back to top

How to Shoot Awesome Aviation Photography (Planes)

Last updated: November 12, 2023 - 9 min read
ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little money. Need more info? See how it all works here.
Subscribe Below to Download the Article Immediately

You can also select your interests for free access to our premium training:

Your privacy is safe! We will never share your information.

On weekends, you can often find me at the local airport, photographing planes as they come in to land. Military, civilian, commercial – there’s something beautiful about these hulking beasts moving through the sky. Human and machine coming together to perform unbelievable feats.
My love of photography and aviation have always blended together seamlessly. Aviation photography is an unusual subject, which is great for your portfolio. It also broadens your photographic skills across a range of subjects from abstract to documentary.
And it gets you out of your comfort zone! This post will make that jump into the unknown a little easier. It will provide you with all you need to know to get started with aviation photography.

Versatile Zoom Range
Canon EF 24–105mm f/4.0L IS II USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 24–105mm f/4.0L IS II USM
Capture stunning aviation photography with a versatile lens that delivers superb optical performance, improved IS system, and a broad angle of view.

Aviation Photography: Before You Get to the Planes

Your Kit

Just as with aviation itself, one of the golden rules of aviation photography is to come prepared.
If you plan to be out in the sun, pack some sunscreen and a hat. Making a day of? Pack a tasty picnic. Wear comfortable shoes, especially at airshows. There is a lot of walking around in aviation photography.
Binoculars will help you to prepare for a shot in advance. Some aircraft will zip by, leaving only a one or two second window for photo opportunities.
You could even pack a camping chair! Be sure to take additional camera batteries if possible and memory cards too.
Military Cargo Plane on runway

Camera and Lens

You’ll often see a thick row of photographers armed with telephoto lenses at the front line of an airshow. Depending on the airshow, aircraft performing in a display will be out of the reach of a generic zoom lens.
But telephoto lenses are expensive, and heavy. If, like me, you can’t get your hands on a telephoto lens, there are still plenty of creative options. In fact, when it comes to aviation photography, it can all be about creativity.
I shoot with my old faithful, a Canon EF 24-105mm lens. It has quite a good reach and makes for a great general purposes lens. Additionally, it’s relatively light. This is ideal for trekking around airshows all day long.
Choose the lens you are most comfortable with. If you can’t photograph an aircraft from greater distances, there are plenty of ways to make up for it. And we’ll get to those a little later.
Unless you want to photograph a time-lapse image at an airport, there isn’t much opportunity to use a tripod.
Keep moving! Photograph different angles and perspectives. This is especially the case at airshows, where you can get up close and personal with the aircraft.
ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon EF 24-105mm

Russian Antonov AN-124 under-view
The hulking Antonov AN-124 – a personal favorite

Tracking Apps

To get the best pictures, you can monitor incoming air traffic with apps like Flightradar. You can also check flight listings online.
There are sometimes live-feeds of aviation communications online, but be careful not to use up a lot of data. Try to connect to Wi-Fi whenever possible.

Checklist for aviation photography
Here’s my well-loved checklist of things to bring with aviation photography trips. Pro tip; keep your list in a zip lock bag to keep for a few extra uses.

Airport Security

The times when a person passionate about aviation could have a quick look around a hangar are gone. Pilots and maintenance crew no longer just invite people in for a chat.
Security has increased in the meantime and it’s a good idea to know where you can and can’t be at a given airport. Don’t trespass on off-limit locations (usually indicated with signage) and be sure to keep your photo ID with you.
In my experience, I’ve been able to park under the flight-path with no issues. More often than not, security have approached me out of curiosity rather than concern. But this is not true for every airport. Cooperate with security, and you’ll be fine.
Airshow formation flight

The First Step

Once you’ve got your kit sorted, getting started with aviation photography is simple. Grab your camera and head out to an airport or airshow.
The majority of aircraft at airports are commercial planes or light aircraft whereas airshows have more unusual planes on display. Moreover, for larger airports there can be areas dedicated to plane spotting.
Having a Google of your local airport will usually indicate where to find a good spot. Make sure to also check wind direction. It can influence where aircraft take off and land from on a runway.
When it comes to airports, I prefer to take photos of aircraft landing but you may want to shoot side-on or at a steeper trajectory on take-off too. It’s up to you.
Abstract bokeh of commercial plane.
Gorgeous propeller plane on runway

Airshows – Working at Your Level

This might surprise people but you don’t need a giant lens to be a great aviation photographer.
Seek out moments when aircraft are flying lower than usual, like take-off or landing at airports. Position yourself beneath or slightly to the side of flight paths and make use of designated plane spotting sites.
At airshows, take advantage of ‘low and slow’ passes often performed so the audience can get a good look at an aircraft in flight.

