A general overview of some of the best cameras for aviation photography, as well as tips, tricks and settings for success.
Most of us have seen astounding pictures of jets and other aircraft on our social media or on the Internet. But the question is how are such pictures taken? What equipment is used to take such amazing pictures?
In this article, we will have a look at some of the cameras and lenses used in aviation photography. Also, the common settings used for nighttime aviation photography and where to buy the best cameras.
How do you shoot aviation photography?
Aviation photography is usually shot using a subject aircraft and an aerial platform such as a helicopter or another aircraft when flying in formation. The team of photographers and pilots sit down before each photoshoot and work out the details regarding the positions of the aircraft at any given time and what to do in case things go awry.
These details are also passed on to air traffic control and search and rescue services so that they know that an aerial photoshoot will be in progress from a particular time. In some cases, NOTAMS are also published to inform other pilots of aerial photoshoots in progress in the vicinity of their flight path.
Mirrorless vs DSLR cameras for aviation photography
“The mirror in a DSLR reflects light up to the optical viewfinder via a pentaprism, so the image is the right way around. An advantage of this is that it’s instantaneous. With an electronic viewfinder, there is always going to be some inherent lag,”Mike Jorgensen, specialist Aviation photographer and former fighter pilot
Both mirrorless and DSLR cameras can be used for aviation photography, but they have some differences in their design and functionality that might make one more suitable than the other depending on your specific needs. Here are the main differences:
Size and Weight: Mirrorless cameras are typically smaller and lighter and more compact cameras than DSLRs because they don’t have a mirror mechanism and optical viewfinder. This makes them more portable and easier to carry around, especially if you need to move quickly to capture fast-moving aircraft.
Viewfinder: DSLRs use an optical viewfinder that gives you a direct optical view through the lens, thanks to a reflex mirror that swings out of the way when you take the shot. Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, either have an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or just use the main LCD screen to display the image. An EVF can provide a digital display with information overlays and the ability to preview how changes to settings (like exposure) will affect the image. However, some photographers prefer the clarity and immediacy of an optical viewfinder.
Autofocus Speed: Historically, DSLRs had the advantage when it came to autofocus speed. This is because they use a technology called phase detection, which quickly measures the convergence of two beams of light. Mirrorless cameras initially relied on contrast detection (measuring the contrast between pixels on the sensor until it finds enough contrast to find that it’s in focus) and were generally slower than DSLRs. However, this has changed in recent years, with many mirrorless cameras now offering phase detection or hybrid autofocus systems that are just as fast, if not faster, than their DSLR counterparts.
Battery Life: DSLRs tend to have longer battery life. This is because they can shoot without using the LCD screen or EVF, which uses a lot of power. Mirrorless cameras usually require the LCD or EVF to compose shots, resulting in shorter battery life.
Lens and Accessory Availability: As DSLRs have been around longer and have a wider selection of lenses and accessories available. However, the gap has been closing as mirrorless cameras have become more popular.
Image Preview: Since mirrorless cameras use an electronic viewfinder or the main LCD to display the image, you can preview the image with the current settings applied (such as exposure, white balance, etc.) before taking the shot. In a DSLR, you only see the actual light coming through the lens, so you might not notice if your settings are off until after you take the shot.
For aviation photography, both types of cameras can work well, but the choice will depend on your specific needs and preferences. You might prefer a mirrorless camera if you want something more lightweight and portable, or if you like being able to preview your shots with setting applied in real-time.
On the other hand, you might prefer a DSLR if you are wanting to take more professional shots and like the feel and immediacy of an optical viewfinder or if you already have a collection of lenses that you want to use.
What are the best DSLR cameras for aviation photography?
Presently, aviation photographers have a wide variety of camera manufacturers and models to choose from depending on their requirements. Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras are certainly a popular and solid choice for a digital camera for aviation photography, but there are many types to choose from. Following are some of the top-end models available on the market:
1. Canon EOS 80D.
The Canon EOS 80D is a versatile DSLR camera that can be an excellent choice for aviation photography. It’s equipped with features that make it suitable for capturing fast-moving aircraft, detailed shots, and more.
