Airshow hints and tips - Part One

USAF B-1B Lancer at Westover ARB in Massachusetts

With Spring comes the airshow season in North America, beginning generally in Florida and California and peaking with events as far north as Yellowknife and Alaska in mid-summer, and around this time of year I get itchy to get the big lens out and photograph my favourite warbirds and modern demo jets. But like anything, not doing much aviation shooting over the winter makes my skills get a bit dull and I worry about attending the first show I go to and not getting the shots I want. And I do remember starting off with taking photos at airshows only a few years ago and thinking that there had to be more to just pointing the camera and having at it, which of course there is! In this post I'll talk about what to get you consider on the equipment side of photographing airshows, as well as I what I use myself. I'll make a post at a later date which will address other considerations like technique, processing, and generally getting the most out of the airshow experience.


  1. Lenses - The performance box and show line can be somewhat distant at airshows depending on the location, dependent on airport layout and surrounding areas, so your primary lens should be no shorter in focal length than 300mm. If you can afford a longer lens, by all means go for it, as it may be difficult to fill the frame even at 300mm with a single aircraft demo. Also, a wide angle lens (and go as wide as you can if you like!) is necessary for static displays as well as if you are able to be in an area close to the aircraft as they start up/shutdown, taxiing, etc. Kit lenses are usually fine for this if you're budget restricted, I used an 18-135mm for this purpose for quite a while and you'll most likely not be shooting at big apertures (low f-stops) in full daylight.
  2. Camera bodies - I started off shooting airshows with a Canon SX20IS "bridge" camera which was a great way to learn exposure, and if you don't want to make the plunge into a DSLR system, current bridge cameras are not bad. Drawbacks tend to be slow burst shooting speed (bad for high-speed action), optics are not as good as what you can potentially use with your DSLR, and they have smaller sensors resulting in poorer image quality in less than perfect light. On the upside, they're small and light in a one-size-fits-all package. For DSLR bodies, unless you have a very long telephoto lens (500mm or longer) I recommend using a crop-sensor camera as you will need the reach. Personally, I do find the image quality better in a full frame, but again, be prepared to have the lens to match. For me, the most crucial elements in a good action shooting camera are a good autofocus system (more points the better), and high burst shooting speed. More than anything else, I've missed shots because of both focus issues as well as the camera unable to keep up with the action where things like a transonic vapour cone on a fast jet only happen for a split second and if your camera can't keep up, all you'll see is a bit of vapour before and after it and you'll be kicking yourself for missing it! As for sensor sensitivity, megapixels, etc., I wouldn't worry about it much as pretty much every camera made in the last 5 years will have adequate resolution/image quality for daylight (ie, low ISO) shooting.
  3. Tripods/monopods - For most people this won't be an issue, as most lenses up to a 400mm are quite hand-holdable, and for most activity, hand-holding the lens will be the most convenient and comfortable. I don't recommend using a tripod for airshow shooting as things tend to be so fast that it's more of an impediment. They also take up a lot of space and depending on where you are, it may be blocking someone else's enjoyment of the show. Monopods are quite usable, and very good for assisting in slow shutter speed panning shots, particularly on takeoff/landing, especially with a tilting or gimbal head. However, I find that monopods can be unwieldy when it comes to photographing aerobatics and higher speed passes. Your mileage may definitely vary on this point.
  4. Strap - I'll make a special point of this speaking as someone who has shoulder issues; do invest in a good, comfortable strap for your camera. If you're spending an entire day at an airshow, that camera and lens (or multiple cameras and lenses if you're like me) gets very heavy and you don't need a camera strap digging into your neck and shoulder. The first thing I do with a new camera is ditch the thin leather strap that comes with it and install a wide, padded strap. Also, those OEM straps usually scream to the world what camera you have and how much it's worth, generally not an issue at airshows but in urban areas with high levels of theft, it can be a consideration.
  5. Battery/battery grips - One thing to think about as well with airshow photography is battery life in your camera. Carry lots of spares, or consider getting a grip for your camera which accommodates two batteries at a time. My cameras are all gripped for both extended shooting time, as well as they balance better when using big lenses. If I cover a weekend shooting an airshow, a pair of freshly charged batteries will last the day. For this reason, I don't recommend mirrorless camera systems for airshows, despite their convenient size and generally excellent image quality. Be prepared to carry a lot of spare batteries with you if you do use a mirrorless camera.
  6. Clothing/sunscreen - I can't stress this enough, get a wide-brimmed hat for airshows. Baseball hats will not cover your neck and ears and you will get burned unless you're really keeping up with the sunscreen. Also, UV blocking shirts are a godsend and they also typically are more breathable than t-shirts. Reapply your sunscreen as often as you can. If you are at an airshow where you are on tarmac, you will get burned if you don't use sunscreen regularly.
  7. Camera bags - A note on camera bags; many airshows, especially ones on military bases can have restrictive rules on what you can carry onto a base and sometimes larger backpack style bags are forbidden. Lately I've gotten into the habit of simply carrying my spare batteries, cleaning cloths and what have you in my pockets rather than try to bring my camera bag onto a base with me. Bring a folded plastic bag in your pocket if it looks like it might rain if you're at a show where you can't bring a camera bag. Also, with regard to rules about bags, be prepared to be turned back at the gate. As I've discovered at a couple of military shows, rules posted on their website/social media may not be as they are at the gate. When in doubt, leave it in the car, there's no use arguing with an MP or guardsman about it as they're only doing their job as directed.

