Behind the Scenes: Airshow Photographer

Ever wonder what it's like to be just feet from the action at an airshow with nothing but a (big) camera lens between you and some of the most powerful aircraft in the world? 

Let's take a step behind the scenes as an airshow photographer at the Little Gransden Air and Car Show from a few weeks ago. Although not new to aviation photography, I don't have many connections in the UK yet, so I was very grateful when an opportunity arose for me to be an official photographer in at this show. I may not have my furniture shipped over from the United States, but I had everything I needed to shoot the show, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Being a show photographer starts by getting to the show with all your equipment and checking in with the coordinators. After signing my life away to the Brits, I was issued a neon yellow vest that certainly raised my fashions up a few notches. More importantly, the vest gained access to the otherwise restricted portions of the show along the runway, which offers an unobstructed view of the aircraft. This area is tightly controlled by the CAA (British version of the FAA) as you are closer to the aircraft with no safety barriers between you and a spinning prop. 

Neon yellow really can be quite the fashion statement! In my right hand is my D610 with Nikon 80-400mm lens while I have my D800 with 24-70mm on my left shoulder.

Neon yellow really can be quite the fashion statement! In my right hand is my D610 with Nikon 80-400mm lens while I have my D800 with 24-70mm on my left shoulder.

The group of photographers first had an orientation with the organizer who showed us where to stand and explained some of the basic rules for the day. Those rules include getting the heck out of the way should there be an accident - we are standing immediately in front of the fire and rescue services! 

A view of the crowd from my vantage point. Straight ahead is where the planes would park before it was time to perform and the runway is immediately to the right (off image). 

A view of the crowd from my vantage point. Straight ahead is where the planes would park before it was time to perform and the runway is immediately to the right (off image). 

After our photographer orientation, I had an hour to sit with my husband and enjoy our packed lunch before I had to scurry off to the pilots briefing. This is the last minute planning meeting for everyone flying at the show. Here, the show director reviewed the order of the performances, the timeline, and the take-off sequence. This turned out to be a bit of a spectacle - some performers wanted to get airborne several acts early to give themselves some practice and prep time, so there had to be some careful coordination and planning to make sure everyone knew where they were supposed to be and that all the planes were in the right place at the right time. Adding to the balancing act is that some planes have certain restrictions - for instance, an ultralight glider was set to perform immediately after the Vulcan, but we had to wait 3 minutes for aerial disturbances and turbulence caused by the Vulcan's jets to subside before the ultralight could take to the air. 

Managing the logistics for an airshow is very tricky business and made even harder when some of the performers fly in from another airfield to display and then fly away - the timing has to be perfect! Here a pair of Lancaster's flew over the show immediately following a memorial prayer service to honor those who have died in service to their country.

Besides a slew of logistics, the show director also took this opportunity to cover radio frequencies, information on getting fuel, and where the backup runway to land in the event of an emergency was located. It was all the sorts of things that, as spectators, we take for granted when seeing a brilliant show.

Held in one of the hangars before the show started, the pilots orientation was a chance to work out the final logistics for the flying performances. Here the flight director is briefing the pilots that would be performing on everything from emergency procedures to where the snacks are located.

Following the briefing, I made my way to the flight line to start shooting. This is where the behind the scenes gets less interesting - the obvious photographing of planes ensued! But there were several unique twists to being a show photographer; the show director was standing nearby and I could overhear her radio. This meant I could hear the pilots talking to each other... "ready... go" was a good clue they were about to do a trick or stunt I needed the camera poised and ready for! 

Getting the timing right for photos like this can be a bit tricky, but it helps when you are standing close to the flight director and can overhear the pilots talking on the radio!

Several hours and 5 memory cards later, my feet hurt but I had shot just about everything possible from the show! After returning my vest it was time to head home and start the long and painful process of editing thousands of images to find only the very best.

My husband, who was back in the crowd, got this distant photo of my position for context. I am in one of the neon vests between those firetrucks - it's a position that offers a great vantage point without blocking the views of the rest of the crowd.

Although I normally shoot with my Nikon D800, I actually opted for the D610 for this shoot because it offers a faster shooting rate and the lower megapixels meant I could fit more images per memory card. The camera performed beautifully and is probably my new "go-to" for any action shooting. I still used the D800, but kept it equipped with a 24-70mm lens and used it for close up shots of the action immediately in front of my position. 

Being so close to the flight line also gave me a chance to get some unique angles on non-flight activity. For instance, Mark Jefferies greeted the crowd after an exquisite aerial solo performance. By being away from the crowd, I could shoot back on them to add the additional context.

The show was an outstanding success - all of the performances went off without any major glitches and I took away thousands of great shots. After almost 6 days of editing (slightly delayed by the fact that our furniture was delivered in the middle of it), I narrowed it down to the very best images. Here are a few of the other photographs from the show: