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How I Nailed the Shot (3): Tips for Stunning Images of Airplane Smoke Trails

Whether it’s a condensation trail (“contrail”) or vapour trail that aircraft normally leave behind, or smoke trails from aerobatics, the trails left by aircraft can make stunning images. The key to creating a dramatic picture of such trails is in the backlight and white balance settings. Here are some tips from a professional aviation photographer, using examples of smoke trails from aerobatics. (Reported by: Eisuke Kurosawa)

Blue Impulse aerobatic smoke trails, shot with the EOS 5D Mark IV

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM/ FL: 58mm/ Aperture-priority AE mode (f/11, 1/2,000sec, EV -1.0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight
Post-processing: WB increased to 5,400K; Colour cast correction: +16


Use backlighting so that the smoke trails look three-dimensional

The shooting method I employ for aerial photographs of Blue Impulse (Japan's aerobatic demonstration team) in action varies according to the season. For example, in winter, the skies above Japan are crisp and clear, so during that period, I tend to take photos from somewhere slightly further away than usual. The clear air makes it possible to capture the background scenery and the airplane in the same frame.

When taking such shots, I consciously shoot photos that combine the beauty of the natural landscape with that of the trails. When exposed to oblique backlighting, the smoke trails look more three-dimensional, so I try to shoot during the timeframe when the light changes colour following sunrise. For this image, I adjusted the WB to bring out the faint orange colour in the sky. This is so that the eyes of the viewer will be drawn not only to the smoke trails but also to the landscape.

I have found that while front lighting can depict the lines of smoke trails beautifully, backlighting creates photos that look more dramatic.

For more information about lighting angles, check out:
 [Lesson 14] Knowing Your Light Rays

You might also be interested in the following article:
Decisions in Landscape Photography: Front Light or Backlight?


Failed shot: During the daytime, the three-dimensional appearance of the trails is less prominent

Flat, 2-dimensional smoke trails

EOS-1D Mark II/ FL: 21mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 1/500sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Manual
Smoke trails, when shot during the daytime with top lighting, appear white and beautiful. However, they have less of an impact in this shot, compared to the main image where they were photographed in backlight and look more three-dimensional. 

Increase the colour temperature slightly to depict the colour of the morning sky

In order to depict the wondrous red-tinged morning sky, I set the white balance to ‘Daylight’ for the shoot so that the camera expresses the colour as I see it. During RAW post-processing, I corrected the colour cast by increasing the colour temperature from 5000K to 5400K, to better reproduce the colour which I had envisioned.


Morning sky, shot in sunlight

After white balance adjustment

Image of the morning sky after adjusting the white balance during RAW image post-processing

Refer to the following articles for more information about white balance.
Camera Basics #6: White Balance
White Balance Basics to Achieve Your Desired Colour Tone!
Create a Cool, Serene World with Water Reflections and White Balance


Tip: When the air is clear, you should plan to shoot from far away

Golden hour telephoto shot of airplane smoke trails, shot with the EOS 7D Mark II

EOS 7D Mark II/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 286mm (458mm equivalent)/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 1/4,000sec, EV-1.0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Manual
This photo was specifically taken at a location where the sea sparkles, illuminated by the morning light. Being some distance away allowed me to capture the shadow of smoke trails reflected in the sea, which makes for a more impressive photo.


I believe that in order to create your best work, you need to accurately judge the weather conditions and set up your shooting plan accordingly. For example, in Japan, the air is clear during winter, so I know that at that time of the year, I can shoot from further away than I normally would, and still be able to capture a clear, wide shot of an entire scene that would result in a beautiful landscape photo like the ones above.

You may also be interested in: How to Photograph Steam, Smoke, and Vapour Trails


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Eisuke Kurosawa

Eisuke Kurosawa

Born in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture on 20th November 1970, Kurosawa began photography after encountering the T-2 Blue Impulse team at a young age. With the aim of becoming a professional photographer, he enrolled in a photography college and joined a publishing company upon graduation, mainly photographing cars, covering races, and carrying out studio photography. In 1999, he started working as a freelance photographer in the field of aviation. He has photographed for the official Blue Impulse pamphlets, and produces specialist aviation magazines and aviation calendars.