My Personal Kit

My usual kit for airshows:


Canon EOS 7D Mk II, used as main camera due to its good AF system and high shooting speed (10 frames per second)

Canon EOS 6D, used primarily for static and wide angle lens use. It shoots fairly slowly (4 fps) and has a somewhat primitive AF system with only 11 points, but I have used it in the past as an action camera, with mixed results. For static subjects though it has fantastic image quality.

Both cameras have battery grips


Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 Sports, a tremendous lens with great image quality. It's also weather sealed. Also tremendously heavy and sits on a monopod most of the time.

Canon 24-105mm f4L, a good lens for walking around for static on full frame, and I'll use it for the occasional formation team wide shot. I keep a UV filter on this lens to protect it, and to keep it weather sealed.

Tamron 15-30mm f2.8 VC, this will be my go-to ultra-wide angle lens for close-up aircraft shots, replacing a Canon 10-22mm that I used to use in this role


Benro monopod with Jobu Jr. gimbal, used for the Sigma 150-600mm

Browning Flex Grip rifle sling adapted to fit the grommets on the Sigma 150-600mm *I keep a sling on this lens in case either the monopod loses footing or if I'm using it handheld. The rifle sling has far better padding than any camera strap I've been able to find.

Blackrapid Sling Strap on the 6D

Lenspen or two (I tend to drop them)

Cereal bars, sunscreen, bug spray (especially at Geneseo!), and lots of water

Ann's Gear

Ann usually carries her Canon EOS 60D and 300mm f4L IS, sometimes used with a 1.4x Extender III and occasionally a Manfrotto monopod and tilt head. This was my primary setup until I got the Sigma 150-600mm Sports.

Stuff I've used in the past...

Canon EOS 60D - traded in after 80k clicks or so for the 7D Mk II

Canon 55-250mm IS, 18-55mm IS, 18-135mm IS kit lenses - a note on the 55-250mm, despite the slightly short reach, it is a great value. Fairly sharp, very light, and very versatile. Also, the 18-135mm was also a good value.

Sigma 150-500mm DG OS lens - a decent lens, but nowhere near as good as the 150-600mm Sports. Very soft from 400-500mm, and also not very sharp until stopped down to f9.

Tokina 70-210mm f3.5 lens - a very old Pentax K mount lens adapted to Canon mount, an interesting full manual lens that I got me a few ok photos. Full manual exposure and manual focus is a real challenge!

Airshow Review: The Great New England Airshow 2015

C-5 Galaxy of the 439th Airlift Wing, 337th Airlift Squadron

Our first official airshow event of the year was The Great New England Airshow at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, MA, and I can tell you that it was a bit of a mixed bag. I knew going into it that the layout of the base was going to make photography somewhat challenging, but combined with the distance of the show line, the weather, security restrictions, and massive traffic tie-ups made for a fairly wearying experience. That isn't to say though that we still didn't get some good photos and generally enjoy the show itself, it's more that it's debatable that it would be worth it to return or for a first time photographer to bother. We did attend both days, although we didn't spend the full day there on Saturday due to the weather as well as delays getting into the show. At any rate, on to the details about the show.

We were excited to attend Westover as I knew it was a C-5 Galaxy base, the massive USAF cargo aircraft which I had only ever briefly seen once before (on approach to CYOW over our house) and the opportunity to see one flown in the airshow wasn't to be missed. Also of major interest to us was the chance to see the RCAF CF-18 Hornet demo in its 75th Anniversary Battle of Britain colours which I knew I wouldn't see this year until September most likely. Aside from those attractions, other performers included several warbirds such as P-51 Mustangs "Never Miss" and "Bald Eagle", Corsair "Skyboss", TBM Avenger "She's The Boss" and B-25 Mitchell "Miss Hap". Aside from the warbirds, the USAF was represented by the aforementioned C-5 Galaxy and the F-22 Raptor demo team, with the USN providing the always entertaining Blue Angels team. The US Army Golden Knights and RCAF Snowbirds rounded out the military teams on display. Civilian performers were Sean D. Tucker in the Oracle Challenger, Rob Holland Ultimate Airshows with his MX-S/RH, and the GEICO Skytypers with their SNJ's.

