Photographing Aeroplanes in Flight

As part of a recent event in Saddleworth, we were treated to a flypast of a DC47 Dakota. Perhaps a few tips on how to photograph this sort of subject would be useful to others facing a similar challenge.

DC 47 Dakota over Saddleworth, Sunday 11th August 2013

Allowing the camera to make the decisions on speed and aperture is not a good idea in this case, so let’s get back to basics. When I first took up photography I was told that the only S A F E way to take a picture was to consider (shutter) Speed, Aperture, Focus, then Expose.


The Dakota is a propeller driven aeroplane and from experience I know that the speed of rotation of the props will probably be about 25 revolutions per second. Too high a shutter speed will freeze this motion and is not desirable. Let’s say we want the prop blades to be blurred by about 30 degrees. This is one twelfth of a revolution, and will therefore take 1/300 second (25 x 12 = 300). I actually selected a shutter speed of 1/320.


To get the correct exposure, the aperture and ISO speed setting need to be considered together and as the plane was likely to be photographed against the sky I decided to use manual settings. The camera metering suggested that with ISO of 250 an aperture of f/10 was about right with a shutter speed of 1/320.

View across the valley

This was checked when I arrived at the vantage point (on the hillside, with the sun behind me) by photographing the view across the valley and examining the histogram – how we ever managed without this facility I don’t know. The values quoted are actually the final values, after adjusting to get a good histogram.


Focal length: To get a reasonable size of image a focal length of 200mm (on a 1.5 crop – equivalent to 300mm on 35mm full frame) was used. Finally, I manually focussed on an object about 300m distant (with an aperture of f/10, this is not at all critical as the depth of field will be plenty).


For a moving subject like this, continuous shooting whilst panning is best. The sequence below shows a telegraph pole flying past between me and the plane.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One thing I learned on the first pass: Don’t start shooting too soon or the buffer may fill up before you finish the sequence. And … don’t stand behind a telegraph pole!

Showing 30 degrees of blur on the props