How I Stopped the Blue Angels in Their Tracks

I recently had the opportunity to shoot the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels at an air show in Rhode Island.  As it turned out, I was fortunate it was a two-day show.

I shot probably a hundred photos of the Blue Angels on the first day of the event, and while I was happy at times that I even managed to get them in the frame as they soared by at 400 mph, I was disappointed with both the placement in the frame and with the lack of sharpness. Of course, when your subject is going that fast, you can be forgiven some errors in framing and even in sharpness.  

But I didn’t want to be forgiven.  I wanted good photos.

Creating a Shooting Strategy

Blue Angels_DSC0130 copy

So after the first day’s festivities, I went back to the hotel room and consulted Simon Stafford’s extremely useful Nikon D90 Magic Lantern Guide to concoct a shooting plan for Day Two — one that would help me produce sharp, well-exposed photos with my D90.

Having a shooting strategy is always a good idea when you plan to shoot an unusual subject. In this case, I was determined to get some good shots of all six jets in formation. Just getting my D90 to expose and focus for a subject moving at 400 mph was a real challenge.

And I learned early on Day Two that I would face another challenge. The sky, which had been radiantly blue on the first day of the show, was a miserable bluish-gray on the second day. I had to factor in that the photos would be largely silhouettes.

So here is the shooting strategy I came up with:

  • Since exposure was going to be tricky, I decided to shoot the entire afternoon in the RAW format. Shooting in RAW allows you to be off in your exposures by several stops and correct the exposure in editing. You can also adjust the white balance, which was very helpful since I wasn’t sure how blue the sky was going to look.
  • I switched the camera into the continuous shooting mode so I could fire faster with the D90, which has a maximum burst rate of 4.5 fps. This meant 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.
  • I also wanted the camera to focus continuously so that it could constantly re-focus and refine focus throughout the exposures. 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, because 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 on Day Two 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.
  • The Results

    So, was my shooting plan successful? For the most part, yes.

    Blue_Angels Wignall 165 PS1

    The images on Day Two 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 were limited to silhouettes.

    I also might want to make some adjustments to my shooting strategy for my next air show.

    For example, I abandoned the monopod after a few passes by the Blue Angels. I found I simply couldn’t track them across the sky with the camera tethered to the monopod.

    And even with the fast cards I was using, the camera had to pause periodically to process the huge files because I was shooting in RAW. I lost several shots because I had to wait for the camera to write images to the card. The camera would have responded faster had I been shooting in jpeg format — and I might do that next time.

8 Responses to “How I Stopped the Blue Angels in Their Tracks”

  1. I am not sure if the D90 has it, but you might also want to try the 51-point 3D tracking mode focus. I've been experimenting with that recently while photographing high school baseball and have been pleased with the results.

    Also, maybe using the auto-iso function would allow you to shoot in jpg easier (if planes pass from cloudy background to sunny background). I use these feature for photographing equestrian events under open air, but covered roofs.

    Nice work and way to stay with it. I respect you being able to admit the first day of shooting was not what you hoped for. It will encourage other photographers not to be afraid of making mistakes, even losing a whole day (I've done that myself).

    Lastly, what 300mm lens were you using?

  2. Hello Jeff:

    You said:

    "And even with the fast cards I was using, the camera had to pause periodically to process the huge files because I was shooting in RAW. I lost several shots because I had to wait for the camera to write images to the card."

    Yes, that's true, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Your camera has a high-speed internal buffer into which the raw images are first written. They are then copied out to the actual memory card asynchronously. This allows you to shoot (which fills the internal buffer with the most recent capture) at the same time as the memory card is populated (which empties the internal buffer of the least recent captures).

    Most of the time (that is, when you're not shooting in rapid bursts) you don't notice the internal buffer, because it gets emptied faster than the rate at which you're taking pictures. However, in continuous shooting mode, the buffer fills very rapidly (especially for raw files, which are relatively large), and once the internal buffer is full, you can no longer capture images. That's when you notice. It's not the speed of the memory card that matters (that only comes into play when copying images off of the memory card onto your computer), but rather it's the size of the internal buffer that is significant.

    The size of the internal buffer is what separates consumer/prosumer camera bodies from professional bodies. You can determine what the limit is for a (Nikon) camera by pressing the shutter release half way: the value will change from remaining frame count (what's available on the memory card) to a small r followed the internal buffer count (how many frames can be stored at this moment in the internal buffer).

