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Airshow challenge with the Pentax K20D

As well as an entertaining day out, an Airshow also provides a great but photographically challenging subject. Here's how the Pentax K20D can make the event much easier.

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Flying is something the human race has obsessed over for a long time. Whether catching a plane, watching a bird fly overhead or witnessing a red arrow leave a colourful trail of smoke through the sky, flight is a marvel and something that deserves to be photographed.

Airshows involve plenty of flight and they're always popular with photographers. There's usually an abundance of aircraft, both old and new, stationary and in flight for you to capture. Neil O'Connell took the K20D along to some airshows and set a number of challenges for the popular SLR.

Challenge 1: Making the aircraft look animated

Propeller Blur using Pentax K20DWith all types of aircraft ,and at whichever show you go to, the all-important setting for aerial photography is shutter speed. Aperture and ISO should be adjusted to give you the optimal shutter speed.

The biggest mistake people make when photographing propeller aircraft is setting the shutter speed too high. If the shutter speed is too fast the propeller will appear static and this looks wrong for an aircraft in flight as it gives the impression that it is not moving or about to fall out of the sky.

Prop blur is the key to a good shot of propeller aircraft and to obtain this the shutter speed needs to be below 1/500sec and preferably around 1/250sec. The lower the shutter speed the more prop blur you will end up with.

In this photo of the B-17 Pink Lady the shutter speed was set to 1/320sec which has allowed some of the prop movement to be captured.

As shutter speed is critical it is important to have the camera set-up to allow you to change the shutter speed easily. A useful feature of the K20D is the ability to define what settings the front and rear control wheels change in each mode. Using this feature it is possible to set the wheels in Tv mode (shutter-priority) to control the shutter speed and ISO. This enables the shutter speed to be selected and, if required, the ISO value to be changed to enable the required shutter speed to be dialled in without ever taking your eye away from the viewfinder.

Challenge 2: Capturing movement without movement

Shake Reduction using the Pentax K20DUsing a slow shutter speed does create some problems as combined with a long lens there is an increased risk of camera shake. In the case of WWII fighters, the aircraft are still moving fast, so motion blur is also an issue.

The in-body Shake Reduction of the K20D helps to reduce the effects of camera shake. The K20D Shake Reduction (SR) feature allows you to shoot at lower shutter speeds without camera shake as the system is electromagnetically controlled to detect camera shake and moves a free floating image sensor to compensate. As SR is built into the camera body any lens, right back to screw thread, can be used to take advantage of this feature, even while panning.

Panning is the process of following a subject as it moves across your field of view. If you manage to pan at the same speed as an aircraft travels past you, the relative motion of it is significantly reduced allowing for a sharp capture. This may sound simple, but it can take some practice to get it right as you also need to be aware of the aircraft around you to know which direction they are about to come from.

For Helicopters the shutter speed needs to be slower still as the main rotors of a helicopter have to travel relatively slowly to avoid the rotor tips breaking the sound barrier; the longer the rotors the slower the speed. Generally a shutter speed of 1/160sec is preferable.

This image of a Apache was taken at 1/160sec, with shake reduction turned on.

Maximise speed using the Pentax K20DChallenge 3: Freeze the action

Jets are fast. Although there may be points in the display when they carry out a slow speed pass, the bulk of any display of a current aircraft will include plenty of reheat and high speed.

A large number of these jets will also be going straight up as fast and often as they go from left to right.

A high shutter speed of at least 1/1000sec is required to freeze the action. The good news is this means camera shake is no longer an issue as long as your muscles are up to it, as panning to follow an aircraft as it heads straight up can make using a tripod or monopod impractical.

Sometimes even a shutter speed of 1/1000sec is not sufficient as this picture of the Red Arrows demonstrates. This shot was taken at 1/2000sec and the camera was panned with the jet coming in from the left. The combined closing speed of the two aircraft was so high that even 1/2000sec has only resulted in a sharp image of the aircraft being tracked.

For shots involving aircraft closing on each other, the faster you can set your shutter speed the better. To get a sharp image of both aircraft in this scenario will require the shutter speed to be set to the maximum shutter speed of the K20D - 1/4000sec.

Lens techniques using the Pentax K20DChallenge 4: Right lens for the job

For individual aircraft a focal length of 300mm to 400mm is required. On the crop sensor of the K20D this is the equivalent of 450mm to 600mm and enables an aircraft to be captured in the frame at a reasonable size. The high 14.6 megapixel count of the K20D also enables a reasonable amount of cropping to be made to an image without having a significant affect on an A3 or smaller print. This provides even greater flexibility as composition can be improved post capture.

The recently released Pentax DA* 300mm ED (IF) would be a good option. It's weather and dust resistant so is perfect for shows in poor weather conditions. A lower cost alternative, which also provides the benefits of a zoom, is the Pentax DA 55-300mm ED which has been designed specifically for Pentax digital SLRs including the K20D.

For larger aircraft and display teams a shorter focal length is required to enable the capture of the entire aircraft or a number of planes flying in formation.

