Choosing Your First Camera for Planespotting

So you're looking to start planespotting and you need a camera. There are obviously plenty of options, so many in fact that it can make your head spin. I have used 2 primary cameras for planespotting and several lens options, and have found pros and cons to both. So lets talk about what your options are and what you need to look for.

Types of Cameras

There are 2 primary types of cameras that are used for planespotting, the digital SLR and the superzoom, and I have used both types. The digital SLR (DSLR) is the digital version of the ubiquitous Single Lens Reflex cameras that have been around since the 1950s. They are largely a mix-and-match item where you assemble a body (with the sensor, display, and controls) and a lens. Within a system, both parts can largely be interchanged for others with different features. On the other hand, superzooms are essentially a point-and-shoot camera with a very large zoom range. In contrast to the interchangability of a DSLR, a superzoom is more or less an all-in-one solution. Since I started out with a superzoom, lets start there.

Superzooms: Simple and Budget Friendly

Superzooms can be a great solution if you're looking for a camera to use for planespotting. The camera that introduced me to planespotting was the venerable Canon S2IS from 2005, which was one of the early generation superzoom cameras. They are compact and relatively lightweight, and come at a price point that is very affordable. The newer models also include all of the zoom you could ever want, in the neighborhood of being equivalent to a 1200mm lens on a 35mm camera. However there are some significant shortcomings to this type of camera. A viewfinder is essential for planespotting in the mid-day sun, and only the higher-end superzooms include one with the rest using only the 2.5-3" inch screen. Furthermore, the viewfinders in these cameras are of the electronic type where the viewfinder is actually a small display. Other potential shortcomings are derived from the compact size of these cameras. As lenses and sensors shrink, the amount of light that can be captured is reduced. This can be a hurdle during the first and last hours of sunlight when some of the best pictures can be taken. Finally, the speed and functionality of these types of cameras can be somewhat limited, as they tend to be targeted at a more consumer-level crowd and the manufacturers don't want to draw to much business away from their DSLR products.  Overall, these cameras are a worthy choice for the beginner and for those on a budget. Images taken with them have and will continue to show up on the major aviation photo-sharing websites. Look to spend $300-$500 on a good quality superzoom.

Digital SLRs: More Features, More Cost

A DSLR is a great choice for planespotting, because it can provide great power and flexibility. With a DSLR, you combine a body and a lens with the features that you are looking for into an interchangeable package that can be upgraded and expanded as you see fit without needing to replace the entire system. However all of these interchangeable parts can add up to quite a large expense if you're not careful. As a long term investment though, you won't go wrong with a good quality DSLR. Probably the best way to get started with a DSLR system is to purchase a kit that includes a body, 1 or 2 lenses, and a few other goodies to help you get started. Typically, the cost of a kit will be less than that of purchasing each piece separately and can have you out shooting very quickly. A basic kit with a body, 2 lenses, and a camera bag can be found for $600-$900.  Look for one that includes a lens that goes up to 250-300mm, along with a lens that goes below 20mm.

What To Look for In a Camera and Lens

With all of the available features in a camera, what is important for a planespotter? Lets take a quick look.

  • Look at the lens first. Whether the lens you will be using is attached or interchangable, much of your camera-buying decision can be made by looking at the included or available lenses.  What is the focal length, and how does it compare to what you will need for the locations that you will be shooting from? Is there a particular lens that you want to use in the future, such as the Canon 100-400L, commonly known as the "planespotters lens."
  • Pay attention to focusing speed. A lens that is slow to focus can cause you to miss shots while the camera or lens tries to focus.  Often with an SLR lens it is the speed of the motors that are used while with a superzoom, there may be issues with the camera detecting when the image is in focus.  The best way to find a winner here is to read through online reviews and see what others are saying.
  • Find a good frame rate. Even the most entry-level DSLRs have a decent frame rate, so this is more of a superzoom issue.  You will want the number of shots that the camera can take per second to be at least 2.  Some low end superzooms have a frame rate of as much as 2 seconds per shot.
  • Get Image Stabilization. While each manufacturers term for image stabilization varies, it is a very useful feature to have, especially for a beginner.  Nearly all superzooms have this feature, while there are still many DSLR lenses available that are lacking it.  A planespotter will often take handheld shots while moving (panning) which makes image stabilization essential.
  • Look for user-friendly features. Most consumer-level DSLR bodies superzooms will have a fairly intuitive user interface that will be easy for a novice to understand and navigate. As you move away from superzooms and into the prosumer grade bodies, the interface begins to expect that you know what you're doing. If you're a photography newcomer, it is best to stick with a camera that is easy to learn.
  • Try them out in person. A camera can be a large investment, so go to a store that has several models available and see how they fit in your hands.  You may very well find that you prefer the feel or ergonomics of one brand over another.  If you can try out a display model that can be powered up, all the better.  Hold it to your eye, and take a fouple 'practice shots.' If it has an electronic viewfinder, see how clear the display is.
  • Remember that this is your camera. While planespotting might be your primary use for this camera, you will undoubtedly use it to photograph other thing as well. Avoid discounting features like wide angle lenses that you might use for non-planespotting photography or when you can get really close.
  • Don't forget the accessories. At the very least, you will need a memory card or two and a bag to carry everything around in. Both of these items can be obtained very reasonably.  Another worthwhile investment is a selection of cleaning supplies such as a lens pen and an air blower that will help you maintain top quality images.  Finally, don't forget about an extra battery pack, since a bead battery can end your day as soon as it starts.

Hopefully this has given you some direction to help you choose what camera is best for you to get started with planespotting.  While many planespotters have camera and lens selections worth several thousand dollars, that shouldn't be viewed as the entry fee.  There are plenty of worthwhile options available that will give you many hours of enjoyment for a modest investment.  Whether you choose an all-in-one superzoom or an entry level DSLR kit, with proper research you should be able to easily find a camera that will serve you well for quite some time.