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R/C Flying Photography Tips

SEFSD is extremely fortunate to have Frank Sutton as a member and contributor.  He has provided thousands of high quality photos and videos that are shared on our SmugMug gallery.  He puts a lot of time and effort into this so please thank him next time you see him at the field.

By Frank Sutton

               It is my hope that you, the Pilots, Families, and Friends of Silent Electric Flyers San Diego (SEFSD), enjoy viewing and sharing the photos I send to our SEFSD Editor, Steven Belknap, for publication on the SEFSD Website’s Gallery. Steven puts a lot of time and effort into not only the outstanding SEFSD Peak Charge Newsletter we all enjoy each month, but also posting the many photos that I send to him for the Website. I salute Steven and all of the SEFSD volunteers that unselfishly contribute so much towards making SEFSD the best Radio Control (R/C) Club in existence today!  Thank you!

              Steven asked if I would write an article on any tips I could share on taking photos of R/C aircraft. I told him that I am not a professional photographer (or a professional videographer for that matter), however, I would write the article because I very much enjoy taking and sharing photos and the occasional video of not only Alex’s R/C adventures, but the flying adventures of all the SEFSD Members too – and that leads me to Tip Number One!



               I’m certainly not a lawyer, but in a public area such as SEFSD Field, anyone may legally take photos and videos of others without their consent so long as they are not minors (less than 18 years of age). Be advised though, if anyone requests their photo (or video) not to be taken, do not take that person’s photo or include them in a video!

              If anyone that requested their photo not to be taken should inadvertently be included in a photo or perhaps appear in the background of a photo, then the photo must be cropped so the person no longer appears in the photo, or that photo must be deleted entirely. Similarly, video with that person should not be kept.

              You may ask the person if they’ll give permission to take photos/videos of their aircraft only (but not to include the Pilot flying the aircraft), and then respect and follow their directions.

               TIP #1A: Minors are anyone below the age of 18, and if you intend to take photos/videos of minors flying R/C aircraft (and fortunately SEFSD has quite a few young skillful Pilots representing the club’s future), please approach these young Pilots or their parents/guardians if they’re very young to obtain permission before taking any photos or video of them.

              If you intend to submit those photos/videos for publishing on the Internet/SEFSD’s Gallery, inform them of that too and then respect and follow their directions.

               TIP #1B: While taking photos/videos of Pilots and aircraft, do not disturb the Pilots flying their aircraft!

              I highly recommend using a zoom lens because the focal length is variable and will allow for good photos of Pilots and aircraft both near and far.

              A fixed short focal length lens will not allow for close-up photos of a Pilot or aircraft far away, and a fixed long focal length lens will not allow for photos of Pilots and aircraft when they’re close by. There is a solution!

              I recommend using two cameras; one for zooming in on distant Pilots or aircraft, and the second camera for photos of Pilots or aircraft close by. Sometimes the action happens so fast there is little or no time to change the camera lens from a large zoom lens to a smaller lens and as a result, some photos might be missed entirely.

              I prefer taking candid action photos of Pilots from a distance using a zoom lens so they’re undisturbed, however, sometimes I’ll request Pilots to pose with their aircraft when they’re not flying and then use a short focal length lens or a compact digital camera for these types of close up photos.



               I’ve watched photography change drastically over the years, and it’s changed very much for the better.  Some of SEFSD’s youngest Pilots may have never heard of the Kodak Polaroid camera; it was the new high-tech camera way back in the mid-1960’s. The Polaroid camera would spit out a photo immediately after taking a picture, then the photo’s “cover” was peeled off a couple of minutes later to reveal the color picture. This camera could take and “instantly” print up to eight photos before reloading again. I remember my parents taking photos of my brother and I on a Christmas Day when I was about only 7 or 8 years old, and then they would show us the photos just a few minutes after taking them. It didn’t matter to us that most of the photos were not very clear, or some did not turn out very well at all; my brother and I were amazed at this new technology! For our family, those instant pictures were a huge part of the Christmas Magic! I probably got my life-long interest in photography that very Christmas!

