Aircraft Photography Tips Part 1 – Choosing Cameras And Lenses

Aircraft Photography Tips Part 1 – Choosing Cameras And Lenses

Aircraft Photography Tips Part 1 – Cameras And Lenses

This post on aircraft photography has been refreshed and updated in June 2016 to take account of the latest lens releases.

Aircraft photography can present a number of issues which can catch out the casual photographer.  My updated article shares a few tips with you on how I approach photographing aeroplanes. I have listed the main factors this aircraft photography series will look at below –

  • cameras
  • lenses
  • appropriate camera modes
  • general camera technique.

Camera Specs

For aircraft photography, you ideally want an SLR camera that allows the user to select both spot and centre weighted metering modes. Choosing a camera with the ability to switch between these metering modes will make consistently reliable exposures a lot easier to obtain. It is important to note that not all entry level cameras will have a spot metering mode so make sure you check the specs out on any camera you are looking to buy.

Your chosen camera will also need shutter priority and aperture priority exposure modes.

Finally, check the camera has manual control of exposure compensation.

Some compact cameras and bridge cameras look appealing because they feature long reach lenses. Check the specs to make sure any bridge or compact camera has the features and modes mentioned above. The ability to mix and match metering and exposure modes is more valuable than lens reach.

Shutter Lag

If you have, or choose to buy, a compact or bridge camera then pay close attention to the cameras shutter lag specification. Shutter lag is the amount of time between you pressing the shutter button and the shutter operating. This time difference is referred to as shutter lag and ideally needs to be as close to zero as possible. I guarantee there is nothing more frustrating than to frame perfectly your subject matter but miss the shot because of shutter lag.

I use a Sony Nex-6 for general walking about or if travelling light, and many times shutter lag has caught me out because I am used to the instant response of my Nikon DSLR. So shutter lag can be a real problem photographing planes.

If using a compact or bridge camera be sure to look at the cameras shutter lag specification. There’s nothing more frustrating than to frame your image perfectly then miss the shot because of shutter lag.

Whatever camera system you have, or choose to buy, to consistently get good aircraft photo’s you will need to get intimately familiar with the following camera features

  • aperture and shutter priority modes
  • exposure compensation controls
  • metering modes – matrix, centre weighted and spot.

Don’t worry, these camera modes and features are discussed in depth in part 2 – Aviation Photography Tips – Metering Modes, Exposure Compensation and Exposure Modes.

These terms might seem a bit daunting at first – you will need to practice and experiment to really understand the subtle differences of each function, but your persistence will be rewarded.

Having a good understanding of what these camera modes do, in which circumstances to use them, and how to quickly change between them is very important.

To get consistently good aircraft pictures you need to focus on the action unfolding in front of you and not get distracted by operating the camera.


you will need to practice and experiment to really understand the subtle differences of each function, but your persistence will be rewarded.

Which Camera For Aviation Photography?

The choice of cameras available are overwhelming, but almost any of the current crop of DSLRs are capable of delivering good results, providing they feature the modes and features mentioned above.

I suggest a DX or crop factor camera will be of more benefit than a full frame camera. The ‘crop effect’ of the smaller sensor gives you a ‘free’ boost to your zoom lens of up to 1.5x magnification.

Try not to get caught by GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Buying the newest, latest and greatest lens, camera or whatever is absolutely no guarantee of success.

Having a solid understanding of your camera and lens performance and then applying that knowledge to your subject matter is the real key to success.


The lens you invest in will depend on many factors not just how deep your pocket is.

The first question you need to ask yourself is what type of aviation photography do you want to undertake. If you are looking at capturing larger and slower moving commercial aircraft at your local airport, the lens choice could be a lot different to getting fast moving fighter aircraft at airshows or low level in the Mach Loop.

As silly as it sounds, if you are looking at the civil aviation scene, any lens between 24mm or 28mm through to 300mm will have its uses.

If smaller warbirds or modern fighter aircraft are more your thing then a telephoto lens with a reach of at least 300mm is a good starting point.

Its pretty straight forward deciding on exactly what lens range you want – the smaller your target the longer reach you need from your lens and vice versa.

I used to use a Sigma 100-300mm EX f4 lens sometimes combined with the Sigma 1.4x teleconvertor. This combination gave 460mm reach which equates to 640mm when factoring in the crop factor of a Nikon DX format camera. This combination has served me well and has yielded good results. It didnt have image stabilisation (IS) or vibration reduction (VR) but is a solid lens giving good results.

I sold, and am still selling, many aircraft pictures used with that lens combo.

What lenses might be considered suitable for aviation photography?

Generally speaking, speed of focus and image sharpness at the long end of the zoom range are the most important factors in choosing a lens for aircraft photography. At the end of the day there is no point in having 300mm or more of lens reach yet the autofocus cant keep up with a fast moving jet. Conversely, lightning fast focus is no use if the image is that soft that it might as well be out of focus!

Entrance Level Zoom Lenses

As with everything in life, focus speed and image sharpness generally improve in proportion to the price tag.

Starting with the cheaper options, Nikon offers a reasonably cheap Nikkor AF-S DX VR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR which could be used as a first lens. Reviews suggest the lens isnt particularly fast focussing and the image sharpness drops noticeably between 200mm and 300mm.