Here are some key features of the Canon EOS 80D that are beneficial for aviation photography:
- 24.2 Megapixel APS-C CMOS Sensor: The EOS 80D offers a high-resolution sensor that captures detailed images, which is essential when photographing aircraft and aviation-related scenes.
- 45-Point All Cross-Type AF System: The autofocus system in the EOS 80D is fast and accurate, with 45 cross-type AF points that cover a significant portion of the frame. This is helpful for tracking moving aircraft and ensuring sharp focus.
- Dual Pixel CMOS AF: This feature provides fast and accurate autofocus during live view and video recording, making it easier to track moving subjects like aircraft in flight.
- ISO Range: With an ISO range of 100-16000 (expandable to 25600), the EOS 80D can handle a variety of lighting conditions, from bright daylight to low light at dawn or dusk.
- 7 fps Continuous Shooting: The EOS 80D can shoot at up to 7 frames per second, allowing you to capture fast action sequences, such as an aircraft taking off or landing.
- Full HD Video: The EOS 80D can record Full HD video at up to 60 fps, which is great for capturing video footage of aircraft in motion.
- Articulating Touchscreen: The 3-inch vari-angle touchscreen LCD is helpful for composing shots from different angles, whether you’re shooting from an observation deck or ground level.
- Weather-Sealed Body: The EOS 80D has a durable, weather-sealed body, which can be useful when photographing in various outdoor conditions at airports or airshows.
- Customization: The EOS 80D offers various customization options, including programmable function buttons and custom shooting modes, allowing you to tailor the camera settings to your specific needs for aviation photography.
Pairing the Canon EOS 80D with a high-quality telephoto lens will enhance your ability to capture detailed shots of aircraft at various distances. Overall, the EOS 80D is a solid choice for aviation enthusiasts looking for a reliable and versatile camera, and is one of the most compact cameras.
2. Canon EOS 1300D
The Canon EOS 1300D, also known as the Rebel T6 in North America, is an entry-level digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. It was introduced in March 2016 as a successor to the Canon EOS 1200D (Rebel T5). While it’s not specifically tailored for aviation photography, it can be a good option for beginners or hobbyists looking to capture aviation-related images.
Key features of the Canon EOS 1300D:
- 18-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor: This sensor captures high-resolution images, suitable for printing and cropping.
- ISO range of 100-6400: This ISO range allows for shooting in various lighting conditions, including low-light situations like dusk or dawn.
- 9-point autofocus system: The autofocus system helps quickly lock onto subjects, making it useful for capturing fast-moving aircraft.
- Full HD 1080p video recording: Allows for recording high-definition video, which can be useful for capturing aircraft takeoffs, landings, or airshows.
- Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC: These features make it easy to transfer photos and videos to a smartphone or computer, share images on social media, or remotely control the camera.
- 3-inch LCD screen: This screen can be used for live-view shooting, reviewing images, and navigating the camera’s menus.
While the Canon EOS 1300D is a capable camera for beginners or hobbyists interested in aviation photography, there are a few factors to consider:
- Lens selection: The choice of lens is crucial for aviation photography. A telephoto lens with a focal length of at least 200mm is typically recommended for capturing distant aircraft.
- Continuous shooting speed: The 1300D has a continuous shooting speed of 3 frames per second (fps), which may be limiting when trying to capture fast-moving aircraft such as fighters or aerobatcs during airshow displays
- Skill level: The 1300D is an entry-level camera, so while it’s suitable for beginners, more experienced photographers may prefer a more advanced camera with features like faster continuous shooting, better low-light performance, and more autofocus points.
Overall, the Canon EOS 1300D is a good option for beginners looking to get into aviation photography. However, more advanced photographers may find it limiting in terms of speed and features.
