Watching an air race is mesmerizing, but photographing one is a workout

With blue skies, light winds, and temperatures in the low 70s, we couldn’t have asked for better conditions for an air race than what we had in San Diego, California over the weekend. The second event in the 2017 Red Bull Air Race World Championship, held Saturday and Sunday, brought the high-speed, low-altitude action back to Southern California for the first time in eight years. We were invited by Red Bull to take part in the event (as media, of course, not pilots), where we tried out our photography skills on low-flying, fast-moving planes. The race track was set up over the bay, identified by inflatable white and red pylons that dotted the blue surface of the water. As the planes dropped over the San Diego-Coronado Bridge to enter the course at 200 knots, it was the job of the photographers stationed on the media boat to simply keep up.

For safety reasons, a 500-foot buffer zone was maintained around the race track, but the media boat was allowed the cross into this area (you can read more about the safety measures). As such, we occasionally found ourselves a literal stone’s throw away from the No. 7 pylon at the end of the course, where pilots would pull up hard into a vertical turning maneuver, the screaming engines of their aircraft momentarily drowning out every other sound. At this distance, keeping the planes lined up in a camera’s viewfinder — especially when shooting with a long lens — was incredibly difficult.

photographing red bull air race canon t7i san diego 11
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Not bringing a monopod was a rookie mistake, but we were able to consistently pull off sharp photos.

The motion from the boat rocking back and forth in the waves provided another challenge, especially as we were shooting handheld. Not bringing a monopod for the Sigma 150-600mm lens we were using was a rookie mistake, but with a little practice, we were able to consistently pull off sharp photos. It helped that we had two days of racing and a full day of practice to nail down our technique and camera settings, but shooting fast-moving subjects from a moving platform at an equivalent of 960mm never got easy.

However, this task is simpler today than it would have been a few years ago. While other members of the press were weighed down with full-frame sports cameras like the Nikon D5 and large telephoto lenses, we made due with a Canon Rebel T7i — an entry-level consumer DSLR — and the relatively compact Canon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 (amateur) and Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport (pro) lenses. We will have a full hands-on report on the gear soon, but for now, suffice it to say that we were surprisingly impressed with the results we got from an entry-level DSLR. The camera doesn’t make the photographer, but when autofocus and burst rate can keep up with the action, it sure makes things easier.

By the end of the weekend, we photographers stepped off the boat with sunburns, aching backs, and tired feet — but also with big smiles. For most, photographing an air race is a rare opportunity — for some, it’s once-in-a-lifetime. It was tremendously challenging, but equally rewarding, and made for an experience we won’t soon forget.

The Red Bull Air Race heads to Chiba, Japan, next on the 2017 circuit, while the final race will return stateside on October 14-15, in Indianapolis.

Editors’ note: We were guests of Red Bull, but all opinions are our own.