The very best alternative to creating an illusion is to simply present reality. And in the case of jet photography, that is to be right next to the pilots up in the sky where all the action is taking place. The most likely scenario for most of us, however, and the second best option is (having to) to simply stay on the ground and hoping for a bit of luck (which you can’t control), and some good preparations (which you can control).
Bringing the right camera gear can increase your luck. While we’re in the middle of a camera technology shift; i.e. from DSLR to mirrorless, regardless of your selected camera it’s good to consider the following three camera features before you enter the scene: sensor size, frame rate, and buffer size.
I recently sold my Nikon D500. It is still a great DSLR: it has a buffer size of 200 images (RAW) and shoots at almost 11 fps. And it has autofocus points all over the viewfinder. But it also has an APS-C sensor; i.e. a 1.5 crop sensor (in Nikon language: ‘DX’) with ‘only’ 21 megapixels. For jet photography I noticed that the jet should be positioned pretty well inside the frame of the D500 as you can’t do too much cropping anymore afterwards due to the limited number of pixels to play with. Also, the pixels are smaller in crop sensors vs. full frame sensors. Smaller pixels contribute to more noise compared to the larger ones in full frame sensors, in general.
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/5.6, 1/1600 s., ISO 125, AF-Area Mode: 3D-tracking
While the D500 has 21 MP, the D850 has almost 46 MP which allows for much more flexibility when it comes to cropping, or better said, the need to crop (cropping purists will argue against any cropping but that’s a different story…). In the case of the shot below, the F-35 occupied about 25% off the frame, so I ended up cropping over 65%. If I had taken this shot with the D500 I would have run out of pixels. On the other hand, given the D500’s larger buffer size and higher frame rate, I might have had more luck in catching a shot with ‘more jet in the viewfinder’…
But there was another piece of the puzzle that made me select this particular image. While I was cropping the image – not having to worry too much about insufficient pixels – I noticed something ‘pleasant’ around the shape of the jet relative to the borders of the cropped image. Here is where the ‘luck’ factor comes in: the jet is angled in such a way that if you place a ‘golden spiral’ on the pilot you’ll find that the line follows the image frame and touches the wing tips quite nicely, exiting the image again on the bottom left.
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/5.6, 1/1600 s., ISO 110, AF-Area Mode: 3D-tracking
Let me try to summarize this series on jet photography… it’s fun! Much more than I had expected in fact.
You do need to think a little on the type of images you try to capture with or without the goal to create some sort of ‘illusion’ that you were positioned close to the jet when you took the shot. It certainly helps if you bring the right gear to the scene (and do check out the weather forecast and wind direction!) but perhaps most importantly, it’s the pilot who (perhaps unwillingly) decides if you’re going to be lucky or not (for example if it’s his last working day and he decided to go for a vertical go-around to say goodbye :).
It’s also helpful to follow social media accounts of the pilots, air force bases (for example when exercises are announced) and off course those of fellow photographers so you can check for latest updates on interesting shooting opportunities.