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I was at an airshow today shooting with a 600mm full frame equivalent lens and it was quite difficult to track the planes smoothly.

I do have a Manfrotto motion head, but unfortunately I didn't bring it to the show. One potential issue I can see is that sometimes the planes fly to zenith, directly overhead, so it might be difficult to follow to the zenith with a tripod.

Should I just break out the Manfrotto and all my problems are solved or will a lot of challenges remain?

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  • 3
    Why was it difficult to track them? I track flying birds with a long lens, so I understand the problem, but what specifically made it a difficult task. Focus obviously wouldn't be - set infinity & forget. I wouldn't think a damped video head would be fast enough for the actual fly-by moment, even if it wasn't directly overhead.
    – Tetsujin
    Sep 11 at 17:59
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Personal experience in air shows(*): forget the tripod, someone's head is going to be in the way.

Two useful techniques:

  1. Learn to shoot with both eyes open, one in the viewfinder, one on the side of the camera. Makes it a lot easier to bring a plane back in the frame

  2. If your lens is a zoom, start with the zoom not too stretched, put the plane in the frame using #1 above, and once your eye in the VF sees it centered, zoom in.

Planes directly overhead rarely make good pictures, the side of the plane towards the ground is very dark against a much brighter sky. And they are either much too fast to catch or much too high to make a usable picture anyway(**). Better let your left arm take a short rest.

(*) Sigma 120-400mm on EOS 70D (APS-C sensor).

(**) Which is one of the reasons I keep the AF. If the AF doesn't see the plane, then the plane is too far for an interesting picture.

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Practice.

Practice won’t make it easy.

Practice only makes it easier.

The duck hunter shoots clays in the off season. The footballer trains all week for the game on Saturday. Tracking moving objects with a long lens is physical activity depending on hand eye coordination.

And if you hand hold, it is a matter of strength and stamina. Particularly with a long lens. Hand holding is about the only way to track close fast moving objects when you don’t have a good intuition about their timing and movement.

It is easier to practice if the lens is on the camera. Cars, birds, bicycles, and passenger jets provide ample opportunity. Even if you are just sitting in your chair, you can practice bringing the camera directly to your eye and framing up a static subject…

The same thing, practice, also applies if you use a tripod or monopod. But if you can’t track by hand, a tripod or monopod won’t fix it. While they help with fatigue, they don’t help with hand eye coordination.

A little practice can go a long way. Just setting the gear up a few days before the event and get used to handling it will likely improve your results.

Some things that help

The hot shoe is useful for sighting as the camera gets close to the eye. At least on SLR’s, that is.

Panning is the basic technique for tracking moving objects. It is a whole body movement using the torso.

Pulling elbows against sides creates more stability than when they are pointing out. It also lowers the moment of inertia to allow faster rotation.

Pan through the shutter fire. Don’t stop when you click.

Final Thoughts

Have an idea about the pictures you want to make before you go.

It’s fun to track aircraft just for the technical challenge. But that’s not the same as making good pictures…I mean how much does anyone actually care about the underside of a P51 against a blue sky? It’s a cool machine and all, but the important story was written over Europe in the 1940’s as gun camera footage with exploding Nazi locomotives.

It is easy to come back with technically competent pictures that only say “I was there.” Pictures equivalent to ticket stubs. Pictures that feel kind of hollow because someone else could have made them.

Without a plan, it is easy to come back with “equivalents” (as Stieglitz might say). Without a plan, it is hard to make pictures that matter.

And one picture that matters is better than a pile that are merely competent.

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Most airshows I've been to are too crowded to usefully use a tripod, if you're in the "photographer's box", press stand, etc. If you're anywhere near the front-and-center location, you need to be able to shoot far left and far right. With a tripod, that means you are moving your body around the tripod. But everybody else is hand-holding, so their feet stay mostly planted. You just wind up taking up too much space, bumping into people, tripping over the tripod legs, etc. It just doesn't work.

The solution I came up with was to use a monopod kept less than half-extended, with the foot tucked into a pouch or pocket added to a belt. That definitely helped take the weight of a heavy lens+camera combo off my arms, and I could shoot mostly all day. Note: this absolutely requires use of a monopod tilt head (basically just a vertical-tilt-only head). A ballhead is suboptimal, but if you have one with a 90º side dropout, that can be used instead of a dedicated monopod tilt head.

Regarding tracking at zenith: I agree with xenoid, it probably isn't worth it. Except for the very low/close overhead flybys, the photos aren't good. And for the low/close flybys, you want to be able to move fast, so tripod tracking won't help. With the monopod-in-a-pocket method, you can quickly lift the camera so that the monopod isn't supporting it, and still track vertically if necessary (assuming you are using a monopod tilt head).

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Get a Sight without Magnification

I'm not sure if this is a problem for you, but many times the problem is that you have a very narrow field of view through your viewfinder, so as soon as the object you're tracking is out of your frame, it is hard to get it back into the frame. What helped me was a simple diy-iron sight that I attached to my camera, which I used for tracking the planes. This let me track them with a lot smoother motions. You can also use red-dot or other types of sights without magnification that are used in shooting, astronomy and surveying.

Sights without (or just very low) magnification essentially solve the same problem in all these applications, they let you "shoot" a tiny target while still seeing the broader context. It is important though that you first properly sight it in so it actually points in the same direction as your device.

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  • The problem is that with a 600mm lens, the FOV is tiny and it is difficult keeping it in the image and keeping it steady in the image. The techniques suggested by a lof of the people here might work on a 300mm lense, but 600mm is a whole different ball game. Sep 13 at 12:30
  • I can imagine! I have no experience with dslrs so I'm not really familiar with what a certain focal length feels like. However I'd still suggest giving it a try if you haven't already, for me it made a huge difference, for experimenting it can be as simple as a straw taped to your rig (of course that too must be carefully aligned). I learned about the idea of using separate sights from a bird watcher who did have long-ish lenses, but I couldn't tell you the numbers. Anyway, I'd be curious to hear what solution for your problem worked out in the end! Good luck!
    – flawr
    Sep 13 at 13:02
  • @ClicketyRicket IMO, I found 600mm to be way too difficult to use at an airshow. The most interesting shots were the near approach and right in front of center stage, which I found 200–400 to be the best. 500 & 600 were just too unwieldy.
    – scottbb
    Sep 13 at 13:37

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