How to photograph the US Navy Blue Angels... or any fighter-jet for that matter / by Ian Timberlake

The F/A-18 Super Hornet can hit speeds over 1,000 mph and has the ability to take off a runway and exceed 40,000 ft altitude in less than a minute. The numbers are impressive. While the United States Navy Blue Angels utilize these birds to demonstrate their prowess in the air, they certainly don't red-line at an airshow or flyover, giving you a little relief regarding red-lining your camera's functions. With that said, photographing the Blue Angels is like shooting clay pigeons, only faster. 

 United States Navy Blue Angel #5, piloted by Navy Lieutenant Tyler Davies at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Yes, this was shot from the ground. Taken at 400mm, 1/2500th sec, f/5.6, ISO 125.

United States Navy Blue Angel #5, piloted by Navy Lieutenant Tyler Davies at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Yes, this was shot from the ground. Taken at 400mm, 1/2500th sec, f/5.6, ISO 125.

Location

Pretty simple here. Try and get a high vantage point and as close to the action as possible. The Blue Angels play to the crowd, where 99% of the audience are at a low vantage point, so it's not the end of the world if you can't get a high vantage point as the team will maneuver in ways to still look amazing. Nevertheless, try and get as close to their level as possible. 

You can certainly get creative with this by finding a location with an interesting foreground, like a waving American flag. Or an interesting background, like a skyscraper. Or both! (That'll require some pretty good mastery of depth of field).

I'll scout out in advance using Google Maps with the "Terrain" setting turned on. I'll use that alongside Google Earth so that I can get a 3D view of these locations. Scouting your location is probably the most important step to get a great photo. 

Camera and Lens

I've got to include this because the most common question is "what camera and lens do you use"? It doesn't really matter what you use so long as you understand what you have and how to manipulate it to your advantage. I've printed and framed several photos I've taken from my cell phone and nobody but me would know. I just played to the cell phone's advantage by knowing it had a very large aperture, wide angle field-of-view, and no ability to zoom while maintaining quality. 

Regarding the Blue Angels: There's many variations. If you want a real close up shot, you'll need a very long lens and therefore a camera that can achieve shutter speeds into the thousandths (most can). If you want a wider shot with a cool foreground and/or background, then you'll want a wider lens, which is more forgiving on the settings. Some might say a camera with "rapid-fire" shooting is best; it certainly helps increase your odds of getting the composition you want but is not necessary. 

The best photos are going to be the ones that provide a perspective unique to most people... "composition", which is independent of camera gear. 

Shutter Speed

Bear with me on this one. 

The "speed" of a lens is almost always colloquialized by the photography community to mean the size of the aperture; the bigger the aperture, the more light can hit the sensor allowing for a faster shutter-speed. What is a little less talked about, regarding speed, is that the shorter the focal length of a lens (wider angle), the more forgiving it is with faster moving objects. You'll mostly come across this when trying to figure out how to photograph the night sky, with or without star trails.  

There's a lot of optical math involved to asses what is considered "blur". What is the acceptable number of blended pixels before accusing yourself of creating a blurry photo? Lets think about it with stars. If you have a star that exists only as a single pixel on your sensor, how long can your shutter be open before that one pixel turns into two pixels, three, as the Earth continues to rotate?

Your sensor size doesn't change and each sensor has a fixed number of pixels available to accept light information, obviously. If you have a wide angle lens, more "stuff" in the real world gets crammed onto your sensor because there's more peripheral information taken in by the lens glass... as an example, a wide angle lens will capture one of the US Navy Blue Angels along with the entire sky and Earthly foreground around it. The jet will occupy a small percentage of the pixels available on the camera sensor because the lens glass is directing so much other light to the same sensor.

Alternately, a narrow lens will still take a photo with the same number of pixels available on your sensor but it's excluding more of the "stuff" that surrounds your subject, in this case, a Blue Angel in the sky. The subject in a narrow lens occupies a higher percentage of the available pixels on the sensor. 

Hopefully this is making sense. The round about difference (in this context) between a wider and a more narrow lens is as such: With a wide angle lens, an US Navy Blue Angel jet takes longer to fly across your sensor because each individual pixel on your sensor reads more physical space in the real world, so each pixel of the jet can cover more real world distance before it traverses to the adjacent pixel on your camera's sensor. With a fixed number of pixels on your sensor, the jet takes more time to traverse your sensor. This also means a longer shutter speed can be used before one pixel of the jet traverses to the adjacent pixel. With a narrow lens, the opposite is true, which means your shutter speed needs to be faster than how quickly one pixel of the jet traverse to the adjacent pixel. 

If you want to photograph the Blue Angels (or any jet) at higher magnification, you'll need a significantly faster shutter speed. If you have a zoom lens, you'll need to remember this as you change the focal length.

The top image was shot at 1/2500th of a second at 400mm while the below image has a shutter speed of 1/800th of a second at 100mm. In both images they were traveling approximately the same speed. As a result of the necessary high shutter speed, you need to accommodate the exposure by having the aperture wide enough and/or the ISO sensitivity up higher (under similar lighting conditions). A bright sunny day makes a huge difference as it allows you to keep your ISO as low as possible, have your aperture set to it's optimized sharpness, and fast enough to keep the jet tack sharp.

 United States Navy Blue Angels in delta formation flying over the United States Naval Academy Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium during the graduation and commissioning ceremony. Taken at 100mm, 1/800th sec, f/4.5, ISO 100. 

United States Navy Blue Angels in delta formation flying over the United States Naval Academy Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium during the graduation and commissioning ceremony. Taken at 100mm, 1/800th sec, f/4.5, ISO 100. 

Aperture

I'll keep this short and sweet. You'll likely need the aperture to be as open as possible if you're shooting at a really high shutter speed. To be careful, it is possible in various Blue Angel formations to not get all planes in focus if the aperture is too big and they aren't in a very tight formation. As a rule of thumb, don't go below f/4.5, go up from there as needed while still appropriating enough light for a proper exposure with a faster shutter. 

ISO

The lower the better. However, I've put the ISO setting in "Auto" and adjusted the aperture and shutter speed settings as would be ideal and then monitor the ISO assigned by the camera to optimize the settings towards a lower ISO while still maintaining the quality of the shot. This method also allows me to only worry about over exposure as the Auto ISO will work to eliminate under exposure. The camera obviously has a low ISO limit, preventing the camera from accommodating over exposure beyond that limit.  

Conclusion

The USN Blue Angels are incredibly fun to shoot. Look up where they'll be in the next few months and try and get there. 

Remember:

  • Scout your location to favor higher vantage point and close to the action.
  • Know your gear; don't try and get shots that counter the optimal use of your gear.
  • Keep your shutter speed fast and in proportion to the focal length of your lens.
  • Your aperture needs to accommodate shutter speed; be careful of depth-of-field.
  • No doubt keep your ISO as low as possible.

Let me know if you have anything to add to this or have any questions. I studied aerospace engineering and used to be in the Air Force. I can nerd-out all day on this stuff. Don't forget to sign up for my email newsletter to stay updated.