PROP BLUR IS CRITICAL FOR YOUR PHOTOS OF PROPELLER DRIVEN AIRCRAFT AND HELICOPTERS by Kristoffer Pfalmer

Ch-47 in the Sierra Nevada mountains - Helicopter rotors move very slow so the shutter speed needs to be slow

Ch-47 in the Sierra Nevada mountains - Helicopter rotors move very slow so the shutter speed needs to be slow

When taking photos of aircraft that are propeller driven it is very important to not “stop the prop”.  If your camera’s shutter speed is too fast it will freeze the motion of the propeller blades.  Usually freezing the action is a good thing, but with airplanes it will look too static and lack energy.  If the airplane is in flight, then a frozen propeller will also look very wrong.  The problem for casual photographers is the fact that during bright daylight conditions the camera’s auto settings will usually make the shutter very fast to create a correct exposure.  The key in this case is to set your camera to shutter priority and then pick a shutter speed that will give the aircraft at least a little prop blur.  In my example photo you will see a small amount of prop blur, but it is enough to convey motion to the viewer.  A slower shutter speed will show the propellers completely blurred.  What is best depends on your artistic taste.  I usually start around 1/250 second and then look at the preview to see how it looks.  I will slow down the shutter if needed to get enough prop blur.

Aircraft propellers move much faster than helicopter rotors, but a fast shutter speed will still freeze the movement.

Aircraft propellers move much faster than helicopter rotors, but a fast shutter speed will still freeze the movement.

Helicopters are a special case that poses more problems because the rotors spin much slower than an airplane’s propeller.  I found when taking photos of a CH-47 that I had to slow the shutter down to 1/60 of a second to get enough rotor blur.  The problem with a shutter speed that slow is two fold: camera motion will bur the entire photo, and if the ambient light is to strong then the aperture setting my not be able to compensate for the correct exposure.  If you find it necessary to shoot at a very slow shutter speed it helps to have a steady hand – practice makes perfect with this.   For shooting in bright day light with slow shutter speeds it can help to have a neutral density filter on hand to keep the exposure correct.

In short – use shutter priority to control the degree of prop or rotor blur.

WHY I WAS FORCED TO MOVE FROM APS-C DSLR WITH ZOOMS TO FULL FRAME DSLR USING PRIMES by Kristoffer Pfalmer

Photo taken with a Pentax K-7 DSLR with a Pentax 50-135mm f/2.8.  This is the photo that sparked my desire to photograph aircraft.  Unfortunately for my pocketbook the pursuit of large fine art quality prints necessitated a progression of photography gear.   

Photo taken with a Pentax K-7 DSLR with a Pentax 50-135mm f/2.8.  This is the photo that sparked my desire to photograph aircraft.  Unfortunately for my pocketbook the pursuit of large fine art quality prints necessitated a progression of photography gear.   

Like most people I started my photography hobby with zoom lenses mounted on a crop sensor DSLR.  When I dove into the DSLR world I had no idea what I was buying, but fortunately I made some good picks right out of the gate.  My grandmother had been a Pentax shooter in the 70’s, so I decided to go with a Pentax K-7 because of it’s weather proof body and pro features.  Along with the kit 18-55mm zoom I purchased aPentax 12-24mm ultra wide f/4 zoom and a fast f/2.8 50-135mm Pentax telephoto.  Luckily I had enough money to purchase some premium glass, although I had no clue how I was going to use it.  Over the next few years I found that I pretty much only used the ultra wide angle lens and the telephoto.  I may have not used the standard zoom lens because it lacked the high quality fit/finish and feel of the other two higher quality zooms, but I would like to think that I used the ultra wide and telephoto focal lengths for artistic reasons.  Eventually I upgraded to a Pentax K-5 DSLR because the much better Sony sensor gave significantly improved dynamic range – although that is a topic for another post.  Even after the camera body upgrade I had little desire to expand my lens collection because the 12-24mm and 50-135mm were so good and seemed to meet all my needs.

 

During this time I found a passion in aviation photography and creating large prints.  Aircraft photos and aerial landscape photos intended to be printed on large media are resolution hogs.  I soon found myself fighting a battle with the RAW images ( shooting in RAW is another good topic of discussion for a future post ) getting them ready for print.  16 megapixels needs to be upsized significantly for a 30 or 40 inch wide print.  To make matters worse, photos of airplanes are very detail rich and show any loss in sharpness due to the enlarging process.  Another factor working against me is the fact that aviation enthusiasts tend to get very close to aircraft prints to inspect various parts of the planes out of curiosity.  Long story short – I needed more resolution and sharpness for my large prints.

