Wings Over Houston
Article & Photography by Tim Timmis

I can almost hear the roar of engines, smell the jet fuel, feel the concussions of the bombs and taste the great food. October must be just around the corner because my mind switches from thoughts of shore birds to the flying objects with propellers and jet engines at the Wings Over Houston airshow.

Wings Over Houston (WOH) is the premier airshow in Texas. Held every year in October at Ellington Airport (formally Ellington Field), this is my favorite weekend of the year. In this article, Iíll share some of my experience over the past nine years to give you some insight on how to make the most of your time there and give you some tips on how to take some great photos of the planes on display and in the air.

Here is a recommended list of what to bring with you: folding chair, sun screen, hat, money, ear plugs, camera, lots of memory cards, spare battery, wide angle lens for static plane photos and a lens up to 400mm for flight shots. You canít bring food or drinks into the show and they donít allow back backs for security reasons. They will search what you bring into the show.


The ideal area to watch the airshow from is along the fence line near show center. You can get unobstructed views of the action in the sky and on the ground. In order to get a front row spot, you will need to get there early. There is parking available at Ellington but itís limited. Your best bet is to take one of the park-and-ride busses that run all day.

I get on the bus at the Bay Area Blvd park-and-ride location at 7:30 a.m., which gets me to the show when they open the gates at 8:00 a.m. At the end of the day, you hop on the bus and are back at your car in a just a few minutes, compared to the wait that most people have that try to get back to their cars and then get stuck in a massive traffic jam to get out. The busses have special dedicated lanes that they use to easily get out of Ellington. Trust me, take the bus.

Make sure that you bring a folding chair with you as it can be a very long day if you canít sit down. The chair also provides a great way to save a spot along the fence. After getting off of the bus, head directly to the fence line. Donít worry about looking around until you get to the fence and can save your spot with your chair.

There is a mad dash of people trying to do the same thing, so stay focused on finding where you want to sit and reserve your spot. Set up your chair and then take off to wonder round the tarmac to see the planes on static display. Another advantage of getting there early is to get enough time to look at the planes before the flying starts. They have a myriad of planes from WWII vintage to modern jets to drool over, including a few helicopters for good measure.

From a photography perspective, getting there when the gates open gives you the opportunity to get some pictures in good early morning light. I love to take non-traditional close-up shots of the planes in the golden light and with early morning dew on the windshields. The flying starts around 10:00 a.m. with radio controlled planes/helicopters flying to warm up the crowd. They are very entertaining and fun to watch. The main act flies around 3:00 p.m. and the place is packed by then.

Once the planes start to fly, you will see a very broad mix of airplanes from WWII vintage to the most modern military jets and helicopters. One of the more popular parts of the airshow is the Tora Tora Tora show, which offers some great photo opís. They do a reenactment of some of the major battles of WWII using Japanese Zeroís (built for the movie Tora Tora Tora), P-51 Mustangs, B-17 bombers and lots of other planes.

The fun starts when they explode gas bombs in the fields near the runways, simulating bombs dropping. You can feel the heat and concussions from the bombs. Being along the fence line will give you an unobstructed view of the action and allow you to get some photos of the exploding gas bombs and their fireballs while the airplanes are flying around.

Turn your camera vertical and try to time your shots to get the fireballs and planes in the same photo. This year will be very special with having the Blue Angles back in town along with first time participants of the F-22 Raptor and the M-22 Osprey. If you havenít seen the F-22 fly yet, you need to go to the show if for nothing else but to see this stealth fighter do itís magic.

You will be amazed at how this jet performs with the thrust vectoring of its engines. It can literally fly square corners and perform unlike any other plane that you have ever seen. To take photos of the flying planes, you will need to watch your shutter speeds and exposures to get good shots. Propeller planes are best taken at slower shutter speeds to get a sense of motion by blurring the propeller. Use shutter priority and adjusting your shutter speeds depending on the type of plane that you are shooting. I typically try using 1/250 to 1/340 sec shutter speeds for planes like the P51 Mustang. The Japanese Zeroís have a faster prop and they typically need about 1/500 sec shutter speed.For fast moving jets, try using aperture priority with a wide open aperture to get the fastest shutter speed that you can. If you have a jet doing a fly-by at over 600 mph, you will need to crank up the shutter speed. Using my Canon 7D and 100-400 lens, Iím typically shooting at ISO 400 and F5.6 (wide open) most of the time with jets. Watch out for the high speed pass from the F-22 or F-18. If conditions are right, you can see a vapor cone around the jet as it nears the speed of sound. This is the air show money shot.
The other thing that you need to adjust is the exposure when taking pictures of the planes in flight. The light meter in your camera will meter off of the bright sky and automatically try to darken the scene and your shots of the planes will come out too dark unless you manually compensate.

When using Aperture or Shutter priority, my standard approach is to use +2/3 to +1 exposure compensation for all flight shots. Recommended method is to set you exposure compensation to +1, take a few shots and then check your histogram on your screen. If you have too much exposure compensation, the peak in the histogram will be climbing the right side of the histogram, which you donít want.

The right side is the ďwhiteĒ side and if you are too far to the right or ďclimbing the right wallĒ, you will be over exposing your shot. The goal is to expose towards the right side but donít climb the wall. Also donít forget about the food. They serve a good variety of food from the typical hamburgers and hot dogs to traditional BBQ, turkey legs, sausage on a stick and my favorite, jalapeno corndogs.

Have a great time!

Be sure to check out the Wings Over Houston website.

You can see some of my airshow photos at: Tim Timmis Photography






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