Shooting The Sun n’ Fun Fly-in [click images for larger views]

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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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!!! :)

  1. Scott, those first four images are AMAZING! Thank you for describing not only the technical side of the images you photographed but also the time of day you were out there taking photos. Two questions though: 1) Did you have to attain special permission to get onto the flight line that early in the day and 2) Did you use a neutral density filter or a polarizing filter on the first 4 images?

    P.S., HUGE fan of your work and your books, keep up the good work! You are an inspiration for me and your writings have helped me become a better photographer. Thanks!

  2. Very very nice photographs. Even though you are not very happy I think those are great shots !

    The USAf shot would be my favorite.

    Thanks for the information on the photo gear, the tech specs and a valuable lesson that one should not be ashamed to ask for help and a whole day or fussing and get some good photographs.

    I really felt this post was very informative.

    Bon jovi – Rocks no question about it. Did you shoot any over there.

  3. It’s Air Force not Airforce, small detail, I know but as an Air Force Veteran I couldn’t let it slide :). Thunderbirds do put on a great show. We had the Navy Blue Angels in town over the weekend. Thanks for the tip on what shutter speed to use for props. I’ll try that next month when we go to the air show at Shaw Air Force Base.

  4. I think the shots are great! The weather may not have been the best but I still think they look great! Now this is a shoot I would have loved to been on! I have loved planes my whole life and always wanted to be a Naval Aviator as a child. You always get the best gigs to shoot!

  5. The Thunderbirds are going to be up here in South Carolina this weekend. I’d love to see you up here but the latest weather forecast this morning is calling for mostly cloudy, 80 degrees, but at least no rain expected ’til Sunday. If you decide to break away and head up, they’re going to be at Shaw AFB in Sumter, SC, which is in the dead center of the state about 20 miles west of of I-95.

    The Navy Blue Angels were performing in Charleston this past weekend. I didn’t get to go but I was there Thursday for for work and got to watch them practice over the marina while eating lunch, my camera at home 100 miles away. Still quite amazing to watch. Best thing is I got to see most of their stuff without the crowds of the actual show!

  6. Hi Scott, Great Post!
    I am hoping to go to the Farnborough Air Show in the UK this year and would like some advice. I have a Gitzo 3541 with Wimberley Head MKII, I was planning on renting a Canon 500mm f/4 and then pan with the planes but do you think it would be easier to hand hold, in which case I couldn’t manage the 500mm?
    Do you shoot these as bursts, in which case should I take my Canon 7D or use my 5D MII which I personally find to be much sharper. Maybe I should just rent a 1D MKIV :-)
    Stephen Halliday (UK)

    1. Stephen,

      I shoot a lot with a 500mm f4 at the Reno Air Races each year. It’s a heck of a workout for your left shoulder but there really is no other way to do a slow shutter pan with planes. Tripods really don’t work in that situation nor do monopods. So, start weight lifting now and it’ll make your day that much easier! :-)

  7. Scott,

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your third shot! It’s one of those images about which you think, “Damn, I’d love to have that in MY portfolio!”

    You’ll have to c’mon up to Ottawa (Mr. Cross’s hometown) sometime to shoot the Canadian Snowbirds aerobatic team. I know you get a ton of Canadian snowbirds down there every winter, but these guys are the real deal.

    Have a great Monday.

    Trev J.

    1. Hi Trevor:
      Thanks for the kind words. That’s hands down my favorite from the shoot. :)

      I’ve never been to Ottowa (Don’t tell Dave), but that would make a good semi-legimate excuse. ;-)


  8. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for sharing this GREAT experience with us! I really love the Electra shots! Did you do some unique post process? They have that over contrast look to them, which is really cool, and the reflections are amazing! I would like to know how you did it! I love planes, I worked in the aerospace field as a designer for 10 years. We always went to Miramar in San Diego to watch the Blue Angles and check out all the planes. My son got so involved, that he ended up as a Major in the Air Force as a flight operations officer.

    Thanks again!


    1. Hi Dennis:
      I added contrast and high pass sharpening to parts of some of the planes. I didn’t add it to the skies or ground because it starts to look funky to me. I shot some HDR shots, too but I haven’t gotten a chance to process them yet.

      I did this by duplicating the background layer, adding the contrast and sharpening, then adding a black layer mask and painting in white over the areas I want sharper. I didn’t apply it all over the plane usually because itvjust doesn’t look right in some places (well, to me anyway).

      Hope that helps. :)


      1. Scott,

        Thanks a bunch for getting back to me with your process. It’s really a great look in my eyes! I’m looking forward to seeing the HDR photos!