    I was using a D80 to take pictures at an ice hockey game, and shooting in continuous mode (it requires many attempts to get a fast-moving hockey player to be in focus), and I was quickly hitting the limit of the internal buffer size (in raw mode I think it's only a few frames on the D80). I finally gave up an bought a used D2Hs on Ebay, which has a generous value of 40 (12-bit raw) images as the internal buffer size. To compare, the D3 allows 50 (and I think that's even 14-bit raw), and you can have extra internal memory installed that brings that number up to 100 frames.


  3. I read your post and the responses too, with interests, but to shot moving aircraft is not that difficult as long as you have the right strategy, equipment, and a steady hand.

    A lot of people make the mistake and they write off using jpeg in favour of RAW, well in Nikon’s case NEF, to be exact, when shooting aircraft. For aircraft, I use jpeg without any problems and get excellent results, and when I compare my images shot with jpeg and images that once in a while I shot with NEF, truly do not see much difference. Yes, in NEF you can adjust images after the fact, OK, so what? You can also adjust the images in jpeg too with Photoshop, if one knows how to use it properly.

    To shot next time use the following settings: jpeg, the largest size, adjust jpeg compression for optimal quality vs size (with some Nikon’s this is adjustable), keep the ISO at 320 or to 400 at the max, set your camera to Aperture priority (you set the F-stop, camera sets the speed), Continuous focus, 51 point 3D tracking if you have this available, and very importantly Dynamic-area AF, pick use the fastest card that you can obtain, and use quality glass.

    Do not use a monopod, or a tripod, these will only limit your tracking of the aircraft, but learn to pan and follow the aircraft.

    As for burst rates, image transfer to the card from the buffer, contrary what some people will write, a faster card makes a huge difference, it certainly does even on my D3 with an upgraded buffer. But do not let the hyped up “claimed” burst rates fool you either, because they are based on the smallest image size and in jpeg format and limited test conditions with all image enhancement features turned off, such as D-Lighting, etc, with only a certain card brand and size. In other words not something anyone would use in real shooting conditions. Example with my D3 and buffer upgrade it is only 51 images in jpeg, using the earlier recommended settings, without the buffer upgrade it is only 21. I have (2) D3, one with and one without the buffer upgrade, it is the same 21 frames for my D300, and much less in NEF. No where the 100 frames as Matt wrote, or Nokon claims!!!

    For jets you need a min of 1/1000 shutter speed, 1/1500 or 1/2000 is even better if the light conditions permit. Try to use the fastest f stop prime lens that you can afford, in the 300mm or 400mm range. A zoom lens works quite well but they tend to be much slower and not as sharp as the prime lenses, and they can get quite expensive too. In the DX format the 18-200mm VR and the 70-300mm VR lenses work well, avoid the 80-400mm VR, very slow focusing and very old design. If you can afford the 70-200mm f2.8 and the 200-400mm f4 are the lenses to use.

  4. Laszlo said:

    "I have (2) D3, one with and one without the buffer upgrade, it is the same 21 frames for my D300, and much less in NEF. No where the 100 frames as Matt wrote, or Nokon[sic] claims!!!"

    Laszlo: I think you are correct here -- the specs I quoted in my original post were wrong (I don't have a D3, only a D2HS). My bad. (Perhaps I was thinking of the high-end Canon?)

    Here's Nikon's page about the Buffer Upgrade program:

    When I was shooting hockey games with my D80, I could only use JPEG. The internal buffer would fill up way too quickly when shooting raw. However, I can get a multi-second burst in raw mode with my D2HS (which is exactly why I bought it).

    The specs do say that in DX shooting mode, a D3 with the upgraded buffer is capable of 87 total 12-bit raw images in burst mode. Not quite 100, but still pretty respectable.

  5. Hello Matt,

    Thanks, I know I am correct because I own and use my Nikons, (2) D3 and (1) D300. I would not go by what the tech spec states; I pointed this out to Nikon, when I had my cameras in for cleaning. Even the Nikon technician could not set up any of my cameras to give the number of frames they claimed, with the recommended cards.

    The D3 even with the upgraded buffer is not capable of 87 NEF images, not even in DX mode, which is not full frame. In jpeg it can only do 51 frames,(largest jpeg at 200 ISO) and in NEF (RAW) will do much less due to the file size. However, even 51 is more than sufficient for moving aircraft at 9 frames a second!

