Warbird Alley Logo

[Back to Warbird Alley Main Index]

*Special Feature Article
*Maintenance / Restoration *Organizations
Major Airshows
*Fly a Warbird
*Warbird Bookstore
Flight Simulator Store
*Miscellaneous Links
Warbird Alley Products


Submissions/Corrections to:





2011 The Doublestar Group

A Warbird Alley Special Feature

Oshkosh: Photo Boot Camp
Want to take photos of warbirds
? It may seem counter-intuitive, but EAA's AirVenture is one of the most challenging places to do it.

I've been taking pictures of airplanes all my life and, of course, warbirds have always figured strongly in the mix of airplanes I like to capture. One of my favorite venues is the annual EAA gathering in Oshkosh. But, surprisingly, it's not always easy to get clean photos there. In fact, I find that if a person can take good warbird photos at Oshkosh, he or she will find almost every other gathering of warbirds to be a piece of cake, relatively speaking. Why? Let's go through a list of factors that contribute to the challenges faced by Oshkosh photographers.

1. Access: The paved part of the warbird flightline is split in two. The east part of the area falls within an FAA-mandated "showline" parallel to the Runway 18/36 centerline, and it's not accessible to the public. Some years, fully half of the jet warbirds parked on the ramp are simply out of reach. Even those that end up, by sheer luck, to be on the "public" side of the rope line are often double-stacked close to each other -- meaning that it's next-to-impossible to get unobstructed photos of each airplane.

During the daily airshow, nearly the entire warbird operations area (except for the P-51's "Mustang Field") is closed entirely, opening only at the conclusion of the show at 6:00 PM.

By the way, the "Magic Hour" of 7:00 to 8:00 PM is perhaps your best opportunity to get good flightline photos, and even the occasional dramatic takeoff or landing photo as aircraft depart or arrive throughout the week. (Don't forget that many aircraft often depart from Runway 9/27 in the 2-1/2 hours between the end of the airshow and sunset.)

2. Distance: The warbird flybys performed nearly every day could be a chance to get some good ground-to air shots, but even this opportunity is fraught with challenges. A thinking person might be tempted to stay near the warbird parking area, thereby attempting to get some inflight shots and also capture the planes as they return to their parking areas afterward. Alas, there's a slight problem with that tactic. The preferential airshow "flow" utilizes Runway 36 (north flow for flybys), and because the aircraft must not overfly Runway 9/27, they must begin their turn away from the crowd at about midfield. This means that if you're standing near the warbird area at the north end of the main flightline, the aircraft will be over a mile away as they climb up and away from you -- not close enough for truly compelling ground-to-air photography. One exception to this is when an airshow performer or Heritage Flight formation performs a "banana pass" that ends up overflying the warbird parking area. This is relatively rare, but it does happen sometimes.

I have flown quite a few warbird flybys at Oshkosh, and I always try to perform a few slightly banked "photo passes" for the crowd before turning to the east, but I can tell you that many pilots simply don't do this, either because they either don't think to do it, are concentrating 100% on the airplane ahead of them, or aren't personally comfortable with anything but a level pass. I can't be critical of any pilot who makes a personal safety decision like this -- but you should know that the chances of getting that magical warbird "photo pass" shot during the flyby passes are slimmer at Oshkosh than just about any other major airshow.

Also, the warbird flyby centerline is very far displaced, laterally, from the crowd line. This is due to two factors: FAA regulations, and the fact that the pyrotechnics crews are set up between the main runway and the parallel taxiway that serves as "Runway 36 Right" during the show. The warbirds making low passes fly east of the pyro, so the "showline-to-crowd line" distance is quite high.  

3. Feet and Heads: AirVenture is hugely popular, and with that popularity comes vast throngs of people. An aircraft photographer has to get up mighty early in the morning to beat the crowds onto the flight line. Even at 7:00 AM, getting good static photos of airplanes can often be an exercise in personal patience. I have been known to wait 20 minutes to get a shot that does not contain human legs or other body parts seemingly protruding from the fuselage of a particularly nice-looking warbird. Ground-to-air photos can be just as tough, because unless you're in the front row of the crowd, you will inevitably find yourself behind some tall person wearing a giant, floppy sombrero. (OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean...)

