EOS Professional Photographer Chuanren Chen is passionate about shooting all things military. Through this article, he will be sharing a few tips for photographers who have interest in military and aviation photography, whether the aricrafts are on ground or in the air. Fasten your seatbelts… things are about to get exciting!

The world of aviation photography used to be a niche subject, reserved for plane spotters who wished to capture the aircraft they see. However, with the rise of digital photography, be it through your phones or traditional photography gear, photographing aviation is becoming widely popular and slowly becoming an art form on its own.

Aviation Photography – from commercial jets and military aircraft to helicopters and rockets. Photographing an aircraft can be easily done at air shows and aviation events but with air travel becoming more accessible, anyone with a camera in hand can do so at an airport and achieve satisfying results.   

Shooting From The Air

Executing air-to-air photography can be an exhilarating experience where one can finally capture the aircraft in its real elements. If you ever get the chance to do so, it is beneficial to have a chat with the aircrew on what is expected prior to commencing. Time is often also very limited, the crewdoes not have all day to meet your requirements. Therefore, it is important to know exactly what you want, or what can they do to manage your expectations.

Since the aircraft you are on (the ‘photoship’) might be holding in circles mid-air, your direction of light will also differ for the same subjects. So continue to keep shooting. As the “photoship” turns, the subject would also follow and you will find the aircraft in interesting light conditions.

Be aware of refraction and distortion from glass if you are shooting from inside an enclosed aircraft. Shoot multiple times to ensure that you have the sharpest image as the focus point may run as you navigate your lens around the window.

If you get the opportunity to shoot from an aircraft with an open door, be extremely sure that you have secured your camera to you with straps and do not bring unnecessary loose items like a lens, lens hood, or spare memory cards. Things Falling Off Aircraft (TFOA) is extremely dangerous to the subject aircraft and might bring the whole project to an end. You might also wish to tape the AF/MF switch on your lens in case it switches to manual focus after an accidental knock.

It’s Not Always About Planes

It can be very tempting to be fixated with just the aircraft when one is photographing aviation subjects. Recently, I enjoyed photographing the pilots and ground crew while the aircraft prepares for the flight. The photos can be more dynamic than just an aircraft flying in the air. You can also get a better feel of the relationship that exists between the man and the machine.

Similarly, do not hesitate to zoom out, and capture the aircraft along with the clouds, landscape and other elements like contrails. A well-framed image will produce many interesting photos.

Always have a wide-angle lens like the Canon 16-35mm f2.8L series which is handy for these images, I personally like the full framed Canon EOS R mirrorless camera for these photos. The swivel LCD screen allows me to quickly frame my shots in hard to reach angles, and the light body compensates for the rest of the other heavy gear we use.

Respect where you are shooting

Security around civilian aviation locations is usually tight and stringent. While some countries like Japan and the United Kingdom might be spotter friendly, most are not. Similarly, unless it is a military open house, spotting near military installation and fence line is not recommended. Avoid lingering at ‘unofficial’ spotting area for too long and leave once you got what you need. The same rules apply when shooting near airbases. Avoid posting photos of infrastructure if certain countries are sensitive about it.

Some of these spotting locations come as a privilege and the authorities have the right to shut the place down if photographers do not play ball.

The Hyakuri Airshow hosted by the Japan Air Self Defence Force is one of the most anticipated and important shows in the Japanese airshow calendar. As the home base of the F-4 Phantom jet, many flocked to the airbase to catch the aircraft live as it is due for retirement in a few years. These jets are some of the most colourful in the JASDF, and is a joy to photograph them with the Canon EOS R.

Even with a third party lens and the Canon EOS R mount adaptor, the Canon EOS R manages to track well and is fast for capturing moving subjects, and continues to deliver great detail and colours. However, the lag from the electronic viewfinder can make it hard to track fast subjects, like fighter jets, and the relatively slow fps could mean that some cool moments can be lost.

Canon EOS R | f/7.1 | ISO 400 | 1/2000 sec

Canon EOS R | f/9 | ISO 400 | 1/1600 sec

One of the highlights of the airshow is the two specially painted F-4, to commemorate the final year of operations before the aircraft retires. The crowd was flocking around the display and thankfully, the EOS R swivel screen allowed me to quickly get the shots I desired from the top and bottom. I captured this photo to show the intense interest from the crowd, and the Canon 16-35mm f2.8L Mk II allowed to squeeze in as much of the plane and crowd into a single frame.

Canon EOS R | Canon 16-35mm f2.8L Mk II | f/8 | ISO 400 | 1/160 sec

Work started at around 4:30 am when the ground crew was preparing to tow the aircraft from the hangar. This photo was taken with the camera resting on the fence. The full frame sensor and the fast 70-200mm lens let the most light in and showed the details of the hangar and aircraft, with little noise at ISO 1600.

Canon EOS R | Canon 70-200mm f2.8L Mk II | f/2.8 | ISO 1600 | 1/60 sec

On of my favourite images from the trip, this photo shows the ground crew and the pilot of the F-4 aircraft, gazing at a distance. Despite shooting into the sun, the good dynamic range retains details from the clouds and skies, and gave a nice tone on the aircraft. Again, the photo was taken with the assistance of the swivel screen.

Canon EOS R | CanonEF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM | f/5.6 | ISO 400 | 1/5000 sec

The F-4 Phantom is one of the most classic aircraft that is designed with distinctive features. As I stood in front of the aircraft awaiting the pilots to climb in, another F-4 took off, allowing me to capture both sides of the aircraft in a single frame. It also showed the busy flying activity of the airshow.

Canon EOS R | Canon EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM | f/5 | ISO 500 | 1/2000 sec

The beautiful autumn colours and landscape of Japan added more life and colour to the Japanese F-2 taxying for take-off.

Canon EOS R | f/5.6 | ISO 400 | 1/800 sec

Zoomed out to the maximum 24mm, the photo captures the Saab Gripen over the Finland lakes and the sun flaring nicely.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM | f/8 | ISO 800 | 1/1250 sec

Having a multi-platform photoshoot means that you have to know what to expect as the aircraft moves around each other. This photo was also taken with a polarising filter for added effect.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III| Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM | f/11 | ISO 800 | 1/8000 sec

Same aircraft, but two different moments and angles. The fast-paced air to air photo meant that is also handy to have two cameras on hand to tackle various angles.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM | f/14 | ISO 400 | 1/800 sec


Canon EOS 7D Mark II |Canon EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM | f/7.1 | ISO 400 | 1/1600 sec