Flying subjects

Just as student pilots train on simulators, you can photograph flying birds before trying to tackle real aircraft.  

ONE of our readers, Jasmine from Malta, wrote to me asking about photographing aircraft at an air show. I couldn’t help her the first time she enquired about shooting fireworks and now, I am sad to say that I have never shot an air show before. 

But, thinking back, I did remember taking some photos of seagulls in mid-flight. This may not compare with state-of-the-art fighter aircraft zooming across the sky but the fundamentals of shooting both are similar.  

While not quite as fast as fighter jets, these gulls make good practice subjects in preparation for photographing an air show. This was shot with aNikon D200 with 24-85mm zoom, aperture f4.5 and 1/320 shutter speed.

Recently, I was invited to Japan by Nikon to witness the launch of their new DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras) and part of the trip was a tour to their high-tech manufacturing facilities in Sendai city where we watched brand new Nikon D3 cameras roll off the production line.  

It was like watching precision Swiss timepieces being assembled (come to think of it, I haven't witnessed that either but have seen it on TV). Young Japanese girls with nimble hands meticulously assemble the D3s, one tiny bit at a time. No wonder these cameras cost as much as a Swiss watch.  

Part of the tour also took us to Matsushima Bay, about 30 minutes from Sendai. The Bay is a famously popular tourist destination with visitors, both Japanese and foreigners coming from all over the world, to view the many beautiful pine-covered islands that dot the bay. 

We boarded the tour boat, which would take us across the bay.  

The tour guide also mentioned that seagulls would often follow the tour boats, a habit that formed when tourists started feeding them.  

Scores of cameras were clicking away, trying to capture the action that was happening all round the boat.  

As I only had a mid-range zoom lens (24-85mm), I could only photograph those birds that were near the boat.  

I began by throwing snacks out into the wind and several birds tussled over it. I progressively threw the snacks closer to the boat trying to entice the seagulls closer in. 

When they came in closer I started shooting with the camera on Auto mode, which was not a good idea. It was mid-morning and the sky was bright blue, while the seagulls were a dull, greyish brown.  

The camera automatically adjusted all the settings to expose for the sky, leaving the sky a bright blue and the seagulls in silhouette. This is called “backlighting” in photographic terms. 

In situations such as this, it is always better to set the camera to manual mode. That way, you are able to manipulate the exposure settings so that your main subject is not in silhouette.  

One more tip is to set the camera’s metering system to “spot” metering. This is to ensure that your main subject is the only thing that the camera will correctly meter for.  

Shooting something fast moving likes birds or aircraft also means a faster shutter speed so that you are able to “freeze” the subject in your photos.  

If the aircraft is flying low and there is a busy background, then you can isolate the subject by slowing the shutter speed slightly – around 1/60th is fine – and pan the camera while tracking the subject constantly in the viewfinder.  

While panning, take a few shots. You will see that the panning motion will blur the background but because you had the subject constantly in the viewfinder, it will remain relatively sharp.  

This is a technique that photographers use while shooting racing cars or bikes to give an impression of speed and motion in the photos.  

It takes a fair bit of practice so don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work the first few times. 

There are no hard and fast rules when you are shooting flying aircraft. You may even want to break with convention and shoot them in silhouette.  

The most memorable example of this is the opening scene in the classic Vietnam War film, Apocalypse Now, where you have helicopters shot in silhouette with a sunset blazing in the background.  

This is one of many creative ways of photography and I urge everyone to try and experiment with the different techniques.  

Any of the methods is easy to do with an SLR and a good telephoto lens but can be quite difficult on a compact camera.  

These techniques are slightly more advanced. An SLR will allow you a greater freedom of adjustability while a compact may be somewhat restrictive.  

But that doesn’t mean that everyone should rush out and buy SLRs, just know the limitations of your camera and work around them to get those creative shots.  

Keep an eye out for my column in December when I go to the Langkawi International Maritime and Aviation expo (Lima) to try out some of these techniques while reviewing a new digital SLR.  


  • A picture may be worth a thousand words but Star photographer Lai Voon Loong, who holds a BA in Media Studies, believes that behind every picture taken is a story worth telling, too. He’s open to queries and suggestions, bouquets and brickbats; send e-mails to 

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