To Catch An Angel – 2010 International Airshow – Punta Gorda, Florida

When you sign up to be a “pro” photographer, no one tells you about the “perks” that come with the job. A couple of years ago one of our clients called and asked if we would photograph the air show. The headliner…The Blue Angels. There was one stipulation, be ready to go up with them!

Some people may find this the greatest opportunity known to aircraft buffs and other may find this to be their biggest nightmare. Those of you who know me, know that I’m not right. I think I was dropped on my head at birth. That’s ok, I like doing crazy stuff like this. Needless to say, I was ready to go two weeks before the show sitting in my office with a diaper on and barf bag in hand. I’ll let that visual set in for a moment…

A week before the show, you have to go to a “Media” meeting and get “qualified”. What this means in English is that you stand up and tell everyone where you are from and you get your comp tickets and parking pass.

A week later, on a Friday we showed up at the gate ready for anything (still with the diaper and barf bag in hand). This day serves a couple of purposes. First, there were kids there from the Make-A-Wish foundation. It was great to see these kids out of the hospital and were able to enjoy a day at the airport with the famous Blue Angels. I’m sure that these kids will never forget that experience. The other reason for showing up on Friday is for the Media to interview the pilots and get rides. Since there were limited people allowed there, we were able to get nice clean shots of the static displays. This is great as you can walk right up to them and get some nice detail photographs without any “obstructions” a.k.a. people.

We photographed the static displays and the practice airshow was ready to start. To keep everyone’s interest at these type of events, the Blue Angels go last. In the beginning I was photographing some of the acrobatic pilots. These were a prop driven aircraft. I had to balance my shutter speed to keep the aircraft sharp but, not freeze the propeller. I ended up shooting 1/160 at ISO 400 at f/5.6. It was a bit overcast, this is why I ending up shoot at ISO 400. Here’s a tip that worked for me, take the longest lens that you have. In this case I used a 80mm-400mm lens. This was very versatile for what was going on in the air. At the 400mm end, you are able to reach out and grab just about anything you want. Also, I was using this lens on a APC sensor body so I was actually getting 600mm. Not bad. All of the other acts were finished and it was time for the Angels.

Everyone was prepping for the demonstration/practice flight. Here’s the kicker, my number didn’t come up this time so I wasn’t going to be going up. The superintendent of the school system got to go up for their practice run. I must have look really embarrassing standing there with diaper and barf bag in hand with those big eyes like when my Golden wants a treat. Oh, well may be next time.

Here’s another tip, if you are even interested in doing something like this, go the day before and practice even if it’s from the parking lot! These guys are moving at 650 mph! There are times that they push it to 700 mph but, that have to be careful not to blow out every piece of glass in the joint. The settings that I was using before were not going to work at all. Time to regroup and think this through. Since it was a little overcast, I had less light to help with with this. I cranked up the ISO to 800. I also used 1/1000 at f/5.6. These guys don’t have any propellers to worry about, I figured why not crank up speed? This ended up being a winning combo.

I usually shoot RAW about 99% of the time however, with the camera on continuous, I was only getting 2.5 frames a second. This was not fast enough. I changed the camera for a large, fine JPG and I was now getting 10 frames a second. This proved to be much better. On a empty four gig card, I had room for 350 images. I had ten cards. During the show I felt like I was in WWII. I was shooting as fast at the camera would go and when the card got close to full I would throw the card out the side and reload the “magazine”. By the end of the show I used all ten cards!

I came home that Friday night and emptied all of the cards and backed up everything. Then I formatted the cards and was ready for the next day. The advantage that I had on Saturday is that I had already practiced my “panning” technique so I could get a steady shot. Also, I knew the layout of the show. At the end of the day, I had ten full cards again. I was ready to go home as standing for eight hours on the flight line will take it out of you.

When I had a chance to go through all 4,000 photos, I was left with about ten that I was really happy with. The one featured above was the gold nugget in the bunch. This is where they do the “roll reversal” at show center. I had focused on the jet coming from show center right and panned him all the way in. That is why he is sharp and the one right behind him is blurry. I was really ecstatic about getting this shot. It only took 60 frames to get this one photo.

My advise…
Go the day before and practice. Take lots of cards and shoot many, many photos. Yes, you will be throwing quite a few away but, the ones that you do keep will be real winners. As I mentioned before, take a long lens and shoot in continuous. People may laugh but, you will end up with the shot.

Until next time…



  1. Flyin’ Out | Spencer Pullen Photography and Training - [...] How I photographed this photo… Since I was going to be dealing subjects that were going to be out…
  2. Taking One For The Team | Spencer Pullen Photography and Training - [...] lens to reach out in the middle of the arena to catch the action. I set this up as…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *