One of the biggest topics of discussion in the aviation photography world is what lens to use for air to air photography. Personally, I don’t think there is one solid answer, so I am here today just discussing my opinions on the matter.
The 24-105mm lens, my personal favorite. I am a huge fan of the camera in tight to the subject with a huge background behind it look. Once upon a time I hated this look, but came to love it while photographing volunteers working in habitat conservation. It makes your subject, whether it’s a person or an airplane, look powerful and important. Of course, for this to work well the pilot of the subject plane is going to need to fly very close formation, so make sure he or she is a very qualified formation pilot. This look is sure to be dramatic, and will make getting sharp images with slow enough shutter speeds to get prop blur as easy as it can be without a gyro. The above image was shot with this lens at 40mm, the widest shot I can find in my catalog. Probably why it is my favorite.
The 70-210mm lens. This is the other very popular choice. While I don’t like it as well, it does have its uses in aviation photography. One of the most important in my opinion, is when you are photographing multiple planes and you want to use optical compression to deemphasize the distance between them. This is often great for formations of warbirds. It is slightly more difficult to shoot with this lens, but don’t worry, it’s not as big a difference as you might fear. The above image of the FW190 and Mustang was made with this lens for the purpose of optical compression. The focal length in use at the time was 210mm.
Other lenses. Theoretically, you could use any lens for air to air photography, at least if you can fit it in your space in the camera plane. One I use sometimes is the 100-400mm. Probably the biggest reason I do this is that my 70-210 is very old and my 100-400 is quite a bit better. However, it does have the added benefit of allowing you a bit more reach if your subject pilot won’t be flying quite as close. The above image I shot with my 100-400mm, because I decided that the presence of IS in this lens vs. my very old 70-210 was an asset I wanted on this flight. I’ve heard some say IS makes no difference in air to air photography, but personally I found a noticeably higher keeper rate.
My first opportunity to learn these things was due to Madras A2A X. 2015 will see the second iteration of this event and I suggest that if you are interested in air to air photography, you attend. The event is organized by Lyle Jansma and instructed by Scott Slocum. The Erickson Aircraft Collection hosts the event in conjunction with the Airshow of the Cascades.
Most importantly, if you get the air to air opportunity, use your own judgment, but do remember what you’ve heard from others. Photography is a creative endeavor, so your personal vision is what is most important, but your opportunities in air to air photography are probably going to be limited enough that you don’t want to fly blind – don’t want to mess up your one opportunity by taking too short of a lens and the plane is a tiny speck in all your photos.