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