I started writing a basic guide about nightspotting for a friend a while ago and finally found the time to complete it today. Most points mentioned won't be new for many forum members/uploaders but I still think that it might be helpful for beginners. Feedback, comments and suggestions are highly appreciated. We are all profiting from each others knowledge and I'd love to add points to this guide.
I use (like many others here) the Manfrotto 055 PROB together with a 488RC2 ballhead. As mentioned in another thread before, a ballhead is handy when you have to adjust the camera as fats as possible, eg when you are shooting in the small timeframe between pushback and taxi. If you are for some reason limited to shooting parked aircraft I would probably go for a normal head since the adjustments are more precise, especially if you are using a heavy camera/lens combination.
The Manfrotto combination is not cheap but never forget that a decent tripod is a once-in-a-lifetime investment.
Sounds a bit stupid but never extend the tripod to your eyelevel. Even though that might be more convenient to use that way it is certainly not advantageous in windy conditions. I usually keep the camera on approximately 1,40m above the ground which is just enough to shoot over the balustrade at the observation deck at my local airport. I have seen people with fully extended tripods wondering about blurry results...
Use either a remote control or the autotimer. The autotimer is suficient in most cases, but once again, if you have to be fast a remote control is beneficial since you don't have to wait 10 seconds (depending on your camera) before the exposure of the next picture begins.
If you are using a lens with an Image stabilizer or a camera with a built-in image stabilizer make sure that it is turned off. The image stabilizer will destroy your pictures if turned on while shooting with a tripod.
b) choosing a location to shoot from
That is probably the trickiest part about nightspotting. It is possible to use high ISO values to shoot approaching or departing planes at night the photography I am talking about in this posting requires a plane which is not moving at all.
So you can either go for parked aircraft or those which are waiting for taxi clearance (after pushback). In the latter case it is absolutely important to be fast since you will never know when the aircraft starts moving out. If you do not have ramp access it will be hard to find good locations for nightshots. Airports that have a visitor's platform or car parking facilities with ramp view are usually the places to be. Typical locations are Dusseldorf, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Los Angeles.
One big problem at night is that there is (of course) only artificial light available which is usually not evenly spread resulting in brighter and darker areas. For example there can be a lot of light on the nose of an aircraft while the tail is in complete darkness. In that case it is impossible to get a decent picture. There can even be some kind of backlight when an aircraft is illuminated on the wrong side which also makes decent shots almost impossible.
Therefore it is necessary to find the best possible location. It just like shooting against the sun, it is possible to get pictures but you will never get a well exposed picture. Also in some cases it might be helpful to limit yourself on closeups or front views instead of photographing the whole plane.
Shooting in darkness is a lot different from daylight photography. For nightspotting I use the following settings (on a Canon 40D):
f 8 (Variable, on windy days I would rather go for a bigger aperture to keep the exposure time shorter)
exposure time: (auto)
exposure correction: My camera tends to underexpose nightshots when using the Av mode, that's why I have set the exposure correction to +2/3.
ISO: 100, but again, if there is a lot of wind better got for a higher ISO value to avoid blur.
Always shoot in RAW: I am not a big fan of RAW because I do not like those giant files but since it is the only possibility that allows the photographer to correct the white balance in the post processing you should definitely go for it.
White Balance: Some people try to adjust the white balance in the camera, I prefer doing that in photoshop. That is why I have set the white balance to auto.
Some cameras have a mirror-lock mechanism. If you have a remote control I would enable this feature: The mirror opens when you press the release first, when you press it for the second time the shutter opens and the exposure begins. This feature helps avoiding shaking which might be caused by the mirror.
Although it might be tempting, never zoom in completely. I have seen many pictures with a too tight crop without any room around the plane that could be used for levelling.
Many lenses/cameras have problems to focus in darkness. If the autofocus does not work I usually make use of the life view mode which is the best solution for the problem I have found so far.
Modern pushback trucks lift the plane during pushback. Therefore it is necessary to wait until the plane had been lowered again before you start the exposure.
Sometimes a plane is parked in complete darkness. It is still possible to photograph it these conditions. Use the M mode of you camera and set the exposure time to “bulb” (Canon). You have to press the button (of a remote control) to start the exposure and release it when you think that enough time has passed. It is not easy to find the necessary exposure time, it is trail and error + some experience.
It is possible to take night photos through glass. You just have to make sure that the room between the lens and glass is completely dark. Use a jacket or similar avoid rays from reaching the lens.
When you are shooting in windy conditions it is helpful to remove the hood from your lens.
For postprocessing I use the RAW plugin for Adobe Photoshop CS
3. The editing steps are almost the same in other software if you do not have the PS
. A brief explanation with some screenshots:
a) A screenshot of the picture as it is, right out of the camera. As you can see the colors are completely wrong (too warm) and it is a tad underexposed.
b) The picture opened in the Adobe Camera RAW Plugin:
c) Use the pipette tool (marked in green) and click in an area in your picture that should be either white or black. It is not important to get the white balance spot on right now, I only do so to be able to adjust the exposure, contrast and saturation more easily. The fine adjustment can be done later.
d) Now use the controls on the right to adjust exposure/contrast/Saturation etc. The values are depending on the picture, I noticed that most of my nightshots need a lot of contrast. Now you can also finetune the white balance. If you click in different areas of the picture with the pipette-tool you will see that the color temperature changes. If you are satisfied with the results (remember that finetuning can be done in the “normal” photoshop) you can finish the raw processing and open the file for normal editing (level, crop, curves, etc).
There is of course no right or wrong, I personally prefer rather bright and white nightshots while others prefer them a bit darker or a bit more yellow. It is not easy to get them right but after some time you will know what values you have to set.
The final result can be seen below.
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Photo © Stefan Sonnenberg
The Lufthansa livery is rather easy to edit it because the main colors are white and grey. It is much more difficult to edit planes that are very colorful, especially those that are either red or yellow. In that case you will have to work on the different colors seperately. I will add some screeneshots later if needed.
I hoped this guide was useful, feedback is highly appreciated.
Nobody is perfect - not even a perfect fool.