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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Forster

Photographing the Air Force Thunderbirds: Easier Than I Thought

Planning to photograph the Thunderbirds Show after the Air Force Academy graduation? This article provides a short guide for photographers. I'll cover what you need to know, from camera gear and settings to strategic shooting techniques and where you can see the show.

Air Force Thunderbirds Flying Over Pikes Peak

I’ve lived in Colorado Springs for over a decade. When I first moved here, I didn’t know much about the Air Force Academy. That changed quickly because my house was just across the freeway from the Academy.


One spring afternoon, I was in my yard and started hearing thunderous jet sounds. This wasn’t completely usual due to our proximity to multiple military bases. However, on this day, the sounds were exceptionally loud and persistent. At one point, a few jets flew right over my house. They were flying so low that I could see the pilots in the cockpits.


I’ve always wanted to attend an airshow, and now one was happening practically in my backyard. I later found out this was a small airshow by the Air Force Thunderbirds for the Air Force Academy graduation. That day was a surreal experience.

Air Force Thunderbirds Flying with white clouds and blue sky

Fast forward a few years, and I had bought a good camera and I determined to capture the Thunderbirds in flight. I spent some time scoping out spots online and driving around near the Academy to find a good vantage point. It wasn’t hard to find a spot—just about any parking area along I-25 is a good place to watch the show.


On the day of the shoot, I arrived early to set up. I brought a bunch of gear and wasn’t sure what I would need. After some very fast trial-and-error, I realized my best solution was not to use a tripod. I tried capturing the jets handheld, but that didn’t always work well for me. I had brought a monopod and found that it helped stabilize the shots while still allowing for quick movements.


If you are thinking about going out the photograph the Thunderbirds, listed below are some of my recommendations for the shoot.


Camera Gear

  • Camera: A camera capable of capturing photos at an exposure time of 1/5000 second. Slower exposure speeds like 1/2500 second can work, but the slower the shutter speed, the higher the chance of unsharp images.

  • Telephoto Lens: Not essential, but a telephoto lens is very helpful. The photo I captured was taken roughly 1.5 miles away at 274mm.

Air Force Thunderbirds Flying over Air Force Academy Stadium
  • Monopod: A monopod has helped me in the past. For the last show, I just captured the photos handheld and it seemed to work a bit better this time around. A tripod can work if you can pan quickly in any direction.

Camera Settings

  • Camera Mode: I typically shoot in manual mode, but you could also use ‘shutter priority’ mode.

  • Aperture: When I used anything under f/6.3, the images weren’t sharp. Most of my photos were shot at f/6.3 or f/7.1. Your results may vary based on your camera and lens.

  • ISO: This will vary based on shutter speed and aperture. Ensure good histogram readings or that your photos look bright enough. If you use Auto ISO, ensure the photos aren’t too noisy. This depends on what you want to do with your photos and your noise reduction skills.

  • Drive Mode: High-speed continuous burst mode is highly suggested. This allows for continuous shooting while holding down the shutter button.

Air Force Thunderbirds Flying in front of Blodgett Peak
  • Focus Mode: Start with auto-focus. The subjects are too dynamic for manual focus. Use a focus mode with continuous focus so your camera can lock onto moving subjects. Shoot a bunch of frames, then review and zoom in on them to check focus, adjusting your technique or settings as needed.

  • Capture Quality: I always shoot RAW, recommended if you typically post-process your photos. If you’re sharing photos straight out of the camera, JPG mode will work.

  • White Balance: Set this manually so all photos from the day have the same white balance. Something like “Daylight” or 5600K should be good for most scenarios.


Shooting Technique and Composition Tips

  • Panning: Be ready to move and shoot while panning. The jets fly at hundreds of miles per hour. If you can see the freeway, arrive early and test your settings and panning technique on passing cars. This helps you get the hang of moving your camera and body while capturing a moving object.

  • Sun Position: Pay attention to where the sun is. At certain points, the jets will fly over you, making it hard or impossible to capture with the sun directly behind them.

  • Composition: Keep an eye on good compositional techniques. Photos with a subject at the edge or on the edge of the frame typically don’t look good. Ensure good subject and background separation and an uncluttered frame to help viewers quickly understand your intended subject.

  • Special Maneuvers: Keep an eye out for special maneuvers, like when jets separate and then come back together. They come quickly but can be interesting to capture.

Air Force Thunderbirds Flying with clouds in sky

Where Should You Go?

If you’re lucky enough to get access to the Academy, there are probably good vantage points there. For most people, I recommend being within a few miles of the Air Force Academy. The closer, the better, as the main parts of the show are directly above Falcon Stadium.


A few specific locations:

  • Scheels Sporting Goods parking lot

  • Bass Pro Shop parking lot

  • Great Wolf Lodge

  • St. Francis Interquest Hospital parking lot

  • Any parking area along Voyager Parkway, between Research Pkwy and North Gate, with a good view of the Front Range

  • Rampart Park (kind of far, but you are above the city)

  • Update: Ackerman Overlook on I-25 was close by the state police for the 2024 show.

Air Force Thunderbirds Flying over Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs

Bonus Tip

The iconic image of the Thunderbirds flying around Pikes Peak is a coveted shot. While not guaranteed, be prepared to capture this breathtaking moment if it happens.  For two years in a row, this maneuver happened within a few minutes of the show starting.

Air Force Thunderbirds Flying over Pikes Peak Mountain

Summary

If you were feeling the fence about getting out to shoot the show or just didn't know how to do it, I hope this article gave you some confidence to give it a shot.


Update for 2024

This year I got the chance to go on the Academy for the Thunderbirds practice maneuvers. It really was an amazing experience. I setup in the parking lot just north of the Falcon Stadium. You need to keep a good eye out because you can't hear them coming, but you can see then far in the distance. And within a few seconds, they are right over your head.



They are harder to capture being so close, but it was a lot of fun and I was about to captured from cool shots.



Note: Some of the links on this page are sponsored and as an Amazon Assoicate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I will only recommend products that I have personally used!


Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What's the scoop on the Air Force Thunderbirds Graduation Airshow?

Answer: This celebration is a time-honored event that highlights the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team's phenomenal flying abilities and aerial gymnastics. The spectacle unfolds following the graduation rites of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Question: When is the airshow after the Air Force Graduation?

Question: How long does the Air Force Thunderbirds show after the Academy Graduation last?

Question: What is the most important tip for photographing Thunderbirds?

Question: What camera gear do you use to capture stunning photographs of the Thunderbirds?

Question: Is this information helpful for photographing any flying fighter jet or airshows?


More questions, comment below or reach out to me.


All content on this page was created by Daniel Forster - All rights reserved - Copyright 2024

2 Comments


lenslady7780
May 28

How far north do they generally fly? I’m in Ft Collins

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Daniel Forster
Daniel Forster
May 28
Replying to

They might pass by Fort Collins while flying in or out of Colorado, but they stay near Colorado Springs for the show after graduation. I think the farthest north I've seen them going during the show is up to the Monument area.

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