Moving up a bit in quality and performance is the new Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED which is supposed to be very good and offers better VR and features better quality lens glass.

Sigma offer the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS and Tamron offer the SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD.

All three lenses are reasonable performing mid range zoom lenses and wont cost a fortune.

More importantly, if you decide aircraft photography is not your thing, you wont be greatly out of pocket and will have a good lens that is perfectly suitable for many other styles of photography.

Intermediate Range Zoom Lenses

As you move further up the quality and price range you will come across the new Nikkor AF VR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED which features improved optical quality, auto focus performance and VR.

The traditional alternatives, and until recently the aviation photographers lenses of choice, are the Sigma 50-500mm f4-6.3 APO DG OS HSM and Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO. Both lenses are well respected for aviation photography and the debate still rages as to which lens is the better. In simple terms both are very good lenses, especially if you can get one second hand. Reports seem to suggest the Sigma 150-500mm lens is slightly better than the Sigma 50-500mm. The former is also cheaper but both lenses get good reviews.

Reports seem to suggest the Sigma 150-500mm lens is slightly better than the Sigma 50-500mm. The former is also cheaper and both lenses get good reviews.

Next up is the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 APO EX DG OS HSM which is very well respected amongst wildlife photographers as well as aviation photographers but comes with an even bigger price tag.

In a similar price range is the Canon 100-400mm L f4.5-f5.6 which is coveted by Canon photographers. As a Nikon user I cannot comment either way, but reviews and discussions around the web indicate this is a very good lens for Canon owners.

As mentioned earlier, the two Sigma lenses were the defacto lenses of choice for aviation photography until very recently.

Tamron, and more recently Sigma, shook up the market with new lens offerings. Both companies have released a 150-600mm zoom lens with exceptional image quality. Sigma even released two versions – one in their C or Contemporary range and one in the S or Sport range. The S version has better optics and is aimed squarely at sports photographers and has a price to match. The Tamron and Sigma C lenses are priced similarly to the 150-500mm and 50-500m lenses which seems to indicate that they will take over the mantle of ‘go to’ lenses for aviation photographers.

These three lenses get rave reviews and seem to have significantly raised the bar in terms of affordability versus optical quality and image sharpness.

More recently Nikon released their 200-500mm f5.6 VR lens. This is similar in price to the Tamron 150-600mm and the Sigma 150-600 C lenses. The Nikon has a slight edge in that it features a constant f5.6 aperture throughout the zoom range. As a negative it only goes to a maximum zoom of 500mm.

For what it is worth, I tried both Sigma 150-600’s and the 200-500 side by side on a Nikon D7200 and ended up buying the Nikon 200-500 lens.

The Nikon just seemed to focus faster and the VR seemed smoother in operation and looked steadier. It was purely a subjective test but I went with my gut feeling when making a decision.

It should be noted that once you start looking beyond the three 70-300mm zoom lenses I mentioned, you are looking at very good lenses that are going to set you back a decent sum of money. They shouldnt be viewed as casual purchases and are only suitable if you want to seriously get into aircraft photography.

One saving grace is that many are upgrading from their 50-500’s and 150-500’s so there is a chance of picking up one of these proven performers second hand at good prices.

A factor you may overlook in your lens choice is the weight. A standard 70-300mm lens will weigh somewhere around the 750g to 1kg mark. The 150-600mm lenses are going to weigh in between 2 and 2.5kg. You are going to notice the weight after an hour or so at an airshow!

Superzoom Lenses

I purposely havent included any of the superzooms in the 18-200mm or 300mm range. This is primarily because there is a lot going on inside a wide angle superzoom lens and many optical compromises are made to fit all that zoom range into a single lens. There is a place for the superzooms in photography, and I have considered getting one, but not for aviation photography.

I do feel that if you are seriously looking at aviation photography and are tempted by the superzooms then you will be better served by separate lenses.  A good 70-300mm for flying aircraft and a wide angle lens for aircraft on the ground will serve you better as opposed to a single superzoom lens.

You can get very close to the action at some airports, so a wider angle view lens can result in some interesting alternatives to the standard 3/4 front landing type image. Indeed, you may find the shorter end of a 150-500 or 600 lens isnt short enough and end up missing shots!

Long Prime Lenses

I purposely havent discussed the various prime lenses such as the 400mm, 500mm or 600mm lenses purely for the reason that they are out of the budget range of many photographers. Needless to say, they are generally exceptional lenses but come with eye watering price tags well out of reach of the average photographer.

I havent discussed the various prime lenses such as the 300mm, 400mm or 500mm purely for the reason that they are out of the budget range of many photographers

There are many differing opinions on lenses so please feel free to comment or get in touch if you want to discuss these lens options and their relevant pros and cons in more depth.

So in summary, I have suggested a camera system that allows the user to select and control the following

  • metering mode – centre weighted and spot
  • auto modes – aperture priority and shutter priority
  • manual control of exposure compensation.

I also suggested a telephoto zoom lens with a reach of around 300mm. Next time we will look in more depth at the camera exposure and metering modes mentioned above.

I hope you have found the post interesting so far, follow the link to read Aircraft Photography Tips Part 2 – Camera Metering Modes, Exposure Modes And Exposure Compensation

Thanks for reading


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