 years of flight experience across hundreds of aircraft ranging from recreational, aerobatic, historic, commercial and military aircraft, training hundreds of students along the way. Find out more.

Ken has 124 posts and counting. See all posts by Ken

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One thought on “Air to Air Photography – 10 Tips for Best Results

  1. I’m struggling to find someone who is FAST rated and is willing to give me an opportunity to do some Air to Air photography. How do I find someone? In exchange for the air to air session, I would offer both prints and digital downloads for the pilots and owners of the GA aircraft.

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