Photographing the Red Bull Air Races

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on May 21, 2008

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA – For a long weekend in May, the Red Bull Air Races made San Diego bay their home. From Friday, May 2nd through Sunday, May 4th, San Diego hosted the second of ten races scheduled for the 2008 season. With plans to make San Diego a permanent stop on the race tour, a dozen daring pilots in high-performance propeller-driven aircraft navigated the 13 tight turns marked by air-filled pylons floating on San Diego bay.


The three-day event begins on Friday with two required practice runs by all 12 pilots. Qualifying runs take place on Saturday. Sunday begins with preliminary races, moves on to semi-finals and then, to the finals where the two top pilots compete for first-place honors.

For photographers, the first two days are the easiest to photograph. Crowds on Friday and Saturday are much smaller allowing you to move around more freely. Even if you do plan to go to the Sunday event, it would be a good idea to attend the Friday or Saturday races as well. You’ll be able to learn the course and find the best angles for your photos. And you’ll be able to practice. If you’ve never photographed an air race before, the practice will make a big difference in your photos. You’ll probably find that the photos you take early on—at Friday’s training races, for example—don’t measure up to those you take later in the schedule or even later the same day. To maximize the number of keepers, practice and practice some more.


Where you stand while you photograph this race might be the most important decision you make. San Diego bay offers two vantage points: the east side of the bay along the San Diego waterfront, and the west side of the bay in Coronado. The races and practices begin early in the afternoon and during the spring, the sun will be shining pretty much from due west. The smartest move you can make is to drive over the San Diego-Coronado bay bridge to the beautiful and affluent city of Coronado. Park on the street and walk to Centennial Park in Coronado at the north end of Orange Avenue (there is no parking lot at the park).

There you’ll find a grassy area and boardwalk overlooking the beach below. If you can snag a spot up front, you’ll have a slightly elevated view of the races. Or walk down to the beach and get your feet wet. You can stay high and dry on the sand or wade ankle-deep into the bay to put yourself in front of the crowd for an unobstructed 180-degree view of the course and keep cool at the same time. If you’re really adventurous and know how to keep your gear dry, you can paddle out to the edge of the course in an inner-tube or kayak. Don’t go too far or you’ll get a visit from an aquatic security guard on a fast jet ski.

It is possible to get some good photos from the San Diego side of the bay, but if the sun is shining you’ll need to aim your camera south towards the bridge to avoid staring directly into the sun. If you’ll be attending more than one day of this race, it’s a good idea to capture some photos from this angle for the sake of diversity. There is a long pier near the end of Pacific Highway that offers an interesting, though long-distance, view of the race course. From there it’s an easy walk along the boardwalk in front of Seaport Village to the North Embarcadero. Most of the Embarcadero is closed off to reserve seating for the paid spectators, but there are many vantage points available along the way.

If the sky is overcast, as it was for the Sunday main event, all bets are off. You’ll be able to get good photos from either side of the bay.


Use a long telephoto lens. As your primary lens, choose a fast-focusing telephoto zoom. The planes will be racing on both sides of the bay so you’ll want to be able to zoom out to capture the action close to you and zoom in when the planes are on the other side of the bay. The Nikon 70-200mm AF-S VR f/2.8 or Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L or similar lens is an excellent choice. Use it with a Kenko Teleplus 300 Pro 1.4x Teleconverter for Nikon or the Kenko Teleplus 300 Pro 1.4x Teleconverter for Canon to get even closer. Some of my fellow photographers were using longer lenses such as the Nikon 500mm f/4. While you can get some nice tight shots with this lens, I would be sure to carry a shorter zoom telephoto as well.

Use high shutter speeds. Photographing the Red Bull Air Races is not much different from photographing birds—large, relatively slow-moving birds. You won’t have to worry about freezing wingtips, but you will want a fast enough shutter speed to stop the action: 1/1250 or faster. Just as with birds, you’ll find your best photos will show the plane flying towards you or across the frame, not flying away from you.

