A Guide to Choosing the Best Camera for Plane Spotting and Aviation Photography

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Previously, I wrote about what equipment I use personally for plane spotting as well as documenting my flights, lounge visits, and so on. I also talk about what some good travel tripods are in this article.

In this article, I will talk about choosing a cameras for aviation photography and plane spotting in general.

The Basics of Digital Cameras

I am not going to get too technical in this post as that is not the point of it.

But, before I start looking at the cameras that are out there, I want to briefly mention four basic properties of cameras and lenses. No matter what camera you will end up buying, you will have to consider the below things at one point or another.

Resolution

When you hear people talking about megapixels, they are talking about resolution. Resolution is the “size” of the image that the camera is able to produce in pixels – “dots” that make up the photo.

For example, if a camera produces an image that is 3,000 pixels wide and 2,000 pixels high, the camera’s resolution is 6,000,000 pixels, or 6 megapixels.

A Guide to Choosing Camera for Plane Spotting and Aviation Photography
If you keep zooming a digital photo, you will be able to see its basic building element – pixel. Each of the squares in the section of the photo marked in green is a pixel.

While many camera advertisements in the past focused on the megapixel count, and some still do, the truth is that most of the cameras sold nowadays offer resolution high enough for common uses of the photos. Whether that means viewing the photos on a laptop screen or printing them in “regular” sizes.

Sensor Size

A sensor is the part of digital camera that captures light and turns it into pixels. In other words, it is what records the image – similar to film in an analog camera. In general, the larger the sensor size, the less noisy the output image will be.

That is one of the main reasons why a 12-megapixel cellphone camera might produce images of worse quality than a 8-megapixel DSLR. The cellphone camera sensor is tiny, while the DSLR one is very large in comparison.

Plane Spotting with iPhone vs. DSLR
Comparison of photos from my iPhone 6s and Canon 350D – a DSLR from over 10 years ago. You can see that the DSLR image is much cleaner and nicer, even though the camera is 10 years older than the iPhone. This is mainly due to the difference in sensor size.

There are many different sensor sizes used in digital cameras. However, when it comes to DSLRs, things are fairly standardized with the majority of sensors being either what is known as APS-C size or full frame size.

Besides having impact on the image quality, the sensor size also has an impact on what your camera actually sees. More about that will follow below.

Focal Length

While the above two terms relate to the actual camera body, focal length is a property of lenses. Technically speaking, it is the distance (generally stated in millimeters) between the lens and the sensor.

In more practical terms, however, the focal length will determine how “zoomed in” your photo will be. For example, a 24 mm lens will have a wider field of view (capturing more of the scene) than a 100 mm lens.

Crop Factor

The final term I would like to introduce before jumping into the actual cameras is crop factor.

As mentioned above, the same focal length can result in a different field of view (“zoom”) depending on the size of the sensor. Crop factor is a common way of expressing that.

The crop factor determines what focal length lens you would have to use on a full frame sensor (or standard 36 mm film) camera to get the same field of view as on a camera with a different sensor size. In other words, it specifies how much more “zoomed in” the image will appear on cameras with smaller sensors.

For example, on Canon APS-C cameras, the crop factor is 1.6 – meaning the “effective focal length” will be 1.6 times larger than the actual focal length. As such, if you used a 100 mm lens on a Canon APS-C camera, you would get the same field of view as if you used a 160 mm lens on a full frame camera.

Aviation Photography Crop Factor Effect
In this illustration, you can see how the resulting photo would differ using the same focal length on cameras with different sensor size.

 

What Type of Camera Should I Get for Photographing Aircraft?

There are basically four types of regular digital cameras: compact cameras, superzooms, mirrorless cameras, and DSLRs. The simple answer is, if you want to photograph aircraft, get a DSLR whenever you can – no matter what maker or model it is. However, continue reading to understand a bit about the advantages and disadvantages of each of the four types.

Compact Cameras

A compact camera is, as the name suggests, the smallest of the four, and it combines both the camera body and lens in one piece. Many of the cameras on the lower range of this category, also referred to as “point-and-shoot” cameras only feature simple controls and lack semi-automatic and manual modes.

Also, generally, the sensor of a compact camera is small and as such, the image quality is subpar. There are some with larger sensors, offering better image quality, but those tend to cost as much if not more than entry-level DSLRs. Furthermore, the focal lengths offered by these cameras are in the range of 20 mm to 100 mm, making it too short for many plane spotting locations.

That said, compact cameras can be very useful if you decide to document flights, airports, lounges, and so on where using a DSLR might stand out too much or be too much of a hassle to lug around.

Bridge (Superzoom) Cameras

A bridge (superzoom) camera is basically a compact camera with an extended focal length range and with functionality (in terms of controls) closer to that of a DSLR than to a simple compact.