        Thanks again,


      2. Scott,

        Thanks for the tip. I agree with many others. The vertical image of the Lockheed 12A Electra is my favorite. This image more than many is just perfectly suited to the amount and nature of the post processing you applied. Well done! It’s one of those images that if you ever decided to sell it in print, I’d be the first in line to buy it on canvas.


  9. Scott, great photos! My dad was in the Air Force for 20 years and I got to see the Thunderbirds many times and they are awesome. When they say they will be there at, say 12:30, then they scream over on the second. Thats amazing since they fly direct out of Las Vegas where they are stationed. I am a rock n roll junkie from way back (first concert in 69) and photographed my first concert in 71 (Kenny Rogers & First Edition) and Bon Jovi rocks from start to finish, no letting up!! I shot the STYX concert last Wed. and I have some of those photos on my blogsite. Have you seen the Blue Angels? They are right over in Pensecola. I went there to school a couple of years ago and went to the Naval Museum, which is awesome, but have not saw them yet. Looks like you have had a busy few weeks, take a break..

  10. Thanks for the kind words Scott. You’re too kind. For a “beginner” you did great, especially with the weather as it was. Your static shots are amazing and I know that there I could use some pointers from you. We’ll also work on those sneak passes for next time. All the best

      1. Thanks Ken, much appreciated. I’ll give you my number one tip. No matter how long you’ve been doing something, there’s always something more you can learn. BTW – definitely go check out the Blues. They put on a most impressive show!

      1. Hey Jeff! It was great meeting you at PSW too. Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner. Its been a bit crazy as of late, but I’m digging myself out of the back log. Let me know if I can be of any help.

  11. Scott, these are great photos but you will have “incredible” photos when you see the Blue Angels fly over Pensacola Beach in July. (I know I risk getting flogged by posting this with an Air Force group – have to agree with Jose, nothing beats the Blues ;-) Maybe RC could come with you – they also practice during the week. Photo op and autograph sessions also at NAS.

  12. Scott,
    Thanks for the tips. I’ve shot air shows before with DX format cameras but just recently got the 70-300 lens. I’m going to an airshow on May 1st near Kansas City and you shooting tips are appreciated. Also, There is an incredible airshow at Andrews Air Force base in DC every May.

  13. Scott:

    Your third image (closeup on the Electra -Sun-n-Fun-51.jpg) is outstanding! Would be great if you could provide a step-by-step process on this particular image, perhaps in a future blog when you get some of your HDR shots processed. This image would no doubt sell too if you put in on your site where you sell some of your images. Could you let us know if you do? From comments this image has certainly struck a chord with many. It is a great shot!

  14. Wow, Scott, great shots! I particularly like your ground shots of the L-12; you took great advantage of the sky to add “texture” to the photos. It’s obvious you had a great time, too; thanks for sharing not just the photos, but the enthusiasm and sheer joy of photography!


  15. My personal photo tip that works for me: Whenever the skies are grey and flat, it makes for some great b&w stuff. We’ve all seen the T-bird shots with the blue sky- how about doing something different and seeing how they look in different b/w filters? You might like it!

  16. I shot the Dayton (home of the Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville) Airshow last year and had to deal with the dull gray skies. I am hoping for some better pictures this year. Keep up the great work!

  17. Scott, you made the mistake of not having “The Chancellor” arrange the weather for you…
    Jeff Rease has serious connections and he could have given you much better skies. Great stuff Scott…you really have “an Invisible Touch” oh wait that is the wrong group…I mean that third image really shot me through the heart… :D

  18. Hey Scott,

    Great series of images.
    Loving the shots of the jets but I’m especially drawn to #1, #3 & #4. I see you mention in an earlier reply that you haven’t yet had time to process any of the HDR shots but I gotta say the detail in these images definitely gives the HDR feel; in fact there’s so much detail there it gives me the feel of a computer game…great stuff!!!

    Thanks for sharing.
    All the best to you,

  19. Scott (and all!),

    Love your blog, and all that you do with the photo community!

    I’ve noticed on several of your recent posts that you mention “getting closer to the action” when using the D300s or other crop factor cameras. I’m a bit confused on this point.

    I thought that crop-factor cameras just show a smaller field-of-view with the same lens, but the actual magnification of the lens isn’t affected. Does this mean that due to the crop factor, the _relative_ magnification appears larger, or does a 200mm on a 1.5x CF camera actually magnify like a 300mm on a full-frame?


    1. Blake-

      The crop sensor just uses the center 40-50% of the lens… the focal length is the same but the overall effect it gives you is a longer telephoto. It’s definitely a plus for something like airshow photography, especially if like me, you have an older, smaller MP camera (I shoot with a 30D, 8MP). If you have a large MP camera, or any full-frame (which almost ALWAYS will have more MP) you can crop out the extra sky for the same effect and still get an excellent resolution pic/print.

