You are thirsty, hungry and as you arrive home you just want to see what that shot actually looks like on your computer. Leo Theron takes you through the final step of your airshow experience.

You get home, sunburnt, tired and ready for a meal, a beer and then bed. But, as soon as I get home, I download my shoot for the day and make the backups. I also have a quick peep at some of the shots! Although I shoot RAW + JPEGS with the JPEGS on their own card as a back-up, only the RAW images are downloaded for processing, and the first keywords (e.g., Airshow, Swartkop) added during the download stage.

When you are ready to start, the first order of business is to mark all the out-of-focus, miss framed and obviously bad images for later removal.  Then, the images to be processed are marked.  If there is something especially good, that is marked as well.

It is important to note that images of aircraft are normally high in contrast, and it is important to be careful with those sliders – as it is very easy to end up with over-processed images that are actually worse than out-of-camera JPEGS.

Adobe Lightroom is my image management and processing tool of choice.

Editors and processors

When you use the tools supplied by your camera manufacturer – Nikon NX-D, Canon DPP etc, the settings on your camera embedded in your RAW image will be used to open the image – rendering it exactly like the camera JPG images when you open it on your computer. However – other tools, like DXO, Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom will not apply those settings – and you must start from scratch.

So, how do I process?

Here are some basic pointers – not editor specific – to get you going. Let’s assume we have a reasonable image, well exposed, no washed out areas or dark.

  • Histogram. Set the markers “ON” so that you can see the under- and overexposed areas.
  • White Balance. Check carefully that the WB is correct and adjust accordingly. In camera, I selected the WB – usually SUNSHINE or CLOUDY – never Auto WB, because the blue sky and will fool the camera.
  • Highlights and Shadows. This highlight slider is nearly always pulled back quite a bit – to make sure that no area is washed out. Again – check that no shadow area is blocked up.
  • Black Colouration. Carefully move the black slider to the left (more black) to assure that the image is not “dull” but has good contrast. Check that histogram.
  • Exposure and ContrastAt this stage move back to the exposure and contrast slider to assure that the important part of your image has the correct brightness AND that the histogram covers the area from left to right. If it is far out (contrast to high) you will find that the over and under ‘indicators’ in the histogram will be “illuminated”.
  • Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation. I usually add a small bit of clarity and decide if the vibrance is enough. Saturation is normally not adjusted.
  • Sharpness and Noise Reduction. You will have to study your application to know how best to sharpen and reduce noise in your images. Critical – DO NOT OVERCOOK it at this stage. Important to understand that a blue sky will easily show up noise, so you will have to handle the sky with kid gloves. Also important to note at this stage that there are special procedures to smooth the sky – however it is outside the scope of this article.
  • Lens Corrections. When shooting aircraft against a bright sky, lens aberrations show up easily – purple or green edges, for example. If your editing application handle lens profiles, use it. If your lens is not in the list, use the manual settings to remove the colour fringing – if there is any.
  • Dust Bunnies. While we are against a smooth background – and shooting with smaller apertures to get some movement into those propellers, telltale sensor marks that normally disappear in the detail of normal images will show up. Temporarily increase contrast so that you can see offenders and remove them – and do not forget to set that contrast back!
  • Crop. If you did not get the composition right during shooting, now is the time to make adjustments. Make sure your craft/centre of interest is placed in a strong position and has space to “move”. Some photographers crop before they start processing – for others it is a final activity.
  • Then the most important part – output, save (or export) a final copy and review it carefully. Go back and make those small adjustments.

This Antonov AN-2 – Little Annie – in the initial part of her take-off run. In the dusty condition of winter, the dust cloud was anticipated and I positioned to a position where it was estimated a good cloud would be well let by the setting sun. The aircraft is a historical behemoth with a 1000 hp radial engine – and it looks much better in black and white. Again – the detail in the dust and detail in the aircraft. So – be careful with that highlight, shadow and contrast sliders.

aircraft preparing for take-off
An aeroplane performing tricks in the sky.

Powered paragliders make excellent subjects. This guy decided to fly in the late afternoon with a weakening winter sun – perfect conditions for photography.The wing was lit well and the smoke was not washed out – and here more of the sky and smoke assures a different image that the craft on its own would have given.

The historical Vampire of the SAAF Museum at AFB Swartkop was photographed against an overcast sky. No hard shadows from the obscured sun, but a challenge to retain the modelling on the skin of the aircraft and to make sure the sky is not washed out.

aircraft in flight
two aircraft in flight

© Leo Theron 2018

For the two Harvards (Spammies… Spam Cans) the light was quite soft, as it was fully overcast. Increasing the contrast slightly during processing and adding a bit of clarity accentuate the colours and modelling of the aircraft. In this case, the WB was quite finicky!

This is a rough guide to get you going. Look at other images of aircraft in flight, and continue to shoot and process knowing that capability improvement is an ongoing process.