3. Nikon D750
The Nikon D750 is a full-frame DSLR camera that was released in September 2014. It’s equipped with a 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor and an EXPEED 4 image processor, providing high-resolution images with excellent detail and dynamic range. While the D750 is not a specialized aviation photography camera, it has features that make it a good choice for this type of photography.
Features of the Nikon D750 related to aviation photography includes;
- Fast Autofocus System: The Nikon D750 features a 51-point autofocus (AF) system, including 15 cross-type sensors, which is crucial for tracking fast-moving aircraft. The camera can quickly lock onto a subject and keep it in focus, even if the subject is moving across the frame.
- High ISO Performance: The D750 has an impressive ISO range of 100-12,800, expandable to 50-51,200. This capability allows you to shoot in low light conditions, such as during dawn or dusk, without sacrificing image quality.
- Continuous Shooting Speed: The camera can shoot at a continuous rate of 6.5 frames per second (fps), which is suitable for capturing aircraft in motion, especially during takeoffs, landings, and aerobatic maneuvers.
- Tilt-able LCD Screen: The 3.2-inch tilt-able LCD screen lets you compose shots from different angles, which can be useful when photographing aircraft at airshows or airports where your movement might be restricted.
- Video Capabilities: The D750 can record full HD video at 1080p resolution and 60fps, which is great for capturing aviation-related video footage.
- Weather-Sealed Body: The camera body is weather-sealed, providing some protection against dust, moisture, and harsh conditions, making it suitable for outdoor aviation photography in places like airshows which typically end up being quite dusty.
- Lens Compatibility: Being a Nikon DSLR, the D750 is compatible with a wide range of Nikkor lenses, allowing you to choose the best lens for your aviation photography needs, such as telephoto lenses for capturing distant aircraft or wide-angle lenses for expansive shots.
- Image Quality: The D750 delivers high-resolution images with excellent detail, color accuracy, and dynamic range, which is important for capturing the nuances of aircraft and the surrounding environment.
The Nikon D750 is a versatile and capable camera suitable for various photography genres, including aviation photography. However, the choice of lens will also play a significant role in achieving the best results. In aviation photography, lenses with longer focal lengths are often preferred to get close-up shots of aircraft in flight or on the ground.
4. Nikon D3200.
The Nikon D3200 is an entry-level digital SLR camera that features a 24.2-megapixel DX-format CMOS sensor, a wide ISO range of 100-6400 (expandable to 12800), and the ability to shoot Full HD video. It is part of Nikon’s D3000 series of cameras and was introduced in 2012. It’s a versatile and user-friendly camera suitable for beginners and amateur photographers. Here are some key points for using the Nikon D3200 for aviation photography:
The Nikon D3200 is an entry-level digital SLR camera released in April 2012. While it’s not specifically designed for aviation photography, its features and capabilities make it a suitable option for enthusiasts looking to capture aircraft in motion.
Key features of the Nikon D3200 include:
- 24.2 Megapixel Sensor: The D3200 boasts a high-resolution APS-C CMOS sensor, capable of capturing detailed images with accurate colors. This is particularly important in aviation photography, where the details of an aircraft’s design and livery can be captured with clarity.
- EXPEED 3 Image Processor: The camera features Nikon’s EXPEED 3 image processor, which allows for fast and responsive performance. This is crucial for aviation photography, where split-second timing is necessary to capture fast-moving aircraft.
- ISO Range: The D3200 has an ISO range of 100-6400, which is expandable up to ISO 12800. This allows for better low-light performance, which can be helpful for early morning or late afternoon aviation photography.
- 4 fps Continuous Shooting: The camera can shoot at a rate of 4 frames per second in continuous shooting mode, making it easier to capture a series of images of a fast-moving aircraft.
- 1080p HD Video Recording: The D3200 is also capable of recording Full HD video, allowing you to capture both stills and videos of aircraft in action.
- Compatibility with Nikon Lenses: The D3200 is compatible with a wide range of Nikon lenses, giving you the flexibility to choose the best lens for your specific aviation photography needs.
