An Airborne Romance


31 exposures shot at f/11, were stacked to show the 10–11pm outbound crunch at the San Francisco International Airport. Photograph/Terence Chang

31 exposures shot at f/11, were stacked to show the 10–11pm outbound crunch at the San Francisco International Airport. Photograph/Terence Chang

Terence Chang discusses photographing light trails made by airplanes and falling in love with their powerful flights.

This article was originally published in October 2011.

My Assignment

  • Description To capture the movement of planes as they streak across starry skies and landscapes.
  • Duration An ongoing project, which I started shooting six years ago.
  • Notes You can get better photos if the planes are not facing you, since their forward-facing lights are too bright.

One night, I was photographing boats at a marina or a small dock. Since the marina was near an airport, each photograph had trails of light made by planes, in the background. So, I tried shooting a plane moving across the sky, reflected in the water. I could see some poetry in the photo, and I decided to explore these fascinating light trails further.

My Perspective
While photographing this series, I realised that I enjoyed watching planes take off. There is a sense of romance to jet travel and a drama to the entire process. When I was manually controlling the shutter, I would try to judge when the planes would move out of the frame or fade from view. At other times, this project was just a matter of waiting and contemplating.

The Process
The crucial thing about these photos is the framing. I have to estimate the curves that the trails will make and fit them in the frame accordingly. If I zoom in too much, then the trails will appear too straight and if the shot is unnecessarily wide, then the trails will be thin and weak.

To estimate the final exposure, I make some test shots at 30 seconds and f/5. Then, I use a remote release and shoot an exposure of about two minutes. Alternatively, I make several shorter exposures to record the flight of each plane, which I combine using a process called stacking. If the amount of light pollution in the frame suddenly seems to increase, I stop the exposure.

After this, the image needs to be fine tuned on Photoshop. I sometimes use Layer Masks and HDR techniques to minimise glare and ensure that the background is exposed properly.

My Equipment: I made these photos with a Canon EOS 50D and a 17–55mm lens and a 70–200mm f/4L lens. You do not need special equipment, just some patience and the right location.

Shoot Perfect Airplane Trails

  • Do Your Legwork: Use maps and look up arrivals and departures to find out the busiest times.
  • The Ideal Location: The closest location I shot at, was a public park. Do not trespass any property or break any laws.
  • Look for Takeoffs: Usually, landing trajectories are too similar and slow.

To view more of Terence’s photographs, you can visit

Tags: On Assignment, night, Low light, exposure, Tripod, long exposure, October 2011, light painting, angles, Terence Change, air