This photograph of the Thunderbird display team was taken at 100mm and enables multiple aircraft to be in shot along with their smoke trails. A useful lens for team displays like this is the Pentax DA* 50-135mm.

Metering techniques using the Pentax K20DChallenge 5: Metering

The K20D has three metering patterns; multi-segment, spot and centre-weighted.

With aircraft shots, if the weather is being kind to you, usually the subject is a dark aircraft against a bright sky.

Multi-segment will tend to expose for the sky (unless it is a very large, frame filling aircraft) which can result in an under-exposed aircraft.

Spot metering will expose for the aircraft, assuming that the spot metering point is placed over the subject, resulting in an over-exposed sky.

The centre weighted option of the K20D sits comfortably between these two modes and allows for the best balance between exposing for the aircraft and the sky.

The K20D includes the option of displaying a histogram on shots as they are previewed on the rear screen. By looking at the histogram the exposure can be checked and compensation applied to add under or over-exposure as required.

The K20D also includes an enhanced dynamic range function which can help with the broad exposure range of the typical airshow scene. This function is accessed through the Function button on the back of the camera and allows for greater variation between highlights and shadows without clipping. ISO100 becomes unavailable in this mode, but the good ISO performance of the K20D CMOS sensor means that noise is not an issue.

Shooting RAW also allows for greater detail to be captured and the dedicated RAW button of the K20D can be used to quickly switch from shooting JPEG to RAW or RAW to  JPEG.

The K20D uses Adobe's RAW file format, called DNG, which is short for Digital Negative and decribes what it is - a digital negative. You can dodge & burn, adjust tones and tweak colours, just like you did in the printing days of 35mm. But a RAW file also lets you reduce lens fringing, increase sharpness, add or remove vignetting and adjust exposure.

To make the most of your K20D it's worth shooting RAW, either using Adobe's DNG or Pentax' own PEF format. You get fewer shots per memory card, but those shots will be far more versatile.

This shot of a Dutch F-16 was taken in RAW mode with the enhanced dynamic range function active to enable the bright sky and dark belly of the aircraft to be exposed correctly.

Composition techniques using the Pentax K20DChallenge 6: Balancing act

A constantly moving subject and a constantly moving camera make high demands of a DSLR's autofocus system and present a challenge to good composition.

The 9 cross type sensors of the K20D autofocus system, combined with the continuous AF mode, allow the camera to track and adjust to the constant movement.

The AF button at the back of the K20D can be configured through the menus to enable the camera to constantly adjust the focusing independently of the shutter release. This is very useful in allowing the user to pan with the aircraft, keeping the focus constantly active and tracking, while only taking a picture when required by pressing the shutter release.

Composition is an important consideration in aircraft photography. Putting the aircraft bang in the middle of a frame is relatively easy, but may not give the right context or sense of movement.

By selecting one of the 8 cross type AF points away from the centre it is possible to keep an aircraft under the focusing point that allows for the best composition. In this shot of an F-16 this has enabled the aircraft to be placed on the left of the frame with the anti-missile flares to the right.

If you are not confident in selecting the right AF point at the right time, the AUTO mode of the K20D autofocus system makes all AF points active and it will select the most suitable point in the scene to focus on.

Pentax K20D - aircraft shooting quick tipsPentax K20D digital SLR

  • Set a shutter speed of around 1/250sec
  • Use SR shake reduction with longer lenses
  • Switch to centre-weighted metering for sky shots
  • Turn on Expanded Dynamic range
  • Use a lens of around 300mm for high flying solo aircraft
  • Use the wide-angle for ground displays
  • Switch to one of the outer 8 cross sensors when shooting off centre aircraft
  • Use the rear AF button when panning
  • Shoot in RAW for better detail

Pentax lens choice for aircraft photography beginners
Pentax 55-300 and 18-55mm zoom lenses The standard lens that comes with your Pentax K20d is the 18-55mm it's fine for ground displays and larger aerial displays. 

Switch from this lens to the companion 55-300mm telezoom when you're shooting individual aircraft in the sky. With a magnification roughly equivalent to  up to 9x the naked eye it's perfect for smaller planes flying at a distance.

This pair make a perfect couple for those starting out in air display photography.


Pentax lens choice for experienced aircraft photographers

Pentax DA lenses More advanced photographer may like to trade in their entry-level 18-55mm for the superb DA* 16-50mm f/2.8 ED AL[IF]SDM and the 55-300mm for the just released DA* 60-250mm F4 ED[IF] SDM to obtain some of the finest optics money can buy.

Pentax DA* lenses are designed for their digital SLRs and feature SDM technology for fast, accurate and quiet focus along with extra-low dispersion (ED) optical elements. 

If you're really serious also consider the super fast DA* 300mm ED (IF) telephototo and the ultra-wide DA 12-24mm zoom. These four lenses will cover almost every eventuality and a 1.4x teleconverter, due in the New Year, will increase the scope even further.

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