How Do You Take Good Photos of High Altitude Planes and Contrails?

Mick West

Staff member
How to YOU get your best images of high altitude planes and contrails?

With my 7D+500mm I would generally just use Shutter Speed Priority of 1/1000th, and leave the rest on auto.

I'm not sure this is the best approach, but it's been okay for my needs.

I've just got a new camera, a Nikon P900, with 2000mm equivalent zoom (my Canon was essentially 800mm). So I need to figure out how to take good photos with it. Full auto sometime gets reasonable results (distortion here is atmospheric, which can't be helped)

ISO 180, 1/500th, f/5.6, 2000mm eq, Panning IS

One thing you see a lot in Auto Mode photos of planes, and this one is no exception, is overexposure. The plane is too white. I've sometime tried to compensate of this using the exposure compensation function at -1 to -2. Probably not the ideal solution.

So I think a better solution is to do it in full manual, as the lighting condition for a plane in the sun are pretty consistent through most of the day, I think ISO 100, 1/1000th, f/5.6 should work very well.

Unfortunately it's the start of the rainy season here, so I'm stuck theorizing for the day.

Focus is another issue, which can be a bit slow on the P900, but I've not really had much luck with manual mode focussing.

Then there tripod vs. handheld. Tripod would seem to be better, but the P900 has great image stabilization.

What settings do you guys use?
I use a Fuji S4000 with 30X's zoom. For the planes, I mainly stay on full automatic. For some of the sunrise or sunset contrails, I'll drop the f-stop -1, it seems to make it easier to highlight the colors. This photo, straight out of the camera, was shot at f-5.9 and 1/320th of a second. For a $150.00 camera (including case), I don't think it does too bad.



Side note: When the heavies are flying out of LAX, they tend to be at an altitude of between 25,000 to 28,000 when they pass over, I can still hear that they are at a high thrust. I watch for them as that's my chance to get the aerodynamic trails. He was light, tonight.