The US Army Golden Knights kicked off the show timed with the US and Canadian national anthems, jumping from their Fokker C-31A Troopship. Following the Golden Knights, the warbird performers took to the air, represented by Mike Murphy's P-51D "Never Miss", Charlie Lynch's TBM Avenger "She's The Boss", and American Airpower Museum's FG-1D Corsair "Skyboss" and B-25 Mitchell "Miss Hap". While the warbirds were forming up, Sean D. Tucker also flew a short display in the Oracle Challenger. Following Mr. Tucker's display, the warbirds performed several racetrack passes as well as a formation pass, then Mark Murphy put his Mustang through its paces in an aerobatic display. As you can see from the warbird shots, the far show line made it a long reach even with the 150-600mm. Also, the south facing orientation of the show made for tough, hazy, backlit conditions for photography.

Following the warbirds display, the mighty Lockheed C-5 Galaxy returned to the show box after having taken off before the show to perform a few passes as well as a dirty pass demonstrating the sideways rotating and retracting nature of the massive landing gear. While slow moving and slow turning, seeing the enormous aircraft up close was a treat.

Up next was the much anticipated RCAF CF-18 Hornet demo in her new Battle of Britain colours. Capt. Denis "Cheech" Beaulieu performed the familiar but still entertaining routine featuring various high speed and slow high alpha and dirty passes. Again, the lighting made for a real challenge to photograph the beautiful colour scheme on the Hornet, hopefully I'll have a chance to see it again this year under more favourable conditions.

More RCAF action followed the Hornet with the world-famous Snowbirds, with their Canadair CT-114 Tutors entering their 45th year of service with the display team. It was great to hear the American crowd show their appreciation for the Canadian team, who performed with their usual professionalism and precision. The low show was performed Saturday due to cloud cover with the high show on Sunday.

Continuing in the formation team vein, the GEICO Skytypers next took to the skies in their vintage North American Aviation SNJ-2 and -4 aircraft, demonstrating a variety of WWII-era training maneuvers that student fighter pilots would have learned in that period. The snarl of those P&W Wasp radial engines always makes me smile!

The Golden Knights performed again with a slightly more extensive performance than in the morning, leading into Sean D. Tucker's next performance in the Oracle Challenger. Mr. Tucker pushes his aircraft hard and is a lot of fun to watch, especially his extremely low passes done at high speed.

While Sean Tucker was pushing his aerobatic aircraft around the show box, the roar of the F-22 Raptor and P-51D Mustang "Bald Eagle" could be heard in preparation for their routines. The F-22 performed its remarkable demo of speed and maneuverability unheard of in other jet fighters. I had seen it perform last year at Rhode Island and this year's performance was no less thrilling than before. With its solo demo done, the Raptor was joined by Jim Beasley in his Mustang for several passes in the USAF Heritage Flight, a very stirring sight with the pinnacle of fighter aircraft technology of their respective eras on display. The Saturday display had the added benefit of the damp air providing some fantastic vapour action on the Raptor, despite the grey skies and low clouds.

With the Raptor and Mustang returned to the ground, Rob Holland then proceeded to wow the crowd with his MXS/RH aerobatic aircraft. Mr. Holland flies a rambunctious routine that seems a little more wild and unpredictable than Sean Tucker, an interesting contrast between the two pilots.

With the conclusion of Rob Holland's display, the Blue Angels' transport aircraft, the C-130 Hercules "Fat Albert" blasted into the sky. Fat Albert did some passes at considerable speed for a turboprop transport, and then demonstrated a tactical assault landing. Unfortunately, due to the distance of the show line as well as the layout of the aircraft parking area, much of the landing and demonstrating of Fat Albert taxiing in reverse was hard to see, let alone photograph.

For the finale, the Blue Angels pilots and ground crew made quite the choreographed spectacle of performing their ground checks through to the engine starts and finally taxiing to takeoff position. Our spot along the show line directly in front of team lead Capt. Tom Frosch's number 1 F/A-18 Hornet gave us a great view of the ceremonial prep and departure. The Blue Angels form up their 4 ship formation on the ground for takeoff with the solo aircraft 5 and 6 taking off in the opposite direction, making for a unique start to the performance. Once in the air, the Blue Angels alternated formation and solo passes, with the solos performing quite a few opposing passes, thrilling to watch due to the speed and power of their Hornets. The Blue Angels finished their fairly lengthy routine with some excellent 6 ship formations, splitting up at the end to return to earth.

There was a lot to enjoy at The Great New England Airshow, but I'd have to say that there was a lot that would prevent me from returning as well, short of seeing something utterly unique to Westover. From a photographic perspective, the south facing nature of the airfield is problematic. It can be worked around but it's hardly ideal. Nothing that can be done about that though. More major issues though are access in and out of the base. Arriving at the base when the gates open was fine, but any later than that resulted in major delays driving onto the base, then standing in massive lineups to pass through security (more on that in a moment). On Saturday, we weren't that concerned because the weather was not great, but our start to finish time to enter the show was approximately 2.5 hours. The base only has two gates and all traffic funnels through them, surely using off-site parking and busing attendees in would be a better solution? As for security, especially regarding what could and couldn't be brought into the show, it was highly confusing with completely contradictory instructions both on web/social media and from National Guard troops on site. A friend with a Lowepro slingbag was allowed in with no issue, whereas Ann was turned back with the exact same bag, then allowed in with some camera gear in her "purse" (actually a camera bag as well but more of a satchel type bag). I have no issue with security measures and with last year's Boston Marathon attacks, I am very much on-board with the necessity of those measures, but if you're going to make lists of what can be brought in, please have a clear policy and stick to it. On Sunday we didn't even bother with bags and just carried our gear in our hands, with the assumption of low chance of rain. I'd rather that the policy be no bags whatsoever, that way security is faster and everyone is treated fairly.

On a technical level, I used my Canon 6D with the Sigma 150-600mm OS DG HSM Sports lens used both handheld (for faster aerobatic shots) and on a Jobu Designs gimbaled monopod. This was the first time I had used this combination and I'm glad I had the monopod for support for the Sigma as shooting handheld with this lens all day wouldn't be a pleasant activity. The 6D did ok, showing its shortcomings with regard to AF performance and burst shooting rate, both being on the slow side. With practice it's workable though and until such time as I can afford a higher grade body, it'll be the combo I use for most aviation stuff. I am however very pleased with the image quality of the Sigma. Static shots were with my EOS M and EF-S 10-22mm f3.5-4.5. Ann used her Canon 60D with EF 300mm f4L IS and 24-105mm f4L IS.

All that said, the show itself was good, well paced, with an interesting lineup. If you're in the west Massachusetts area and want to take in a good show, it's worth seeing. Be forewarned, plan to arrive at gates open, and prepare to take a long time (2 hours in our case) to get off the base at the end of the day. As a photographer, I can't really recommend it due to the south facing setup, the far show line, and inconsistent security, unless you're local to Westover ARB and don't plan on attending any other shows. I'm glad I went The Great New England Airshow, but unless I happen to be in the area, I'll be scheduling alternative events for that weekend in the future.

PS: I also have to mention something which I forgot to include the first time around, the Laurel and Hardy act next to us was both sad and hilarious. Two guys that were taking photos fancied themselves important enough to have 2 extra chairs to use as a buffer zone around the two of them as well as cordoning off their little fiefdom with caution tape. I'm amazed no security people hassled them about it, it was definitely one of the more obnoxious things I've seen photographers do at an airshow. Real classy there guys.

Airshow Review: CFB Trenton Open House

Hercules, Harvard II, CF-18 Hornet, and Polaris

Hercules, Harvard II, CF-18 Hornet, and Polaris

Canadian Forces Base Trenton is home to 8 Wing of the RCAF and they've been known to host open houses of the base every so often, sometimes with flying displays and sometimes not. This year, they had a small but highly entertaining flying display on a beautiful Saturday, May 31st consisting of a couple of Hercules (one SAR C-130H model and one tactical airlift C-130J), a very impressive Search and Rescue demo from one of 424 Squadron's CH-146 Griffon helicopters, appearances by Vintage Wings of Canada's Harvard and Mustang IV, and closing with a BAE CT-155 Hawk trainer from 15 Wing Moose Jaw.

RCAF CH-146 Griffon of 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron

RCAF CH-146 Griffon of 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron

On static display were a C-17 Globemaster III, another H model Hercules, CT-156 Harvard II, CF-18 Hornet, another SAR Griffon, Beech Super King Air, CC-150 Polaris tanker, and a CC-144 Challenger VIP transport. Also on hand were multiple ground-based support units for the base, including the very neat portable cable arrest system used in conjunction with CF-18 operations.

Vintage Wings of Canada's Mustang IV

Vintage Wings of Canada's Mustang IV

All in all, it was only an hour and a half in length, but the aerial display did not disappoint, and the ground displays were also very interesting and informative. Well worth the drive from Ottawa to see. More photos in the gallery below, and more still in my CFB Trenton Open House Flickr album.