              Perhaps our younger Pilots have never heard of “film” photography. The camera film would be purchased rolled up in a small plastic or metal canister to create either photos or “slides”. I never did slides because that required a slide projector to view the photos after they were developed and mounted in the slide format.

              Most film canisters were good for either 12, 24, or 36 photos at ever increasing dollar costs, of course. A variety of film sensitivities were available as well; 100 ISO, 200 ISO, 400 ISO, etc. Higher International Standards Organization (ISO) numbers indicated the film was more sensitive to light (i.e., a higher ISO number film was used for low light situations, or for faster shutter speeds to catch quick movement such as a speeding R/C jet; and there are plenty of those flown by SEFSD Pilots too! After purchasing and installing the film canister into the camera, the camera was ready to shoot photos. When the last frame on the film was shot, the film had to be rewound back inside the canister before the camera could be opened to remove the canister with the film rolled up within it.

              I then would deliver the exposed film canister to a photo-developing business similar to WalMart (but in those days, there were no WalMarts!). I didn’t have to pay to drop off film to be developed and printed, but it was often quite an expense when I returned a few days later to pick up the printed photos depending on how many rolls of film I’d dropped off and if I’d ordered single or double prints for each photo.

              In those days, photographers paid for the camera, paid for the film, and then paid for the film to be developed and the photos printed. If the photographer wanted to share more of the photos, perhaps to mail copies of them to distant friends or relatives, then the film’s negatives had to be returned to the photo developer for reprints and/or enlargements to be created, and naturally, this could also get very expensive!

              By the way, Polaroid cameras and Polaroid photo 8-packs are still available for purchase through some camera specialty stores and on the Internet, but I don’t understand why anyone would want to use them today. The same is true for film cameras, canister film, and film developing and photo printing. Those were the days, and I’m super happy to now be using digital cameras – and that leads me to TIP Number Two!



               Now that you understand how photography used to be done beginning in the 1960’s and for the next twenty-five to thirty years or so, I highly recommend not doing it that way!  Today’s modern digital cameras are light-years ahead of Polaroid and film canister cameras, and considering the savings of not having to purchase film canisters and then paying for the film to be developed and printed, photography with digital cameras is actually much less expensive than those older non-digital camera systems.  Additionally, a digital photo can be sent to friends and relatives at the speed of light via E-Mail at no additional expense, not even the cost of an envelope or stamp is required!

              There are so many things our Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) CANON Rebel T7 camera (with a 75 – 300 mm lens) is capable of doing, I still don’t understand or use most of the available features. The same can be said for our Olympus Tough T-5 Underwater Compact Digital Camera.

              With so many technological photographic improvements over the years, I believe the future has finally arrived but I wonder what photography and R/C Aviation too might be like in another thirty years or so?  No doubt, still much more improved!  I’m still waiting for the “Jetsons” flying, foldable, UFO-car in a briefcase (for our young Pilots, “Google” it!).

              If you’re a non-professional photographer and enjoy taking photos just like myself, you’ll probably use the basic automatic settings for most photos too and only sometimes switch to one of the many available “manual settings” for special situations such as photos at night. I’ve enjoyed experimenting with my cameras to see what the different mode settings can and cannot do; you may enjoy trying different settings as well.  For anything you want to learn more about your camera or don’t thoroughly understand, read through the camera’s Owners Manual, search Google, or search YouTube.  Odds are very good you will find Google articles or YouTube videos that thoroughly explain whatever it is you are wanting to know more about.



               I know Apple, Samsung and other companies all advertise they have outstanding cameras built into their latest cell phones, and they’re great to use when a DSLR or compact digital camera is not readily available.  Cell phone photo quality is now almost as good, or maybe even slightly better, than an inexpensive compact digital camera.  The plain truth, however, is compact digital cameras and cell phones simply cannot produce the higher quality photos and video that a DSLR or the newer (and more expensive) DSLR Mirrorless camera systems can provide.

              Cell phones also have an extremely limited selection of accessories, if any are even available.  Cell phones are not capable of exchanging lenses, flash systems, etc. as can be easily done with DSLR cameras.  As a result, the photographer is much more restricted in the types and quality of photos and video taken with a cell phone as compared to a DSLR camera.  With modern cameras, in most cases better digital quality (higher number of pixels) will provide better quality photos – and that leads me to TIP Number Three!



              If a photo is not in focus, there is little that can be done to salvage the photo unless it is going to be some sort of an artistic abstract photo.  A photo of a R/C plane close by may be large and fill the photo’s frame, but if it is not in focus then I will delete the photo.  Similarly, a photo of a R/C plane very far away may be very small in the photo’s frame, but if the plane is in focus that photo may be enlarged by cropping to reveal a full-sized clear and crisp photo.

              Probably 95% of the time or more I use Auto Focus (AF) on my Canon DSLR because it is so much faster and more accurate than I could ever hope to get by manually focusing on a speeding plane, drone, or helicopter passing by.  The Canon DSLR can very quickly be changed from AF to MF by a simple switch on the body of the camera lens itself. The compact Olympus doesn’t have the option to use Manual Focus (MF), it is constantly set to Auto Focus.

              Auto Focus is not always the best setting to use. I don’t use AF when I’m trying to shoot a photo through the SEFSD Field’s protective fence of aircraft on the runway because the camera’s AF will focus on the fence, not on the aircraft beyond the fence.  I can quickly switch the Auto Focus (AF) to Manual Focus (MF) and turn the focus dial on the camera lens to bring the aircraft on the other side of the fence into sharp and clear focus, and by doing so the diamond pattern of the fence simply fades away as if the camera suddenly developed X-ray Vision!

                All DSLR cameras and many compact digital cameras such as the Olympus T-5 have changeable “Point of Focus” settings in the camera’s menu to enable the camera to focus on a certain position in the photo frame.  The camera may be set to focus, for example, in the direct center of the photo frame, center-right, center-left, upper-right, etc.  I prefer the focus to be set in the direct center of the frame.

              I also don’t use Auto Focus if I’m shooting photos at one particular point, such as when R/C airplanes are racing around a pylon flag.  Instead, I switch to Manual Focus and focus very carefully on the pylon flag itself, then I zoom in even closer to capture photos of the planes flying very near the pylon as they go around it.  These planes will be flying through the preset field of focus.  With luck, at least some of the photos taken will be sharp and clear as a plane flies through that field of focus, and those would be the ones I submit for the SEFSD Website!  Remember, it doesn’t cost anything extra to take more photos with digital photography!


              On a very busy flying day at SEFSD Field, especially those days that begin with a competition of some type, I’ll shoot 300, 400, perhaps 500 or more photos!  Of course, many of those photos will be very similar because I set my camera’s shutter to auto-shoot rapidly for as long as my finger is depressing the shutter button.  I’ll look through the camera’s viewfinder and track an aircraft with my camera as I shoot a series of photos when an aircraft takes off, passes by in the air, or comes in for a landing.  After uploading the photos to the computer I will closely inspect each photo on the large monitor so I’m able to easily and clearly see all the details that I couldn’t see in the camera’s very small display screen.

              Like cell phones, digital cameras show photos in the camera’s very small display screen after the photo was taken.  If the photo doesn’t look right in the camera’s display, it is likely not going to look right on your computer’s monitor and the photos can be deleted in the camera.  I’d strongly recommend waiting and not deleting any photos in the camera without first viewing them on a computer.  When I’m looking at the larger photos on the computer I choose the best focused and most interesting photos to keep, then delete the rest.

              I never know exactly what the camera actually recorded until I upload the photos to the computer for a better look, and often I’m surprised at what the camera has captured!  Almost always I’ll make at least one or more modifications to the digital photos after they’re on the computer by performing some Adobe Photo “Magic” – and that leads me to TIP Number Four!