However, for aviation photography, it’s essential to consider lens options. A telephoto lens (typically in the range of 200mm) is recommended for capturing aircraft at a distance or in flight. A shorter zoom or prime lens, around 35mm-70mm, would be suitable for capturing aircraft on the ground or at an airshow.
Remember that aviation photography can be challenging due to the speed and distance of aircraft, so it may take some practice to master. However, the Nikon D3200 is a capable camera that can help you capture stunning aviation images with the right settings and techniques.
Keep in mind that the Nikon D3200 is an older model, and newer cameras with improved features have since been released. However, if you already have a D3200 or can find one at a good price, it is still a capable camera for aviation photography with the right lens and settings.
Mirrorless Cameras for aviation photography
Mirrorless cameras are a popular choice for aviation photography due to their compact size, lower costs, fast autofocus, and high-quality image sensors. Here are some recommended mirrorless cameras for aviation photography:
- Sony A7 III: This full-frame mirrorless camera is known for its fast autofocus, high-resolution sensor, and excellent low-light performance. It’s compatible with a wide range of Sony lenses, including telephoto options ideal for capturing aircraft from a distance.
- Canon EOS R6: The EOS R6 is a full-frame mirrorless camera with impressive autofocus capabilities, a high-speed continuous shooting rate, and a broad ISO range for low-light shooting. Canon’s RF lens lineup offers a variety of high-quality telephoto lenses suitable for aviation photography.
- Nikon Z6: This full-frame mirrorless camera is praised for its excellent image quality, wide dynamic range, and reliable autofocus. Nikon’s Z mount lenses, including telephoto options, make it a strong contender for aviation photography.
- Fujifilm X-T4: This APS-C mirrorless camera is known for its sharp image quality, fast autofocus, and robust build. Fujifilm’s X mount lenses include several telephoto options ideal for capturing aircraft in action.
- Sony a6400: This APS-C mirrorless camera offers fast autofocus, high-resolution images, and excellent continuous shooting speeds at a more affordable price point. With a range of E-mount telephoto lenses available, it’s a solid choice for aviation enthusiasts on a budget.
When selecting a mirrorless camera for aviation photography, consider the camera’s autofocus capabilities, continuous shooting speed, and sensor size. Additionally, the availability of telephoto lenses is essential for capturing aircraft at a distance or in flight.
Remember that aviation photography can be demanding, so investing in a high-quality telephoto lens is crucial. Also, practice your skills in panning, tracking moving subjects, and adjusting camera settings to capture sharp, well-composed images of aircraft.
What lens is best for aviation photography?
Aviation photographers usually carry a wide variety of lenses with them before going on any photoshoot. The lenses are carried in such a way that they can be easily swapped out and replaced in order to get that “golden shot”, where a window of opportunity may only last a few seconds.
Many factors influence what lenses an aviation photographer may carry such as the type of aviation photography to be completed, budget, focal length, and technical specifications such as compatibility, image stabilization, focusing speed, etc.
Ideally, for airshows or detailed shots, aviation photographers carry a telephoto lens which is quite versatile. For static shots, a wide-angle2 lens is preferred. The most commonly used lenses are the 70-200mm and 100-400mm as they give great shots of aircraft and are considered an essential in any aviation photographer’s bag. Usually, brands such as Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Tamron are favorites of any aviation photographer as they provide excellent quality at a premium price – similar to a Bose A20 or a Bose A30 headset .
For more information on 10 of the best camera lenses and zoom lenses in aviation photography, you can check out AirportSpotting.com
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Aviation photography camera settings and tips
The settings depend on various factors such as daytime/nighttime photography, still or panning shot, and exposure time and settings. Ideally, aperture priority works best when dealing with jets. The camera should deal with shutter speed while the photographer uses lenses having focal lengths ranging from 5.6 to 8 mm.