To avoid the "Heads and Hats Syndrome" during the show, try to get yourself elevated. Use a pole-mounted camera, climb up on one of the Canon-sponsored photo platforms, stand on a bench, or get back away from the crowd and use a more powerful lens.

4: Clutter: Some aircraft are located in areas where it's simply not possible to capture them in anything resembling a natural setting. For instance, several years ago, there was a magnificent, polished Ryan ST-A that would have made a great photo subject, except that it was located inside a small red tent used by a company that makes metal-polishing products, surrounded by rope stanchions. The lighting was impossible, the airplane was surrounded by signs and barricades... Not many photo opportunities there, for sure.

Often, you'll find tents, buildings, telephone poles/wires, vehicles, and other items intruding into the edges of your photos. The AirVenture grounds are full of those ubiquitous orange cones. And don't forget about the thousands of Oshkosh Trucks that line the east side of the runway. Be creative. Look for ways to minimize the effects of these intruders by the way you frame the shot, or else plan your shot to allow for easy cropping later. Don't just look at the airplane. Train yourself to see the entire shot. What's in the background, or along the edges? Can you move slightly to eliminate that ice chest sitting on the ground under the wing? My personal technique is to NOT ask either the aircraft's owner or any bystanders to move themselves in order to get a good shot. I get shots naturally and organically. You can do what you like, but I try to be as low-impact and courteous as possible. Of course, you can always utilize your Photoshop tools later, but I find it more fun to try for totally natural shots.

* * * * *

While we're on the subject, let's talk for a moment about professional courtesy.

The other photographers on the warbird flightline are working just as hard as you to get that perfect shot. Here are some of my personal rules for shooting photos at an airshow. I share them with you in the hopes that we can all get along, while still getting great photos. It all starts with respect.

Rule 1: I will stay out of others' way. For instance, I will not barge up to a line of other photographers standing at a fence or rope barrier and insert myself in such a way that I block their view, or potential view. I will stay at least 10 feet away from other photographers while they're shooting. If I am a new arrival on a scene, I will remain behind those who were there first.

   Rule 2: I will constantly look around to ensure I'm not impinging upon anyone else's shot. I will also look far away to ensure this, because I know that some people use zoom lenses to achieve dramatic depth of field. I will keep moving, on the off-chance that my legs are inadvertently in someone else's shot. I will not remain motionless for long periods of time near an aircraft that is obviously a good photo subject.

   Rule 3: I will be aware of my shadow. I will be aware that late in the afternoon, my 6-foot frame can cast a 40-foot shadow that can ruin someone's once-in-a-lifetime shot.

   Rule 4: I will use my own creativity to plan and execute shots. I will not "bird-dog" other photographers, following them around and taking the exact same creative shot they just took. [Note: I don't mean to suggest that it's not OK to get good ideas from others -- that's how we learn. I just find it annoying when I come up with what I think is an amazing, original setup -- only to find a guy standing at my elbow, pointing his camera in the same direction and saying something like "Hey, nice shot." Yeah, it was.]   

* * * * *

One final note: EAA is very protective of its media interests. You may not sell your Oshkosh photos or use them in advertising or certain other commercial endeavors without EAA's premission. You should carefully review EAA's Copyright / Media / Trademark policy before attending the event.

Having pointed out the pitfalls of Oshkosh photography, there are some wonderful, unique opportunities that Oshkosh routinely presents -- multiple aircraft formations, good back-lighting in the afternoon and, occasionally, some truly rare and unusual aircraft. Be prepared, know where to position yourself, be creative, and do what it takes to get that award-winning shot!

If you learn the craft at Oshkosh, you will have paid many of the "dues" that make a person a skilled warbird photographer.

Buck Wyndham
Editor, WarbirdAlley.com


Copyright 2015 The Doublestar Group. All Rights Reserved.
These photos may only be used for your own reference and enjoyment.