              After inspecting the photos on the computer and deleting those that are not going to be saved, use digital photo software to make an “OK” photo look better, and a good photo look great!   Special effects can also be added to digital photos if desired.   I very rarely keep a photo exactly as it was taken without making some sort of a modification to it using my Adobe Photoshop Elements Version 11, and this digital photo software was first sold in September of 2012.  Of course, there have been numerous upgrades since 2012, but it still works fine for me so I don’t feel the need to upgrade.  There are many outstanding digital photo software programs available, and I most strongly recommend you purchase and install a quality digital photo software program on your computer so you too may edit the photos to look better than they were originally and bring out those “hidden” features the camera recorded.

              These are the most common modifications I make on the photos I save, whether the photos are for submission to the SEFSD Website or simply for our family’s collection……

               TIP #4A: CROP YOUR PHOTOS IN THE 16 x 9 RATIO – OPTIONAL.

               The first modification I make to a digital photo is alway cropping, that is, I’ll “reframe” the photo.  Sometimes I won’t crop a photo, but the vast majority of the time I do, even if just slightly.  I like to crop photos into the 16 x 9 ratio to match the 16 x 9 frame dimensions of my computer’s monitor.  This is also the same ratio that is used for cinematic movies and flat screen televisions.   Very rarely I will use an alternate ratio, but sometimes I may depending upon the subject in the photo.  Sometimes I combine this step with the next step too.              


                 I set my Adobe Photoshop software to display two vertical and two horizontal lines that form a grid of nine blocks when viewing a digital photo on the computer.  I then use this pattern to horizontally align the photo so it is even with the horizon – if at all possible, and then I use the grid pattern to crop the photo using the “Rule of Thirds”.

              First ensure the photo is oriented with the horizon; photos that look like they were taken by the producers of the original “Batman” TV Show at a crazy angle don’t look so good for R/C aviation photos (for our young Aviators, do a “Google” image search to see what I’m talking about!).  In other words, you don’t want to show the Sea World Tower leaning like the Tower of Pisa; it should be exactly vertical straight up and down!

              I ensure the photo is oriented correctly by using something vertical in the background as a vertical guide such as the Sea World Tower, the side of a far away building, one of the SEFSD Field fence posts or table support posts, or even the Shell Gasoline sign sticking up out of the ground in the far distance; anything perfectly vertical in the photo.  Move the grid around on the computer screen until a vertical grid line is aligned parallel with one of these vertical items in the background, then crop the photo as large as the frame will allow and save the aligned photo.  This method will ensure the horizon is  perfectly level.

              Sometimes I don’t need to level the photo because I got lucky, but most of the time, even if I try very hard to shoot level, I’ll later discover on the computer that I may have been holding the camera leaning just a bit to the right or left.

              If I’m cropping a flying airplane with a blue sky and maybe white clouds in the background, I’ll reposition the frame around the plane using the “Rule of Thirds”.   Unless the plane will fill the photo frame, for best results position the plane in the upper or lower third of the frame, and/or the right or left third of the frame.  I don’t know exactly why this works, but it does seem to make photos more interesting or more realistic.

              For example, if I’m cropping an airplane coming in for a landing with buildings and sky in the background, I’ll reposition the frame around the plane and background so that the photo is divided into thirds.   I’ll reposition the photo vertically so one third of the photo will be open sky, and the lower two thirds will have a non-sky background.  I’ll also reposition the frame horizontally so one third of the photo on the left side will have the plane on final approach and the right two-thirds of the photo will be background, or vice versa.

              Rarely will I center an aircraft directly in the center of a frame, or split the background with the sky 50/50 right along the center horizontal line of a photo, but sometimes I purposefully do that too depending on the photo.


               After cropping the photo for horizontal/vertical and “Two Thirds” alignment, I adjust the shadows by brightening or darkening the photo with the “Shadows” adjustment.   Next I adjust the highlights with the “Highlights” adjustment.  Lastly, I adjust the midtones with the “Midtones” adjustment.

              I prefer to see bright photos with plenty of highlights and details of the aircraft and sometimes details for the background as well, and by working these three adjustments the photo may be significantly modified and improved.  The camera caught the fine details, but the software brings out those details so they’re more easily seen!

