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08-06-2014, 09:59 AM   #1
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I need advice from the airshow shooters

Once again I turn to the expertise of the Forums. The air races in Reno are coming up soon and this year I have a Sigma 150-500 to tote around. Conventional wisdom says use slower shutter speeds to prevent 'freezing' the propellers but I'm leery of using very slow shutters speeds on a lens this long. Any suggestions for using a long lens like this? Thank!

08-06-2014, 10:32 AM   #2
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My advice from a pro several years ago was to shoot around 1/350th to get some propeller motion. More than that would tend to freeze them in action which, I think, doesn't make for as great a shot. Like this.


I realize that this was shot with a DA 55-300 lens which is not quite the same beast as the 150-500, but I shot the America's Cup races for a month with the Sigma 150-500 last year and with the lens stabilization on I had very good results at slower shutter speeds. As always, shoot, evaluate, correct, and shoot again.
08-06-2014, 11:03 AM   #3
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Keep in mind depth of focus as well. In shots with multiple planes, they are not as close together as they seem to be.
08-06-2014, 11:17 AM   #4
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This comes to mind with that thought.

08-06-2014, 11:41 AM   #5
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Here's a quick example and not expecting DOF issues.... Unedited except for a crop.

And you don't get second chances for some of the "coolest" things they do.

08-06-2014, 11:50 AM   #6
Brooke Meyer
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One of these will be in focus, I guess because you can only focus and pan one. All the official versions are the same, one sharp, one not.

08-06-2014, 12:35 PM - 1 Like   #7
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QuoteOriginally posted by Brooke Meyer Quote
One of these will be in focus, I guess because you can only focus and pan one. All the official versions are the same, one sharp, one not.
The reason one is blurred is not a depth of field issue, its a panning issue. In order to get the crossing patterns, you have to guesstimate the center point and shoot with the camera still. Simple math tells you that if you are panning with one plane, the closing rate of the second plane is doubled, thus it is motion blurred. The only way you can pan and freeze BOTH planes is to shoot around 1/8000th of a sec and at 1000mph closing speeds, even that might not work.

I just got done shooting the Blue Angles at Seafair, and with a little practice and tolerance of completely blank frames before and after, I managed to get a couple crossing shots with both planes clean by anticipating the crossing point and resisting the urge to pan.

In terms of shutter speeds, 1/250-1/320 seems to be the sweet spot for prop planes, but it requires panning expertise. For jets, I'm never less than 1/1600. Also planes running perpendicular to you are easier to capture than planes coming directly toward or away from you. Keep in mind, this also is based on 300mm focal length. At 500mm, your field of view compensation for shake doubles. You may have a really tough time at 1/320th and 500mm getting a sharp image. Rule of thumb would say at 500mm you need min 1/750 just to compensate for human aspects.

Finally, DoF comes into play when shooting formations of multiple planes. Unless you can get to f10-ish, your going to have to decide which plane you want in focus.

The nice thing about air races is that their routes are pretty much predictable. My suggestion would be to get a very sturdy tripod, mount your lens on the tripod and focus on one particular area that is compositionally pleasing. Limit your panning and scope of photos to that area and experiment with shutter speeds. You'll have multiple heats so you can always change positions for multiple angles in a portfolio.


Last edited by nomadkng; 08-06-2014 at 12:40 PM.
08-06-2014, 01:27 PM   #8
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I concur with nomadkng. Having shot the Blue Angels a few times now (also at Seafair), where they cross at very high speeds, the problem with the crossings is most definitely a motion blur issue, and not a DOF issue.

If you are panning to follow one plane, you are effectively freezing the first plane and doubling the relative motion of the second (you are panning towards it at the speed of the first plane while the second is moving in the opposite direction at the same speed). The one you are not following will be blurred unless you use a very high shutter speed, at least 1/4000 or faster (depending on focal length).

The same effect is seen when the background shows motion blur when panning to follow a fast moving object, like a car.

Last edited by Cannikin; 08-06-2014 at 01:36 PM.
08-06-2014, 02:25 PM   #9
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Let me try to steer back to general airshow photography before we delve too far into the difficulties photographing an opposing pass.

QuoteOriginally posted by gifthorse Quote
...Conventional wisdom says use slower shutter speeds to prevent 'freezing' the propellers but I'm leery of using very slow shutters speeds on a lens this long...
Turn off shake reduction in your camera menu. Look for the optical stabilization switch on the side of your 150-500 and switch it to mode 2; that will stabilize things in the vertical direction while still allowing you to pan left and right. If you are very close to the action and need to pan in all 4 directions, then completely turn off stabilization.

Racers and aerobatics run their props at high RPMs, making it relatively easy to get prop blur. The sample below shows 1/500 sec shutter speed. Take a few test shots, then review and zoom in to confirm you have some prop blur. You only need enough so it doesn't look like the engine stalled. You might be able to get away with 1/750 during the race near full throttle, then slow to 1/250 when planes are idling after the race.

If lighting is good, stop down a bit to increase sharpness. The 150-500 is probably at its sharpest near f8. TAv mode is your friend if your camera supports it. 1/500 sec, f8, and let ISO drift wherever it needs to go. Consider shooting DNG rather than JPG, so you can adjust exposure later to deal with oversposed white planes, underexposed black planes, etc. Alternately, there's full Manual mode, but I don't recommend that for your first airshow.


08-06-2014, 08:42 PM   #10
Brooke Meyer
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And sometimes, you need to pull back a little. 3 years later, I still can't believe this guy in the Twin Beech.

08-07-2014, 11:20 AM   #11
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Thanks for the advice, everyone! I've been attending the air races for years but never with a lens this long and didn't know how to resolve the long lens/slow shutter speed issue. I've tried using a tripod before but found it to be a bit unwieldy so I'm considering picking up a monopod.
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