      Airshow photography is my bread and butter (and the biggest reason I upgraded to a DSLR). For grey days, and I’ve had plenty here in the UK, sometimes you just bite the bullet and throw in an extra stop or so of compensation to push grey skies brighter. Depends on the color scheme of the aircraft of course, but at least it makes it LOOK like a better day ;)
      I agree with ~1/320 for props. Your Yak formations look just right. The challenge though is to see just how slow you can go and still pan for the sharp shot. A full prop disc with a sharp aircraft is as exciting to me as a birdie on the golf course! :) I personally don’t go lower than 1/80, unless I’m shooting helicopters (about the only way to get blur on a Chinook!).

  20. Hi Scott,
    Thanks for sharing your photos and techniques. Like others ahead of my entry, I recommend the Blue Angels practices in Pensacola if you can make it. Just check their web page for their schedule, because there are some weeks when they are not in residence. I had my first experience photographing jets there last year, and I loved it.
    One question: why did you choose to use Aperture Priority to photograph the Thunderbirds? Most of the articles I’ve read suggest using Shutter Priority, and I would like to understand your reasons for using it.

    1. Hello Mayra

      The reason to use Aperture Priority with the T-Birds is that since they are jets, we do not need to worry about prop blur, just the fastest shutter speed possible to freeze the action. To achieve that, you use AP and set it for the widest f-stop setting you can, this will give you the fastest shutter speed possible by allowing in the maximum amount of light. If you went with Shutter Priority and set say a shutter speed of 1/4000, in Sunday’s lighting condition, there would have been no way to get the aperture wide enough to allow in enough light. The images would have been underexposed.

      Auto ISO would solve this in a way, but I like to be in complete control of my ISO settings.

      Hope that helps. Drop me a line on my site if you need any more help.

  21. Wonderful captures Scott and it was a beautiful day to fly and soar! I like you was up at 4:30 to head over to the event and fortunate enough to get to be a passenger in my friends balloon for the Saturday morning launch.

    If you ever want to shoot hot air balloons let me know! Thanks for sharing your images and techniques with your fans!

  22. It’s a shame when you get the horrible gray sky..a friend of my bro had a similar problem too recently…oh well, that’s what we have Photoshop for eh!? :D

  23. Scott,

    Love the photos! A few weeks back the Thunderbirds were here as part of the Thunder over Alabama Air Show at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Al. and I had a chance to go out one of the two days. The day started off much like you mentioned with gray skies that were horrible for shooting but they cleared up after lunch and I was able to get some great shots.

    Go check out my blog at if you have a chance. There is a gallery on there of my images from the show.

    Great tips by the way on the shutter speed so that you can actually see the motion of the propellers. I will have to give that a shot next time.

  24. Scott, HELP! I didn’t know where to write to ask you a question so I am asking here. This is not for publication in the comments section of your website.

    I couldn’t find the answer on the NAPP website, nor on the CS5 beta testers forum. I am a beta tester for CS5 (courtesy of the NAPP). After uninstalling the last version, I cannot now go from LR 2.6 to “edit in Photoshop” as the default. It still shows the CS5 path (I uninstalled and ran the cleanup routines). Also, the four options for opening in PS for HDR, Panorama, Smart Object or Layers is grayed out. I know I can add it as a second editor but I have Viveza designated there.

    I have looked and tried everything, including re-installing LR to try to reassociate LR 2.6 with CS4 but cannot get it to do it. Can you help? Thanks, buddy. Dennis Mook, Newport News, VA

  25. Hey Scott, super photos. I must say that its hard to believe that the king of photoshop didn’t stick some nice blue skies behind instead of those gray ones. Please don’t tell me you’re becoming a purist! lol

  26. Scott,

    I think all of your pictures are phenomenal and I thank you for all the traning you provide for new photographers.

    I also attended Sun-n-Fun last week and had a blast. I shoot airshows often, and look forward to seeing what you post from future shoots. When I saw that first image my immediate comment was “Scott stole my idea!”. I took this picture on Friday evening.


  27. Gorgeous photographs. I was lucky to be able to participate in the Nikon Photo Walk Saturday morning with Bill and Jose. They are two extremely knowledgeable and talented professionals. And you hit the nail on the head – they are just as nice as they can be.

    Glad you had a great time at Sun-n-Fun, hope to see you there next year!

  28. Scott,
    The Thunderbird’s are going to be doing a air show in my home town in ND the next week end.
    I have been to a lot a shows with the Blue Angels but never seen the Thunderbirds looking forward to it. Thanks for the tips and if you have any more please pass them on. I’ll be taking both my 40D and 7D with a assortment of lens. Thanks again Scott….

  29. Scott,
    These images are just stunning. As an aviation and photography enthusiast I say they rock.
    I would like to know what steps you did in post processing on the first three images.

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