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Taking photos of aircraft at museums and on the ground — or on a pole

25 December 2009


For many this is a day of giving, so please accept this gift from me to you.

Taking photos of aircraft at museums and on the ground — or on a pole

First, will be the lens choice and it will usually be 35mm in focal length (23mm for APC sized sensors or cameras with a crop factor of ~1.5),  or even less. You will be close to large objects so a wide angle is a must and having a fast f/stop will also do well here, at least for focusing purposes. I shoot at f/8–f/11 whenever I can, but get by with f/5.6 when I must. The ISO settings I use vary but I try to keep it to less than 800 and will use a flash if needed. I use a 24mm-105mm zoom lens but try to use 35mm when I can to reduce distortion; at other times I use a 14mm lens specifically for the distortion I can get when at an oblique angle, or when I have to be extremly close to the subject. We’ll talk more about the flash later.

What do you do when the aircraft won’t fit into the viewfinder? In those situations I use panoramic stitching techniques — they work well, and are easy to do, so experiment a bit and soon you will be coming back with photos that are “unobtainable” by most photographers you may know. There are many applications that can do this for you, I happen to use routines that are in Adobe Photoshop Elements.

What do you do when the airplane fits into the viewfinder but one must choose whether to have the nose in focus or the tail in focus? There is a solution to this one as well — shoot both! But then use Helicon Focus software to merge the images. The program takes the best focused portions of each image and makes a composite image of them, violá.

What do you do when the scene has so much contrast that you must expose for the highlights or expose for the shadows, losing part of the scene either way? There is a digital solution for this as well. The technique is called, somewhat over the top, high dynamic range (HDR) photography. HDR is simple to understand and to do — take the image at a normal exposure, another that is two stops over exposed and another that is two stops under exposed. Then use software like Photomatix that can use the best information from each photo and merge it all into one single image where the highlights and shadows show all their detail.

Some museums allow the use of tripods and some do not and this will determine your shooting strategy. All the programs above work better when a tripod is used, but can also be used with hand held shots. Before I travel I ask the museum if I can use a flash or a tripod — many are accommodating and some are not. If they are not I may end up shooting at f/4.5 and an ISO of 1600, c’est la vie — that is part of the excitement of traveling, meeting the challenges!

The same goes for flash usage though many more museums allow the use of flashes than not, as long as they are not independently mounted. In dark places this may be the only way to go but, even then, avoid direct flash — bounce it, diffuse it, whatever you can think of to mute the harshness of the electronic flash. I also take a few “identical” photos since each image will be exposed in a slightly different way with each shot. 

An additional nugget of advice I would give you is to be aware that most museums are sensitive to professional photographers taking pictures of their wares and not sharing the profits — business is business and good business occurs when all parties are happy. All museums are careful to not have photographers provide tripping hazards, for obvious reasons. So … go in with your gear and don’t make much of a commotion and, of course, recall that you are in a place where hours upon hours of effort  have been expended on each aircraft — appreciate that and express your thanks 🙂

Finally, do not hesitate to edit your images … all images require editing to be their best … it is fun and easy!

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