Close-up detail of wing-engine structure
Investigating the intricate details of an aircraft provides a unique insight into the composition of an aircraft.

Another thing to remember is that aviation photography isn’t confined to photographing aircraft in the air!
In fact, much of my aviation photography is made up of aircraft on the ground. Like that, I can focus on the more subtle qualities of aircraft.
Many people don’t get to encounter a plane up close. If you photograph the details of one, it provides a unique insight to a viewer.
Every aircraft is different, so try to hone in on some interesting quirks, shapes, patterns or textures. This way you can create some inspiring abstract photographs. They look especially great in a series.
Taking advantage of your surroundings is another trick to aviation photography. Have a look around and see if you can add some extra detail to an image by using the surrounding environment.
Puddles, puffy clouds, landmarks. All of this can be incorporated into your image to create a more meaningful story.

Creative use of reflection to enhance aviation photography.
For this photo of a Caribou I decided to make use of a puddle to add more depth to the image
Dirty Pass - Low and slow - Aviation photography flyby
Take advantage of ‘dirty passes’ where an aircraft engages their landing gear to fly very low and slow for an audience

Royal Australian Window Detail


Line, shape, form, texture, pattern, color and space are the building blocks of photography. And aviation photography is no different.
As I mentioned before, focusing on detail is important in exploring the unusual nature of our flying machines. Close-up photographs of rivets, paint and mechanics can create abstracted images. Photographs of aircraft from a distance can emphasize elaborate shape and form.
And don’t limit yourself to only photographing planes either.
The symbiosis between aircraft and people is a fascinating relationship. Try photographing people interacting with aircraft and see if you can create a more dynamic series of images.
Give yourself time to compose images and don’t be afraid to experiment a little.
Team examining engine of fighter jet

Young girl looking out the window of a military jet.
Be sure to include people in your aviation photography

Metering, Shutter Speed and Aperture

Aviation photography can be indoors (like in museums) or outdoors. To make sure you are getting the correct exposure, you will need to accurately measure the varying light levels in a scene.
Center weighted metering is ideal because the exposure is calculated by reading the center of a given image. This means that the center of the image will be prioritized in terms of exposure and deliver a nice, evenly lit scene.
The shutter speed and aperture in aviation photography is rarely different to any other type of photography. Depending on the speed of your subject, which can range from super fast to dauntingly slow, you may want to pan out to create more movement. If so, this requires a slower shutter speed.
To suspend an aircraft in the sky, or one that is just touching down, select a higher shutter speed. Personally, I stick to shutter priority mode so that I can easily switch between a fast and slow exposure.
I also engage continuous shooting, which is the best shutter mode for action photography. Continuous shooting allows you to capture a series of photographs in quick succession by holding the shutter button down.
Cargo webbing visible through the window of a military plane.
At an airshow you never quite know what you’re going to see next so having your shutter on quick-draw helps capture that unique shot. For aircraft with propellers, try to avoid very high shutter speeds exceeding 1/1000th of a second. This can result in unnaturally frozen blades. It can make the aircraft look like it’s about to fall out of the sky!
Having said that, aperture is a fantastic tool in aviation photography because aircraft have so many lines you can follow down the frame.
Rely on your creativity to judge the depth of field of stationed aircraft. Moving around your subject can inspire interesting and creative angles. This can be enhanced greatly with a shallow depth of field.

Low angle view of an airshow crowd.
Like all fields of photography, a shallow depth of field can greatly enhance aviation photography

Take a Step Back

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in photographing an event. So much so that we can forget to enjoy our surroundings outside the camera frame.
Even if you are concerned about getting that perfect shot, don’t forget to take some time to have a good look around too.
Avoiding photographic tunnel-vision will help you see with fresh eyes, revealing shots you may have missed before. It might also lead to spotting more photographic opportunities.
Vibrant seaplane on display at a regional airshow.


Aviation is a fascinating subject to work with as a photographer. Just like a camera is an extension of a photographer, the aircraft allows us to achieve amazing feats we couldn’t do on our own.
Just remember to approach aviation photography as you would any other new subject. Take your time, think about composition and remember the golden rule: come prepared!