              On those very few dark and overcast flying days that fortunately we only sometimes experience, photos of planes may turn into more of a silhouette than an actual photo of a plane.  These types of days are the most difficult to get good photos of flying aircraft.  On days like this, the Shadows/Highlights/Midtones adjustments won’t bring out the details because they’re hidden too well by the darkness contrast.  As a result, I sometimes will make the silhouette even darker by using and reversing the very same Shadows/Highlights/Midtones adjustments to intentionally darken the photo even more.  The results often are a pretty cool looking silhouette and cloud formations!

              Don’t forget to save the photo again after making these adjustments too!              

               TIP #4D: ENHANCE COLORS – OPTIONAL.

               After adjusting the Shadows/Highlights/Midtones for a photo, I almost always select the “Enhance Color” and “Auto-Fix” adjustment just to see how the photo looks with this color enhancement. Sometimes I like the effect, sometimes I don’t.   If I like it, I’ll save the photo after enhancement.  If I don’t like it, I’ll exit the “Enhance Color” without saving the photo and the photo reverts back to the last time it was saved.  The “Enhance Color” also has three color bars that may also be used to manually enhance the color of the photo; those enhancements being 1) Hue, 2) Saturation, and 3) Lightness.  I hardly ever use the Enhance Color adjustment manually.

               TIP #4E: SHARPEN PHOTO – OPTIONAL.

               After enhancing the color of the photo (or not), occasionally I may sharpen the photo to some degree by using the “Sharpen Photo” adjustment.  When selected, a sliding bar using the cursor will sharpen the photo when it is slid from left to right.  Usually if the bar starts getting slid past the half-way point, the photo’s pixels start to show and the photo may begin to have a “grainy” look to it and that is something I try to avoid.  If used well, however, the “Sharpen Photo” adjustment can help make writing or graphics on a plane clearer and more easily read and seen.   If used, save the photo and if not used, simply exit the “Sharpen Photo” adjustment without saving.


               Whenever saving photos on a computer, save them in whichever format you desire.   I save photos in the Joint Photographic Experts Group “jpeg” format, however, there are several other standard formats available.

              Regardless which format you save your photos, I most strongly recommend saving them with the maximum quality your photo software allows.  Of course, the higher the quality of your photos, the more memory will be required to store them, but the quality of your photos will be as good as they can possibly be!  You can always upgrade a computer’s memory later, but once a photo is saved at a lower quality setting it cannot be restored to the higher quality it was originally.

              Lastly, always backup your photos on another computer, or USB flash drives, or a “Cloud” such as SmugMug where our SEFSD Gallery photos are stored.  If all of your photos are stored on your computer’s hard drive and nowhere else, you are risking the catastrophic loss of all your photos (and anything else you’d not want to lose!) not if, but when the computer’s hard drive eventually fails.  I have all my photos backed up three ways: on external hard drives, on many USB flash drives, and also on the “Cloud” via I-Drive (I-Drive is very inexpensive and secure!).  In a disastrous catastrophe such as our home burning down or an earthquake, I want to protect our photos for not only our own future viewing but for future generations to see too!  I definitely would not want to lose the tens of thousands of photos of my travels around the world for the Navy and family over the past many years.

               I hope this article has been entertaining, informative, and perhaps inspires you to shoot some R/C aviation photos, of course, when you’re not flying your own aircraft!  I encourage you to get a good camera, install some digital photo software on your computer, and try photography for yourself!  All of the photo adjustments I’ve mentioned are completely optional, and you may be happy with your results without any sort of “post production” editing on a computer.   Get out there and go take some photos of whatever interests you, experiment, and have fun!  Be warned though, just like R/C Aviation, it could turn into a fun habit that is very hard to break!

               My family and I would like to thank you, our Friends and Pilots of Silent Electric Flyers San Diego, for the countless hours of fun and flying you have made possible for myself, “Aviator” Alex, my Sweetheart Joan, and Alex’s younger brother, Codey.   Without such an outstanding organization and wise leadership, I truly don’t know what we would be doing on so many weekends past and future.

              I and my family salute each and every one of you!              

               Thank you!


Frank Sutton

(Hobie Sutton Studios)

Member, SEFSD