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This weekend I had media passes to shoot the Sun n’ Fun Fly-in, a wonderful air show that takes place each year in Lakeland, Florida (my hometown no less), and this time I got to shoot it with my buddy Bill Fortney from Nikon Professional Services and professional aviation photographer Jose Ramos (check out Jose’s work here).

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It all started by setting my alarm to go off at 4:45 am on Saturday morning, and then driving to the airshow in Lakeland (about an hour or so away) to hook up with Bill to catch first light on the warbirds on display, and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds sitting on the flight line, who would be doing demonstrations that afternoon and Sunday, and some A-10s and FA-18s (that’s one seen above at dawn).

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It was a pretty cloudy morning, so we didn’t get great light, but once the light was up, I managed to get a few shots I liked of a Lockheed 12A Electra, shown above (at least I think it’s a 12A Electra) before the light was so harsh we had to pack it in (which was about 8:15 am).

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I headed back home to rest up because my son and I were headed to see Bon Jovi in concert that night (our favorite band), and we even got to meet up with photographer David Bergman, who is touring with Bon Jovi currently, and he’s scheduled to be my Guest Blogger this Wednesday. Great guy, and just amazing photographer—you might remember him from his famous gigapan shot of the Obama inauguration).By the way; the Bon Jovi concert was insane!!! Incredible show (with high tech lighting and video that was just incredible!!!!) Jon can still belt it out, and Richie Sambora totally screamed on guitar!!!!

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On Sunday, I headed back to the Sun n’ Fun with my whole family in tow, and we met up with Jose Ramos and spent the day shooting with him (mostly in the rain—the weather was rainy and gray the whole day), and waiting for the Thunderbirds demonstration (I had never seen them before, and I knew the kids would love ‘em, which of course, they totally did!).

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Tech Specs
Shooting the jets would be easy, but I wanted to also catch some shots of the aerial acrobatics going on before the Thunderbirds, and this time I wanted to make sure I got nice propeller spin in the photos (Last year, I got to shoot for maybe 20 minutes, and was called away for an emergency, and I got just a few shots, and sadly I hadn’t found that sweet spot where the propeller has motion, and the plane is still sharp. This time, I was smarter. I asked Jose.

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He told me for those types of planes, and the speed of their propellers (Jose knows this stuff inside and out), he shoots in Shutter Priority mode at 1/320 of a second (I’m glad I asked—I would have shot much slower, and had a lot of blurry shots along the way). He says he doesn’t go for a full blur, and prefers to see motion and some of the blade as well, and so that’s what I went for, and it worked really well—-planning along with the planes and letting the camera choose the Aperture (since I was stuck at 1/320 of a second).

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Once the jets came out (first a few FA-18-Fs then the Thunderbirds), I would switch to Aperture Priority mode and shoot wide open (which in this case was only f/5.6—-I was expecting a bright sunny day so I didn’t bring fast glass), to freeze the jets in motion.

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Camera Gear
For the shots on the ground on Saturday, I took my D3 and used a 24-70mm f/2.8 and I borrowed Bill’s 16-35mm f/2.8 wide zoom. I also shot a few with my 70-200mm f/2.8.

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On Saturday, with Jose, since now I would be shooting planes up in the sky, I followed Bill Fortney’s recommendation of bringing my D300s (to get closer to the action than shooting full frame), and my lightweight (yet very sharp), 70-300mm f/4.5 to f/5.6 lens, which worked great. I used that one lens for all the aerials.

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Gray skies stink!
Although I really enjoyed the Thunderbirds (They are out and out amazing!), there is nothing more disappointing than shooting their incredible formations against a flat gray sky (as seen above and below). On Sunday, when they flew, it was raining on and off all day, with steady drizzle in between, and just absolutely flat, boring gray skies. Uggh!!! Even though it was gray and yucky, I enjoyed their show so much that I would make a special trip to another air show just to shoot them again against a beautiful blue sky.

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So, it was “gray city” all day—but that’s the thing about photography; I didn’t get the shots of the Thunderbirds I wanted, but I still had a great time!!!! (and Jose was about as gracious a host as you could possibly ask for, and he was giving me tips and helping me with my technique throughout the day). I know so many photographers who would rather miss the shot, and instead spend the day fussing around with their camera settings, rather than just asking a follow photographer with more experience for help with their settings, or some tips on how to shoot the event.

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I was not embarrassed in the least to let Bill and Jose know this was really my first airshow shoot, and that I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing. I’ve found that rather than looking down on you, most photographers are happy to share what they’ve learned, and that’s what both Bill and Jose did without reservation, and now I know better what to do next time around, how to set my camera, and I bet my results will be better (especially if it doesn’t rain).

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My humble thanks to Bill and Jose for taking me under their wing, and for being so gracious with your time, and so warm and welcoming to my family. You guys are the best!!! :)