    This will also be affected by the type of card I use, currently Scandisk Extreme IV UMB card is my favorite. Depending on the subject, sometimes I can shot more than 51 frames before the buffer fills up, due to the fact that the card can transfer the image out of the buffer at a very fast rate. So it can vary... Some times about 65 or even 75 frames before it locks up. But the 51 frames is what the camera will indicate how much it can hold in the buffer. When I can shut more than it is due to writing capability of the card and the image file size of the image. Thus the faster the card it is better, but this also truly depends on the image being recorded; lots of sky will be smaller in file size than an image with lots of details.

    Also comparing a 4MP camera, the D2HS is only a 4MP camera, against an 8MP, 10MP or 12MP cameras frame rates is not exactly fair either. Obviously a 4MP camera can write faster from the buffer than a 10MP or 12MP camera, in theory, unless the 12MP camera has a huge buffer, or it can be upgraded as in with the D3.

    Any how, it is not truly about frames rates that do count when you take photos of aircraft, but knowing how to use and using the camera and lens that you happen to have. Having expensive and the best will only increase the chance and percentage of good photos, but if you do not know how to use it the camera and the lens, it is quite pointless. There is a huge difference between shooting flowers and static landscapes than moving aircraft at 400 mph or even at 600 mph, requiring a totally different procedure.

    Feel free to my site at for aircraft images of the Blue Angels.

  6. Hi Jason, Matt, Laszlo,

    I'm glad that my posting produced such a lively and interesting conversation and I really hope it continues.I'm grateful, Matt, for your very articulate explanation of buffers and how they transfer images. And you're right,it was probably the camera's buffer and not necessarily the card slowing things down.

    I've recently started using Trascend cards (I found them on Amazon) and so far I'm very happy with their cost, speed and reliability (knock on wood). The Transcend SDHC cards are Class 6 which is, I believe, the fastest speed category available now (I could be wrong) with a write speed of 6 MB/s. These RAW files, even from my D90, are huge though and so I use cards that are hold at least 8GB. (I would use a 16GB card, but I'm always paranoid I'll lose it!)

    As to Laszlo's points about jpeg vs RAW, until very recently I agreed with him--I shot jpegs and never really saw much difference between those files and my RAW files. But a few months ago I spent a few days at a friend's studio and he evangelized the benefits of RAW so much that I (for now, at least) converted. The key thing about the difference in working these files is that when you work a RAW file in the conversion process it is non-destructive--nothing from the file is thrown away (or much less, anyway, to be accurate).

    But when you work a jpeg file (and adjust hue/saturation, for example, or do a curves adjustment), information *is* thrown away. You lose pixels and you can never get them back (in that particular version of the file--you don't damage the original unless you save it under the exact same file name which you should never do).

    Also, I've found that for some odd reason (anyone else have this experience?) when I adjust hue/saturation of a RAW file in CS3, the adjust range is *very* limited compared to files from my D70s bodies. If I pump up the yellow a bit, it goes off the charts and I get pure noise in those areas. In the RAW converter, however, I can adjust hue/saturation/luminance as much as I like with no bad effects.

    OK, that's enough for now. More comments welcome and I'm always open to learning new things. I learned a lot from everyone's comments here. Oh and Jason, it's a 70-300mm Nikkor. I wish it was my old 80-200mm f/2.8, but I sold it on Ebay!

    And I wish I was using a higher-end Nikon body, but until they send me one, I'm stuck in the D90 zone 🙂 And so far, that's not such a bad place to be.


  7. My mistake: In the 3rd to last paragraph of my comment, I meant that when I do a hue/sat adjust on the jpeg files the files blow out quickly. It's working with RAW files in the conversion software that saves them. By the way, I use Adobe's DNG converter to convert the RAW files to DNG--CS3 won't recognize NEF files from the D90.

  8. Jeff said:

    "And I wish I was using a higher-end Nikon body, but until they send me one, I'm stuck in the D90 zone."

    One alternative is to buy a used D2HS. The 4 megapixel resolution allows you to shoot in raw mode at an impressive burst rate. Listen to a recording here:

    I bought my D2HS on Ebay, and am quite happy with it. I have a few photos taken with the D2HS here:


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