2023 Chicago Air & Water Show Photo Tips by Nick Sinnott

Thank you for supporting Chicago Photography Classes and hope that these tips on photographing the 2023 Chicago Air & Water Show will help you enjoy this weekend’s event. Over the last 20 some years, I have tried to see every show, and it is worth it every time. I have photographed the show from Oak Street Beach, North Avenue Beach, Fullerton Ave. beach and Diversey Harbor Area.  This year we are going to try a new spot, Belmont Harbor!
Show Days 
The official Chicago Air & Water Show is Saturday and Sunday, August 19th & 20th from 10 AM until about 3 PM. However, the practice show is on Friday, August 18th (about the same times) and provides you with almost the same show (sometimes extras) with fewer people. 
What To Bring 
•SUNSCREEN! Trust me, sitting there all day, even if its partly cloudy can be brutal if you don’t have sunscreen. 



•Water – while there will be lots of vendors selling water. If you 
want to pay $3 for a bottle, it’s up to you. 

•A stadium seat pad is always nice; sitting on hard concrete all day 
takes a toll on the rear! 
Camera Gear 

• 1 to 2 DSLR or Mirrorless camera bodies. I shoot the show with two camera bodies.    
•A normal Lens (24 – 105 mm focal range) 

•Telephoto Lens (100 – 600 mm focal range). Preferably between 
200mm – 600mm. 

•Dress for the weather. 

•Towel…not just to sit on but to cover your camera from time to 
time to protect it from the sun as well 

•Extra Batteries and Extra Memory Cards. 

•Still time to rent camera equipment from Dodd Camera, your 
local camera store, or www.borrowlenses.com and www.lensprotogo.com
How I Set Up My Cameras 

•One of my camera body’s has a 24 – 105 f/4 wide-angle lens on it. The other camera body has the telephoto lens. The advantage to using two cameras is that you do not have to switch lenses in the middle of the show. Some of the acts are fast paced and switching a lens takes too long. 

•If you are using one camera body keep start with the longest focal length lens you have. Most of your photos will be at the longest focal length. 

•Shoot in both Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority (Time Value) Modes. Before the show, in Shutter Priority, I set the shutter speed to 1/150 – 1/200. Then in Aperture Priority, I set the Aperture to F/5.6 – f/8. WHY??? 

o When photographing the prop aircraft or rotor aircraft, I want a slower shutter speed to get prop and rotor blur. Shutter Priority Mode set at 1/150 – 1/250 will do the trick. 
o When a jet comes by I can quickly switch to Aperture Priority and shoot it at f/5.6 and f/8 and have a much faster shutter speed
o When a prop plane comes back, all I have to do is switch back to Shutter Priority and I’ll be back at my shutter speed that I want. 
•My Metering Mode is normally set to Center-Weighted on the Telephoto Body and Matrix (Evaluative) on the Wide Angle Body. 

•My Drive Mode is on high-speed continuous 

•My Quality – Always RAW!!!! 

What Aircraft to Expect This Year (Highlights) And Mode to Shoot 
•This year the US Air Force Thunderbirds are the Headliner and will perform at around 3:00 pm. (Aperture Priority) 

•USAF F-16 Viper Demonstration. This aircraft can maneuver on a dime so I’m sure we’ll get a great show from this aircraft. (Aperture Priority) 

•US Navy F-18 Super Hornet “Rhino” Demo Team- Loud and Fast!!! (Aperture Priority) 

•USAF C-17 – Huge Cargo Jet…and surprisingly quite (Aperture Priority)

•P-51 Mustang (My Favorite!) (Heritage Flight) – Classic WWII 
fighter aircraft. Just the sound of the engine makes me smile! (Shutter Priority) 


Locations For 2023

North Ave Beach – FRIDAY

Show Center! Certainly where the action happens all day including massive crowds. In years past, we were able to get on top of the dune bluffs to be able to shoot over the crowds on the beach but they have since closed these areas to re-establish dune grass and other native plants. Last year, we photographed at the water’s edge and had a great time! What a refreshing way to photograph with your feet in the water and sand between your toes. Caution: sand will get EVERYWHERE…try to avoid switching lenses while on the beach.
You’ll be able to capture all of the show from this spot but get ready to practice your panning methods when the jets are flying left to right and right to left. This is certainly the spot to capture the entire show.
Since it will be more difficult to include the city from this location, make sure to try and include foreground elements. Here are some of my favorites from this location:

North ave Air Show by Nick Sinnott
North ave Air Show by Nick Sinnott
North ave Air Show by Nick Sinnott
North ave Air Show by Nick Sinnott
North ave Air Show by Nick Sinnott
North ave Air Show by Nick Sinnott

Belmont Harbor Breakwall (NEW LOCATION) – SATURDAY

Trying a new location for this year!  IMPORTANT NOTICE FOR THIS LOCATION – You will want to use long focal lengths 100mm – 1,000mm.  While this location is quite a bit north of the Show Box the views into the city with the airshow in the foreground could make for some great shots.  Using the longer focal length lens will provide with some great optical compression and will be much easier to track an aircraft with the distance.  Below is a photo from the spot at a 100mm focal length.  To get to the location, you will need to enter from the Montrose Beach area and proceed as far south as you can on the peninsula.


Fullerton Ave Breakwall – SUNDAY

Great spot at the North end of the Show Box which provides ample areas to sit and photograph the show. The view provides great views of the city skyline and you’ll be able to photograph the aircraft (especially the military aircraft) with the city as your backdrop. Here are some of my favorite shots from this location:

Diversey Harbor Entrance

This is North of the Show Box and outside of the massive crowds. While most of the air show aircraft will not be near you to photograph with less than a 300mm lens, this is a great place to photograph the US Thunderbirds! The Thunderbird’s F-16s will be flying right overhead of the Diversey Harbor as they set up for the next maneuver. Best place to stand is against the white railing. Here are some of my favorite shots from that location.

Examples of Photos and Settings

500mm, f/4.0, 1/1250 (Telephoto Lens)
95mm, f/4.0, 1/1000 (Slightly wider shot to include crowd)
70mm, f/10, 1/160 (Normal focal length to include all aircraft)
500mm, f/11, 1/320 (Shutter speed Priority to get prop blur)
280mm, f/14, 1/200 (prop blur)
500mm, f/6.3, 1/320 (Rotor Blur)
31mm, f/11, 1/125 (Wide Angle to include city)
280mm, f/7.1, 1/1000 (Including buildings in background)
16mm, f/6.3, 1/640 (Including the whole environment)

Sign up for our Newsletter