Lens Selection: The lens you choose will play a big role in capturing stunning aviation images. Pairing the Nikon D3200 with a telephoto lens (200mm or more) is often recommended for aviation photography as it allows you to get close-up shots of aircraft in flight or on the runway. However, a standard zoom lens (18-55mm) can be useful for wider shots or static displays.
Shutter Speed: Use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action of aircraft in flight. A shutter speed of at least 1/500s is recommended for propeller-driven aircraft, while faster speeds of 1/1000s or more may be needed for jet aircraft.
For propeller aircraft, shutter priority works best while shooting while using a time interval of 1/25 seconds so that a sense of motion can be captured with propeller aircraft. This along with the use of autofocus and vivid color mode makes pictures even more compelling and adds to the overall depth of the picture and image quality.
Aperture: Choose a wider aperture (smaller f-number) for a shallow depth of field that isolates your subject against a blurred background. Alternatively, use a narrower aperture (larger f-number) for a deeper depth of field when capturing multiple aircraft or larger scenes.
ISO: Keep the ISO as low as possible to reduce noise in your images. However, you may need to increase the ISO in low-light conditions to achieve faster shutter speeds.
Focus Mode: Use continuous autofocus mode (AF-C) to track moving aircraft and maintain sharp focus throughout the shot.
Image Stabilization: If your lens has image stabilization (VR – Vibration Reduction), it can help reduce camera shake, especially when using longer focal lengths.
Continuous Shooting: A continuous shooting mode that allows you to capture multiple frames per second, which is useful for capturing fast-moving aircraft.
Composition: Pay attention to the composition of your images, incorporating elements such as the sky, clouds, and airport infrastructure. Experiment with different angles and perspectives.
Post-Processing: Editing your images in post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop can enhance the colors, contrast, and sharpness of your aviation photos.
Night aviation photography settings
Night photography is an exciting and challenging sub-genre of aviation photography that has its own aesthetic appeal. Night aviation photography is different from daytime photography in the sense that there is a lack of sufficient light and also cameras need to be more stable to prevent unwanted glare due to vibrations, movements, etc.
Ideally, a DSLR camera is best for nighttime aviation photography, however, some changes in the settings will be required. Photographers often play around with aperture settings, exposure settings, angles, their zoom lens and light positioning.
The ideal settings for using DSLR cameras for nighttime aviation photography are as follows:
1. ISO 100
2. Long exposure.
3. Sharpest aperture.
4. Camera decides shutter speed.
5. Tripod for image stabilization and to prevent any unwanted vibrations.
How do you become an aviation photographer?
Like all arts, aviation photography takes a lot of time and effort to master and the learning process is continuous. Most rookie aviation photographers start by going to airshows and museums and honing their aviation photography skills. Airports in Europe have special decks made for plane spotting, where amateur photographers can sharpen their aviation photography skills.
Dedication, knowledge, experience, and the ability to tell a story using just a picture are instrumental in the progression of any aviation photographer. Usually, photographers build up their portfolio and then apply to major magazines such as Flightglobal or Flyertalk, or other publishers to further enhance their skills.
How much do aviation photographers make?
Aviation photographers in the US make around $3,929 per month or $47,149 annually. The lowest annual salary a photographer can earn is around $17,000. However, reaching a professional level requires years of practice, patience, and self-discipline.
The learning process as an aviation photographer never stops and aviation photographers are constantly trying to experiment with something new or trying to be more creative in order to get that “golden shot”.
Where can you buy cameras for aviation photography?
Photographers can use the following websites to buy digital cameras, lenses, compact cameras, mirrorless cameras and other equipment related to aircraft photography:
2. Canon Official store (https://www.usa.canon.com/shop/cameras/dslr-cameras)
3. Sony Official store (https://www.sony.com/en/)
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Aerial photography is a demanding and highly competitive niche. An aerial photographer is only as good as the equipment he/she carries. In order to get that “golden shot”, it is necessary for photographers to carry the most up-to-date kit.
With the advances in camera and lens technology, it can be said that aviation photographers will continue to take amazing pictures of jets flying solo and in formation.