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“The best way out is always through.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Capture the Blue Angels: Plan a Shooting Strategy and Try it Out

As I said in my last tip, it's a good idea to have a shooting strategy ready if you're going to be photographing unusual subjects. In my case I was going back for a second chance at photographing the U. S. Navy's Blue Angels at an air show in Rhode Island and I wanted to be sure that I did everything possible to get sharp, well composed photos of the jets. I particularly wanted to get one good shot of all six jets in formation.

As I said earlier, this was a tougher job than I had counted on (even though I'd photographed many air shows in the past), largely because my subjects were buzzing by me at a mere 400mph (or faster). Just getting my D90 to expose and focus for a subject moving that fast was a real challenge. To make matters worse, the sky which had been so radiantly blue on the first day of the show was a miserable bluish-gray on the second day. I knew from the start my photos were going to be largely silhouettes and there wasn't much I could do to prevent that (I don't have a flash that will fill a subject half a mile up in the sky!).

Since exposure was going to be tricky (even accepting that most of my shots would end up looking like silhouettes) I decided that I would shoot the entire afternoon in the RAW format. When you're shooting in RAW it means that you can be off in your exposures by several stops and correct the exposure in editing. You can also adjust the white balance and that was very helpful in this case since I wasn't sure just how blue the sky was going to look. So the first part of my plan was to shoot in RAW.

Next, I knew that I wanted to be able to fire faster than I had been shooting on Saturday. The D90 has a maximum burst rate of 4.5fps (frames-per-second) and so I switched the camera into the continuous shooting mode. This meant also that I had to use the fastest HDSC cards that I had--in this case I was using Transcend 8gb cards that have a Class 6 write speed--the fastest available. Even with these fast cards, because I was shooting in RAW, the camera had to pause periodically to process the huge files. I lost several shots, in fact, because I had to wait for the camera to write images to the card (something to keep in mind if you photograph very fast subjects a lot and are using the maximum burst rate of your camera). The camera would have responded faster had I been shooting in jpeg format--and I might next time.

I also wanted the camera to be focusing continuously so that it would constantly re-focus and refine focus throughout the exposures. So, for the first time since buying the D90, I set the focus to continuous. In this mode the shutter will fire whether the focus is perfect or not, becuase it's continuously trying to focus on the moving target. In the single-frame mode, the camera will only fire if perfect focus is achieved--but that would have meant losing a lot of frames because the camera simply would not have fired when I wanted it to (because it was waiting for perfect focus).

Finally, I brought a monopod with me the second day since I was shooting with a 300mm lens (450mm on the D90) and handholding it was tough since I was shooting up at a 45-degree angle most of the day. Tough on your shoulders. I abandoned the monopod after a few passes by the Angels, however, because I simply couldn't track them across the sky with the camera tethered to the monpod.

Was I successful? Well, the images on Sunday were much sharper and consistently sharper from frame-to-frame. The downside was that I didn't have that beautiful blue sky that I had the day before and so the shots are all kind of bland silhouettes. But overall I learned a lot about shooting very fast subjects and how to manipulate camera controls to give me a fighting chance--and so the weekend was worth it on that level. I'll probably go to another air show by the time the Blue Angels end their touring season this year and shoot again. And hopefull I'll take what I learned from this show and combine it with a blue sky and some nice puffy clouds for some really hot shots!

1 comment:

Shaina said...

Wow, I wish I had read this a few days ago! I saw the Blue Angels on Sunday. I only have a Nikon D40 so obviously the only time I ever got any "good" shots was when they flew closer to the ground and I had to be extremely quick. It definitely is a challenge to photograph targets moving at 400mph!! haha.