Plane Spotting

7 things to remember for photographers who want something more than 'snapshots':

No article can give you the guidelines for perfect photos. This one can't too, but giving tips to shoot something better than just 'snapshots' is possible. First of all, if you are a new photographer, you should start by learning the 3 basic 'options' that influence the photo: shutter-speed, aperture and ISO value. There are many good tutorials about photography on the web in every language, so I won't discuss it further here.

My opinion is that you can make nice photos with every DSLR camera (compact cameras often haven't enough options), even the cheaper ones, as long as you know how to use them. You won't need the biggest or most expensive lens either to make great photos, but a telezoom lens helps. In most cases 200mm or 300mm is enough.

1. Composition
In this period of digital photography, the composition makes the difference between an original photo and an average one. Try to avoid disturbing elements in the background if possible. Good compositions are those where the airplane is fully visible or where an interesting part, perspective or detail of the airplane is shown. Be creative!

2. Sunlight and the weather
The ideal weather conditions for plane spotting are of course a blue sky with no clouds and soft sunlight. You can find the soft sunlight in the early morning and late afternoon, these moments are often called "the golden hours" by photographers. In winter time you almost have the whole day soft sunlight, in the summer you need to get up early or stay late in the evening. That soft exposure can give you great pictures. The sun in front of the landing/taking-off airplanes, will give you the most natural looking results because the wings, engines and landing gear are well lit. Compare the A320 from British Airways below with the one on top of this page and with the B737 from Tunisair. Light makes a lot of difference..

BA A320Tunisair B737

3. Panning
For good photos from take-offs and landings, you need to blur the background as much as possible, you can do this with the panning technique. Choose the shutterspeed-priority setting (Nikon: S, Canon and other brands: Tv). In this setting you choose the shutterspeed and the camera chooses the appropriate aperture. Now select a shutterspeed: how longer the shutterspeed, how more the background is blurred. But also how harder it is to get sharp photos of the aircraft. VR(=Vibration Reduction, Nikon) or IS Mode (Image Stabilized, Canon) makes it easier to get sharp photos at lower shutterspeeds. Use the center-weighted metering (but not the spot metering). Avoid underexposed photos by choosing a higher ISO-value, but make sure there is no noise visible, or add exposure compensation (+/-) value. Since the camera selects the aperture value, chances are high that it will select a small F-number (so a large opening that lets in much light) and that only the center of the photo will be very sharp.

4. Aperture-priority
This mode gives you more control of the sharpness from the photo. By higher aperture values (so a smaller opening that lets in little light), the area that is sharp covers almost the whole image. As we want the whole airplane sharp, useful settings are F7 till F11. The camera automatically chooses the shutterspeed, check if it is short enough to eliminate hand-shake.

5. Photo Editing
Generally no photo is perfect right from the memory card, so the photos need to be edited. Some common adjustments are cropping, color and brightness, copyright marks etc. So you may need a good editing program. Everybody knows Adobe Photoshop with almost every function you can imagine, but it is exspensive. Adobe Photoshop Elements or Adobe Lightroom are great and more affordable alternatives and are more aimed at photo-editing. GIMP has also the functions you most need and it is freeware. Try one of these and choose the one you like most. Again many tutorials are already written about photo editing. Editing your photos is necessary if you want to get your pictures in an online photo database, because most of them have strict rules for accepting photos. Some good examples of online photo databases are Jetphotos, PictAero and Planepictures.

6. Location
Make sure you stand on a good location according to the sun and the active runway(s). You can find a guide with plane spotting locations around Brussels Airport on this page.

7. Flying in airliners is one large collection of checklists, so why not use one here? Never forget:

Some example pictures (click on image to see a bigger version on
Boeing 767-31A/ER (Martinair)Airbus A319-111 (easyJet) Boeing 737-5H3 (Tunisair)

The registrations from airplanes.

A registration code of an airplane has 2 parts: the first part is the code of the country where the aircraft is registered, the second part is applied to a specific airplane. You can note these registrations, so you can search the internet for more information about the airplane. If you want you could build up an entire database of airplane registrations. The database could be a simple Excel-file, made with a special program or you can write the registrations in a book.

Some example registrations:
OO-DJG (Belgium)  PH-TFA (The Netherlands)   HL7488 (South-Korea)


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