Monday, September 22, 2008

Notes from the Air Show

Iso 400, f/8.0, 1/1250 sec, 500mm

Yesterday I went out to Oceana Naval Air Station for the air show to shoot some photos. Arriving early, I was directed to a prime parking spot approximately 1 mile from the entrance. To be fair, they had shuttle buses running but it was a nice morning and I needed the exercise; so I loaded my Sigma 50-500mm lens bag onto my camera bag, grabbed my monopod, and hiked across the concrete tarmac to show. At the entrance I was stopped by a very big soldier carrying a very big gun who informed me in no uncertain terms that camera bags were prohibited. The guy in front of me slipped by with his but I figured protesting would at best get me kicked out and at worst…well I didn’t really want to think about it.

Iso 400, f/25.0, 1/160 sec, 500mm

I hiked back to my truck, attached the Sigma to my Nikon D300, put my memory cards in my pocket, and left everything else behind as I walked back to the show. I didn’t realize my mistake until I got to the entrance a second time. Leaving everything behind included my monopod. I briefly considered making a third trip; however, I opted to forgo it and shoot handheld. For those that haven’t had the pleasure of holding a Bigma, it weighs over 5 pounds. It doesn’t seem like much but after 5 hours, it begins to wear on you.

It has been years since I attended an air show. Living near the base, we see the jets all day long and when an air show comes to town, we can usually see a lot of the performances from a distance. It doesn’t in any way compare to actually being there. If you haven’t gone to one, I highly recommend it. From the graceful agility of aerial acrobatics to the sheer power of the jets as they fly just off the deck is breathtaking. Watching the F22 Raptor perform was as beautiful as it was down right terrifying.

Iso 400, f/20.0, 1/320 sec, 500mm

Here are few tips that will help you come away with an enjoyable experience and images that really sing:

1. Arrive early. The gates to the show opened at 8:00 a.m. By the time I arrived and made the multiple trips to my truck, I got in at 9:00 to find that the best spots were already taken. At the very least, you want to get a location right up against the barrier so that you do not have anyone between you and the airstrip. You will be surprised at how low some of planes pass by.

2. Travel light. As previously mentioned, camera bags were not allowed so carry your camera, lens, monopod, and memory cards only. You can get away with individual lens bags attached to your belt or a photo vest if you have one. I wasn’t planning on changing lenses so I only took the one attached to the camera. Also, you will be carrying your equipment all day and you will appreciate the lighter load as the day wears on.

3. Wear comfortable shoes. Walking shoes, hiking boots, or any shoe that offers a lot of cushioning. The viewing area is usually on concrete. After a few hours, your legs and feet will thank you.

4. Bring a chair. You can get a folding chair at any sporting goods or department store for around $10. The chair collapses and slips into a carrying bag that is allowed into the show. Aside from obvious purpose of allowing you to rest you feet and back for a few minutes between performances, the chair serves a much more important role of staking out your territory. As soon as you arrive, place your chair at your selected location right up against the barrier. This will enable you to roam the base and still return to your spot without having someone else move in on it. In all honesty, you will spend very little time actually sitting in the chair.

Iso 400, f/6.3, 1/2000 sec, 370mm

5. Big glass. Most of the planes will make some passes close enough to get a good image with 200mm zoom but if you really want to optimize your opportunities for some great shots, you need to bring something in the 400mm – 600mm range. A cheaper alternative is to purchase 1.4x or 2x teleconverter. Make sure though that the teleconverter that you purchase will work with your camera’s autofocus.

6. Focus selection. Most DSLRs now come equipped with selective and continuous focus. The former locks focus when the shutter is depressed halfway so that you can recompose without the focus shifting to another target. Continuous focus, on the other hand, does just what it sounds like – continues to adjust focus as the subject moves. For the majority of your shooting at an air show, you will want to use continuous focus.

7. Focus points. DSLRs have come a long way in a short amount of time when it comes to focus options. Most allow the user to select a point or a set of points for the camera to use to calculate focus. On the Nikon D300, I use 21 point focus for fast moving subjects. The camera focuses on a single point; however, if the subject moves out past the point in the frame, the camera automatically shifts focus to one of the 20 other points surrounding the primary. Check your camera manual to see what options you have.

8. Vibration reduction. Turn it off. Why? Whether in camera or lens based, VR will slow focusing. Unless you are panning motion shots, you will be shooting at shutter speeds that make VR irrelevant. Since it is not needed, turn it off and allow the camera to gain focus acquisition as fast as possible.

Iso 400, f/25.0, 1/160 sec, 500mm

9. ISO. I found that 400 iso allowed me to shoot at 1/1250 second or faster. I probably could have gone as low as 200 iso; however, large, dense clouds kept moving in and out of the area. I didn’t want to miss a great shot because my shutter speed adjusted to a setting too slow.

10. Settings. I found that I was most comfortable shooting aperture priority set at f/6.3 for the stop action shots. Doing so allowed the shutter speed to adjust for changes in lighting due to cloud cover or bright sun. For panning shots, I remained in aperture priority but set anywhere from f/16 – f/32 in order to bring down the shutter speed create motion blur. I wasn’t worried about the increased depth of field since the background would be blurred regardless. At f/16, I had a shutter speed of 1/250 – 1/400 sec which was good to get that nice radial blur on propellers while still keeping the overall image sharp. At higher f-stops, my shutter speed dropped to 1/80 – 1/120 of a second which is great for panning shots with a lot of motion blur. I definitely need to practice this more as tracking a jet fighter approaching the speed of sound while hand holding a 5 pound lens is fairly difficult.

11. Monopod. Don’t leave it in the truck! For panning shots, it is absolutely a necessity to keep the panning smooth and the image sharp. I got a few right handheld but botched the majority of them by having my hands shake the lens up and down while trying to follow the subject.

12. Take a break. Every now and then, put the camera down and take a look around. There is a lot of neat stuff to see at a show and while resting your eyes, you may come across another image that you hadn’t originally thought about.

I ended up leaving the show before the Blue Angels took to the sky in order to get home in time to catch my Bears choking another victory away in the fourth quarter but I was pretty happy with the majority of the images I created. Processing was fairly straightforward and quick. After importing them into Lightroom 2.0, I ran tone, contrast, and vibrancy adjustments on the first image and then synced the other 300 images. I then ran through them and flagged each as pick or discard. I filtered the picks and made minor adjustments to exposure and shadows before exporting them to jpegs and uploading them to my 09/21/2008 Oceana NAS Air Show gallery.

Next an air show is town, get out there shoot a few. It is a great time.

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