 

D800 with a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 prime lens

D800 with a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 prime lens

At this point I need to point out that 99% of photography enthusiasts shouldn’t need to make a jump from a crop sensor to a full frame sensor at any point in their progression.  The fact is that APS-C sensors are extraordinarily good and anything over 20 megapixels is excessive for most needs – heck, anything over 12 megapixels is excessive for most needs.  I ran into one of the few situations that could really benefit from more resolution.  At the time Nikon had the highest resolution full frame DSLR on the market with the D800 that has a 36 megapixel Sony sensor in it.  Perfect, I had already found the Sony sensor in my Pentax to be EXTREMELY useful because of the massive dynamic range and I could have that same image performance with the increased resolution that I needed.

Now to a topic that is lost on many people who are getting into photography, and many who should know better – your camera body is only as good as the lens attached to it.  This has always been true, but has really been brought into focus (pun intended) with the release of Nikon’s D800/D810 and now Canon’s 50 megapixel D5S.  Any research regarding image quality from high resolution cameras will place emphasize two things: photo taking technique and lens selection.  My concern for the Pentax to Nikon transition relates to lens selection.  Which of the mind boggling array of lenses that Nikon offers should I use?

 

There are three basic categories of lenses to consider: entry level zooms, high quality zooms and prime lenses.  I had significant budget restrictions, but a need to maximize image quality.  It would be pointless to buy a 36 megapixel camera body and then slap a junk zoom on it that rendered a 16 megapixel image.  Obviously the entry level zooms are generally not going to maximize image quality, so we can cut all of those from the list.  Many of Nikon’s best zooms are capable of harnessing the resolution capable with the D800, but they are crazy expensive.  The only option remaining is prime lenses.  Primes aren’t necessarily cheap, but they are more affordable than high end zooms and they have unequalled image quality.  To fulfill my requirements I had to make the massive leap from using zooms to using a couple of primes.  That is a scary proposition for someone who never even touched a prime lens before.

 

In the end I chose two primes from Nikon’s stellar line of f/1.8 lenses.  To replicate the most used focal length of my Pentax ultra wide zoom I bought the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.8G lens and to match the most used focal length of the telephoto zoom I got the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G lens.  I also bought the 50mm f/1.8 to round out the purchase just because it is so inexpensive and I wanted to use it as a walk around lens for street photography.  For less than the cost of one quality zoom lens I was able to buy three prime lenses that produce a higher quality image than even the best pro zoom.

D800 with Nikon 28mm f/1.8 prime lens

D800 with Nikon 28mm f/1.8 prime lens

 

So you ask – how did that D800 with a few primes work out for you?  GREAT!  The images that I have taken with the new combo are way easier to prepare for printing due to the much improved resolution and sharpness.  As for usability in the field I would report that using primes can be frustrating at times, but ultimately I believe the image quality is worth the hassle.  Plus it forces you to learn what is possible with ONE focal length.  It is easier to visualize your shot prior to taking it when using a prime.  I may go into greater detail on this in a future post, but for now just know that using primes is rewarding with regard to image quality and the personal feeling of artistic creation.  Two years later from switching from Pentax to Nikon and I still own the same three prime lenses and I still don’t own a zoom.

P-51 "Sizzlin Liz" Fine Art Prints by Kristoffer Pfalmer

Ted Contri's P-51 Mustang "Sizzlin Liz" is finally making it to print from the photo shoot a year ago and the first one completed looks amazing with the second image soon to be sent to the printers!   Kristoffer Glenn Imagery is proud to have these added to the collection.    

In News! - Washington Post, USA Today, ISAP,Nevada Magazine, City of Reno, KRNV by Kristoffer Pfalmer

    Kristoffer Glenn Imagery has been featured in various publications in the last few weeks.   Most notable is the Washington Post featuring two of my King fire photos in an article online.  ISAP (International Society of Aviation Photographers) posted my Formula 1 photo shoot on their official facebook page. A 2013 Reno Air Race photo has been selected as an editor's pick for the the Great Nevada Picture Hunt, a 2014 Reno Air Race photos has been chosen by the City of Reno to be featured on their monthly "Reno Lens" photo blog post and KRNV News channel 4 has been continuing to use aerial photos taken of the King fire near Lake Tahoe.    Click on the links below to see the published photos.            

    Washington Post coverage of King Fire    

    USA Today Uber Story    

    Nevada Magazine Staff Picks    

    City of Reno "Reno Lens" blog    

    KRNV News 4 coverage of King Fire    

    International Society for Aviation Photographery