Photographing flying airplanes

When photographing a flying plane, my natural approach is to use the highest shutter speed I can, but this may not be the best method for all types of planes.  A landing jet will be going much slower than a plane in an air show but much faster than most propeller planes. For the jets, I would be looking to use high shutter speeds, like 1/2000 second or higher. Obviously, there are variables, like how close the jet is, which direction relative to the camera it is moving, and the focal length of your lens. I think any speed above 1/2000 second should freeze most movement.

For propeller aircraft that we see so often here in Alaska, the question of shutter speed becomes a little more complicated.  I would not use the high shutter speeds mentioned above for this reason: I don’t want to use a shutter that it will “stop” the prop. Stopping the prop gives you an image of a flying plane with a motionless propeller. This looks weird and unnatural since flying planes are supposed to have moving propellers! From my experience, this will happen with shutter speeds faster than about 1/1000 or 1/1500 second. An example of this “problem” is shown in the first photo.

I have found that I get better and more natural looking pictures of prop aircraft with shutter speeds in the area of 1/250 to 1/500 second. My goal is twofold: make sure the prop is completely blurred, ideally into a visible (or partially visible) circle; and make sure that I obtain a sharp image of the moving plane. The “sweet” shutter speed to achieve both objectives will depend on how fast the prop is rotating (takeoff and landing rpms may be different depending on the plane) and the plane’s speed relative to the camera position. The second photo is  an example of what I like to achieve when photographing a prop aircraft. I think this method produces a more natural looking image and gives a better sense of movement than the first photo.       

 My recommendation for photographing flying planes is to do some tests on your own to see what works best for you. Hopefully, the broad advice given here will help you determine the perfect shutter speed for your situation. Trial and error is the order of business. Have some fun experimenting!