To freeze the action, you’ll want to set the camera to high-speed continuous mode. On my Nikon D300 digital camera, that gives me 6 frames-per-second. If you’re camera’s high-speed mode is slower than that—such as the 3fps on my old Nikon D70 digital camera—you’ll have to be much more careful with the timing of your shutter release. With the narrow field-of-view of a long lens, the planes can move through your frame so fast that even at 6fps, the first frame will often show part of the plane entering the frame and the next 5 frames will merely show the smoke trailing the plane as it has already flown out of frame.

You can also try some panning photos at slower shutter speeds.

Turn off vibration reduction/image stabilization. You could leave the vibration reduction (or image stabilization or optical stabilization or whatever your lens manufacturer calls it) on if you’re focusing on pylons and waiting for action to come to you. It’s difficult to time these shots properly, but they can result in some nice shots. This is where 6fps or higher will come in very handy. At this speed, I still got many photos where the first photo of the burst shows the plane entering one side of the frame while the second photo—one-tenth of a second later—shows only a trail of smoke going across the frame. I also ended up with a lot of pictures of pylons and no plane at all. Timing is everything. For the majority of your photography where you’ll be moving your lens following the action, high shutter speeds make VR unnecessary and the VR actually slows down focusing speed. You’ll be shooting at 1/1200 or above anyway and the VR isn’t necessary at those speeds.

Set autofocus to track action. Shoot wide-open with a long lens to get in tight and blur the background. I used a 70-200mm which was usually set to 200mm. I also used a 1.4x teleconverter at times to give out to 280mm. If you have a longer lens (400 – 600) you might want to use a monopod to support the weight. A tripod could be used, but there are a lot of people around to knock into it. I would take a second camera if I was shooting with a really long lens because you won’t want every shot to be so tight. In some, you’ll want to see the buildings and crowd in the background so a 70-200 on the second camera would be good.

Don’t use auto-white-balance. The haze will cause the photos to be too blue. Instead, use daylight or, if weather conditions call for it, cloudy to get more accurate colors.

Try using a polarizer on some shots. Normally, a polarizer is impossible to use when photographing fast action because you’ll be swinging your lens around and changing the angle of polarization. It’s almost impossible to adjust the polarizer quickly enough to match the angle. But, if you confine some shots to a narrow strip of the race course, the polarizer can cut through the inevitable San Diego marine-layer haze and add a lot of punch to your photos. You’ll have about three hours of photography to experiment with all sorts of different techniques.


Try to get some of these photos:

  • Close-ups of planes as they are banking vertically so that you can see the pilot’s helmet through the canopy.
  • Planes coming straight at you at high speed.
  • Planes rounding the pylons.
  • Planes clipping the pylons. This happens occasionally, so be ready for it.
  • Planes flying past the San Diego skyline. This is only possible if you’re shooting from Coronado. Capture some of the iconic buildings: the convention center with its sail-like roof, Petco Park (home of the Padres), the Emerald Plaza towers.
  • If you’re shooting from the San Diego side of the bay, get some photos of the planes flying low over the palm trees on Coronado Island.
  • Shoot some flight sequences. Shooting at a high frame rate allows you to capture some good movie-like sequences. They may not stand up on their own as individual photos, but they will look cool when shown sequentially in a a slideshow or printed overlapping each other.
  • Wide-angle photos of spectators with planes in the background.

Plan on shooting a lot of photos—and deleting a lot. I shot roughly 700 the first day and kept about 200. The second day, I kept 350 out of 550. I learned a lot from my previous day’s experience and limit my shooting to photos that had a better chance of becoming keepers. I noticed that even on the first day, I ended up throwing out a larger percentage of my photos from earlier in the day when I was still learning the ropes. Experience pays.

Attend more than one day. It’s free unless you want to sit in the grandstands—a bad place for photographers since you’ll be looking straight into the sun. So don’t bother buying a ticket. The practice on Friday is less crowded and, as the pilots are still learning the course, there is a good chance that one of them will clip a pylon. Saturday’s preliminaries aren’t very crowded and include some interesting entertainment between rounds. U.S. Marine helicopters and jets fly overhead and paratroopers plummet into the bay. Sunday will be the most crowded day, so arrive early to stake out a good spot.

Watch for colorful planes. The bright oranges and yellows will show up a lot better against the sky and city skyline than the gray and silver models. Avoid standing behind the pier in Coronado. It is closed during the races and will block your view. Walk up and down the beach to change your vantage point and backgrounds.

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