However, similar to compact cameras, the sensors are relatively small in most cases, and in the cases they are larger, the cost of the camera comes close to or over what an entry-level DSLR would cost.

If you are, however, looking for something that you could carry around all the time easily even at the expense of a lower image quality than either of the below two types then a superzoom camera might be an option. Especially, if you are looking for something where you would not have to deal with changing lenses, cleaning sensors, and other “hassles” that come with a mirrorless or a DSLR.

Below, I picked some bridge cameras that you might want to consider.

Mirrorless Cameras

A mirrorless camera is a relatively new invention that stands between bridge cameras and DSLRs. As the name suggests, the cameras do not have a mirror box which makes them smaller than DSLRs. At the same time, however, the cameras have the ability to change lenses.

Furthermore, recently, more and more mirrorless cameras are featuring APS-C sensors meaning that their image quality is more or less on par with DSLRs. Also, besides working with lenses specifically made for them, they can oftentimes be used with a combination of an adapter and a DSLR lens.

As such, if you are looking for image quality close to that of a DSLR, but something that is more compact and easier to lug around, a mirrorless camera might be for you.

Below, I picked some of the popular mirrorless cameras that you might want to consider getting.

DSLR Cameras

A DSLR camera features an optical viewfinder and the ability to change lenses, and is the type of camera that is used in most professional settings. On top of that, DSLRs feature relatively large sensors – generally, either APS-C or full frame size.

Perhaps the most important distinction between the camera types above and a DSLR is the optical viewfinder.

Instead of seeing a digital image of the scene to be taken on the camera screen, with a DSLR, you can see the actual scene as if you were looking through binoculars. This results in zero lag between what is happening in front of the lens and what you see, and as such is very beneficial when photographing fast moving aircraft.

Besides the actual camera body, the lens you use with the DSLR will have an impact on the image quality. While later on, you might want to add new lenses to your equipment collection, in the beginnings, I suggest you to get a DSLR “kit” that comes with a body and a lens or two.

In most cases, an entry-level DSLR with a kit lens will result in photos that are of higher (technical) quality than those taken with similarly priced bridge cameras or even mirrorless cameras. Thus, there are very few cases in which I would recommend you getting anything else than a DSLR if you are considering pursuing aircraft photography.

Below, I picked some of the popular DSLR camera kits that you might want to consider getting.

Frequently Asked Questions About Cameras for Plane Spotting

Should I Get an APS-C or a Full Frame DSLR?

While a full frame DSLR will produce less noisy, the quality of images made with an APS-C camera is more than sufficient in most major situations with the major exception being low light situations.

As such, in the beginnings – especially if you are on a budget, I suggest you start with an APS-C camera.

Should I Go for a Canon or Nikon (or Even Something Else)?

This is an endless debate whether when choosing cameras in general or when choosing a camera for aviation photography. I am not going to talk about it much though.

It does not really matter whether you get a Canon or a Nikon, or a Sony, or a… They will both offer great image quality. And in the end, no matter what kind of a DSLR you get, the results will largely depend on your skills.

What Lenses Will I Need to Start with Plane Spotting?

In your beginnings, I believe the kit lenses that you can buy together with DSLR bodies are more than enough on the shorter (wider) end.

The key, however, is that for plane spotting, you will want not just a wide angle lens, but also a tele photo lens that will help you “zoom in” on the aircraft which might be quite far depending on the location you photograph from.

If you decide to get a camera with an APS-C sensor, I suggest you look for zoom lenses offering at least 200 mm on the longer end. On the other hand, if you are going for a full frame camera, you will probably want at least 300 mm on the longer end.

Below, I picked some of the popular telephoto zoom lenses for both Nikon and Canon cameras.

What Accessories Do I Need to Get for My Camera for Aviation Photography?

I will not go deep into accessories here. However, the absolute minimum you will have to get are memory cards. Most entry-level cameras use SD cards. Some higher-end DSLRs may also use Compact Flash cards.

The other thing that you should definitely get are spare batteries. While not mandatory, it is always better (just as with memory cards) to have a spare or two than to run out during a shoot.

Finally, you will likely want to get a camera bag that will make it safe and easy to carry around your equipment. More about camera bags in a separate article, though.

Plane Spotting Cameras Summary

You can do plane spotting and take aircraft photos (or any photos for that matter) with any camera ranging from an iPhone all the way to a $10,000 DSLR, and you should not let lack of equipment or a “good” camera discourage you from starting with aviation photography.

However, if you plan to do plane spotting long term, I recommend getting at least an entry-level DSLR. Besides being faster due to the optical viewfinder, having better quality compared to most compact cameras, and so on; it will give you the ability to change lenses and thus photograph at the largest possible range of focal lengths and to upgrade your equipment one piece at a time.

If you have any questions or additional tips about picking the right camera for plane spotting, let me know in the comment section below.

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