Whether or not you love aeroplanes (I do), the RAF’s Red Arrows display team always puts on a great show. The red, British made, Rolls Royce powered, Hawk T1’s, frequently trailing coloured smoke, make a great spectacle.
In 2019 I was at the British Grand Prix, working with Brett’s Own Brews to deliver quality coffee to the Grand Prix visitors. In between filling water barrels, organising milk resupplies and everything that goes with delivering 2,000 cups of tea and coffee, I was able to grab some photos of the display. This was part of our crazy summer of coffee and events! Of course, I had my trusty Canon and long(ish) lens to hand.
Although the weather stayed dry, the sky was overcast. A beautiful blue summer sky would have been good. An overcast sky like that, with fast-moving subjects, does present a few photographic challenges.
Photographing the Red Arrows
Taking photographs like this presents a challenge. Basically you are trying to track the subject while it moves fast across your field of view. While, at the same time, framing and composing the image.
The real trick here is to preset the camera and let it get on with it, so that you can concentrate on framing and shooting the subject.
Choosing camera settings can be tricky. The overcast sky behind the subject is a strong backlight, causing the subject to silhouette. In this instance, I set exposure compensation to one stop overexposed.
On the Canon 60D, with the Canon image stabilised 70-300mm zoom I set to ISO 400, Aperture Priority at f/6.3. That gave enough leeway to get the subject against both dark and light parts of the sky, and still keep the shutter fast enough to capture the moving subject.
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Here’s my technique:
How to Photograph Fast Moving Objects in the sky
- Use a long lens
The longer the better. You will need to hold the camera and lens combination, so a zoom in the 100-400 or 70-300 is useful.
A 200mm focal length can do a good job, but may limit your shots, depending on the subject movement.
- Use a tripod?
I shoot mainly hand-held. A good, solid tripod with a smooth movement will do the job. If you don’t have one of those, don’t bother.
Modern camera and lens combinations are generally image stabilised. The higher ISO needed to hand-hold the camera generally works well.
- Consider the background and your subject
An overcast sky is always a backlight, with very variable patches of light.
A blue sky is a backlight, but the sun may be in a position to light the subject.
I usually opt for at least one full stop of overexposure in exposure compensation. It is easy enough to recover one stop in post processing.
- Preset your camera
Full auto may or may not do the job – test it if you want.
I usually go for Aperture preferred, setting the lens to as close as I can to the “sweet spot” – often f/8.
- Concentrate on composing on the fly
Visualise beforehand. A bird or aeroplane is small and fast moving, You can crop later.
Smoke trails, as in the Red Arrows display, should form part of the composition.
- Rapid Fire – with care
Shoot in bursts of three or four images.
Don’t go crazy and find the buffer is full and slowing your shooting, so you miss shots.
- Shoot Video?
Not great if you prefer stills.
BUT many modern cameras allow 4k video and later selection of stills from the video, at decent quality. 8 k is even better.
And there it is – happy shooting.