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How I Shot That: Inside tips for photographing the Blue Angels

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels perform at Seafair 2015 in Seattle

Many of you in Seattle are probably headed to check out the Blue
Angels at Seafair today. I took some photos of yesterday’s performance
and wanted to share a few tips on how to capture some great shots if you
watching the Seafair Airshow today.
Picking a location is key, obviously. Planes at airshows will fly
pretty low to the ground, and you need to position yourself so that you
have a clear line of sight, ideally a bit elevated with a clear
horizontal view so that you can track them across the sky. I scouted
some street locations using Google Maps Street View beforehand, but
ultimately chose the I-90 highrise bridge deck on Mercer Island, which
is right near the center of the action.
Backdrops are also key. Unless you get photos of the jets that fill
the entire frame of your photo, it helps to have something interesting
in the background, like the city, mountains, etc.

Bring your longest lens. I was right in the center of the action, but
it still helped that I had a super telephoto lens. I shot yesterday
with the Nikon D750, using the AF-S NIkkor 500mm f/4 FL ED VR. Most
people, including myself, can’t afford one of these huge lenses, but
renting one at your local camera shop is worth the spend. When the
action got really close, 500mm was too tight, but in most cases I was
happy to have the extra reach. If you don’t want to lug the super
telephoto, smaller zooms can work too. Airshow photos definitely start
to get more interesting at 300mm and above.
Ditch the tripod. Working with a huge telephoto lens can be
exhausting, but the action moves too fast and in too many directions.
You need to handhold the lens and follow the planes across the sky. Use
continuous burst mode and take lots of photos. You’ll have to sift
through your photos when you’re done, but it gives you a much better
chance of having something in frame. I took almost 1,000 photos
yesterday, immediately deleted half of them and then ended up with 50 or
so that I really liked.

 Pay attention to your shutter speed. If you are photographing
fast-moving jets, you’ll need at least 1/1000 or 1/2000 of a second to
freeze the action and get crisp photos. Propeller planes are a different
story, you want a much slower shutter speed, probably 1/320 second or
slower to show motion in the propellers. Faster shutter speeds freeze
the propeller and make the plan look frozen.

Metering is also important when you are shooting against a bright
sky. Given how lighting changes quickly as you pan the camera across the
sky, you will need varying exposures. Check your histograms after a few
shots to make sure that the sky or clouds are not “blown out.” You’re
better off having a slightly underexposed image that you can tweak in
your photo editor.
Take the largest image size that your camera allows and crop the
finished photos. Unless you are printing enormous photos, you don’t need
a photo that is 4,000 or 6,000 pixels wide. If you aren’t close enough
or your lens doesn’t zoom enough, use the extra pixels to crop the
photos to have the planes fill more of the frame.

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