Next up after exposure, is composition. This is just as important...nothing ruins a sharply focused and well exposed slide more than an un-level horizon or a cropped pitot tube/tailplane. Or what about those tree's growing out the top of the fuselage?

Well let's see what we can do about this!.......

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The first rule concerning composition is that there's no first rule!! nor a rule #2 or even a rule #3....basically it's up to you to decide how your gonna frame the subject. But there are questions you need to ask yourself before taking the shot and moving on, for example what shall I have for dinner tonight? !! no that's not one of them, I was thinking more along the lines of the following...

Why am I photographing this aircraft?... What am I gonna do with the resulting slide/photo?.........Am I interested in recording the markings of this particular aircraft at a particular time/date or am I shooting it for artistic purposes?

What I'm trying to say is that you need a plan of action, once you've got an idea why your actually taking a photo of the subject then it's a lot easier to compose the shot. Basically there are two distinct types of aviation photographer...

More Arty than a classic Historical shot, a low viewpoint places the subject well above the horizon and can help get rid of any distracting background. Tornado IDS 43-91 at RAF Cottesmore 10/95
© Peter Greengrass
EOS-1 28-80mm K64 200/f8

Photographers who are interested in preserving history, capturing the markings/scheme of the subject and also the actual identity of the aircraft (Serial number/codes etc.) Also in this group can be included people who shoot to trade/sell slides.

Photographers who are shooting for dramatic/artistic reasons.

Of course you can belong to both groups and most photographers probably do but it's a lot easier for me if we take them as separate groups for now....

Historic 'For the Record' shots
Photographing an aircraft for historic reasons will probably include capturing the scheme and markings to best effect and also ideally include the serial in the shot as well (This isn't as easy especially with certain aircraft and/or Air Arms i.e. RAF Tornado GR.1's where the serial placement is under the wing root!)

Depending on the type of aircraft and what markings your trying to capture, there are probably five main positions/angles for taking these type of shots...

Also ideally the Foreground/background should have a minimum of clutter, so as not to distract from the subject and especially if your interested in trading slides no people!! (Well with one exception, if the aircraft is in the process of moving, i.e. Taxiing, I suppose we can accept a pilot or two!!!) Also the sun position should be behind and over your shoulder as you face the aircraft, If you can't see the subject try turning 180 degrees...right done that? it should be in front of you now :)

So how do we reduce the clutter that's part of most airfields. Well we can move the aircraft, that would work but normally (as in always!) we need to use our feet. You'd be surprised how much stuff can be hidden just by moving the camera left/right/up or down.

Getting down low (either sitting or laying down) you can block that light tower/telephone pole and/or tree with the aircraft's tail or fuselage. Going low can also bring its own problems, Power supplies/trucks peoples feet etc. but by moving left or right a lot of this can be blocked or removed from view.

A higher viewpoint can also help and might be necessary if the subject has special markings on the tops of the wings or fuselage that need capturing. Of course getting higher is more harder than going low, this is where a pair of stepladders are useful or even better maintenance platforms or hangar roofs !!

Please note these are deal situations and as we don't live in an ideal world (If we did I'd be married to Michelle Phiffer and own A sunny slide of every F-4 Phantom ever produced) then we gotta compromise, for example No people can be reduced to no CIVILIANS etc. etc.

But when it's not possible to totally hide a piece of clutter then sometimes its better to show more of it, for example

By laying down you've obscured most of the light tower but there's still a piece of it sticking right out of the fuselage (Going lower is impossible, unless you remembered to bring you're shovel along!).
Now if you take the shot there's a good chance this top of the light tower will end up looking a part of the aircraft. In my opinion it would be better to get up of your belly (Yeah you.. Quit lying down on the Job!!) and shoot it standing up or if possible higher. When you get the slide back people will automatically see that its Light tower and realize it's not part of the aircraft.

Artistic Shots
For photographers looking for artistic shots there's no need to worry about getting serials or markings visible. Also the need to have the sun behind you is of much less importance. Dramatic back lighting and extreme angles work just as well for the artistic shooter as side on/full sunlight profiles do for the historic guys.

Again low and high viewpoints can be used to great advantage, not only to block out background clutter but also to enhance the dramatic effect. Aircrew as well as groundcrew can be included to help provide interest.

Artistic shooters are neither limited in there choice of lens, 15mm Fisheye's to 600mm telephotos can be used to good affect, and film and filters can also come into play.

Nicely illustrating that 'plain for the record' type shots can be artistically pleasing is this shot of a Canadian Air Force CT-133 (T-33A) 133656 from VU-32. (Note: Providing your own puddles by urinating is frowned upon by most Public Affairs officers!)
© Philippe Colin

Shots of aircraft in action (actually flying....yeah they do that as well!) can also be listed in the artistic shooters curriculum vitae. Airshows are a good place to try this type of photography (Well it makes a break from sitting in the sun drinking ice cold Budweiser's, complaining about how it's impossible to shoot the static park because of the millions of civilians and cones/barriers!!).

One vital piece of equipment for this type of photography (And size does matter!) is a long lens. You really need at least a 300mm telephoto or zoom. Also there's no worry about distracting backgrounds just blue sky (If your lucky!) Bad weather can also be an advantage especially for afterburner take off's and thrust reversal landings.

Technical Info

Right you're at Holloman AFB, nice sunny afternoon, sun behind you, 50mm fitted, you're in a laying down position (you had to get rid of a light tower behind the tail of the F-4F Phantom II your about to shoot). Camera's loaded with K25 and set for 100/f8 (Sunny 16)

You look through the viewfinder, Focus and cli......Before you press that button and start pushing up Mr. Kodak's shares there are some important technical details you need to consider concerning both types of aviation photography either Historic or Artistic....

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Now's time to look at the edges of the viewfinder, making sure your not cropping anything or including anything you don't want in the shot (i.e. Someone's foot!) If your using a fixed focal length lens then your gonna have to move, you zoom guys have got it easier (but remember no wider than 50mm unless this is a artistic shot) Also if you plan to publish your shots don't crop to tightly, leave some space at the edges.

Keep that Horizon level. Nothing ruins a perfect shot more than a tilted horizon (Unless your shooting for a website and you can give it the Adobe Photoshop treatment...Not that I'd know anything about that though!!!) If your having problems with this (and I'm definitely one) then it might help if you fit a Gridded Focusing screen, I fitted one last year and it helped me increase my percentage of straight shots.

Where you place the aircraft vertically in the frame is up to you. I normally divide up the frame in thirds and place the aircraft and sky in the top two-thirds, ground in the bottom third (But it does depend on circumstances and what works for you or gives the most pleasing image) The gridded focussing screen comes in handy here too but you don't have to be to exact.

Well what ya waiting for..Press the button (Que click and winder noise...) Nice shot and if your still reading this, I would like to say thanks because this is end of part one of our Sharpshooter's PhotoSchool - Guide to better Aviation Photography course!

Coming Soon Part two covers Slide trading & selling, Storage & filing of your slides and Scanning of slides.


This is probably the ideal position. Normally in line with the wings or main wheels. Most aircraft look good shot from this angle

3/4 Front or Rear

Again, a very good photogenic angle for most aircraft. This is fortunate because these two angles are very common positions, caused by the usual clutter and/or next-door aircraft on most airbase's ramps.

1/4 Front or Rear

The angle is now getting very acute and because of this, it is probably more suited to 'arty' type shots. Of the two the Front 1/4 shot is the more photogenic.

Add to these positions, a high or low viewpoint and most markings or schemes can be covered well.

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